First, many thanks to DJM for guest blogging here last week. She brings a fresh perspective to many of the topics on which this blog has focused, and raises others relevant to the crisis of the American law school. (She will, I hope, continue to contribute posts from time to time). That crisis has many facets, and naturally there will be disagreements within the reform movement about what aspects of it ought to be given how much attention.
Such disagreements can be constructive, but it’s important not to allow them to obscure the basic divide in legal academia in particular and the legal profession in general: between those who understand that there really is a crisis, and an establishment culture that still remains in various degrees of denial about this crisis (although there are signs that the overall level of denial is declining rapidly; see below).
The law school reform movement includes law students, recent graduates, veteran lawyers, legal academics, journalists, politicians, and not least the scam bloggers who started sounding the alarm on these issues before anyone else. It features people from a wide range of political, economic and social backgrounds, who have been brought together by their shared belief that the system of legal education in this country is broken, and that this breakdown has dire consequences for the legal profession.
In that spirit, I think it’s useful to take stock of what the reform movement has accomplished so far, and to suggest some immediate goals it might pursue. To date, the movement’s biggest accomplishments have been:
(1) Successfully pressuring law schools to make available employment and salary numbers for recent grads which are much more detailed than what was out there even a year ago at this time; and
(2) Employing this data to get legal academia to at least begin to acknowledge that, given these numbers, it’s possible our methods have become unsound.
For example just eighteen months ago, Law School Transparency’s initial request for something better than the highly misleading employment and salary information being published by the vast majority of law schools produced an amazingly uniform response, in the form of pure stonewalling. Yet little more than a year later LST managed to get no less than 40 law schools to disclose their individual NALP reports, while the ABA’s Section of Legal Education suddenly started publishing something of a treasure trove of data. (It’s amazing what a couple of polite but firm letters from a U.S. senator can do).
While more remains to be done, it’s now far easier for Judge Schweitzer’s “sophisticated consumers” of information about legal education (to the extent they actually exist, which is a separate and deeply problematic issue) to recognize that the number of law schools worth attending at the advertised tuition price is very small indeed. The disclosure of this information is in turn lending support to those within legal academia who are arguing that legal education in American is based on an economic model that no longer works for most law graduates.
The law school reform movement has made it much more difficult to ignore that the net present value of most of the law degrees being acquired in America today is negative, and in many cases dramatically so. In other words, the national media, prospective law students, prominent politicians, and even some law professors are coming to recognize that law school costs far too much and – or rather because -- there are far too many lawyers competing for far too few jobs. Again, this represents a significant advance in public discourse.
The first and most important step in any reform movement is the act of bringing itself into being: that is, of transforming what before could be characterized as isolated complaints from easily dismissed malcontents into a coherent set of critiques put forward by what are now the recognized opponents of a newly contestable status quo. The law school reform movement has achieved this. What goals should it focus on in the short term? Some suggestions:
*Keep up the pressure on law schools to divulge information, and expose schools that continue to mislead prospective students. The recent incident in which Rutgers-Camden tried to lure GMAT takers with some good old-fashioned phony employment and salary stats indicates both how far the reform movement has come – the school was roundly mocked and excoriated in many venues prospective law students might encounter – and how far it has to go. Much progress has been made on this front, but if Rutgers-Camden’s behavior is any indication much remains to be done, until legal academic administrators who are tempted to cite “average” salary figures based on outcomes for five per cent of a graduating class do so with the full knowledge they are likely to be the subject of muck raking news stories, formal bar complaints, and possible legal action.
*Continue to get the word out to prospective law students that, for most of them, attending law school would end up being something between a bad and a catastrophic mistake. That total applicants have declined by nearly a quarter in the last two years, despite a terrible job environment for recent college graduates, is a sign that the law school reform movement has had real success on this front. That large numbers of people remain eager to spend large amounts of taxpayer dollars to attend schools with truly wretched employment and salary statistics is a sign that more work remains to be done (although it’s also a sign of the practical limits of transparency).
*Work toward getting the federal government to reverse the extraordinarily reckless decision to allow law students to borrow the full attendance cost of whatever price any law school chooses to charge for the privilege of attending it, with no questions asked of either the students or the schools. Just how this policy ought to be changed is of course controversial, but what isn’t controversial is that the present state of affairs is completely indefensible, and could hardly be changed for the worse. No reform is more important than this: stop forcing taxpayers to fully subsidize the self-destructive behavior of law students, which in turn is enabled by the shamelessly self-interested behavior of law schools. In this context, making the links between the law school crisis and the larger crisis in higher education explicit is crucial.
*Push schools to cut both tuition and enrollments. If you’re a member of a law school faculty and aren’t advocating, at a minimum, hiring freezes and tuition cuts at your school, why not? The medium-term goal of the law school reform movement should be to cut both enrollments and tuition by (at least) half, and moving toward that goal will require constant pressure from inside legal academia, as well as from outside it.
As for longer-term goals, that’s a subject for another post.