The Talent

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 A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

Make a comment

Comments (6)
Save & Share: Facebook | Del.ic.ious | | Email |

Reprints & Permissions


Report offensive comments to The Am Law Daily.

After I got laid off in the "Great Recession" I was misled by employment figures of Paralegal programs. I already have my BA degree, but I should have gone on to school for nursing or something else.

Lawyers and Paralegals don't make a lot of money and there are far too many graduates and not enough jobs. Many Attorneys and Paralegals leave the legal profession entirely after being unable to find a job in this oversaturated field!

Listen to Harper. The idea of betting $150,000 in student-loan debt should alert law students of the high risks the schools and the loan sharks are proposing. This mindset comes from the same culture of pseudo-educated bureaucrats who systematically let spiralling debt plunge our economy into depression.

That's a very interesting and thought provoking article. I don't think there's any question that lawyers' training needs to change.

However, the post seems to lay all the blame at the feet of the law schools. While I don't seek to defend them (being from the UK, I don't feel qualified to comment on many of the assertions), I would say that the profession is undergoing wholesale change of a pace and of the type not seen before.

Deregulation, globalisation,commoditisation, new competitors and changing client buying patterns are leading to a turbulent environment in which many of the leading law firms are re-assessing their business model and organisational structure. If the leading law firms are struggling to see five years ahead, and consequently find it difficult to assess their likely needs, it must be even harder for law schools who are one step removed from the market.

Anyone who analogizes debt ridden law graduates to indentured servants either has no respect for language or doesn't have clue about the nature of indentured servitude. The shrill hyperbole that has come to characterize discussion of the subject of law school debt is just another symptom of the myopic, self-centeredness of millenials. One can only imagine how they would have reacted had they been drafted to fight a war. The prospects for the Country in the hands of this generation do not look good.

This article touches on (but doesn't clearly confront) the issue of "financialism" - a social disease that has infected our economy and government, along with the big law firms and top tier law schools that serve them, and is rapidly making the rest of our society sick. When I went to law school in the dark ages (mid 1970s), financial analysis was used to track and predict real life transactions and behaviors in order to improve production and performance. Now it has become an end in itself, to the point where the leaders of government, business and the legal profession set policies based solely on the numbers and human beings are expected to behave accordingly.
As the last line of this piece suggests, nothing will change as long as financialism allows us to pretend that horrendous economic and social costs do not exist as long as they do not appear on anyone's books of account or managment reports (or can be moved off the books temporarily at the end of each reporting period - only to magically reappear when the clock is reset). And we are unlikely to recover from the infection of financialism as long as lawyers continue to think like MBAs and most of the best minds in the legal profession (which from the days of the founding fathers provided innovative solutions to keep our democracy and capitalist system vibrant and relevant) are using their talents either to chase dubious clients and deal structures to get rich at the expense of young lawyers who are the future of our profession, or to pander to the idiots at US News in order to lure fresh meat into the system and maintain their credibility with the rich guys who often give some of the money they skim from the top of the system back to their alma maters as a "tip".

The issue here is no different from the issue that confronats all of higher education. Easy money from two sourecs has flooded the system so that the real cost is not born by the purchaser and will not be born by our society until it us too late to avoid the inevitable pain that will follow. Most of our higher education is funded by the unending flow of tax dollars and loans.

With respect to tax dollars, we succumb to the seductive argument that we are doing our kids and our future right by pouring ever more money into the system, regardless of the real return for this investment. How could we NOT invest in our future....whatever the price. It is surely worth it and only an ignornat person would conclude otherwise. Doesn't this seem a little like buying stock in a company that has never generated revenue based on wild future predictions or giving loans to borrowers without asking about their ability to repay?

With respect to loans, how could we possibly not provide all the loans our kids need so that they can realize their dreams and achieve their full potential? Ability to repay? Why even consider that? It's about their future. If they don't take these loans, they have NO future. Talk about false choices.... All the better if these loans allow our kids to buy regardless of the price. We have removed all price sensitivity from the buyer. That is a nice deal for the seller.

So like the stagflation of the 70s, the S&L crises of the 80s, the dot com bubble of the 90s and the housing bubble of the 00s, the education bubble pain will follow.

While the law schools certainly participate in the system, they are by no means the only actor. The shamefull part is that so many of those who are benefiting from the system are very well educated and either don't see how they are manipulating our next generation or don't care. Neither speaks very well of where we are.

The comments to this entry are closed.

By: TwitterButtons.com

From the Newswire

Sign up to receive Legal Blog Watch by email
View a Sample