Thursday, November 3, 2011

Shooting the messenger

A few weeks ago, Dean Larry Kramer sent Stanford Law School alums a state of the law school letter, which described that state as superb in every way, and poised to become even more wonderful, with the continuing financial help of the letter's recipients.

Dean Kramer dedicated a few paragraphs to relating the employment outcomes for the class of 2011, which he described in a markedly defensive tone:

It was a difficult year, though nowhere near as bad as the media and blogs would have you believe (more about this on page 7). So despite what you may think from reading headlines, I am pleased to report that the Class of 2011 did as well as Stanford Law classes typically do. Placing everyone was harder than usual, to be sure,and we are still working with a small number of graduates caught by the contraction in government and public interest jobs, but our overall results are, on the whole, normal.
Readers of the letter prone to lawyerly suspicion will be struck by how Dean Kramer's subsequent elaboration of this claim avoids citing any numbers, other than noting that 35% of the 2011 took clerkships (There's no further breakdown of what sort of clerkships, other than noting that four members of the Class of 2010 will be starting SCOTUS clerkships).   Beyond this, Dean Kramer retreats into statistic-free generalities:

In the meantime, the private law firm market stabilized after several rocky years, pretty much as we expected. Summer programs are smaller than they used to be, but students who obtain a summer position and do good work can once again expect to receive an offer. And many of the larger firms are starting to grow again, albeit more slowly than during the halcyon years leading up to 2008. The bottom line is that placement in private law firms has reverted to normal for SLS graduates. As is typical, the vast majority of this group sought and found positions at large firms in the major markets (the Bay Area, New York,D.C., and L.A.), though we continue encouraging students to consider other cities with large, interesting practices, such as
Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix.
Not everything has reverted to normal, whatever that means, however:

Where students ran into trouble finding jobs this year was in the government and public interest sectors. This was a surprise, because hiring in these sectors had remained robust after the economy collapsed. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see a number of factors that delayed a contraction in government and public interest work until now: federal stimulus spending, the slowness of state and local governments to cut their budgets, the willingness of private philanthropies to fulfill pledges made when times were good. Now, the federal government is shrinking and state and local governments are slashing spending and implementing deep cutbacks in social services. Government grants to nongovernmental public interest organizations have also declined, a drop in support that has been exacerbated by a matching drop in private philanthropy for legal services organizations, especially from law firms. Unfortunately, this does not look like a short-term setback, not in the current political and economic climate, and the public interest world may be in for a long winter.
Nevertheless Dean Kramer's bottom line is that, "despite these new and continuing challenges, nearly all of our new graduates have been successful in finding positions."  Again, those of a lawyerly inclination might find the phrasing of that sentence a bit too slippery for comfort.   Leaving aside the vagueness of "nearly all," what percentage of these positions are real legal jobs?  As I noted in an earlier post, "nearly all" 2010 graduates of the University of Toledo School of Law "found positions" as well -- it's just that the vast majority of those positions weren't permanent full-time legal jobs.  Now of course there's no doubt that the large majority of SLS's latest class have real legal jobs (for these purposes we can put federal and state supreme court clerkships in this category), but it would be nice to know what those numbers actually look like, especially given the fact that quite significant percentages of new graduates and  current 3Ls at places like Michigan and Duke don't have such jobs.

Dean Kramer's otherwise upbeat letter ends on a discordant note, with a section entitled "Legal Education and the Media:"

Before closing, I want to say a few words about the unending stream of negative media stories we saw this past year describing law schools and their discontents. To hear the press, legal educators are little more than 21st century snake oil salesmen—who take money from unwitting students (apparently to fund the rest of the university), teach them nothing of use to a practicing lawyer, and then—having lied to them about their real employment prospects—leave them jobless and saddled with enormous debt. The stories are frustrating because they are so badly done—filled with factual misstatements, unexamined (and false) assertions, extreme (and idiosyncratic) examples, and misleading claims. They are frustrating as well because they look only at today’s job market. Obviously, when the economy is in awful shape, the legal profession suffers along with everyone else. The appropriate question concerns the value of a law degree across one’s whole working life, which has been and remains very high—and not just at elite schools like Stanford.

Perhaps we should be flattered that law schools have been singled out for this special attention. Still, it’s curious that no one compares law to other disciplines. Graduating doctors get jobs, but how do those jobs compare given the much larger debt required to get through medical school and the deteriorating state of health care economics? How do lawyers fare in the return on their educational investment to, say, psychologists, dentists, nurses, social workers, or graduates in the humanities and social sciences, much less the majority who forgo graduate school altogether? How about compared to journalists?This has become a matter of concern, because the bad press seems to have spooked potential students. Applications to law school nationally were down by nearly 12 percent last year—contrary to past downturns, when young people very sensibly treated a bad economy as a time to invest in their future. And we want them to do so: We want talented men and women to attend law school, because our nation will need the analytic and leadership skills good lawyers bring if it is to sort out the mess made by our civic and political leadership.

Law schools are not perfect. We have needed to change for a long while. As you know, SLS began reforming its curriculum to better address the needs of the profession years before the economic downturn; Stanford students today can, as a result,take advantage of myriad new curricular opportunities designed to prepare them for their careers. Nor need you fear for thehealth of our school. As just noted, we continue to attract astonishingly bright and talented students—and they continue todo extraordinary things after they graduate, despite the weak economy. Nor are we alone, and other law schools have similarly changed or begun to change what they do.
I suspect that Dean Kramer is going to regret taking up this line of argument. There's an old saying in politics: Don't pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel. When Dean Kramer impugns the journalistic integrity of the national media for questioning the value of law degrees and the behavior of law schools, he is asking for trouble -- especially given that his defense of that behavior consists of nothing more than fact-free bluster.  Does Dean Kramer really want to take the position that law schools haven't engaged in, to put it as delicately as possible, misleading conduct in regard to the employment prospects of their graduates? Under the present circumstances, that would be a rather extraordinary position to defend.

Those same circumstances also counsel against saying things like "the value of a law degree across one’s whole working life has been and remains very high—and not just at elite schools like Stanford."  This is, at the present moment, a very audacious (and, at least in regard to non-elite schools, extremely implausible) claim -- and I wouldn't be putting it forth as "evidence" for the proposition that the nation's most prominent newspapers and magazines are libeling our ancient and noble profession by engaging in shoddy and sensationalistic journalism.  Just like everyone else, Dean Kramer can only guess at the extent to which the contraction in the market for high-priced legal services is a cyclical rather than a structural event. It's perfectly possible that the lifetime value of a 2011 Stanford Law degree will be far lower than that of a 2001 degree, and far higher than a 2021 degree. Furthermore, we can be fairly confident that any economic developments that hurt the lifetime value of Stanford Law degrees are having and will have even more negative effects on the lifetime value of the degrees granted by the nation's 197 lower-ranked ABA law schools.

Dean Kramer's querulous complaints about the supposedly disproportionate attention being given to law schools are also ill-advised, given that as  far as I know graduate schools in journalism and social work don't advertise fictitious 97% employment rates and median starting salaries of $160,000 per year.  Dean Kramer's reference to medical school seems particularly awkward, given that apparently Stanford Law students are graduating with a higher average debt load that Stanford Medical students.(To be fair, nationally speaking, average medical school debt is about 50% higher than average law school debt; nevertheless there's no doubt that that the average medical school graduate realizes a vastly higher return on investment than the average law school graduate).

Dean Kramer's letter does at least indicate that he's concerned about the bad publicity law schools are getting, which is progress of a sort.  But we're beginning to get past the time for the combination of defensiveness and denial it features.  The media stories Dean Kramer attacks aren't fabricating or exaggerating a non-existent or minor problem: they're reporting on a real and major (and growing) crisis within American legal education.  It doesn't help matters when a dean of one of the nation's top three law schools -- schools that have, after all, the least to lose and the most to gain from genuine reform -- blames the messenger for bringing unwelcome news to the placid precincts of Palo Alto.


  1. You think that's a good letter. Look at this one from the Hofstra dean contained in this post:

    First, some background information. Only 78.8 % of the class of 2009 passed the bar, compared with the New York State average of 87.6 %. Dean Demleitner was worried, so much in fact that she wrote a panicked e-mail to the newly recruited class of 2012, with the clear intention of preventing them from transferring out:

    "As members of the class of 2012, you are part of an academic and cultural revolution at Hofstra Law School. Your class joined the School under revised admissions criteria of higher GPAs and LSAT scores (analysis shows a strong correlation between bar exam success and higher LSAT scores)."

    Yes, Dean Demleitner told the class of 2012 that they are better than the classes of 2011 and 2010. Apart from the internal chuckle I enjoyed from the preposterous use of “cultural revolution”, I was incensed. This insulting e-mail was another piece fitting into a disturbing pattern–one of Hofstra Law School’s willingness to exploit its students at any cost just so that it can raise its ranking. It began with our acceptance into Hofstra.

    The rest of the post is also worth reading.

  2. And keep in mind, this is Stanford! What about all of the great unwashed?

    Prof, you keep saying that clinical programs are very expensive. Why is that so? A post on that would be enlightening.

    One thing to keep in mind for all of those who offer up the med school 3/4 yr clerkships as an exemplar: Medicare pays for those.

  3. While Stanford may have the low class size and national rep to place close to 100% of its graduates even in the toughest years of the downturn without resorting to trickery, I know Columbia hired some of its graduates into a school funded fellowship program, and this included graduates with biglaw aspirations.

  4. I'm annoyed by this line that the value of the degree is realized over a lifetime. We are talking about conditions that are relatively new. The graduates of the last ten classes or so are ones least capable of putting their JDs to immediate use and there is no evidence at all (nor could there be) that this will somehow pay off over the long run. It's just a ridiculous claim to make.

  5. Analogies to medical school are almost always going to be inapposite. Med students would go whether it meant a dollar of debt or a million dollars of debt. They're going as a part of their identity, not as a job. They want to say "I am a doctor" not simply "My job is the practice of medicine."

    While there are some lawyers who have a similar attitude, for vast numbers of law students, it's purely job training.

  6. Clinics are expensive because they have much smaller class sizes. You can't herd 75-100 students into stadium seating and call it a "clinic" the way you can call it a torts class.

  7. I'm annoyed by this line that the value of the degree is realized over a lifetime.

    Yes, it's complete garbage, intended to mislead, just like "average" salaries of $60,000.

  8. In theory, I have no quarrel with the dean of SLS taking a strong line about the value of a SLS degree. I think his points would be much better-taken if he had given actual statistics rather than fudged them, however.

    When he says this: "we are still working with a small number of graduates caught by the contraction in government and public interest jobs" - I'm not sure what that means at SLS. But I know from the Office of Public Interest Advising at HLS that that means that a "small number of graduates" are volunteering in the public sector (e.g. as APDs, ADAs, or at non-profits) in the hope of obtaining a paid position down the line. I've never been clear on whether those HLS grads are so committed to public interest work that they are unwilling to seek private sector employment (which is true of a "small number" of HLS folks), or whether these people have applied for every job possible, then due to unemployment, have chosen to volunteer to do what they "really want to do." Either way, it was very disturbing to hear that any HLS grads were currently unemployed, and if the same thing is true over at SLS (as the dean's fudge wording sounds like it probably is), it would behoove him to disclose the numbers.

  9. Yep, that line about lifetime value is a terrible argument. They just want to be able to claim credit for anything you manage to accomplish in your life since it's so obvious that the immediate value of the degree is so low.

  10. Just curious, aside from Law School Transparency and anecdotal evidence from students, where else can one find reasonably accurate job placement data? LST has yet to post the 2010 figures.

  11. All of the arguments about "value" is specious. So because somebody earns a high salary they should subsidize a sector of society (academia) with onerous non-dischargeable fully guaranteed loans that do nothing but drive up tuition costs? The question should be, what is the reasonable price to charge for an education? And by reasonable I do not mean what is the maximum we can extract from the highest earning 1%.

    Predatory self-serving idiots, the lot of them.

  12. 9:43: What I find most troubling about Kramer's argument is that he's trying to use the situation at SLS (which as you note he doesn't actually disclose) as the basis for a refutation of criticisms made against law schools in general. This is analogous to using the financial stresses currently being experienced by families in the top 1% of income to discuss the problems faced by American families as a whole.

  13. @9:47, we haven't posted 2010 figures because there's been no uniform provision of 2010 figures, even though schools have had the data for roughly 8 months and reports from NALP for 5 months. The ABA says it will provide class of 2010 information on an accelerated schedule, but this information will be more of the same, troubling information. See here:

    This means that the best class of 2010 information will come from U.S. News. But that won't be available for another 4 months. And it's not clear yet that it will include questions that will help prospectives, because typically U.S. News just mirrors the questions asked by the ABA (they just share the answers about the legal employment rate unlike the ABA). We're hoping U.S. News asks the questions anyway this year, but schools will nevertheless use the ABA's resistance as an excuse not to provide U.S. News with the information. In other words, there's a good chance we never get any class of 2010 information about how well graduates did in obtaining full-time legal jobs. This is shocking to say the least.

  14. HLS placed roughly 20 class of 2011 grads in HLS-funded public service fellowships. These fellowships run for one year. Competition for these fellowships in the class of 2011 was fierce. Students with strong public service resumes were denied them. OCS employees actually laughed in the face of one 2011 grad in this situation, because he had made the "mistake" of working at an HLS clinic for both summers, rather than going through the biglaw circus, which he was not interested in. OCS offered him no further help in finding employment.

  15. How is it a reasonable expectation to think that every one who goes to even HYS is going to get a job immediately upon graduation-- no matter what their grades, no matter what their personalities-- no matter what? Twenty people out of a class of 550?

  16. To the Professor:

    You should have said, "Yes, it's true that the value of a Stanford Law degree is realized over a lifetime. But that doesn't help you that much in the short run when you're going to default on your student loans of 250K."

    (A parallel: MF Global may be right in the long run about the value of European Sovereign Bonds. But in the short run, MF is bankrupt."

  17. This "value over a lifetime" line is particularly galling to me on a personal level. I just graduated from a lowly ranked school that cooked the books back when I applied, and continues to cook the books even now. The employment numbers are unquestionably fraudulent. I am 41 yrs old, wanted to try something different, my wife is an attorney, blah blah, same old story. But, bottom line, the degree I've earned has no inherent value at all. I need to first acquire the right to practice law through one of our 50 state's accreditation process and find (on my own, mind you) someone that will make an investment in me so that I may gain experience (read: actual training). Law school has provided me little, if anything, in the way of a marketable skill or set of skills. I have earned only a chance to sit for the bar exam. Value of a law degree... what a joke.

  18. Crux, you and I have the same exact story except that I have been licensed for years.

  19. "Obviously, when the economy is in awful shape, the legal profession suffers along with everyone else."

    ...Except the professoriate, of course.

  20. "Law schools are not perfect."

    This is such moral equivocation. And coming from a Stanford Dean no less....

    The shills cannot have it both ways. They deny knowledge of ALL their graduates outcomes while simultaneously pitching law school as a very good investment.

    Either they are guilty of criminal fraud or they are unacceptably ignorant. Which one is more likely?


    Ugh. They must have all phoned each other to coordinate the same canned responses.

  22. But I want to know what Orin Kerr thinks.

  23. You, the thing is, even if the "value over lifetime" was exactly what they say it is, this still wouldn't mean that it was worth what they are charging for it.

    As a very simple demonstration, the "value over lifetime" of the things that a pre-school education teaches you is very high indeed - you use what you learn in pre-school every day. Who, however, would be willing to pay $40K a year for their children to receive it?

    Why not? Well, fairly obviously, the things you learn in pre-school do not, actually, take a great degree of skill to teach, and can be learned elsewhere.

    And law school? Who would pay $40K a year to receive it if it were not for the fact that they had to do so to take the bar exam, an exam which US law school education does not, in the end, prepare them for?

  24. @8.55 -

    The answer to the question "where are the jobs" was a classic:

    "Everywhere you look in society, it seems to me, there are people who need lawyers who can’t get them. Those may be people who are very poor and need public interest and pro bono lawyers, but they also may be individuals or families or small businesses that need lawyers and who are never going to be in a position to hire large commercial law firms."

    Right. So basically: "Sorry about that huge amount of debt we swamped you with, but you can still get a job working for free or as near to free as makes no difference". Astounding.

  25. Someone commented a few blog posts back, asking who makes the decision to hire grads in fluff positions to boost the school's own employment numbers. You people are making it way more complicated than need be. Who makes those decisions, or any decision like it? THE DEANS. Nothing happens at any given law school unless the dean signs off on it, the dean approves, it was the dean's idea, etc. The deans rule these schools like kings. It's no more complicated than that.

  26. I have a friend who is a career counselor, its sad, but his biggest (and best) piece of advice to kids is to simply abandon america, if able flee to a country that actually gives a crap about their people.

  27. To answer one of your questions, the 35% of Stanford students clerking are doing so almost exclusively in Federal District and Appellate courts. Lists of students and their clerkships are internally distributed at SLS occasionally, and quickly glancing through the most recent one shows that all but a few SLS clerks have Fed District/Appellate clerkships (with 2-3 students/year going to the AK Supreme Ct and usually ~2 students/year taking other State Supreme Court clerkships). Of the students doing federal clerkships, the number seems pretty evenly split between district and circuit clerkships. And, the districts and circuits drawing the most SLS students are pretty predictable--there are a ton of 9th Circuit clerks with significant numbers in DC/2nd/7th/5th/10th and a handful in the other circuits. For District Cts, students are a bit more spread out but there are still substantial concentrations in the NDCal, SDNY, DDC.

    --SLS 3L who should be doing other things

    PS this is far more anecdotal but I don't know of anyone in my class or in last year's graduated class who doesn't have real full-time legal work currently/lined up (e.g., nobody is sorting books for Crown Library, doing doc review, or something similar).

  28. I think the most priceless comment from the good dean is "our nation will need the analytic and leadership skills good lawyers bring if it is to sort out the mess made by our civic and political leadership." Um, who does he think our civic and political leaders are now? More Congressmen, Senators, and even Presidents come from the legal profession than from any other source. There is no shortage of lawyers going into politics. We do have a profound shortage in people going into innovative fields like science and engineering and so perhaps it would be better for the country if our most talented young men and women stayed out of law school.


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