January 14, 2011 6:09 PM
Law School Deception
Posted by Ed Shanahan
By Steven Harper
Last Sunday, The New York Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren't worth it?
Of course they are. U.S. News & World Report is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in the magazine's infamous rankings is "graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation."
Any job qualifies--from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to The New York Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93 percent. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn't cause students to ignore the U.S. News' rankings altogether, nothing will.
My friend, Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools' self-reported employment numbers made him feel "dirty." I assume he's concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.
But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives--starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries--quickly lose the feeling that they're winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?
Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliché': "Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie."
These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren't inevitable. In fact, they're relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who's best. Numbers don't lie.
Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. ("[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students' decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures," one dean told the Times. He went on to say that pandering to the U.S. News rankings isn't gaming the system; it's making a school better.)
Likewise, today's dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else, not so much.
The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big-firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the twenty-first century equivalent of indentured servants.
Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion. The vast majority of universities are not-for-profit institutions. That situates them uniquely to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to students--even in the face of economic incentives that dictate otherwise. Legal studies has become one of the hottest majors in academia. Those programs--along with prelaw advisers on every campus--can and should become vehicles for warning prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin. Universities with law schools have no economic incentive to discourage students from postgraduate study in law and other disciplines; that should not deter them (or their law schools) from doing what is right for their students' long-term welfare.
Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big-firm jobs of their dreams.
A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law's direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth--the whole truth--before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.
Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore the U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big-law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year's equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn't think so.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.Make a comment