Thursday, August 7, 2014

Looking back at ITLSS

ITLSS started publishing three years ago today. The blog featured roughly daily posts (500 in all) for nearly 19 months, through February of 2013.  During that time it received about three million page views, and it generated nearly 50,000 comments. On the eve of another academic year, this post looks back on the project from the perspective of what's changed and what hasn't in the law school world since the summer of 2011. 

What's changed:

The central theme of the blog -- that there's a genuine crisis in legal academia, because law schools are turning out far too many graduates and far too high of a cost -- has gone from a fringe position in the academy, to a widely accepted view within it, and something like the conventional wisdom outside it.

Law school applications and enrollment have both plunged.  The 2014 cycle featured about 55,000 applicants, down from 88,000 in 2010.  Despite moderate to severe cuts in admissions standards at almost all law schools other than Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, the 2014 first year class will include somewhere between 37,000 and 38,000 students, down from 52,500 in 2010.

After decades of non-stop growth, average effective tuition (sticker tuition minus discounts) has at least flattened out and possibly even declined slightly over the last two to three years.  This is a product of the combination of schools continuing to raise their sticker rates at faster than inflation, but offering deeper discounts to a larger percentage of their admits.  The net effect of this has been to keep average tuition from rising in real terms, although of course this pattern exacerbates  the reverse Robin Hood structure of contemporary legal education, in which students with lower entrance numbers (and, crucially, lower SES backgrounds) subsidize the attendance of their better-credentialed, richer, and better-connected classmates.

What hasn't changed:

The legal hiring market remains weak.  Only a bit more than half of all ABA law school graduates are getting real legal jobs (full-time, long-term, bar admission required), and this percentage drops to less than half at many schools.  Only around 15% of graduates get jobs that pay salaries which make taking on $150,000 in educational debt (around the average for the 85% of graduates who borrow, once we include accrued interest and undergraduate debt) appear to be a good investment, at least from a short-term perspective. 

The long-term economic prospects of current law graduates remain very unclear, for many reasons.  What's clear is that the high salaries paid to the "lucky" minority who initially get jobs with big law firms can be somewhat illusory (a 2013 Stanford law grad told me yesterday that several of his classmates who started in big law a year ago have already left, whether voluntarily or not), and that extrapolating the lifetime earnings of people who graduated from law school in 1974 or 1984 or even 1999 to people who graduated in 2014 is a form of methodological question-begging, if it's presented as doing anything more than presenting one piece of mildly suggestive but problematic evidence in regard to the answer to the question of what is going to happen to current law graduates in the long run.

The fundamental economic structure of legal education -- in which most of the operating revenue for most law schools comes from federal educational loans subject to essentially no actuarial controls -- remains in place.  Transparency in regard to employment outcomes -- which pretty much didn't exist three years ago -- has been in large part achieved, and it has accomplished quite a bit by itself, as evidenced by the plunge in application and enrollment numbers. But while the situation is better, it's still the case that far too many people are paying far too much to go to law school.  (My back of the envelope calculation is that national first year classes ought to be around 25,000 matrics, and that effective tuition ought to be around $10,000 per year, if we want legal education to be a good investment for a large majority of prospective law students going forward).

Looking back with the benefit of both three years' additional perspective, and the changes that have taken place over that time, I wish this blog had spent more time connecting the crisis in legal education to the crisis which is slowly but surely enveloping higher education in America in general.  That latter crisis is a product of deep economic and cultural changes, which have left an entire generation of young Americans over-educated and under-employed (I explore the ways in which legal education is something of a proverbial canary in a coal mine for these much broader trends in a forthcoming article in the September issue of the  Atlantic.)

But hindsight is notoriously more accurate than foresight.  This blog played its part in helping some people -- not least its primary author -- understand the troubled world of contemporary legal education.  The thing now is to change it.