The Talent

March 6, 2011 11:22 PM

Law School Deception, Part 2

Posted by Steven Harper

The National Law Journal recently published its annual list of "go-to" law schools--those that supply the most new associates to large law firms. Clearly, lower-tier students aren't alone in struggling to find jobs. One top school's ride on the NLJ law school rankings roller coaster is particularly interesting and instructive.

Northwestern University School of Law moved up from eleventh to second place on the list in 2007. The school's then-Dean, David Van Zandt, credited the "tremendous effort to reach out to employers" and the emphasis on enrolling students with significant postgraduate work experience as attracting big-firm recruiters. Last year, Northwestern took the number one spot.

But in 2010, Northwestern law dropped to eighth place--a relative decline that overall market trends don't explain, but growing class size does. Northwestern awarded 234 J.D.s in 2007; the 2010 class had 50 more at 284. One reason for the decline: misguided short-term metrics became guiding principles.

Two years ago, the ABA Journal reported that Northwestern had become one of the most aggressive recruiters of transfer students (adding 43 to the first-year class). Such students were a win-win for short-term metrics-lovers: Their undisclosed LSATs didn't count in the U.S. News rankings and their added tuition boosted the bottom line.

Meanwhile, Northwestern's "go-to" position could continue dropping next year because the class of 2011 will include another new contingent--the first group of accelerated JDs. That program emerged from focus groups of large law firm leaders--part of the dean's outreach program--who helped to shape Northwestern's long-range strategic document, Plan 2008, Building Great Leaders for the Changing World.

That leads to another point: leadership. Defining a law school's proper mission is critically important. There's nothing wrong with getting input from all relevant constituents, including large law firms. But retooling a curriculum to fulfill big law's stated desires for associate skills is a risky undertaking.

In February 2010, Van Zandt explained his contrary rationale during a PLI presentation to large-firm leaders. Simply put, he saw starting salaries as setting the upper limit that a school can charge for tuition. Accordingly, attending law school makes economic sense only if it leads to a job that offers a reasonable return on the degree's required financial investment. However valid that perspective may be, the slipperiness of the resulting slope became apparent when Northwestern's laudable goal--updating curriculum--focused on satisfying big firms that paid new graduates the most.

Tellingly, in the ABA's Litigation quarterly, Van Zandt explained that high hourly rates made clients "unwilling to pay for the time a young lawyer spends learning on the job…As a result, the traditional training method of associate-partner mentoring gets sacrificed." Law schools, he urged, should pick up that slack.

But the traditional training method gets sacrificed only because the firms' prevailing business model doesn't reward such uses of otherwise billable time. Rather than challenge leaders to reconsider their own organizations, ones that produce staggering associate attrition rates and many dissatisfied attorneys, the dean embraced their short-term focus--maximizing current year profits per partner.

Relatively, Northwestern still fares well in the "go-to" rankings, but the data depict a dynamic exercise in magical thinking. Among the top 20 schools, it led the way in increasing class size as the school's absolute big-law placement numbers steadily declined: 172 in 2007; 154 in 2008; 142 in 2009; and 126 in 2010.

Most law schools feel the continuing crunch. Overall, the top 50 law schools graduated 14,000 new lawyers in 2010; only 27 percent went to NLJ 250 firms--a drop of three percentage points (400 lawyers) from 2009. But that only highlights an obvious question: Why should that shrinking tail wag any dog? A diversified portfolio of career outcomes less dependent on large firms is a more prudent plan for schools and their students.

Even if jobs reappear, there's another reason to combine balance with candor: Recent surveys indicate that a majority of large-firm attorneys become dissatisfied with their careers anyway. Those metrics never appear on law school Web sites. Deans are uniquely positioned to help prospective students make informed decisions. They could serve the profession by focusing less on marketing and more on giving prospective students the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If only there were a metric for it.

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.

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The ABA frequently touts David Van Zandt's ROI calculation of a law degree at $65,315 per year. It prominently appeared in the ABA's "Value Proposition of Attending Law School" document [], but in footnote 12, it stated:

"Dean Van Zandt’s estimate is based on the assumption that students would make $60,000 per year without going to law school, that law school tuition is $30,000 per year, that the student works for thirty years as a lawyer, and that the discount rate is 5%. His estimate does not take into account the opportunity cost of three years of foregone income, nor does he consider the cost of debt service on law school loans."

To his credit, the opportunity cost is far less than $180,000 for the extreme majority of law students, but his number essentially tells us that people should invest $270,000 (180k opportunity cost + 90k tuition) excluding loan interest for a mere $5,000 raise. His ROI number is low.

Consequently, deans should cut tuition to lower the break-even ROI rather than fight harder to place their students in diminishing BigLaw positions.

Steven, thank you for this brave article. As someone who urges his students to look past the ROI approach to law school and its focus on Big Law or bust, I agree with your premise that the focus on short-term metrics is misguided, at best. Law schools are more than glorified vo-tech programs.

Dan Bowling
Duke Law School

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