Law School Law Suits

The drumbeat of law-school criticism grows louder and more persistent.  Never in my 30 years as a lawyer have so many law students, lawyers, law professors, and others sounded so many warnings about becoming a lawyer.  I post about these criticisms because many readers of A Foolish Consistency are recent law grads, in law school, or considering attending law school, and because I advise current and former students about prospective careers in law. Never in these posts have I said “do not go to law school.  Do not become a lawyer.”  It’s too complicated a question for a one-size-fits-all answer.

Still reading?  Then digest “Suing Over Jobs,”  published 11-Aug-11 at Inside Higher Ed. The article reports on recent class-action law suits brought against New York Law School, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and Thomas Jefferson School of Law, charging “that the job placement information they released to potential students was sufficiently inaccurate as to constitute fraud.”  The suits claim that the defendants and other law schools “mix together different kinds of employment (including jobs for which a J.D. is not needed) to inflate employment rates.” Usually I have little patience for stories about law students suing their schools for fraud or misrepresentation. I think the plaintiffs are whining and pinning on others the blame for their poor outcomes.  This article makes it clear that whether or not the suits have merit, there are problems with how many law schools report their graduates’ employment.

Those suing today (and those in recent years who were disappointed by their success at finding jobs) relied on statistics that didn’t exclude those whose “jobs” were fellowships paid for by their law schools, who were in part-time or temporary jobs, or who were in jobs they could have gotten before they went to law school . . . [.]

Several years ago, [Indiana University law professor William D.] Henderson started noticing and writing about the seeming oddity that bar passage rates were declining at a time when law schools were reporting increases in employment of graduates. For this to be true, he speculated, more people were getting jobs that didn’t require them to go to law school. “You are counting people who are selling insurance,” he said. “Anybody can find a job to pay the rent.”

The article reports that Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s response to the suit does not engender confidence.

As reported in the blog Above the Law, Thomas Jefferson defended itself by noting that the U.S. News job placement figures on which the plaintiff relied were adjacent to figures in the magazine for the law school’s bar passage rate. The law school’s bar passage rate was lower and Thomas Jefferson’s rate many years was “significantly lower” than the employment rate, the law school argues in its brief. So “any reasonable reader” would know that meaningful numbers of the law school’s graduating classes were not working as lawyers. The blog’s headline for the post: “Is the Answer Worse Than the Allegations?”

Some whining is justified.

So it’s back to my mantra. Do your due diligence–and don’t be naive–about a school’s employment statistics.  Be brutally honest about your chances for academic success. Law school isn’t youth soccer, where every player gets the same trophy. 50% of law students graduate in the bottom half of their class. Going $100k+ into debt to finish no better than the middle of the pack is probably a poor economic choice

The Law School Game

From time to time readers accuse me of being too negative about law school.  They exaggerate.  I do not espouse a blanket “don’t go to law school” line.  Law can open interesting and rewarding career paths, provide intellectual stimulation, and enable a comfortable lifestyle.  The key word in the previous sentence is “can.”  I did not write “law will open . . .”  Over the past decade increase in the number of lawyers, outsourcing of legal jobs, technology, and the recession have all changed the economics of law practice. Prospective lawyers must weigh the cost of law school with the benefits they can reasonably attain.  The number of recent law grads who attain annual salaries greater than $150k is small.  The number of recent law grads of lower-ranked schools who attain such annual salaries is minuscule.  The number of law grads who struggle to repay law school loans is alarming.  The number of disenchanted lawyers whose mantra is “don’t go to law school” is discouraging.

Am I being too negative?

Prospective law students must add this New York Times article to their due diligence:  Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!   Some excerpts:

WITH apologies to show business, there’s no business like the business of law school. The basic rules of a market economy — even golden oldies, like a link between supply and demand — just don’t apply. Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.

The article focuses on “the strange case of New York Law School and its dean, Richard A. Matasar.”

For more than a decade, Mr. Matasar has been one of the legal academy’s most dogged and scolding critics, and he has repeatedly urged professors and fellow deans to rethink the basics of the law school business model and put the interests of students first . . . Given his scathing critiques, you might expect that during Mr. Matasar’s 11 years as dean, he has reshaped New York Law School to conform with his reformist agenda. But he hasn’t. Instead, the school seems to be benefitting from many of legal education’s assorted perversities. 

N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.

It doesn’t get better.

One Gets Oats, the Other Gets Only Hay

At Well-Paying Law Firms, A Low Paid Corner reports on “in-sourcing,” the growing practice of big law firms hiring “career associates” or “permanent associates,” full-time non-partner-track lawyers staffing offices in places like Wheeling, West Virginia and Dayton, Ohio.  They do much of the same work as their partner-track colleagues, travel less, work more regular hours, and often earn less than half–the article mentions salaries of $60-$70k–than the $160k starting salary of a partner-track first-year associate.   Such positions make good economic sense for firms trying to control costs (“[e]veryone acknowledges that $160,000 is too much, but they don’t want to back down because that signals they’re just a midmarket firm . . . It’s a big game of chicken”), for clients demanding that firms reduce billing rates, and for lawyers looking to combine big-firm type work with family responsibilities.  They also contain the seeds of frustration and discontent:

[A] two-tier system threatens to breed resentments among workers in both tiers, given disparities in pay and workload expectations. And as these programs expand to more and more firms, they will eliminate many of the lucrative partner-track positions for which law students suffer so much debt.

In other words, there are trade-offs. It would be corrosive to work in such a position as a 3o-ish recent law graduate who thought he or she deserved a shot at partner. Being a donkey in a stable of show ponies can rankle if you focus too much on what you do not have and too little on what you do.  Thus sprach the non-tenure-track faculty.

Lurn to Right Good

Typos happen.  Writing mistakes happen.  (From time to time I lapse into Modern Students Apostrophic Style, which inserts apostrophe’s in plural noun’s but never in the students possessive’s.)  I cringe at every error in my Casebook.  Writing errors detract from the content.  Legal writing takes many deserved knocks, but the lawyers I know generally write better than other professionals, and they certainly write better than most of the businesspeople I’ve encountered.  The quality of student writing is better today than it was ten years ago, but the average written work is still no more than serviceable.

For students interested in law serviceable writing is not good enough.  No matter the type of law a lawyer practices he must know his way around an English sentence.  Writing quality affects grades, class rank, employment prospects, and professional success, as Don’t Let This Be You: The Cost of Carelessly Written Pleadings and Court Papers illustrates.  This post deals with a court order that halved the plaintiff’s counsel’s fee request because of the sloppiness of his written work.  (Sample line:  “If these mistakes were purposeful, they would be brilliant. However, based on the history of the case and Mr. P’s filings, we know otherwise.”  Not the professional reputation one wants to achieve.

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Trial Lawyers

If you are among the dozens of my students considering law school, and if your knowledge of the legal profession comes from Law and Order and John Grisham novels, and if you imagine you’ll be a trial lawyer because that’s the only type of lawyer you know, and if you picture yourself locked in a daily courtroom struggle with fiendishly smart opposing counsel, irascible judges, shifty witnesses, and a quixotic search for truth, then don’t read this deposition excerpt published on Cleveland.com.  Otherwise, if you want a peek into the heart of civil litigation,* read on.

*with a bonus lesson on generic usage of trademarks

ABA Warns of Law School Economics

Getting Schooled in Law Loans begins with these two sentences:

The American Bar Association has officially issued a warning on its website. The ABA is now making the case to persuade college students not to go to law school.

The “warning” is a paper titled The Value Proposition of Attending Law School.  It’s opening paragraph states

a proper understanding of the economic cost of a legal education is vital for making an educated decision. Far too many law students expect that earning a law degree will solve their financial problems for life. In reality, however, attending law school can become a financial burden for law students who fail to consider carefully the financial implications of their decision.

My executive summary of the paper:

  • “An average student considering enrolling in law school now should thus expect to graduate with debt well in excess of $100,000.”
  • “[T]hese costs often exceed the expected return on their investment in the job market . . . only 23% of the graduates of the class of 2008 started with such a high salary [$160,000], including only 37% of those who went into private practice. Shockingly, most of the rest of the graduates, about 42%, started with an annual salary of less than $65,000.”
  • “This year, the employment picture is even more bleak.”
  • “[T]o make a positive return on the investment of going to law school, given the current costs, the average law student must earn an average annual salary of at least $65,315. As the data above show, however, over 40% of law school graduates have starting salaries below this threshold. Thus, many students start out in a position from which it may be difficult to recoup their investment in legal education.”

No student entering law school expects to be in the “shocking” 42%.  Everyone thinks it will happen to someone else.  Two out of five are wrong.

Must-Reads for Prospective Law Students

Everyone interested in talking with me about attending law school should read this New York Times article–in addition to all of my posts about law school and legal careers:  Is Law School a Losing Game? It states

[A] generation of J.D.’s face the grimmest job market in decades. Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. Associates have been laid off, partners nudged out the door and recruitment programs have been scaled back or eliminated.  And with corporations scrutinizing their legal expenses as never before, more entry-level legal work is now outsourced to contract temporary employees, both in the United States and in countries like India. It’s common to hear lawyers fret about the sort of tectonic shift that crushed the domestic steel industry decades ago.

So why do law schools continue to thrive?  Creative, “Enron-type accounting standards.”  Law schools report 93% of recent grades are employed–which may technically be true, if one counts jobs as baristas and sales clerks.  Law schools include such jobs in their post-graduation employment statistics.  Similarly misleading, “[m]any schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000.”  That’s bullshit, to be blunt.  It is just not true.  The article calls the figure “highly unlikely” noting that Harvard and Yale report the same median salary for their grads.  The National Association for Law Placement’s May 2010 employment report states the  correct figure for 2009 grads is about $93,000, and even that’s misleading. Starting salaries for new lawyers follow a barbell-shaped distribution–big at the ends, small in the middle–not a bell curve.  New lawyers who land insanely-competitive jobs at big firms start at $160,000 a year, while about one-third of 2009 new-lawyer salaries distribute along a mini bell curve between $45-60,000.  As I noted in the linked post last July, adjusted for unreported income and for the more complete data at the high end of the scale, the adjusted mean salary for 2009 grads is closer to $85,000.

The post from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Law Schools: Tournaments or Lotteries? comments critically on the Times article:

Everyone applying to law school takes the same standardized test. Classes are graded on a curve and class rank is relative to other students who took the same classes. It’s not perfect—nothing is—but law school is about as close to a fully transparent pure meritocracy as you’ll find in American education.

One thing all of this means:  if you’ve always been a B student, you will likely be no better than a B student in law school, and you will get the jobs available to law students with 3.00 GPS–which do not start anywhere close to $160,000 a year.

We Understand Your Concern

I subscribed, for years. to the LexisNexis advance sheet service, receiving daily summaries of and links to recent decisions on certain topics from courts I selected to follow.  It cost $198/year and delivered great value, keeping me up on legal developments relevant to all of my courses, Internet law in particular.  Early this summer LexisNexis notified me by email that its advance sheet service would cease on July 21.   The email also provided a link to facilitate renewing my subscription to the service LexisNexis was killing, the first hint to the Jekyll/Hyde character of LexisNexis customer service.  LexisNexis sent at least four subsequent emails with the same message:  We will not longer provide this subscription service after July 21!! Click here to renew!!  I thought of LexisNexis as a company that knew what it was doing, so one day I called customer service to ask, what’s the deal with the mixed message?  “You are terminating the service, you’ve not offered a substitute service, you owe me money for the service I paid for post-July 21, and you are inviting me to renew a non-existent subscription.  What’s up with that?”  I was not–and am not–angry, just mystified at and curious about the customer-relations cluelessness of this sophisticated information-services company.  The customer service rep, very friendly, confirmed LexisNexis had no other products similar to the cancelled service, that they owed me money, and that the renewal requests were generated automatically by computer.   But why is the computer programmed to generate renewal prompts in messages telling me the service will not longer exist?  Hmm.  Good question.

I thought and heard nothing more about this until a few days ago, when I received an email asking me to complete the LexisNexis Community Member Survey.  I had two thoughts:  1. LexisNexis owes me money!  2. Does LexisNexis, a company that licenses information databases, know its customer service database is engaged in stand-up comedy?  I had to call.  This morning I shared these thoughts with another customer service rep, whose voice was nowhere as appealing as the woman I spoke with in July.  Yes, there is a credit memo in my file, acknowledging that LexisNexis owes me money.  No, they haven’t actually refunded the money.  They only process these credit memos in April and October.  Oh, I’d like to receive the credit now?  No, they have no products to replace the terminated service.  Yes, they do appreciate me presenting my concerns to them.