Practicing lawyers will tell you that trust is one of their greatest assets. If you shade the truth when talking to a judge, that judge will never rely upon your word again. If you mislead opposing counsel, whether through outright lies or too-clever omissions, you lose your colleagues' confidence. That loss hurts both the lawyer and all of her future clients. Every day, lawyers walk a fine line between representing their clients aggressively and damaging the trust they need to function in the profession.
Law schools also need trust--and, until recently, we've had it. Students trust us to teach them accurately and grade them fairly. Alumni trust us to use their donations for worthy purposes. When people read our scholarship, they trust us to be fair, to cite our sources, and to characterize those sources accurately. Applicants trust us to talk honestly about our institutions and what we have to offer.
We're about to lose that trust, if we haven't already. LawProf has already exposed some of the most egregious sleights in Dean Martin Katz's extraordinary plea for applicants. But I want to say something more about the opening paragraphs of that very misleading document.
Katz opens by appealing to authority. He tells potential applicants:
Last year, Forbes magazine – a respected source on value investing – touted the value of a legal education, referring to law school as a “relatively low-risk investment that will have an impact on your future and can pay exceptional dividends over a lifetime.”
This advice seems to fly in the face of the chorus of critics of legal education who would have you believe that going to law school today would be a terrible investment. So who is right? Forbes or the critics?
Though popular perceptions might lead you to follow the critics, the smart money should follow Forbes’ advice.
Trust Forbes, not the critics! It's a good line, except that Forbes did not endorse legal education in the way that Katz implies. The column cited by Katz was not written by “Forbes” or by any member of its editorial staff. It was written by a Forbes "contributor" named Shawn O'Connor. O'Connor is the CEO of StratusPrep, a company that offers LSAT test prep classes and law school admissions coaching.
Stratus will happily charge you $1,599 for its basic LSAT prep course. If you want more, you can pay for plenty of other services--all the way up to $7,180 for the "Diamond, All-in-One Package" that includes the LSAT class, 10 hours of LSAT tutoring, law school admissions counseling, and a law school "boot camp." Do you think O'Connor has a financial self interest in urging people to consider law school? Do you think his recommendation carries different weight than one from "Forbes"?
A sidebar to O'Connor's post explicitly states that "[t]he opinions expressed are those of the writer," not those of Forbes. That's a distinction that Dean Katz doesn't bother to make in telling prospective students that Forbes, "a respected source on value investing," has "touted the value of a legal education." If Dean Katz wants to tell applicants that the CEO of a company that makes lots of money selling LSAT prep courses has "touted the value of a legal education," that's fine. But he should be honest about his sources.
Forbes has published numerous columns about law schools and the legal job market. Contributor Peter Cohan, a management consultant and venture capitalist, asked just last week: Does America Need 202 Law Schools? Cohan suggested that "law schools are highly profitable for the professors and administrators," that "radical changes in the way law is practiced means that the high tuitions imposed on aspiring lawyers to get that law degree are less likely to pay off," and that "law schools do not want to teach students the nuts and bolts of lawyering."
And then there was J. Maureen Henderson's column headlined Why Attending Law School Is the Worst Career Decision You'll Ever Make. Henderson, another Forbes contributor, described the "misleading stats" disseminated by law schools, the "scant 8% of 2011 grads [who] are working at firms that employ 250 or more attorneys," and the "dismal" starting salaries for lawyers in small towns or rural areas.
There was even a column by my law school classmate, Deborah Jacobs (who is actually on the Forbes staff as a Senior Editor) detailing The Case Against Law School. In that column, updated just last week, Jacobs discusses the high debt incurred by law students, the "abysmal job market," and the ways in which technology, outsourcing, and other practices continue to squeeze that market.
I'm not going to catalogue all of the posts about law school published by Forbes. There may be other contributors, like O'Connor, who think law school is a good investment. That's not the point. The point is that "Forbes" has not "touted the value of legal education" and Dean Katz should know that.
Good lawyers don't misstate their sources. They don't tell the court or opposing counsel that a precedent "holds X," when X appears only in a non-binding concurrence. Nor do good scholars misstate their sources. We don't say that "Forbes" has endorsed a position when the viewpoint comes from a single contributor with a financial interest in the position he advocates.
Trust. It's an asset that matters even more than tuition dollars, and it's declining fast.
Update [LP]: The text below seems increasingly relevant to both this incident and several other recent public pronouncements by law schools deans:
ABA Accreditation Standards
Standard 509. CONSUMER INFORMATION
(a) All consumer information that a law school reports, publicizes or distributes shall be complete, accurate and not misleading to a reasonable law school student or applicant. Schools shall use due diligence in obtaining and verifying consumer information. Violations of these obligations may result in sanctions under Rule 16 of the Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools.