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October 21, 2011 11:13 AM

Too Little; Too Late

Posted by Steven Harper

The ABA is thinking about punishing law schools that lie. What courage!

In August the ABA censured Villanova after it determined that the school had intentionally inflated undergraduate GPAs and LSATs for admitted students. The school must now employ an independent compliance monitor for two years. (Next up in the hot seat: the University of Illinois College of Law.) Now, the ABA is considering imposing penalties on law schools that misrepresent graduate job placement data.

This one-school-at-a-time approach misses the larger targets. Along with many law schools' dubious sales tactics, the ABA itself has contributed to the chronic oversupply of lawyers.

Don't let a recent Wall Street Journal article about the declining number of law school applicants fool you. Excess supply persists. Although the total number of applicants is down 10 percent from last year, the number of students starting law school has actually been rising. Meanwhile, the projected growth in new attorney jobs remains far below what's required to achieve full employment for lawyers hoping to work as lawyers.

According to the Law School Admission Council, first-year enrollment in the fall of 2002 was 48,400. By 2009—the last year for which the LSAC has published data—enrollment had climbed to 51,600. In other words, demand still exceeds supply. This year's 10 percent drop in applicants—to 78,900—won't prompt schools to reduce capacity. Rather, it will encourage growth.

And the ABA isn't stopping them. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of law schools in this country increased from 144 to 200. During the same period, the total number of law students soared from 64,000 to 145,000.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be only 98,000 net additional legal jobs for the entire decade that ends in 2018. At the current enrollment levels, law schools will produce five times that many graduates; baby boomer retirements won't bridge that gap.

Last year's drop in applicants may mean that some recent graduates are giving more thought to whether law school is the right path. That would be great news for them and the profession. Unfortunately, the accreditation of new schools and the growth of existing ones is bad news for many would-be lawyers.

Having facilitated a situation that continues to inflict tragic consequences on many unsuspecting victims, the ABA has avoided leading serious remedial efforts. In light of its recent punt on the requirement that law schools report meaningful information about their graduates' employment status, its now-contemplated scrutiny of individual schools' placement statistics rings hollow. To wit: the Wal-Mart greeter with a law degree still counts as employed.

The ABA's piecemeal approach won't solve the problem. Most law schools are prisoners of short-term profit-maximizing business models and metrics. That's why too many resort to half-truths or outright deception to enhance U.S. News rankings, pump up demand, and put tuition-paying butts in classrooms.

Until students understand the deep methodological flaws in the U.S. News rankings, too many deans will continue manipulating them. Independent audits of the data that schools submit would help. But it should be part of a larger strategy: providing better information to prospective law students long before they sit for the LSAT.

The law can be a noble calling, but it's not for everyone. When those enrolling in law school understand what's ahead—including the possibility that their dream jobs don't exist—they make better decisions and the entire profession wins. Here's the harsh truth that will surprise many recruits: Some deans don't act with much nobility when it comes to pursuing tuition dollars.

In an 1891 letter to his fiance, Louis Brandeis wrote: "If the broad light of day could be let in upon men's actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects." Twenty years later, he was less optimistic about improving human behavior when he focused instead on practical remedies for misconduct: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

The ABA isn't going to start stripping schools of their accreditations, but it can put them under brighter lights. Adding surveillance cameras and a few more cops on the beat wouldn't hurt, either.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. 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.

 

 

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Steve,

I am fast becoming a fan!
I enjoy your writings, and I appreciate what you do.

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