Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A disaster of technology

26 years ago this week, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its launch, leading to the death a couple of minutes later of its crew, which included a civilian, elementary school teacher Christa McAuliffe.  The disaster was replayed endlessly on television, becoming for my generation something akin to what the assassination of President Kennedy was to the previous one, i.e., everyone can remember where they were when they heard the news etc.  (I was in the office of the magazine where I worked, reading the acceptance letter I had opened thirty seconds earlier from the law school I would attend that fall, when a co-worker so rudely interrupted my reverie).

The event was investigated by a government commission, which, in the manner of such things, did its best to whitewash a series of administrative miscalculations which led to the accident.   Unfortunately for those administrators, one of the commission's members was the famous physicist Richard Feynman, who threatened to resign if he was not allowed to add an appendix to the official report.  This appendix makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in risk assessment and management, and in particular their relation to the politics of bureaucratic decision making.

The Challenger broke apart in flight because one of the o-rings which sealed the joints in the solid rocket boosters failed.  This failure was quite predictable, not merely in retrospect, but indeed in prospect, as the engineers who designed the boosters were aware.  Several of them had made concerted efforts to get NASA administrators to address the issue, but had been ignored.  The engineers estimated that the odds of a catastrophic launch failure were about 1 in 100, while NASA administrators insisted that the odds were more on the order of 1 in 100,000.  Feynman:

What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask 'What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?'
 NASA officials argue that the [risk of failure] is much lower. They point out that since the Shuttle is a manned vehicle . . . "the probability of mission success is necessarily very close to 1.0." It is not very clear what this phrase means. Does it mean it is close to 1 or that it ought to be close to 1?
In other words, the historical reasoning  process of the people running NASA went something like this:  Early unmanned rocket launches had very high failure rates.  With the maturing of the technology the failure rate declined quite a bit.  Once it declined enough, the risks were considered tolerable for manned flight ("tolerable" in the context of the cold war space race that is).  It was still understood to be ultra-hazardous, hence astronauts had to be extraordinarily brave people.

But after a few dozen successful manned launches over the course of a couple of decades, the administrators managed to talk themselves into the belief that space flight was "safe," in much the same sense that commercial air travel is safe.  This belief was absurd, but they had to maintain it if they were going to engage in publicity stunts, crucial to continued program funding, such as putting an elementary school teacher in space.  So they essentially reasoned backwards: it would be irresponsible to do what they were doing unless the odds of disaster were very low; they were doing this; they were responsible people; therefore it followed that "the probability of mission success is necessarily very close to 1.0."

Feynman's conclusion is particularly interesting, given the subject matter of this blog.  He argues that, given practical limitations, the overall risk of failure for Shuttle flights was going to have to be roughly on the order of one per cent (in fact it ended up being 1.48% over the history of the program).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.
 In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?
Feynman, in other words, is making an argument for transparency.  Space flight is ultra-hazardous, which means that, to make undertaking it morally acceptable, those who do so should know the risks, rather than being misled by administrators who on one psychological level know they are lying to their audience, while on another level they maintain a sincere belief in their own rhetoric (Feynman's argument is psychologically sophisticated, acknowledging as it does that human beings are perfectly capable of maintaining contradictory beliefs simultaneously).

Of course in a sense analogizing risk management in the context of space flight to risk management in the context of trying to become a lawyer is, it might be said, a somewhat strained analogy.  Astronauts are perhaps the ultimate examples of risk-seekers, while traditionally law students have been classic risk-avoiders (I'll go to law school instead of trying to write the Great American Novel etc.).    The biggest irony of our own particular technological disaster is that law school -- the purportedly "safe" bail-out option for many a liberal arts major -- has been transformed gradually over the last couple of decades into, in economic and social terms, an ultra-hazardous activity.

Meanwhile, law school administrators, when surveying their bloated kingdoms, continue to cite overall "employment" rates as evidence for the proposition that the probability of career success is "necessarily" very close to 1.0. In this context, Feynman's rhetorical question -- does this mean it is close to 1.0 or that it ought to be close to 1.0? -- is becoming increasingly easy to answer.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The ideological structure of a legitimated scam

"Ideology" can mean a number of things.  I'm using it here in the sense of the received consciousness of a particular social order, which legitimates that order and helps reproduce it.  The lawyer and sociologist David Riesman aptly described how ideological modes of thought produce a kind of  "sincere" mental state that allows someone to habitually believe his own propaganda.  A dominant ideology generates a set of views that distort social reality in a particular way: in a way which advances the economic interests of the dominant group, without the members of the group becoming conscious of the fact that they believe what they believe because it is in their self-interest to believe it.

A simple example might be how the ideology of free enterprise capitalism in early 21st century America creates a sincere belief in the mind of a hedge fund manager that paying himself a salary of one billion dollars, which is then taxed at a lower rate than the salary of the average American full-time worker, is wealth maximizing for society as a whole, and therefore by definition a good thing.

An unavoidable difficulty that arises when one points out that in many respects contemporary American legal education functions as a scam is that this observation creates a defensive reaction, which involves claiming that it isn't a scam because no one consciously intends that it be one.  Now this claim about the scam's lack of intentionality is for the most part true.  I very much doubt that, even now, more than a small minority of people in legal academia understand themselves to be participating in a scam, and the size of the subset of people within that group who intend that it should be one may well be literally zero.

The overwhelming majority of legal academics would most sincerely and vehemently deny that law school is a scam.  Now if, despite this deeply sincere belief, law school functions as a scam anyway, then what we're dealing with is what can be called a legitimated scam.  A legitimated scam is a scam which is not understood to be such by those profiting from it, but which is interpreted as being something else altogether.  It will be seen that what a legitimated scam requires is an ideology -- a set of beliefs that allow those who profit from the structure of the enterprise to misunderstand the nature of that structure, in a way that allows them to behave in a fashion that advances their own interests, while at the same time believing (again, with all sincerity) that the purpose of their behavior is something else.

This is what makes the law school scam fundamentally different, as a qualitative matter, from something like Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.   Madoff, assuming he hadn't become what the mental health profession would characterize as delusional, did not understand himself to be doing anything other than ripping off his customers.  He was not, in other words, functioning under any ideological misapprehensions.  He was simply stealing from people, and he knew it (some of the people from whom he was stealing surely suspected what he was doing, in which case they, too, were stealing from fellow participants in the scam).

By contrast, the law school scam depends crucially on ideological misapprehension: on the maintenance of a sincere and widespread belief among those of us who profit from it that it is something other than what it is. Here I will list a few of the specific beliefs which help maintain this more general faith:

(1) Law school turns law students into critical thinkers. Critical thinking is valuable for its own sake, and has value for those graduates who go on to do something other than practice law.

(2) A law degree is a versatile credential, which is considered desirable by non-legal employers, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, who might make you president of the organization.

(3)  Law graduates are having trouble getting jobs as lawyers because of the overall state of the economy, and complaints about under- and unemployment will return to historic (translation: acceptable) levels as soon as the general economy has recovered, because in a complex modern economy there will always be a high demand for legal services.

(4)  Law graduates, like other disaffected young people, have an entitlement mentality, and believe that a law degree entitles them to a six-figure starting salary.

(5)  Legal jobs are available for those graduates who are willing to do lower-paying government and public interest work, or who don't mind moving from Atlanta to Nebraska.

(6) The Income-Based Repayment program makes law school a good investment.

(7) Tuition is so high because legal education is inherently expensive.

(8) Subsidizing the production of 10,000 law review articles a year is a good use of tuition revenues.

(9)  Prospective law students who undertake due diligence regarding employment prospects prior to enrolling are consciously assuming the risk of ending up with massive educational debts and no job.  Those who do not undertake such research are barred from complaining by the doctrine of contributory negligence.

(10)  Law school isn't any more of a "scam" than higher education in general, or for that matter the post-industrial American economy.

Within minutes of posting this, readers came up with a couple of terrific additions that I can't resist adding (there are no doubt many more).

(11)  Law school, and the availability of loans for law school is an important part of the social mobility and egalitarianism that makes this country such a wonderful place. Any student, from any background, attending any school could conceivably become a great lawyer, and to deny people that opportunity is wrong.

(12)  Yale Law School is awesome.

Once subjected to serious scrutiny, these beliefs are revealed to run a gamut from the irrelevant, to the highly questionable, to the obviously preposterous.  An ideology functions by ensuring, to the extent possible, that such scrutiny doesn't occur.  It does so by raising these sorts of beliefs into the realm of the taken for granted, the commonsensical, the things that "serious people" don't question or for that matter even think about.  That legal education in its present form is, despite whatever problems it may have, a fundamentally Good Thing is a belief that can't be questioned as long as one functions, even marginally, within the ideological structure of American legal academia.

Indeed, it has been pointed out that questioning that belief ought by itself to disqualify one from performing the professionalization function that is the law school's primary reason for being.  In other words, go be a sociologist if you want to ask questions like that (David Riesman, who graduated at the top of his HLS class and clerked for Brandeis, did just that, as not surprisingly he found legal academia less than congenial to his intellectual interests).

In short, ideology patrols the borders of acceptable thought in a way that is designed to maintain the status quo, without those either benefiting from or being harmed by that status quo becoming aware of that design.  Thus "design" should be understood here to be a metaphor for the unconscious circulation of social power, rather than a description of a conscious conspiracy.  Conscious conspiracies to defraud, after all, are, as any law professor could tell you, illegal.  Unconscious ones, on the other hand, tend to be much more successful.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Good money after bad?

Updated below

How many people are in something like this situation right now?

I'm in my second semester second year and need advice on what to do. I've realized that by the time I graduate, I'll be in the hole close to 130K. I've really come to the conclusion that as a 25 year old, my life is going to be thoroughly fu@ked for at least a decade as I try to pay off the loans.

I'm from an Asian family and my parents want me to continue. But I've realized that whether I get the JD or not, I'll still be working in a non-legal low paying career. I'm most definitely not in the top 50%, haven't done any competitions or journals etc.

Should I drop? I would really appreciate any answers. I've been reading this blog for months and have begun to understand that non-law students and even many law students don't get the fact that getting a legal career is not easy.... Please advise as I can't seem to convince anyone else of the truth...
Of course it would be good to have many more details, and even better to actually know this person, before giving any definitive advice.  Still, some general observations:

(1) This person is not, on one important level, really yet an adult.  Adults don't decide to take on $130,000 in high-interest non-dischargeable debt because otherwise their parents will be disappointed if they drop out of school.  From the standpoint of both an appropriately paternalistic ethic, and minimally rational social policy considerations in general, it's reckless and absurd to allow non-adults to make decisions of this sort. Note that given his or her age this person appears to be yet another K-JD, whose life experience probably consists of going to school, and who has therefore never held a real job, supported him or herself, etc.

(2)  Law students who come to grips with the reality of their economic and social situation are, because of this realization, going to find it at least somewhat more difficult to improve on that situation as long as they stay in law school.  The possibility of success for someone about to enter the legal profession at this particular moment is probably heightened by a certain amount of basically delusional self-belief, or if you prefer, adaptive stupidity.

In other words, although it's not true that you're a special snowflake and that statistical generalities therefore don't apply to you, believing that you are is probably good for your potential legal career at the margin. This follows from the fact that a realistic assessment of the situation is likely to produce some combination of depression and despair, which tend not to be career-enhancing states.  It doesn't follow, of course, that on the whole delusional self-belief is preferable to a potentially despondent grounding in reality, since asserting that begs the question of whether it's better for someone like this commenter to stay in law school or drop out.

(3) An important practical question is whether this person has already paid for the second semester of his or her 2L year in a non-refundable fashion.  At my law school, for instance, the commenter would have until next week (two weeks after the start of classes) to get his or her tuition refunded.  By contrast, a particularly distasteful practice at some law schools is to make the deadline for refunding tuition earlier than the deadline for professors to turn in their grades for the previous semester. 

(4) Here again we see the insidious effects of the enormous disconnect that still exists between the general cultural assumptions regarding what it means to have a law degree, and the economic and social reality which people now getting law degrees actually inhabit.  What's even more insidious is the number of people who will be in something like the correspondent's mental state not two weeks into their second semester of their 2L years, but rather 18 months after they graduate from law school.

Update:   After reading the comments in this thread, as well as getting back channel feedback, I think Point (1) above is poorly phrased.  While it's true that the lack of life experience of K-JD students creates additional vulnerabilities for them in regard to the law school scam that ought to be taken into account, it's ultimately a mistake to put much weight on this factor in regard to the overall situation.  The problem, in other words, is still at the most fundamental level that people of any age and life experience are borrowing very large sums of money on the basis of deeply misleading information.  That's what makes the scam a scam, as opposed to a product of the desperate circumstances of college graduates with no good career prospects (although it's that too).  Doing this work, it's sometimes easy to forget how distorted the readily available information for 0Ls remains, despite the improvements that have taken place over the last year in particular.

An especially salient factor in this regard is, as a commenter in the thread notes, that it seems reasonable ex ante for 0Ls and their families to rely on the signaling they're getting from the fact that the federal government is willing to lend such large sums of money to people to go to law school, with no (up front) strings attached.

I was 22 when I started law school and I remember being stressed out at the amount of money I was borrowing. I had never borrowed anything in my life until that point. I remember thinking to myself that neither the government nor the school would allow me to borrow this much if they thought I could not pay it back. 
 This, I believe, is a particularly distorting aspect of the current structure of higher education in general, and legal education in particular.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Everybody's in show biz

Email from a reader of Lawyers, Guns and Money (published with permission of the author):

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why people don't get jobs as lawyers

There's an old joke about people going to law school because they're not good at math.  Apparently it's not that much of a joke.  The thread to this post features an all-too-characteristic squabble about whether a graduate of a lower tier law school who finished at the top of his class but can't get a job as a lawyer is striking out because he doesn't come across well in interviews.  This kind of thing is exasperating for a number of reasons, not least of which is that, as a matter of empirical statistical analysis (there's that math again)  an ability to come across well in interviews has basically no correlation with subsequent job performance. This in turn isn't surprising, given that whether you like somebody in an interview context has almost everything to do with considerations of social class, aesthetic preferences, and cultural capital, and almost nothing to do with rational judgments regarding actual ability.

A yet more aggravating aspect of these arguments is how beside the point they are.  In every particular case a law graduate doesn't get a particular job as a lawyer for some particular reason. It may be because he didn't go to a good enough law school to get this job, or because her grades weren't good enough, or because he doesn't have five years of relevant practice experience, or because she doesn't know who Justin Verlander is, or because he isn't the son of a major stockholder in a corporation represented by the firm, or because she's not a member of an under-represented minority group, or because he is a member of an under-represented minority group, or because any of five hundred other reasons, good and bad alike, for "failure."

In every particular case there's a particular reason, but all those individual cases add up to a general proposition, which is that ABA-accredited law schools are currently producing (at least) two graduates for every available law job.  Here's a proposition that should win somebody a Nobel prize in economics: If there are at least two ABA law school graduates for every law job, the long-term legal unemployment rate for law school graduates is going to be at least 50%.   Contrary to the magical thinking to which law school administrators and career services offices are prone, improving the interviewing skills and "networking" abilities of your graduates has exactly zero effect on this situation.

In 2010, ABA-accredited law schools, who have extremely powerful incentives to discover the extent to which their graduates have legal jobs, and indeed are increasingly inventing "jobs" for ever-larger proportions of their graduates, were able to report that a total of 58% of their graduates had full-time employment requiring a law degree nine months after graduation.  But consider what that figure includes:

(1)  Temp work. If during the NALP survey window a graduate happened to be on a six-week document review project requiring 40 hours per week of work and the possession of a law degree (as most such projects do), then guess what: that person counts as someone who has full-time employment requiring a law degree.

(2) "Jobs" that feature a nominal or completely non-existent salary.  How many graduates of the class of 2010 listed themselves as employed full-time in a position requiring a law degree when what they were doing was working for free?  Given that only 40% of the national class of 2010 reported a salary to NALP, and given that a brief tour of the interwebs reveals that a lot of law school graduates are working for free, the answer is "we don't actually know (because we don't want to know)" but the number appears to be, as the stats people say, non-trivial.

(3)  "Jobs" invented by law schools to pump up putative employment rates.  This category included more than 4% of all "jobs" reported by 2010 graduates, and there's every indication that the 2011 number in for this category is going to be much, much higher.

(4) Short-term positions which will leave those in them unemployed within a few months after the survey window.  Judicial clerkships fall in this category: the NALP definition of "short term" employment is any employment that is scheduled to last less than one year.  This allows schools to list their graduates in judicial clerkships as having long-term employment.  Now while it's true that an Article III clerkship is usually something a graduate took when the graduate would have had the option of a taking a long-term full-time job requiring a law degree, Article III clerkships make up a very small percentage of judicial clerkships as a whole. Most judicial clerkships are state district court positions that, in the vast majority of cases, are going to leave those who take them searching for legal employment quite shortly.  But they can be -- and often are -- counted by schools as full-time long-term employment requiring a law degree.

(5) Unsustainable forms of self-employment.  Nearly one third of 2010 law graduates who listed themselves as employed full-time in a position requiring a law degree were either in solo practices or with "firms" of 2-10 employees.  Many of the latter positions consist of a couple of new grads opening a law office and trying to make a go of it, in a hyper-saturated market in which they (naturally) have almost no idea what they're doing, because the whole "practicing law" thing -- not to mention the "running your own small business" thing -- wasn't covered during the course of their legal education.

It's safe to say the statistic that 58% of 2010 grads were discovered to be in full-time employment requiring a law degree nine months after graduation is a very significant overstatement of the true legal employment rate for recent law graduates.  And the true legal employment rate for recent law graduates has, in the end, nothing to do with whether this or that person had good grades, or good people skills, or good connections, or anything else.  People don't get jobs as lawyers because there are more than twice as many law school graduates as there are jobs for lawyers. This ratio is, from the perspective of new graduates, getting worse every day. Any discussion of law school reform that doesn't put this fact front and center is just whistling past an increasingly full professional graveyard.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On the margin

Sociology in America has a  long and distinguished tradition of studying individuals and groups who are in some way socially marginal.  A close look at the margin, besides being interesting in its own right, has a way of casting new light on the center -- on the socially respected and respectable.  This is certainly true in our own little corner of the world.   A informal sociological field study that anyone can undertake is to spend a few minutes a day reading a genuinely respectable legal blog -- for instance Volokh or Prawfsblawg -- and then to devote the same amount of time to perusing JD Underground or Shit Law Jobs.

For example, reading this post and thread and then this one allows one to immerse oneself into two worlds that in an economic sense are closely related, but which in another are separated by the sociological equivalent of inter-galactic distances, all without leaving the comfort of one's academic office or parents' basement, as the case may be.  Or you could compare this one and this one.

(The spectrum between between the hyper-respectable and the aggressively marginal is filled by sites such as Above the Law, which keeps one foot in the world of big law firm bonus gossip and the like, while also publishing plenty of broadsides that wouldn't be out of place on the scam blogs, and Top Law Schools, which publishes unedited law school PR, but also tolerates surprising amounts of straightforward criticisms of law school propaganda in its forums).

In all seriousness, few things would do legal academia more good than an imperial edict requiring every law professor in the country to spend 15 minutes of his or her precious time every day reading JD Underground.  I'm genuinely fascinating by the question of what effect this would have on peoples' behavior. Would it be possible for a faculty that was forced to perform this particular exercise to just go on doing the same things they're doing now, in the same way, in their classrooms, and in faculty meetings, and on their word processors?

Speaking of sociology, one of the things that most strongly distinguishes the respectable from the marginal is language, and in particular the social etiquette surrounding its use.  It's no coincidence that, while legal academic blogs tend to feature an exaggeratedly polite tone and very strong informal norms against using "crude" language and the like, the scam blogs go radically in the other direction, reveling in the obscene and scatalogical.

When I started this blog, I chose its title precisely for the purpose of signaling that, to the extent such a thing would be possible given the author's position, this was not going to be a respectable enterprise.  (The success of this gesture was made immediately evident by the fact that an especially pompous law professor went so far as to declare himself "disgusted" that a fellow legal academic would refer to the contemporary American law school as a "scam.")

Of course this creates all sorts of real contradictions and tensions -- how can I write the things I write given the job I get paid to do etc. etc? -- but those tensions and contradictions are unavoidable consequences of being a participant-observer in regard to the economic and ideological crisis that is overtaking American law schools.  The margin isn't a comfortable location, but it's a very interesting one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More posts about buildings and food

Yesterday's post looked at how a combination of increasing salaries and decreasing student to faculty ratios has been a major driver in the exploding cost of legal education.  What other factors have created a cost structure that will ensure that the current national class of 1Ls is going to graduate with an average of around $125,000 in law school debt alone (among the 85% to 90% of law students who will have such debt)?

A factor which both drives costs up directly and has all sorts of indirect effects that in turn bloat law school operating budgets is the mania for building new facilities.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Where all the money goes

Why has the cost of attending law school increased so drastically? Private law school tuition is a little more than two and half times higher in real dollars today than it was 25 years ago ($15K v. $40K), while resident tuition at public law schools is an astounding five times higher in real terms ($3.7K v. $18K).  This post will look at the role that the increase in faculty costs have played.  A subsequent post will look at other factors.

Faculty costs have gone through the roof, because of a combination of increased pecuniary and non-pecuniary compensation.  In regard to the former, consider this data from one elite law school (Michigan. All figures are in 2010 dollars per the CPI).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Big Short

The ABA Journal reports that the total number of applicants to ABA law schools is, as of last week, down 16.7% from the same time last year.  If this trend holds, the final number of applicants in this application cycle will be around 66,000, down from 78,900 in 2011 (a number which itself was 9.9% lower than in 2010).  Note that in 2010 (the most recent year for which this figure is available), 69% of all law school applicants were accepted at at least one ABA school.  If the same ratios were to hold for 2012, that would yield only 45,550 applicants admitted to at least one school.

Furthermore, 18% of those applicants in the 2010 pool who were admitted to law school did not end up enrolling.  If all these percentages were to remain constant, that would mean only 37,300 people will enroll in ABA law schools this fall (last year's total first year class was around 52,000).

Of course that's not going to happen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tuition, loans, and loan reform

There's been some argument in several threads about the extent to which taxpayer-guaranteed loans (which until two years ago included private loans) have fueled tuition increases in higher education generally and law school in particular.  An otherwise perceptive commenter who has made lots of valuable critical remarks about neo-liberal orthodoxies regarding rational markets and the like makes what in my opinion is an extremely implausible claim that law school tuition hikes are a product of cuts in public subsidies to universities rather than of access to subsidized loans.

This seems to me to be obviously wrong, for the simple reason that there's been a massive tuition run-up at private law schools, which have never had their tuition subsidized by public money.  Consider that, in 1995, it cost $29,700 per year in tuition to go to Cornell's law school in 2011 dollars, while in 2011 it cost $53,500.  I bought a new Honda Accord in 1995 for $26,000 in 2011 dollars. The same trim line of the car today would cost me about $24,000 -- and I would be getting a markedly superior car to the one I bought in 1995.  Are Cornell law students today getting a far superior education to the one their predecessors were receiving 15 years ago?

It's true that cuts in public funding for higher education have had an effect on tuition at public law schools, although not nearly to the extent that tuition has risen at those schools. At my law school in 1995 resident tuition was $6,485 in 2011 dollars, while it's $31,110 today.  Out of state (unsubsidized) tuition was $21,538, again in 2011 dollars, while today it's $37,582.  In other words, in-state tuition today is 50% higher in real terms than out of state (quasi-private) tuition was in the mid-1990s.

In fact the whole notion that unlimited federal (or prior to 2010 unlimited federally-guaranteed) loan money doesn't have a deeply distorting effect on the price of higher education is belied by a simple thought experiment.  Today, anyone who is admitted to any ABA-accredited law school can, no questions asked, borrow more than $200,000 to go to that school, if, like many such schools, that represents the cost of three years of attendance.  Now imagine that the typical new graduate of the typical ABA-accredited law school approaches the federal government or a private lender and asks not for $200,000, or for $100,000, or for $50,000, but for $20,000, in the form of a business loan, in order to capitalize a new law practice.  Obviously without collateral this loan application will be rejected out of hand.  In other words, our national lending system will not lend 10% of the cost of getting a law degree to someone who has already successfully gotten a law degree and passed the bar for the purpose of allowing that person to start extracting the supposed value of that degree, while that system will lend, under present regulations, literally any amount of money any ABA accredited law school chooses to charge, to someone who is merely attempting to get into the position of the "successful" new law graduate.

Anyone who doesn't think this truly preposterous situation isn't a if not the primary driver of the cost of legal education needs to think about it some more.

None of which is to deny that many other factors also distort the price higher education in general and legal education in particular.  There's a lot of evidence that higher education is to some extent a Veblen good -- that is, it's a form of conspicuous consumption with an inverted demand curve, in which people pay higher prices because they're higher.  Furthermore, the "rational consumption" model of education is beset by extremely powerful information problems.   How does one judge the quality of what one is buying in this context? You can't take a university or law school education for a test drive, and making purchasing decisions on the basis of outputs is, as we've seen, fraught with difficulties as well, some of which are a product of intentional misrepresentation, but many of which would exist even in the absence of it.

Loan reform must also take into account the extent to which higher education and (to a much lesser extent) legal education are public goods, that ought to be subsidized for the benefit of society as a whole, as well as issues of economic justice, in a society that features increasingly vast disparities in wealth, and everything wealth can buy.

No one, in other words, should consider loan reform either a magic bullet or something that will be easy to bring about.  But that it's absolutely crucial is clear.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The revolution will not be cite-checked

In the course of a very long and often informative comments thread to yesterday's post, A.E.S., a veteran attorney, responded to the question of what if any advice should be given to prospective or current law students who ask for it:

Prof. Campos, who are you or who am I to tell a law student or college grad what path to take? The data is out there. In today's economy, law school is a terrible proposition unless you come from a wealthy background or attend a top 10 school with a scholarship.

When young people ask me whether or not to attend law school, I change the conversation. I could tell them don't go, but they will resent me for crushing an illusory dream and still attend just to prove people like me wrong. Hubris will be their downfall.

Now I agree that the last sentence of the first paragraph is an arguably reasonable interpretation of the data alluded to in the previous sentence.  Whether, generally speaking, the category of people who "should" go to law school under current conditions ought to be broader or even narrower than this isn't the question I want to engage here.  (I've got my own thoughts on this).  Rather, I'd like to focus on the idea that the information is already available for prospective law students who want to make a rational choice about whether to try to become attorneys (or to go to law school for some other reason, dubious as any other reason is almost certain to be).

In a sense, of course, the data is out there.  A prospective student who knows where to look, and, even more important, already has the ability to interpret the data accurately, can certainly get a tolerably accurate sense of what his or her own personal risk/return ratio looks like in regard to this question.  But these are crucial caveats.  Learning where to look, and even more so learning how to interpret properly what one finds, are what education is all about.  And one thing we tend to do, I believe, is to seriously over-estimate the extent to which college undergraduates and their families are in a position to do this successfully in regard to this particular decision.

This is because legal academia continues to to cash in (quite literally) on the cultural cachet associated with the social identity of the lawyer.  Culturally speaking, it remains the case that, despite all the jokes and the genuine anxieties and resentments that generate them, law is considered a high status profession, and therefore being a lawyer is considered a high status social identity.  One consequence of this is that it is extremely difficult to get people to grasp the extent to which legal education is, at present, a kind of cultural Potemkin Village.  It seems difficult to believe that all these unarguably high status people -- law school deans, and university administrators, and heads of the American Bar Association, etc. -- could be selling potentially vulnerable young people and their families a bill of goods when they go on and on about how a law degree is a wonderful investment in one's future, because it is the key to membership in a highly respected, intellectually challenging, socially crucial, and at least reasonably remunerative learned profession.

These people are all cultural authority figures, and for all the superficial cynicism of contemporary political discourse, Americans are still for the most part successfully socialized not to question such people in any serious way.  The fact that such people are inevitably surrounded by the trappings of social and economic success -- fancy titles, and resplendent buildings, and (relatively) stupendous salaries, and retinues of groveling subordinates -- makes their authority no more likely to be questioned by average middle class and upper middle class undergraduates than the Pope's authority was going to be questioned by most of the characters in James Joyce's books.

Nor should we overlook the powerful effect of the fact that most of these authority figures themselves genuinely believe the line they're selling, for fairly straightforward reasons.  I mean, if you were a law school dean, wouldn't you have an overwhelming desire to believe in the majesty of the law and the essential dignity of our learned profession and all that stuff? I know I would (although it doesn't look like I'll be getting to test that hypothesis any time soon). And wouldn't the strength of that desire have a powerful effect on your understanding of the things you saw and heard?  As the poet said, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. If one remains safely within the comfortable cocoon of the university, or even the ABA bureaucracy, it is fairly easy to believe that, while all might not be for the best in this the best of all possible worlds, things are on the whole pretty good, despite some troubling but no doubt temporary downturns in the hiring market for new lawyers.

After all, "we" have heard all this before, have we not?  That there were far too many lawyers, and that far too many of even those lawyers who had successful careers in terms of money and status were miserable? Yes indeed -- we've been hearing all that for many years, and nothing ever changed, so why should it change now?

No wonder people keep coming to law school -- look how happy and self-confident "we" remain!  Surely people such as ourselves wouldn't mislead anyone?  And in fact I believe that relatively few people in legal academia are consciously misleading anyone who is considering trying to become a lawyer.  We don't need to, because we've so thoroughly managed to mislead ourselves.

So yes, the data is out there.  But people need to want to find it, and to understand it, and to act on it.  And by "people" I mean not only prospective law students and their families, but also the people who are benefiting most directly from not wanting to find it and to understand it.  Reform must come from both within and without.  The causal pathways go in both directions: as people outside legal academia put pressure on those inside it to  grapple with what all but the most purblind will eventually understand is a genuine economic and social disaster, many of those of us within the intellectual equivalent of a gated community will start to make the relevant data available, and to interpret it, in ways that will in turn increase the outside pressure to do so.  Indeed this is already happening.

When it comes to powerful, high status, well-defended social institutions, nothing ever changes -- until "one day" it does.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Wall Street Journal: Tuition debt never sleeps

John McGinnis, who teaches law at Northwestern, and Russell Mangas, a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, have published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that states should allow people to take the bar after majoring in law in college and then serving in one-year post-graduate apprenticeships.  Given that I made the same proposal last month I naturally agree with the gist of their argument.

There are a bunch of practical problems with this approach, including:

(a) State bars have little incentive to allow the even greater competition among providers of legal services which this kind of approach would produce.  This means such a reform would have to come from the legislature (which itself is going to have a lot of lawyers in it).

(b) Questions of inter-generational fairness.  Under this approach a new generation of aspiring attorneys will end up paying perhaps a quarter the average tuition that the previous generation did in order to become eligible to pass the bar. This means new lawyers will have much lower entry costs and therefore a significant competitive advantage over lawyers who graduated just a few years earlier.

(c) It will become even harder to make a living practicing law, although the cost of entry will be much lower. Since the market for lawyers is already so heavily saturated this tradeoff will be worth it for new lawyers, but again this raises issues of comparative fairness.

(d) Legal academia will fight against this tooth and nail, for obvious reasons.

(e) I'm skeptical of the authors' claim that this approach will lead to any significant decrease in the cost of legal services, given that the market is already saturated, and that not that long ago many people went to law school while paying little more than the opportunity cost of doing so (when I started teaching at CU in the early 1990s resident tuition was about $3000 per year, i.e., around $5000 per year in current dollars).

Still this sort of proposal is valuable both as a potential long-term model for radically restructuring legal education, and for the contribution it makes to the short-term goal of putting more pressure on law schools to stop behaving in the flagrantly irresponsible way they've behaved over the past generation.

Speaking of which, I had a 1L ask me for advice yesterday. He went to a prestigious private school and had a classically unmarketable humanities/social science major, while incurring $35K in educational debt. He's a K-JD kid in his early 20s who doesn't seem to have done anything except go to school. He wants to do public interest/government law (Update: In regard to how practical this desire might be see this comment. And this one.  And this one.) He has no interest at this point in working for a law firm. He got middling grades his first semester.  He's got no scholarship money or help from his family, so if he stays the course he's going to have around $200K in educational debt by the time he's done ($110K or so for tuition -- eight years ago he would have paid $33K total in tuition -- $40K for living expenses, the undergrad debt, plus accrued interest).  This debt will have an average interest rate of around 7.3% so he'll be looking at $15K a year in interest payments. CU's LRAP program is very small -- the current income from it will cover the debt payments of perhaps three people in this kid's eventual situation if he stays the course.  Interestingly he had never heard of IBR.

What am I, or any other member of the faculty, supposed to tell law students in these kinds of (extremely commonplace) circumstances when they ask us for guidance?  I would love to hear the opinions of other legal academics on this precise point (as well as those of other people of course).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Law School Transparency's 2012 Index Report

LST has just released an evaluation of the employment and salary information that each ABA-accredited law school was making available on its web site as of January 1-3 2012.  As the saying goes, there's good news and bad news.  The good news is that the amount and quality of such information is better than it was a year ago. The bad news is that it's still pretty awful overall.   Key points:

 27% (54/197) [schools] do not provide any evaluable information on their websites for class of 2010 employment outcomes. Of those 54 schools, 22 do not provide any employment information on their website whatsoever. The other 32 schools demonstrate a pattern of consumer-disoriented behavior.
 51% of schools fail to indicate how many graduates actually responded to their survey. Response rates provide applicants with a way to gauge the usefulness of survey results, a sort of back-of-the-envelope margin of error. Without the rate, schools can advertise employment rates north of 95% without explaining that the true employment rate is unknown, and likely lower.
Only 26% of law schools indicate how many graduates worked in legal jobs. 11% indicate how many are in full-time legal jobs. Just 1% indicate how many are in full-time, long-term legal jobs. [My emphasis]
 17% of schools indicate how many graduates were employed in full-time vs. part-time jobs. 10% indicate how many were employed in long-term vs. short-term jobs. 10% of schools report how many graduates are employed in school-funded jobs.
 49% of schools provide at least some salary information, but the vast majority of those schools (78%) provide the information in ways that mislead the reader.
LST's summary of the situation:

It is troubling that even after two years of immense pressure to be more transparent, law schools still provide such little help to prospective law students trying to make informed decisions. It is discomforting that the institutions tasked with educating tomorrow’s lawyers do not exemplify the values the ABA Standards require them to teach. Schools hold their students to strict standards of honesty and integrity through enforceable school honor codes, but they are making no effort at upholding these same values in their own recruiting process.

The Winter 2012 Index produces simultaneously shocking and predictable results. The post-graduation employment information schools provide is surprisingly shallow in light of the pressures they face, including congressional scrutiny, the very real threat of class action lawsuits, and the deluge of media attention. But a lack of honest disclosure has also come to be what’s expected of American law schools[.]
Read the whole report, and check out the individual evaluations for your favorite law schools (A key point LST makes is that the disclosure protocol followed by a school like Chicago, for which the school got over the top praise even from normally skeptical observers, is not only a good deal less than optimal for people considering that law school, but more important, would be horribly inadequate for most law schools, given the employment outcomes at those schools).

So some progress is being made, but the battle for even minimally adequate transparency has a very long way to go.

In the five months of this blog's existence, a few generous souls have suggested in comments that I take donations for writing it. Those suggestions misunderstand the nature of the work being done here.  The 150 entries I've published over that time represent an integral part of the job I'm paid to do as a member of an academic enterprise.

By contrast, the creators of Law School Transparency aren't being paid by anyone to do the genuinely invaluable work they've been doing for more than two years now.  PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TO THEIR SITE.   They are at present a radically underfunded (basically unfunded) organization, doing amazing work on what cannot at this point be described as even a shoestring budget.  They have made an enormous contribution already to the reform efforts that this blog is dedicated to advancing, and they have a crucial role to play going forward, as these efforts begin to bear fruit, as they most certainly have over the course of past few months.  They need money to keep doing this work; please help them if you can.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Working for free and class bias

Three or four years ago, things were finally getting bad enough that even legal academics were starting to notice that a lot of our graduates seemed to be having trouble getting jobs. In fact the only real change in the situation was that a bunch of big firms laid off a lot of junior associates and deferred many of their new hires.  At the vast majority of law schools such developments affected a very small portion of the graduating class (90% of law schools send less than a quarter of their grads into big firms, and 80% send less than ten per cent), but given the obsessively hierarchical nature of our business everyone suddenly became aware that there was "a problem."

Indeed that year the dean of CU, in his annual graduation speech, alluded to the difficult employment situation, and presented the graduates with the following edifying tale:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

New comments policy

Up until now I've had something close to a completely unregulated comments policy.  This has been partially deliberate, as I've wanted to get as far away as possible from the social structure of the law school classroom, in which one person gets to be the toadied-to authority figure and everyone else gets to be his supplicants (Yes, I know, your classroom isn't like that. Noted.)

This approach, like any other, has its benefits and costs, and now I'm going to modify it a bit.  I'm going to start deleting comments more aggressively, to the extent they fall into the following categories:

(1) Idiotic shouting matches between commenters obsessed with each other.  Just cut it out. If you want to criticize another commenter's point of view on a substantive topic, that's great. This does not, however, include criticizing the commenter's purported mental health, overall posting tendencies, whether this person is ruining the comments etc etc

(2) Speaking of Rule (1), don't threadjack by posting a bunch of comments about your favorite subject in every single thread. All of us have such subjects, but use some discretion about how often and when you raise a point you've made many times before in many threads. Try to stay at least loosely on topic, broadly defined.

(3) Comments about whether Rules (1) and/or (2) are being violated are prohibited.

(4) No sock puppets.  That means you Prof. X.

The comments on this blog (there have been more than 10,000 in the five months of its existence) have been on the whole very valuable.  I've learned a lot from them, as I'm sure others have as well.  They've contributed a kind of crowd-sourcing knowledge to the blog's main topics, which is one of the best things about the internet.  I much appreciate everyone's contributions, despite the various annoyances that a largely unmoderated forum will sometimes create.  Thanks for taking part, and thanks in advance for your cooperation with this attempt at a slightly increased level of regulation.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

If you act now we'll also send you this handy vegetable steamer

Email received earlier this week by someone who took the LSAT last month:

To: [email address redacted]
Subject: Start law school now and receive reimbursement on your moving expenses
Date: Mon, 9 Jan 2012 [time redacted]
From: rfinch@charlottelaw.edu
Dear [first name redacted],

I'm Robert Finch, from the office of Admissions at Charlotte School of Law in Charlotte, North Carolina. I noticed that you already have your Bachelor's degree and are therefore eligible to start law school in our spring 2012 class starting January 23, 2012. Additionally, because of your LSAT score of [redacted] and cumulative GPA of [redacted] you could qualify for at least $31,000 in scholarship funds. I have even higher scholarship funds available for our spring class starting January 23rd and because I know that this would be sooner than you were planning, I also have some moving expense reimbursement funds of up to $2,000 (for spring only).
If the spring is not an option for you, our fall 2012 application is also currently available. Both our spring and fall applications are FREE and no fee waiver code is needed when you apply online at theLSAC website.

Kind Regards,


Robert D. Finch, MBA, JD
Office of Admissions

The Charlotte School of Law currently costs $37K per year to attend in tuition and fees, so this scholarship offer [someone in comments who is thinking like a lawyer points out that this isn't an actual scholarship offer at all, but more of an offer to make an offer, as is the promise of "up to" $2000 in moving expenses -- clearly I'm not nearly cynical enough yet] would still leave the potential student with the responsibility of coming up with at least another $81K in tuition money, assuming the scholarship was retained and tuition didn't rise.  This is someone who currently has a full-time job. (Addendum for recent law grads: This job includes a salary and benefits). 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Lie to me

I got an email from a 0L who is applying for admission to various schools this fall.  He'd gotten this solicitation from Drexel to participate in an online chat with current Drexel students:

Congratulations once again on your admission to the Earle Mack School of Law!  We hope that you’re as excited as our current students are about joining the Earle Mack family.  In fact, they are so excited to tell you all about what life as an Earle Mack student is like.  So, please join them as they host our first admitted student chat of the season, “Meet the Students.”  The chat will be held on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.  Our students can’t wait to share some of their experiences here at Earle Mack and how they are raising the bar.  
To register for the chat, click here.
We hope to see you online!

Isabel "Issa" DiSciullo
Assistant Dean for Admissions
 My correspondent asks:    

So, what questions should I (or any other prospective Earle Mack Law student) ask? Also, why would students participate in something like this? Do they know they're damning those they convince to go to a life of debt slavery? I've been offered a $1,000/credit scholarship(approximately $90,000 over the course of three years) but the school still costs a cool $112,000 not taking into account tuition increases.
 Good questions. I followed up with him about his own decision process, and he responded:

I sent in most of my applications in two weeks ago and have only heard back from Drexel so far. My GPA and LSAT are good enough to get into high top 50 school but not T14 (So Iowa and Illinois) but I'm not shelling out well over a hundred thousand dollars for law school. I've mostly applied to Tier II schools like Pitt looking for a full ride or more (Mercer offers a $5000 a year stipend, although it's a TTT). I'm a political science major, so my options are basically law school or enlisting/trying to go officer side in the military. I AM genuinely interested in becoming a lawyer, but I am wary thanks to sites like yours, so I WILL not go to school unless it is cheap or free. As a side note, there is tremendous pressure from my parents(who are fairly well off) to go. Neither of them graduated from college and I believe that they see some sort of prestige in law that they never had despite doing well as high school graduates. They would shell out $150,000 plus for me to go to a top 25 school, but I'm not willing to see them throw their money away.
This seems to me to be both a sensible and commendable attitude -- the temptation to spend other peoples' money heedlessly is often difficult to resist, and obviously many current law students and applicants are being far less scrupulous about doing so.  This correspondence also touches on a couple of other elements that are key to the current structure of American legal education.

First, law schools are becoming increasingly aggressive and sophisticated about marketing.  From glossy brochures, to direct marketing featuring "waived" application fees (seriously at this point requiring application fees at most law schools is equivalent to requiring a cover charge to go inside a McDonald's -- the difference being that you'll actually come out of the latter with exactly what you thought you were paying for), to on-line chats like the one above, to billboards on highways (I was in west Michigan recently and noticed that Cooley has a couple of billboards on the highway between Kalamazoo and their new Grand Rapids branch), law schools are behaving like institutions that realize it's becoming necessary to actually induce people to buy what they're selling.

But the most powerful marketing device law schools have remains that it's still relatively difficult to get into most of them.  Now this is becoming less and less true every day -- some schools are letting in people who scored in the 15th percentile on the LSAT -- but consider Drexel's entrance numbers.  Drexel -- a new law school with what ought to be self-evidently horrible placement figures (nine months after graduation nearly 20% of the 2010 class was completely unemployed, and less than three in five grads had any kind of job that required a law degree, including temp work, part time work etc etc, while only 30% had positions of any sort with a law firm), which costs $110,000 just in tuition to attend, has a median LSAT for its entering class in the 78th percentile and a median GPA of 3.38. Those are modest numbers compared to what you have to have to achieve a more prestigious level of un- and under-employment from many other law schools, but the fact remains that the vast majority of four-year college graduates would not be able to get into Drexel's law school, despite the six-figure cost and the fairly dire outcomes awaiting most of its graduates.

One of the things that makes it extraordinarily difficult for people to grasp, on a psychological level, just how bad the situation really is for so many recent law graduates, is that it seems deeply counter-intuitive that it should be so difficult and expensive to acquire a law degree, if the value of a law degree is actually as questionable as a straightforward analysis of the available information suggests. (Of course it also helps that law schools are usually housed in fancy buildings, are formally attached to prestigious or at least respectable research universities, have lots of "successful" graduates to parade to prospective students etc).

It's true that part of the explanation for this puzzling state of affairs is lack of transparency.  That factor is eroding every day: just within the last couple of months dozens of law schools have put up employment and salary numbers (Drexel provides nothing in regard to the latter which itself should tell prospective students all they need to know) that, while very far from perfect, reveal the clear and present danger of going to law school to anyone who doesn't want to be lied to.

But of course the problem is that people very much do want to be lied to, and, as anyone who has ever run for political office or managed an advertising campaign or conducted an illicit love affair knows, it's far easier to get away with lies when that's what people want to hear.

People want to be lied to for reasons that are reflected in my unusually clear-eyed correspondent's own story: What is his "opportunity cost" for going to law school?  It certainly exists, and isn't by any means trivial, but what sort of job can he actually get right now in our great nation?  Is he supposed to work retail? Wait tables?  Manage a hedge fund for Bain Capital?  These are difficult questions.

They become even more difficult when one factors in the prestige factor.  This, perhaps more than anything else, is what keeps our little multi-billion dollar annual operation in relatively fine fettle, despite everything.  My correspondent's parents would love to see their son do "better" than they have, by acquiring a high status social identity, such as that still ascribed to attorneys by the culture as a whole.  There's no need at this moment to go into all the reasons why that ascription is becoming increasingly absurd. It's enough to note that it is still very much with us -- and with all the 0Ls who at this moment are compulsively refreshing the status checker -- a well-named device -- on the web site of their "reach" law school.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Because what the world needs now is another government-subsidized law school

In Texas, which only has nine, four of which are public.

(OK they're all government-subsidized via the federal loan racket, but how the heck does something like this get through the Texas state legislature? Don't they have a few dozen more prisons to build?).

And check out this charming recruiting technique by a law school with such great employment stats it's about to get sued.

Depression and denial

At the urging of a commenter, I've spent time reviewing some of the literature on law students, lawyers, and depression.  It makes for harrowing reading.

General points:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An interesting piece of evidence

Law School Numbers is a social networking site, where people post their law school application numbers, the schools to which they apply, and the results of their applications, including any scholarship money they may have been offered.  I'm unclear as to what, if anything, the site does to verify the information users submit.  (Anyone who has used it is welcome to clarify this point in comments. Update: I've been reliably informed that the site doesn't verify any of the information posted on it.  I doubt this is a significant problem however: users are invariably anonymous, so it would be a very strange person who took the trouble to post false information).

This applicant took the LSAT in June 2011, and received a score of 147, i.e., in about the 33rd-34th percentile of test takers.  The applicant had an undergrad GPA, as adjusted by LSDAS, of 2.54.  She applied to three law schools on the first of July, and her application was complete four days later. She was accepted at one of the schools the next day, and at the two others two days after that, for admission into their 2011 classes. (The applicant lists her ethnicity as white, i.e., she was not eligible for affirmative action consideration).

Safe as houses

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the first installment in  David Segal's series of articles in the New York Times on the crisis in American legal education.  Although I don't agree with everything asserted in those articles, there's no question the series has played a major role in alerting the public to some of the most important features of what this blog has so indelicately labeled the law school scam (Despite its grim subject matter the series has some amusement value as well, in the form of the hysterical shrieks of protest it has elicited from a legal academic ubermensch or three).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Censoring ourselves: Legal academia and the code of silence

This is a story about one way in which a code of silence is enforced in legal academia.  That code is unwritten, informal, and unacknowledged -- and all the more powerful as a result.  Most legal academics have internalized it so completely that they would deny such a thing exists, and moreover they would do so sincerely.  This code, in other words, is an example of the most powerful and effective form of censorship, which is self-censorship.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

Forget it, he's rolling:

At the other end of the spectrum was the president of the American Bar Association, William Robinson III, who defended American legal education as the finest in the world. “So many who never went to law school want to talk about law school as a trade school,” Robinson said. “It is not. It is a school of higher learning” -- a statement that drew spontaneous applause.
Robinson is making time during his year-long tenure as ABA president to make sure law students all across America know what a smart choice they've made to spend a couple of hundred thousand bucks getting a law degree at this particular moment in the ongoing (d)evolution of the market for the providers of legal services:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

J.D. not preferred

An anonymous commenter who is apparently a law professor currently attending the annual AALS conference notes that, in sharp contrast to last year's proceedings, this year's events have been marked by considerable discussion of the employment and debt crisis facing law school graduates, and even some acknowledgement of the extent to which law schools are no longer operating on the basis of a sustainable business model.

This is of course very encouraging, and especially good to hear given some of the quotes coming out of the conference from various long-time celebrants of the status quo. Consider the wit and wisdom of former Georgetown dean and AALS president Judith Areen:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hot topics

The annual Association of American Law Schools conference is in full swing in Washington DC today. The conference is a classic academic boondoggle, at which something in the neighborhood of a thousand law professors, in the words of Paul Horwitz, "gather together to sit in hotel lobbies, checking their Iphones and surreptitiously glancing at other people's conference badges.  They also occasionally, and mostly accidentally, attend panels."  (This is no doubt meant somewhat satirically, but it happens to also be a fairly precise description of the actual event. Academic conferences in general are prone to the sorts of petty corruption satirized so amusingly in David Lodge's novel Small World. The AALS annual meeting is especially prone to this sort of thing in that it really isn't an academic conference at all, but rather a "faculty development fund" fueled schmoozefest).

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Exhibit A

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.

  -- Flaubert --

From the ABA's web site:

Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is Member-in-Charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd LLC, a regional law firm with offices in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Indiana. He currently serves as President of the American Bar Association for a one-year term which began on August 8, 2011.
 From Reuters, via the Chicago Tribune:

Young lawyers with huge educational debts and no jobs in a depressed U.S. legal market should have known what they were getting into, the president of the American Bar Association said on Wednesday.

William Robinson, in an interview at the ABA's office here, responded to recent criticisms from Congress, the media and law students targeting the role of the trade group in fostering high expectations about legal jobs.

Robinson, a lawyer in Kentucky, said anyone entering law school has already completed an undergraduate degree or more.

"It's inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago," he said.

College graduates are capable of making "an independent decision and a free choice" to go to law school, he said.
To quote a leading contemporary philosopher, the problem with this business is that it's filled to the brim with unrealistic . . . individuals.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The way we live now

The phone rings in my office.   A stranger’s voice is on the other end of the line.  Soon I’m listening to a story with which I’m all too familiar when it’s presented in terms of abstract statistics, but which at this moment is rendered painfully unique by its humanizing details, about graduating from law school, and passing the bar, and applying for the kind of legal work the caller went to law school in order to be able to do, then for any legal work, then for any legally-related work, and finally, after several months and hundreds of applications, for any work at all.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

They write letters

Email from 1L  (Posted with the author's permission.  I've redacted it to help maintain anonymity):

I was hoping you could spare a word of advice for a 1L who has spent winter break absolutely freaking out. I am seriously considering quitting law school, and don't know where to turn.

I'm a 1L at [top 15ish law school].  I'm 30 (old for a law student...not old for the earth).  Before law school, I [had a real job] and made quite a good salary.  I went back to law school for a few (potentially poor) reasons: I worked/traveled for work all the time, disliked my job, and had already advanced as far as I could go by age 28.  [My career options in my field were] limited to either 90-hour work weeks doing really great work, or 60-hour work weeks making back-door deals with corrupt city bureaucrats.   Neither was manageable.  I also have an insatiable love for learning.  My happiest days were spent writing my thesis in undergrad.  Back then, I dreamed of a PhD, but the job prospects scared me off.

So, I went to law school.  I was so completely freaked out by the debt load (which I will carry by myself, as my mother is a part-time [academic] and has no retirement plan) that I deferred for a year to save money (and in that year, [my law school] raised tuition. Awesome).  In the end, I told myself that the degree would pay for the opportunity and actual costs.  The placement statistics on the school's website gave me comfort and I took the plunge.

But now I'm fearing I've made a huge mistake.  As an older student, I can't read for 20 hours a day like my peers - I get tired!  I'm not as quick or as analytical as many, and not as driven as others.  I have a wonderful relationship with a live-in partner, an amazing (though impoverished) family and a gang of swell friends.  I refuse to give up these relationships for law school, and that means less studying than the kids who literally sleep in the library most nights.   That said, I absolutely read everything assigned and have performed adequately (B+/A- on midterms) so far.  I also won [a 1L competition].  BUT, though I do enjoy the classes and the readings, I don't expect to be in the top 10% of my class and probably not even in the top 40%.

So here is my dilemma - I want a career that will fulfill my desire to serve.  I'm a people person to the core, and I love feeling like I'm making a positive difference in people's lives. I also want to be able to provide for my mom as she ages and maybe start a family of my own in the next decade.  I don't want to work myself to death (been there, done that), but I do want to be able to live semi-comfortably.

I recently discovered that the stats up on [my law school’s] site are basically lies.  I've met 10 (!) totally unemployed recent alums, all who passed the bar first try and did everything right (top 50% of class).  I've met a dozen more who took the public interest route and are making way less than half of my previous salary.  All these folks are 25 and miserable and staring at almost 200K in debt with no way to pay it.  I'm afraid I'll be right there with them, except I'll be in my mid-30's, which I fear will make me even less employable.

I need someone to be honest with me.  I'm seriously considering quitting [my law school] if my first semester grades are not good. I'd probably look into something more practical (though, law school was my 'practical' choice.  Ugh.) like becoming a nurse or a physician assistant.   A secondary option is to transfer to [second-tier law school] night school and see if they'll still give me that full scholarship they offered last year.  I don't want to double down on a bad bet and end up with a law degree making 40K, working all the time and owing 200K in debt.

So, am I crazy to have these thoughts?  Should I just stick with it and hope for the best?  A lot of people tell me to consider how badly I want to be a lawyer, but I've worked long enough to know that you don't really know how much you want to be in a given profession until you've done it for a year.
 Further detail: The writer is confident she can get her old job or another much like it back.   Reply:

Monday, January 2, 2012

The scholarship game

One of the most significant developments in the law school world over the past few years has been the explosion in so-called "merit scholarships."  The definition of a scholarship can be tricky: traditionally the term was used to describe money generated by endowed funds given to a school for the purpose of offsetting attendance costs, but now it tends to be used more generally to mean any discount off the advertised price of attendance, from whatever source.   In fact at present the vast majority of "merit scholarships" offered to prospective law students don't come from endowment income, but rather from tuition cross-subsidization. (Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, who are in the unique position of not really competing with other law schools for students, claim all their financial aid is need-based.  Need-based financial aid at other law schools ranges from skimpy to non-existent. I'm not going to discuss in this post the dubious practice of handing out "merit scholarships" that come with continued eligibility requirements that, because of law school grading practices, guarantee that many recipients will lose those scholarships after their first year).

It works like this: