Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Progress report

A great deal has happened over the past ten months.  This post is an update on developments, and an opportunity for members of the old ITLSS community to touch base with each other, and to perhaps learn of other venues where the conversation continues.

Major developments:

(1)  As word regarding the employment situation for new and not so new law graduates percolates down into the general cultural conversation, law school enrollments and applications continue to decline sharply.  39,675 students matriculated at ABA schools this fall -- a 24.4% decline since 2010, and the lowest total since 1975, when there were 40 fewer law schools.

(2) Application totals continue to fall faster than law school enrollments.  Preliminary numbers suggest that around 51,000 people will apply to law school in this cycle, which in turn is likely to produce another 10-12% decline in enrollments next fall.  Even if enrollment numbers level out over the next couple of years, ABA law schools are about to face a world in which they will have 95,000 to 100,000 JD students enrolled at one time, as opposed to nearly 150,000 in 2010-11.

(3) Most law schools now appear to be losing money, and law school budgets almost everywhere will undergo even more severe stress as the entering classes of 2011 and 2012 are replaced by much smaller cohorts over the next two to three years.

(4) The stress on budgets is a product not just of declining enrollment, but also of what at many schools is declining per capita real net tuition.  A few schools have actually started to slash nominal tuition, and many others have increased "scholarships" (tuition discounts) to such a degree that they are charging lower tuition in real terms (discount and inflation adjusted) than they were two years ago.  The combination of declining enrollment and stagnant or declining per capita real tuition has created formal and de facto hiring freezes at many schools.  Entry-level hiring this year seems likely to be at around one third to one half of pre-enlightenment levels.

(5) Although schools are going to extraordinary measures to disguise the fact, faculty layoffs have taken place at several places, in the form of offer you can't refuse "buyouts."  Staff firings are commonplace.  It remains difficult to say when and if an ABA school will actually close, but expect to see some schools merge (constructive closures), and a couple of others spin off separate campuses into independent entities which will be allowed to disappear by their central administrations.

Beyond these specific developments, it's fair to say that the general atmosphere in legal academia is radically different than it was three years ago.  Back then, the crisis was invisible, because it was only affecting our graduates, which meant there were an almost unlimited number of rationalizations available for denying its existence.  (It's a few malcontents, it's the recession, law degrees are versatile, network! etc. etc.).  As always, we are all strong enough to bear other men's misfortunes, but to cut one's own finger is a different matter.

In short, consciousness has been raised, and continues to be raised.  For those who may have missed it, here are two new sites that are doing some fine work:

Outside the Law School Scam

Law School Truth Center

For a dire but compelling glimpse into how much work remains to be done, see:

Law School Lemmings

Older sites everyone should read regularly include, but are not limited to, Law School Tuition Bubble, Law School Cafe, Third Tier Reality, and JD Underground

I'll continue to write on these issues at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and elsewhere.  See you around.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Goodbye is too good a word

I began this blog one summer afternoon in exactly way I’ve started every other professional project I’ve undertaken which ever amounted to anything: without thinking about whether doing so would achieve anything worth achieving, or at least win the approval of important people.

I started it because I had something to say, and this seemed a good way of saying it. For a few days I wrote anonymously – something I had never done before – more as a stylistic experiment than anything else.  But naturally people in legal academia instantly became more concerned with Who Was Saying These Outrageous Things than in whether those things might actually be true.  So I dropped the mask -- which ensured that a few of those people would busy themselves henceforth with irrelevant personal attacks, rather than substantive responses.

19 months and 499 posts later, it turns out that the core message of this blog – that legal academia is operating on the basis of an unsustainable economic model, which requires most law students to borrow more money to get law degrees than it makes sense for them to borrow, given their career prospects, and that for many years law schools worked hard, wittingly or unwittingly, to hide this increasingly inconvenient truth from both themselves and their potential matriculants – has evolved from a horrible heresy to something close to conventional wisdom.

That enrolling in law school has become a very dangerous proposition for most people who consider enrolling in one is now, if not a truth universally acknowledged, something that legal academia can no longer hide, either from ourselves, or – far more important – from anyone who doesn’t go out of his or her way to avoid contact with the relevant information.

ITLSS has played a role in what can be without exaggeration called a fundamental shift in the cultural conversation.  How big of a role it’s not for me to judge. Within legal academia, the pioneering work of Bill Henderson on the economics of legal education, and Brian Tamanaha’s writing and research culminating in his book Failing Law Schools, were both critical contributions to that shift.   Others inside law schools – Jim Chen, Deborah Rhode, Herwig Schlunk, Akhil Amar,  Ian Ayers, Paul Caron, Ben Trachtenberg, Orin Kerr, and Jeffery Harrison to name a few – have moved the conversation forward in various ways.  And of course Deborah Merritt has lent her name and talents to this blog for nearly a year now as a co-author, greatly enhancing both its intellectual and stylistic range.

Outside the legal academy, a diverse group of voices, ranging from the scam blogs that had such a strong effect on at least Tamanaha and me, to Above the Law and JD Underground, to the tireless unpaid labor of Kyle McEntee, Patrick Lynch, and Derek Tokaz, aka Law School Transparency, found their way into the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and onto the CBS Evening News.    A movement that begun on the margins of the legal world, through the work of people like Loyola 2L, and Scott Bullock of Big Debt/Small Law, and Nando of Third Tier Reality, has gone mainstream.

This blog is now the length of about four typical academic books.  Anyone who wants to browse through it will find posts touching on just about every topic related to legal education and the legal profession regarding which I have something to say.  Readers looking for a more concise statement can buy or borrow a copy of my book Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), either in paperback or e-book form.

All of which is to say that I’ve said what I have to say, at least in this format.  I’ll continue to write on this topic, both in academic venues, in the popular media, and even from time to time in blog form, at Lawyers, Guns and Money.   But the time has come to move on from here.

I’ve never written anything about the professional and personal price I ended up paying for starting to investigate, more than a year before I began this blog, the structure of contemporary American legal education.  Perhaps I’ll tell that story someday.  For now I’ll merely note that if people enjoying the extraordinary protections afforded by tenure aren’t willing to confront institutional corruption, then academic tenure is an indefensible privilege.  

People have asked me how I can continue to be on a law faculty, given my views.  This question – when it isn’t simply a hostile attempt to derail conversation – is based on a misunderstanding.   I very much believe in the potential value of higher education.  And I believe that legal education can and must be reformed radically.   (On one level the most important short-term reforms couldn’t be simpler:  the cost of law school attendance must be reduced drastically, and the number of people graduating from law school must be decreased by a significant amount. In the longer term, the American legal system will need to confront whether it is either pedagogically justifiable or financially viable to continue to require the basic law degree to be acquired through postgraduate education). 

In some very concrete, practical ways, reform is much easier to achieve from the inside. I’m proud of the fact that, as of this coming fall, my law school is on track to have cut tuition in real dollar terms over the past two years – something which perhaps no other ABA law school will be able to claim.  I’m proud that CU Law School, which two years ago was publicizing highly inaccurate employment information, is now one of the most transparent schools in the country on this score.  I don’t happen to believe that I would be more effective working for reform as an ex-law professor. Still, even if I did believe this, I’m well aware I wouldn’t have the moral courage to quit. That makes my belief suspiciously convenient -- but it doesn’t make it false.

In any case, reform driven by forces both outside and inside the law school establishment is essential, and it’s beginning to happen.

I hope and believe that, as the unsustainable and unjust nature of the status quo becomes more and more apparent, more people inside law schools will openly advocate for real change. 

In closing, I would like to thank the commenters on this site.  Nearly 50,000 comments have been posted here.  With very rare exceptions, I chose not to censor what anyone had to say because one goal of this project, both on this blog and elsewhere, has been to give voice to people who have been carrying their anger, shame, and grief in silence.  Helping to break that silence is what this blog has been all about, and internet commenters, here and elsewhere, have played a critical role in doing so.

I would wish everyone good luck but I won’t.  It sounds terrible when you think about it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The disappeared

As I've mentioned before, probably the most crucial knowledge gap that needs to be filled by people pursuing legal academic reforms is in regard to medium and long-term (as opposed to short-term) career outcomes for law graduates.  Here's a letter that drives that point home with special force. It ends with a request for suggestions as to options -- one which I hope some readers can  answer more usefully than I can:

Professor Campos:

I have a feeling you get a lot of e-mail messages like this, and you probably do not have time to respond to them all, but I thought I would give it a shot.  I will try to give you an abbreviated version.

I graduated from [elite university] with a B.A. in [social science major] in 1994.  I was on scholarship, so I managed to graduate with no debt.  Not that these things matter 20 years after the fact, but I had a 3.6 GPA and a 178 LSAT.  I worked for [politician] between college and law school.  I graduated from [top ten law school] in 2000.  My GPA was a 3.5, which was well above the mean but not good enough for law review.  I clerked for a federal district court judge from 2000-2002, during which time my law school loans were in forbearance.  My point is that, although my resume wasn’t printed with gold ink when I began my legal career, my credentials were good.

After my clerkship, I went into private practice.  I have taken more than 200 depositions, argued motions in court more than 100 times, conducted several multi-day trials, propounded and answered more discovery than I care to think about, and drafted countless briefs, motions, and pleadings.  Most of my work has been in business and real estate law, so I have also drafted stock and asset sale documents, employment and non-compete agreements, employee manuals, sexual harassment policies, commercial leases, finance leases, business formation documents, company minutes, trademark applications, loan documents, and deeds.  In other words, unlike a recent law school grad, I’ve been around the block a couple of times, I have some experience, and I know how to do some things. 

I was laid off in late 2010, and I have been out of work ever since.  There were no accusations of misconduct, no complaints about my work.  The law firm was downsizing, and that was that.

I’m 41 years old, I’ve been out of law school for 13 years, and I do not have a book of business, so evidently, my career as a lawyer is over.  I have a wife and 2 kids who need me to work, but I don’t know how to do anything other than practice law.  Instead, my wife works, and I am a de facto stay-at-home dad.  It’s not that I don’t love being a dad (of course I do), but my family needs my income, and I need to work outside the home.

As depressing as my situation is, I know it is so much worse for so many people.  I have read their stories on your blog and in the comments.  At least I had 8 productive years as a working attorney.  I paid my student loans down from $120,000 to the current balance of $23,000.  As long as my wife has a job, we won’t starve.  And our kids are wonderful.   Knowing how much worse it is for so many people, I feel guilty complaining about my situation.

For most of my career I have wondered, and occasionally asked out loud, “What happens to all the lawyers?”  Just based on my own personal observation, I could see how few lawyers actually made partner.  So where do they go?  Oh sure a few go in house, some end up working for the government, etc., but just based on what I could see and the lawyers I knew, the numbers didn’t add up.  Lawyers just seemed to disappear, like entrepreneurs in Atlas Shrugged.  And then, of course, I disappeared.

Since I was laid off, I have floundered around, applying for jobs, representing a few clients as a solo practitioner (not that that has been lucrative – think very low five figures per year), and trying to figure out “What happens to all of the lawyers?”  Finally, a few weeks ago, a Google search landed me on a scamblog (I don’t remember which one anymore).  That scamblog led me to another, then another, and another, and then your YouTube videos of your interview with Blooomberg Law and your presentation at Stanford Law School.  Then Google searches for “Paul Campos” led me to your blogs, and then I learned who Brian Tamanaha is, and then I read his book.

Yes, believe it or not, I had no idea about the scamblogs until just a few weeks ago.  It seems hard to believe now, but why would I?  I graduated from law school a long time ago now – before law schools produced most of the glut of lawyers.  Times were good when I was looking for a job in 1999 and the early 2000s.  I have been busy – practicing law, having a family, then dealing with my own unemployment (for which I have blamed myself). And after I was laid off, I have had very little contact with lawyers, and I haven’t had contact with law school students or recent law school grads in years.  On the rare occasion that I do talk to a law school classmate or contemporary, no one ever acknowledges any problems – everyone claims to be on top of the world, knocking the ball out of the park.  Now, thanks to the scamblogs, I know that some (many?) of my classmates have to have ended up like me. 

Of course the scamblogs, your YouTube videos, and Tamanaha’s book are no comfort.  Actually, they’re terrifying.  But now, finally, I have some idea about “What happens to all the lawyers?”  At least now I am dealing with reality.  Before I was trying to solve a problem (my unemployment) with bad information.  Now, at least, I know. 

It is tempting to let myself focus on my anger about the injustice of the macro situation and my sadness about the hopelessness of my personal situation.  It infuriates me that my alma mater and the other law schools have essentially ruined many of their alumni’s careers by actions they took after we graduated.  Yet my alma mater still relentlessly solicits me to “give back” – as if I owe them something.  You will not be surprised to learn that my alma mater has never taken any interest in my career – or even bothered to find out if I have one.  As for my specific situation, I feel like it’s hopeless, and I think I am a failure.  I literally have no idea what to do.

My wife has not been especially understanding about my situation.  I think her thinking has been that of course someone with my resume can easily find a job, and since I haven’t, the problem must be that I am not trying very hard, which she resents.  That all changed, however, when I showed her this.  I had printed it out on paper, along with all of the comments that had been posted in the first 12 hours.  It was about 100 pages long.  Someone with better credentials than I is living in his father’s basement and has sent out 700+ resumes with no results.  Somehow it was comforting and made us sick to our stomachs at the same time.  Then there were your comments about how little information there is about long-term career outcomes and your question about what happens after the top law school and the big law firm – yes, FINALLY, someone else is asking “What happens to all the lawyers?”!  Then the comments.  So many comments.  So many lawyers out of work, in debt, with no hope.  The stack of paper alone was enough to bring tears to my wife’s eyes.  When I told her that all of the comments had been posted since 5:58 a.m. that morning, she broke down and cried. 

So, my efforts to keep this brief have failed, but perhaps I can pull it all together with two points.  First, thank you for what you are doing.  It has mattered to me and my family.  And I am sure it matters to many others.  Second, do you have any advice, any at all, for someone in my situation?  I am not like a recent law grad who laments that he/she can’t get a job and doesn’t know how to practice law.  My problem is the other way around: I can’t get a job, and I don’t know how to do anything except practice law.  I cannot hide my J.D. or the 13 years since I graduated law school.  I am a real, live lawyer with a J.D., a license, and years of experience.  But no one will pay me to practice law anymore, and I don’t know how to do anything else.  Yes, of course, big changes are coming to law schools and the legal profession, many reforms need to be implemented, and prospective law students need to be warned.  It’s not that I am not interested in those things, but I have more immediate problems to solve.  I have 2 kids, a mortgage, and 25 more years to work – I can’t waste time being angry at my alma mater, wallowing in my sadness, or pontificating about law schools and my profession.  I need to find a way to earn some money SOON.  Do you have any suggestions for someone like me?   

Monday, February 25, 2013

This is not my beautiful house

This thread on TFL provides a sobering glimpse into what's happening to both the legal academic hiring market and the market for high-status and otherwise desirable non-entry level lawyer jobs (BigLaw  mid-level or senior associate, DOJ/USA/Federal agency jobs, cush in-house gigs with big companies, and so forth).

Long story short: lots of people with golden credentials are doing Visiting Assistant Professor gigs, striking out in the increasingly brutal academic market, and finding that they don't have the option to return to their old jobs or indeed anything similar to their old jobs.  The reasons will come as no surprise to anyone who has had much in the way of contact with the contemporary market for lawyers: openings for the kinds of jobs most VAPs had are scarce, and it's an extreme buyer's market.

Hiring partners are generally suspicious of people who tried to bail for academia, are often openly contemptuous of the law school world, and usually have little interest in taking on expensive senior associates with no book of business.  Government hiring is either completely frozen or extraordinarily selective at both the federal and state level, and if anything desirable government jobs are now even harder to get than big firm positions.  Good in-house positions are coveted by top associates at elite firms, who are in a far better position to get them than itinerant quasi-academics on the lam from BigLaw. Etc.

All this produces But I Did Everything Right syndrome on steroids: people with HYS law degrees, appellate court clerkships, several years of experience at V-10 firms, etc. etc., are finding themselves looking at flat-out unemployment, and are coming to the horrifying realization that, in this business of ours, a formerly golden resume starts spoiling faster than a plate of sashimi left out in a tropical sun.  (Some current law professors will be finding this out first-hand soon enough).

Adding to the angst in the VAP world are the realization that taking a job with a low-ranked school may well be a prelude to even more intractable unemployment a few years down the line; that, leaving aside the inherent risk of such jobs, lots of low-ranked law schools shouldn't exist anyway; that some VAP programs are functionally exploitative, in that they produce very little chance of getting a tenure-track job anywhere while extracting cheap teaching resources for academic hopefuls; that it's routine for people in the latter circumstance to have vastly superior entry-level credentials to those the senior faculty at the schools they're at had when they were hired in the palmy days when the Police were the hot new band; and that a career dedicated to successfully crafting a perfect resume can easily crash and burn for reasons completely beyond one's control.

Needless to say this spectacle is producing waves of schadenfreude among the legal precariat, and a growing sense of dread among all but the most purblind law professors, who realize we are increasingly becoming this generation's version of what a 50-year-old autoworker with an upper middle class salary and great benefits was back when the Police were a hot new band.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Inside report

Legal educators are still fantasizing that law firms will create more positions for new lawyers. The latest pipe dream suggests that big firms will "give talented graduates of less prestigious institutions a chance to shine" in residencies that teach lawyering skills. Although the firms will retain only some of the residents, a compassionate bar association will require those firms to "offer stipends to help those residents who don't make the cut but have debt burdens."

Law firms, as I've suggested before, must find this advice hilarious. Will partners eagerly step forward to train more associates than they need? Are BigLaw firms excited about teaching these extra associates how to handle eviction cases for low-income clients? Are bar members pining to reduce their income to help new lawyers pay off their massive law school debts?

I think not. Law firms are businesses competing in a harsh climate. Law schools vie to land jobs for their graduates, but that's bush league competition: We only have to worry about jobs for one year, we can create low-paid jobs of our own, and we can play games with the numbers. Law firms compete in the real market, one where the bills have to be paid every year, clients would laugh if you asked them to create some work for you, and playing games with the bottom line is fraud or embezzlement.

For a glimpse of today's legal market, every law school dean, professor, student, and prospective student should read the 2013 Report on the State of the Legal Market issued by Georgetown Law School's well regarded Center for the Study of the Legal Profession. That report combines considerable academic and professional expertise: James W. Jones, the report's lead author, previously served as managing partner at Arnold & Porter, Vice President and General Counsel of APCO Worldwide, and Managing Director of Hildebrandt International. On the academic side, Georgetown's Mitt Regan, an expert on the legal profession, contributed to the report. These are people who know about the legal profession, and who draw upon real data collected from real firms.

The report recognizes that "since 2008, law firms have cut back significantly on their hiring and have gone through several rounds of lay-offs of both legal and non-legal staff."  Despite those cuts, the firms still suffer from "overcapacity in terms of the number of lawyers available to perform the work at hand." And the problem isn't resolving, it's getting worse: "In the four years since [2008], with demand growth negative to flat, the overcapacity problem has become even more serious." (p. 16)

What's the solution? "Firms have . . . begun to move toward more flexible staffing models, expanding their use of non-partner track associates, staff attorneys, and contract lawyers. Going forward, it is likely that firms will remain conservative in their hiring policies, even as demand begins to grow. As a result, firms probably will be relatively smaller in terms of the number of partners and traditional partner-track associates and relatively larger in terms of the number of other lawyers and non-lawyer professionals." (p. 16)

So, yes, law firms are developing new staffing models. But these are not residencies designed to train new professionals or assist the poor. These are jobs that will help equity partners maintain their profits. And these jobs will not provide more opportunities for "talented graduates of less prestigious institutions" to show their ability. As jobs for conventional partner-track associates continue to decline, even T14 graduates will compete for these new positions--hoping for their "chance to shine."

Law firms do find one bright spot in today's legal market: it is the oversupply of lawyers. The Georgetown report recognizes this quite candidly: "While excess capacity in the market is certainly not good news for young lawyers or, for that matter, law schools, it provides an environment in which law firms should have the flexibility to redesign their staffing models to respond to client demands. By embracing alternative approaches to staffing--including increased use of staff attorneys and non-partner track associates, contract lawyers, and part-time attorneys--firms can create more efficient and cost effective ways to deliver legal services." (p. 17)

It's hard to find a more brutal statement of market reality than that one: the glut of lawyers created by law schools is allowing law firms to hire those graduates on increasingly contingent and unattractive terms. These new jobs are not designed to train new lawyers in skills they can take to other job sites. Once you have worked two years as a back-office document reviewer, what professional skills do you have--other than reviewing documents? These jobs will serve the economic interest of law firms.

And before any legal educators get all huffy about how law firms should recognize their professional obligations rather than simply operating as businesses: How many law faculty are voluntarily taking pay cuts to reduce tuition? How many are contributing substantial amounts to loan-repayment assistance plans? How many are voluntarily changing what they teach, or the time they devote to research, in order to lower the cost of legal education? How many devote 40 hours a year (one week) to serving low-income clients directly? How many spend that time training or supervising other lawyers in providing that service?

There are some professors who do these things, just as there are some law firm partners who forego income to mentor new lawyers. But there aren't very many. Law schools, just like law firms, have become full-bore businesses. The controlling members of these businesses, equity partners and tenured professors, serve their own interests and maximize their take-home pay.

In a market system, there's nothing wrong with businesses maximizing profit. The problem, with both law firms and law schools, is that we clothe ourselves in the rhetoric and privileges of a profession while pursuing market goals. As clients have gained the information they need to assert their interests--and new businesses have emerged to serve those interests--it's our students and new lawyers who pay the price for our duplicity.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A note on the reliability of the employment data reported by law schools

You can get a mordantly amusing sense of how reliable law school employment data has been by looking at the wildly divergent unemployment rates reported by otherwise very similar schools, and by examining what happens to those rates when US News changes its ranking methodology.

As regards the first issue, here are the percentages of the previous graduating class reported as unemployed-seeking work as of February 15, 2010 at four law schools:

Ave Maria:  33.7%
Florida International:  0%

Touro:  32.7%
Pace:   3.6%

What could possibly explain that more than one third of the class at an unranked fairly new Florida law school with an essentially open admissions policy was completely unemployed and seeking work nine months after graduation, while another unranked fairly new Florida law school with an essentially open admissions policy purportedly did not have a single member of its graduating class in this same situation?  Why was the involuntary unemployment rate purportedly 90% lower at one horrible NYC area law school than at another such school?

Many similar pairings can be found by anyone with an inclination to browse through LST spreadsheets.

Here's an even more striking illustration of how phony much of the reported "employment" data from law schools has been:  For many years, US News excluded graduates who were reported by their schools to be unemployed but not seeking work from the denominator when calculating graduate employment rates.

After ceasing this practice for a year because of a change in ABA reporting practices, the magazine stated in 2008 that it was going back to doing so, but included a stern warning to schools not to exploit this category in order to "spin" (trans: fraudulently mis-state) their employment rates).  Subsequently, the majority of schools seemed to more or less heed this warning, as the median percentage of graduates reported to be unemployed not-seeking hovered around 2%, and the mode was zero percent.  (For example in regard to the statistics above, in February of 2010 Touro reported having no graduates in the unemployed not-seeking work category, and Ave Maria reported just 2.3% of its graduates in this situation, even though a third of the classes at both schools didn't have jobs).

But some schools, it appears, ignored the warning, and jammed large numbers of their unemployed graduates into the "not seeking" category.  Indeed, in February 2010 35 ABA schools reported having more than twice as many unemployed not-seeking graduates as unemployed-seeking graduates.  (The Oscar in this category can be awarded to Santa Clara, which in 2010 and 2011 reported that 102[!] of its graduates were unemployed but not seeking jobs nine months after graduation, as compared to 29 unemployed graduates who were looking to acquire employment of some sort).

Then an awful thing happened: in March of 2011, just after schools submitted their numbers to NALP and US News, US News announced that henceforth it would treat unemployed not-seeking graduates as simply unemployed for the purposes of calculating nine-month employment rates.  Miraculously enough, in February of 2012 the number of schools that reported having more than twice as many unemployed not-seeking graduates as unemployed-seeking fell from 35 to 4.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Doctors and lawyers

Steven Brill of The American Lawyer and CourtTV fame has a very long story in the new issue of Time on some of the more absurd financial dysfunctions of The Best Health Care System in the World(tm).  In short, TBHCSITW has managed to do to society at large approximately what law schools have done to their students:

When we debate health care policy, we seem to jump right to the issue of who should pay the bills, blowing past what should be the first question: Why exactly are the bills so high?
This is same question that ought to be asked of the many law school apologists who treat the increase in the cost of legal education as something akin to a law of thermodynamics, as opposed to a fabulously successful exercise in rent-seeking by people who have captured a regulatory process.

Critiquing that exercise highlights how the law school cartel has managed to do something which has completely eluded the bar as a whole.  A question well worth investigating is why the licensed members of The Best Legal System in the World(tm) have, in comparison to their medical brethren, been so unsuccessful at using their own cartel to protect the economic position of lawyers, as opposed to that of law schools.

Consider some numbers:

In 1989, legal services accounted for approximately $157 billion, in 2005 dollars, of US GDP.  In 2011 that same figure (again in 2005 dollars) was $156 billion.  Over this time GDP increased by 68% in constant dollars, which means that, as a share of the economy, the legal sector shrank by approximately 41% over the past two decades.

Meanwhile law schools have increased graduate output by 24% over this same time frame, while the cost of private law school tuition doubled in real terms, and that of resident public law school tuition increased by a factor of nearly five.  In other words, we've radically increased both the price and the supply of something (a license to practice law) whose relative economic value has been collapsing.

The situation in the medical profession has been the precise opposite.   After medical school admissions rose rapidly from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the AMA reacted to warnings that there would soon be a "glut" of doctors by essentially freezing medical school graduate totals for three decades (Medical schools graduated around 16,000 to 17,000 people every year between 1980 and 2008.  Finally, in reaction to new warnings that the country is facing a severe shortage of doctors, medical school admissions began to rise again about five years ago).

The most striking contrast between the situation in law and medicine is, that while economic demand for legal services has, relatively speaking, been contracting radically (note to law school administrators: economic demand = people having enough money to pay for something they're willing to use that money to pay for), that for medical services has gone through the roof.  Between 1980 and 2008, the proportion of American GDP devoted to the health care sector increased by an astounding 77.8%.

Now of course doctors only captured part, and perhaps a relatively small part, of that increased demand in the form of their direct compensation.  But what the AMA has been remarkably good at ensuring is that, with trivial exceptions, everyone who graduates from medical school gets to be a practicing physician for more or less as long as they want to be.  That is, in the context of capitalism's gusts of creative destruction, an extraordinarily valuable benefit -- and it's why comparisons between the "average" compensation of doctors and lawyers, or, more far more accurately, between graduates of medical schools and law schools, are essentially meaningless.

Here's Brill's description of the plight of large numbers of patients within the contemporary American health care system:  "They are powerless buyers in a seller's market where the only sure thing is the profit of the sellers."  That would also make for a good description of large numbers of law students within the contemporary system of legal education.  Of course law school apologists would respond that buyers of legal education are not powerless in comparison to, say, buyers of health care who are suffering a medical emergency or from a serious illness.  And that's true -- which is precisely why, now that the power of better information has been placed into their hands, applications to law school are collapsing even faster than the economic demand for legal services.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

An apology

DJM's new post below has alerted me to a very serious mistake in my post yesterday, in which I criticized two law school deans for touting, without any statistical basis, the purported versatility of JD degrees:

Something that would be even more interesting to know is the extent to which arguments that a JD is or at least was "versatile" have any basis in reality, since as even Smith acknowledges there's simply no longitudinal data on this  issue.

I've just discovered NALP has done a careful and comprehensive study of this issue, and is in the process of publishing its findings:

It turns out that the JD degree prepares you for a variety of exciting jobs and careers. While many law school graduates go on to practice law, many others go on to play leadership roles in a variety of settings. Many law school graduates obtain positions for which Bar Passage, or even a JD, is not required, but their legal training is deemed to be an advantage or even necessary in the workplace. As the saying goes "you can do almost anything with a law degree!"

You will see that JD Advantage positions are jobs that do not require bar passage, an active law license, or involve practicing law in the traditional sense. However, in these positions, a JD provides an advantage in obtaining or performing the job. In fact, many graduates view entry-level opportunities with the federal government or in business/industry as a primary goal. For every law firm, public sector, or in-house legal position, there is an equally important law-related position for which a JD is a significant competitive advantage. (emphasis added)
It's hard to overstate the significance of this finding, since the federal government currently estimates that the economy is generating 21,700 new jobs for attorneys per year, which is slightly less than half the number of people graduating from ABA law schools.  In other words, NALP's research has discovered that the combined total of new annual jobs that require bar admission, and those new professional positions for which a JD provides a significant competitive advantage is or should be close to providing full employment in appropriate positions for new law graduates.

NALP's announcement is especially encouraging, in that the individual profiles it uses to put faces on this longitudinal study, which are no doubt representative of the underlying data, indicate that these "JD Advantage" jobs are especially advantageous to minorities, women, graduates of low-ranked law schools, and minority women graduates of low-ranked law schools. This finding makes me especially embarrassed that I asserted in yesterday's post that law school promotional efforts are intentionally targeting members of traditionally under-represented groups, who are especially vulnerable to suffering long-term damage from what I (mistakenly it turns out) characterized as the poor state of the employment market for new law graduates.

I will post much more about this as soon as I have a chance to analyze the study itself, which does not appear to be linked on NALP's web page announcing these extraordinarily important conclusions.  In any case, it appears this entire blog has been based on a serious misapprehension, and apologies are in order to a great many people within legal academia who have been arguing that a law degree remains an excellent long term investment for almost everyone who acquires one.

See also (h/t commenter)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Choo choo

Did you love playing with trains as a child? Would you like to drive a train? Can you imagine yourself tearing down the tracks at more than 350 miles per hour? If so, I have great news for you: The unemployment rate for locomotive engineers and operators is really, really low. That's right, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 1.2% of locomotive engineers were unemployed in 2012! That's less than the unemployment rate for lawyers (1.4%), dentists (1.5%), accountants (4.2%), and lots of other boring occupations.

This nonsense signals the fact that it's time for our semi-annual debunking of the "unemployment rate" claim. Cooley Law School unveiled this pitch in August 2011, reporting the BLS estimate that only 1.5% of lawyers were unemployed in 2010. Denver's Law School is the most recent enthusiast for this factoid. The statistic suggests that 98.5% of the people who want to practice law, and who have the proper license, are able to do so. Right?

Wrong. The BLS number means that 98.5% of the people who have worked as lawyers, and who want to keep working, are able to work at least one hour a week in some job. They may have mowed their neighbor's lawn for $15. They may be working at Starbucks. They may even be running a locomotive, a job that requires only a high school degree and some hands-on training. Heck, as NALP says, "you can do almost anything with a law degree!"

If you want to review (yet again!) why the BLS unemployment rate is misleading, I invite you to join me here. Along the way, I note that the very same BLS numbers generating these positive-sounding unemployment rates also show:

  • The number of practicing lawyers fell during the last year, from an estimated 1,085,000 in 2011 to just 1,061,000 in 2012. That's despite all of those 2011 graduates who were sworn in to the bar in November 2011.
  • Although more than 100,000 women have graduated from law school during the last five years, there are 19,000 fewer women practicing law today than there were in 2008. 
Bet you won't find those statistics on the law school sites touting the low unemployment rates for lawyers. Don't think of our graduates as unemployed lawyers; think of them as un...lawyers.

Straight out of Scarsdale

A law professor forwarded me links to a couple of law school-produced podcasts/youtube videos flogging the "versatility" of what one of them actually refers to as the "magical" JD degree.

The first is from Cal Western --  a school whose 2011 graduates had average law school loan balances of around $175,000 when their first payments came due in November of that year, and whose employment statistics are morbidly fascinating in a car crash sort of way: 104 of 285 graduates purportedly got legal jobs, broadly defined, not counting solos, while 76 were either completely unemployed or simply untraceable.

I got about halfway through the 27 minutes of it, but that's more than enough.  Steve Smith, the dean of the school, talks at length about the purported versatility of law degrees, citing "being a CEO" or a "politician" as potential alternative non-legal careers (he discusses Barack Obama's career as an example of what you can do with a law degree other than practice law, in what appears to be a completely sincere and non-ironic way, although who can tell any more in this crazy mixed up pomo world of ours?).

The really disturbing part of the thing involves an African American professor, who talks about growing up in south central Los Angeles, and overcoming adversity to become a lawyer.  Although I have no basis for judging the sincerity of his particular mental state, one of the most deplorable things law schools are now doing as institutions is to cynically exploit the hopes and dreams of people from marginalized ethnic groups and modest socio-economic backgrounds. (In some cases ignorance rather than cynicism may be the formal cause of this exploitative behavior, and while this is the more charitable interpretation, we're reaching a point where ignorance is no longer distinguishable from the sort of willful blindness that is in some ways morally worse than conscious exploitation).

As difficult as law has become as a career path in general, it's even more difficult and potentially catastrophic for people who don't have the sorts of family financial backing, cultural capital, and social connections that are proving ever-more crucial to success in a particularly hierarchical and status-obsessed profession.  (It should be unnecessary to add that many of these vulnerable people are white.  Nevertheless, I believe we law school faculty and administrators from ethnic minority backgrounds have a special obligation to do what we can to make sure our institutions are not exploiting vulnerable members of our communities, given that "ensuring access to justice" is such a politically convenient translation of "getting people to take out loans they won't be able to pay back.").

The other paen to the versatility of law degrees is this short Youtube video from Chicago-Kent, featuring Dean Harold Krent, who was last glimpsed at ITLSS arguing that getting a law degree was a good entree into the worlds of journalism, counseling, and investing. (Key words and phrases in the video: "network," "sports agent," "help other people," "intellectual firepower.")  It's a semi-slick production -- although the sound quality of the dean's contribution is sketchy -- and it would be interesting to know if this kind of thing is worth the money the school is spending on it.

Something that would be even more interesting to know is the extent to which arguments that a JD is or at least was "versatile" have any basis in reality, since as even Smith acknowledges there's simply no longitudinal data on this  issue.  This of course doesn't stop either him or Krent from arguing that it is, which tells you all you need to know about the extent to which intellectual integrity plays a role in these particular corners of legal academia.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Live at the Improv

A law student writes:

American University is holding improv lessons to help students learn how to network and interview. Sometimes when I walk around the school I feel like I must be in the twilight zone. There are postings all around the school for discussions on helping the poor and oppressed around the world without the slightest hint of irony.

A fuller description of the nonsense is provided here:

(I recommend clicking on the link to get the full flavor of this. I would paste the linked material into the post except that it wrecks the formatting for some reason).

Meanwhile a law professor writes:

We just got the nine month employment statistics for the class of 2012.  The administration fired the entire CSO staff in the summer of 2011, and spent a lot of money hiring new, supposedly far better people, on the theory that the terrible employment outcomes for the 2011 class were in part a product of the CSO's ineptness.  Now I have to admit the previous staff did strike me as inept, while the new people seem much better.  The net result of all this is that the class of 2012 ended up with exactly one more person in a lawyer job than the class of 2011.
 Repeat as necessary.

I was talking to a network news producer yesterday about which law school is going to be the first to go.  I don't wish unemployment on anyone (OK I do wish it on some law school deans), but at the same time there's little doubt that the first ABA school to go under will, as Voltaire said, "encourage the others"  in various beneficial ways.

And while I don't think American will be the first to go, the school's increasingly grotesque behavior in the face of its absurd price structure and bottom of the barrel employment statistics makes it perhaps more deserving of this distinction than any other school -- or at least any other school whose very name isn't already a mordant joke.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The business of the academy


In an example of what could be called the ongoing Dilbertization of academic life, every year CU law school faculty members are required to do a “self-evaluation,” which is supposed to supplement and enlarge upon the formal report of professional activities which all faculty at the university are asked to submit.

This year’s version of what seems vaguely like a hybrid between the rituals concocted by business consultants and Maoist cadres contains the following question:
For the period since January 2011, please discuss your engagement in the life of the law school, focusing on the following:
 Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort to recruit admitted applicants (e.g., making phone calls, meeting with interested students, participating in Admitted Students lunches, etc.).
I suppose it would come as a great surprise to the administrative class that comes up with this stuff to be told that, under current circumstances in particular, this sort of question is extremely inappropriate. For instance, compare it with this hypothetical question:
Please describe your support for and involvement with the effort the convey to the larger community that the American legal system is the best in the world.
Everyone, I imagine, would recognize that evaluating faculty members on the basis of the extent to which they participated in such an effort would be indefensible, given that such an evaluative process would reward and punish faculty on the basis of their willingness to support a controversial intellectual and political position, even though it’s one that law school deans as a pragmatic matter treat as self-evidently true upon certain occasions.

Expecting faculty to uncritically “recruit” admitted applicants could only be a reasonable expectation if, at a minimum, one takes the view that literally everyone the law school’s admissions committee decides to admit would be better off accepting rather than declining that invitation. A significant number of the faculty at my school disagree with that view, although perhaps only one of them would be so tactless as to say so in public. Telling these people that they’re being evaluated on the basis of their willingness to mortify their consciences on this particular point is wrong. Actually doing so is even more indefensible. ( Update: This is not a hypothetical: I know of at least one faculty member who was sanctioned in the evaluation process for giving candid advice to an admitted student who solicited it, and who enrolled subsequently at a top ten law school. For those interested my response to the self-evaluation question was: “I believe this question is framed incorrectly, as I don’t believe faculty members should be ‘recruiting’ admitted applicants. I do believe it’s a faculty member’s proper institutional role to give candid and helpful feedback to admitted or prospective applicants when they ask for such feedback, which I have done on numerous occasions.”).

What I find particularly interesting about this is the extent to which university administrators have now internalized the norms of profit-maximizing businesses. In this evaluative context, recruiting admitted students is thought of as moving product, and apparently it would no more occur to an administrator that a faculty member would object to be asked to participate uncritically in this enterprise than it would occur to the manager of a car dealership that members of his sales force might object to being asked to participate uncritically in the enterprise of selling the dealership’s stock.

Update: And of course this is not only a problem at law schools. As academia gets increasingly indistinguishable from any other business, the tension between the demands of profit maximization (in the context of technical non-profits profit maximization means running the institution for the financial benefit of its most powerful internal stakeholders, i.e., administrators, and to a lesser extent tenure-track faculty) and intellectual honesty become ever-more severe.

In the end, if universities are going to be run like businesses, they should be treated as such — from paying taxes, to being laughed at when they ask alumni for donations. After all, Toyota doesn’t call you up five years after you bought a Corolla, to ask you to give them some money out of sheer gratitude for the “quality” of their “product.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

Transparency redux

A law professor writes:

I was thinking about asking my Dean to put the 2012 9 month employment numbers up on the school’s website as soon as we have finalized them, which should be any day now (if it hasn’t happened already).  I agree with you that that disclosure is a moral imperative.  I suspect that if the 2012 numbers are worse than the 2011 numbers, what I’ll hear back is something like, “well, if we put our numbers up and our competitors don’t, then (1) the students may be misled into comparing apples and oranges, and (2) it’ll hurt our competitiveness.  (If the 2012 numbers are better, which seems highly unlikely, I suspect the Dean will gladly put them up.)  These problems would be resolved if the vast majority of respectable schools post their 2012 numbers.

So, how about a post suggesting that law professors have a moral obligation to demand that their dean post their 2012 numbers?  
Today is the official reporting date for nine-month employment numbers to NALP  (I believe NALP gives schools a couple of weeks to get their information in.)

I agree with my correspondent that legal academics have an obligation to do what we can, individually and collectively, to ensure that our institutions make the latest employment and salary data available to prospective and current students.  Within the next month, every law school should post information for the class of 2012 which is as transparent as the information regarding the class of 2011 that can be found here.  (Note how the data schools report to NALP are much more granular than the numbers the ABA now makes public regarding individual schools).

A couple of further notes:

(1)  Reform-minded law school employees need to be especially vigilant about schools publishing misleadingly incomplete information, as almost all schools did until very recently.  For example, it would be better for a school to publish nothing at all than to announce on its website that "92% of the 2012 class was employed nine months after graduation, with a reported average salary of X."  Overall "employment" percentages mean next to nothing (especially given the growing trend of schools' employing their own graduates), and "average" salary figures are even more misleading if they exclude salaries, if any, for large percentages of the class, and omit median numbers in favor of means.

This will especially be a problem at lower-ranked schools, where large majorities of each class have no reported salaries, causing the few reported high salaries to skew the data about an already unrepresentative subgroup of graduates.

(2)  I try very hard to force myself to be realistic about what prospective law students can be expected to know, and to resist the "individual responsibility" victim-blaming frame which American culture in general tends to impose on structural injustice.  On the other hand, individual responsibility still exists.  Anyone who enrolls at any law school this fall without first having extracted the relevant employment and salary information for the class of 2012 referenced above is engaging in reckless behavior, given that at this point any school that withholds this information (as large numbers of schools still do) is essentially announcing to prospective students that transparent employment and salary data regarding its graduates will incline reasonable people not to enroll.

In other words, while caveat emptor has been a much-abused principle in the common law tradition, there is a point at which it ought to have some real force.  That point was not the year 2000 or 2005 or even 2011.  But it is or ought to be now.  Of course caveat emptor doesn't excuse active misrepresentation, of which there's still plenty in the law school world, but my sympathies for people who enroll in law school going forward without demanding and obtaining the necessary information about outcomes first is going to be limited.

Update:   On reflection, the phrase caveat emptor, which has a specific legal meaning, was not the best way of conveying what I was trying to express.  What I was trying to express was my own sense of exasperation at the cultural forces which create barriers to acquiring and interpreting information that, in theory, should at this point be easy to acquire.  Example: if you google "should I go to law school" the first three links are to an interview with me in Newsweek about the book Don't Go to Law School (Unless), a link to that book, and a link to this blog. 

But as commenters have noted, my personal exasperation is beside the point, and irrelevant to the cultural fact that, while the law school scam is over from any perspective that assumes rational maximizers of their utility engaging in minimally prudent behavior, that's not actually what human beings, and especially recent college graduates in this culture, are like.