The Bloom is Off the Law School Rose

This NYTimes headline is a grace note to yesterday’s post about being a lawyer: For 2nd Year, a Sharp Drop in Law School Entrance Tests.  The substance:

The Law School Admission Council reported that the LSAT was given 129,925 times in the 2011-12 academic year. That was well off the 155,050 of the year before and far from the peak of 171,514 in the year before that. In all, the number of test takers has fallen by nearly 25 percent in the last two years.

Is that all? As Mona Lisa Vito says in My Cousin Vinny, “No, dere’s more!”:

The decline reflects a spreading view that the legal market in the United States is in terrible shape and will have a hard time absorbing the roughly 45,000 students who are expected to graduate from law school in each of the next three years. And the problem may be deep and systemic.  Many lawyers and law professors have argued in recent years that the legal market will either stagnate or shrink as technology allows more low-end legal work to be handled overseas, and as corporations demand more cost-efficient fee arrangements from their firms.

I am not against becoming a lawyer. I am against becoming a lawyer without serious consideration of one’s prospects for a satisfying legal career.  Evidently others are concluding the same.

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

More on Recent Graduates and Employment

The NY Times Online followed up Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling (see And Now That You’ve Graduated) with The Downsized College Graduate, seven op-ed articles with reader comments debating “reasons besides the economy to explain why today’s group is different.”  One explanation is that it’s your own damn fault:

[S]ome older readers cited factors other than the economy for the drop in the number of new graduates in the work force: that young people have a sense of entitlement, were sheltered by their parents, and partied through college. Or, if they worked automatons, they took no risks, expecting to be rewarded no matter what.

Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,”  (see Not Getting What You Pay For), offers reasons neatly summarized by the title of his piece, Aimless, Misled, and in Debt:

  • “[P]ronounced and unprecedented” indebtedness
  • Young adults who “are highly motivated, but often directionless.”  They are “‘drifting dreamers’ with ‘high ambitions, but no clear life plan for reaching them.’ Indeed, more than a third of college graduates in our study reported that they aspired to own their own businesses, even though there was little evidence that entrepreneurial skills were being developed.”
  • Lest you think Arum lays all blame on this cohort’s character, he states “colleges and universities are implicated in the difficulties that graduates are facing, since not only did they fail to ensure that college students experienced rigorous academic coursework associated with the development of higher order cognitive skills, but, more troubling, they typically have abandoned responsibility for shaping and developing the attitudes and dispositions necessary for adult success.”

Other contributors have different perspectives.  Overall the articles and comments are provocative.  They are worth the time as you sit in the coffee shop reading your laptop with other under-employed graduates.

And Now That You’ve Graduated . . .

. . . you face greater economic uncertainty than your predecessors.  In an article with a headline that says it all, Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling, the NY Times reports “[e]mployment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is ‘worth it’ after all.”   Some of the grim facts:

  • The median starting salary for college graduates entering the work force in 2009 and 2010 declined 10%, from $30k to $27, compared with college graduates who entered the work force from 2006 to 2008
  • 56% of 2010 grads has held at least one job by this spring, compared with 90% of 2006 and 2007 graduates
  • About 50% “of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree”
  • “Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors — those who majored in Latin American studies, for example — and humanities majors were least likely to do so. Among all recent education graduates, 71.1 percent were in jobs that required a college degree; of all area studies majors, the share was 44.7 percent.”

Timing and luck determine for more of our circumstances than commencement speakers acknowledge.  They say follow your dreams .  Never give up.  Live your passion.  A 1989 or 1990 birth year–not lack of merit, lack of academic achievement, lack of work ethic–will diminish the number and quality of choices available to most 2011 graduates compared to those born in 1985 or 1986.  A sad but true fact of life.

Squeezed

Last night I attended a student-faculty social event sponsored by the SMG senior class–beer (them), club soda (me), and nachos in a Kenmore Square bar.  (Had the Sox won the seventh game of the ALCS this bar and the rest of Kenmore Square would have been shoulder-to-shoulder with fans heading to Fenway, and I would have left shortly before 8:00 PM to take my seat in Box 86 Row G.  But the Sox didn’t win the seventh game and I drove home.)  The students attending, being seniors, are facing the worst employment market in recent memory.  Finance concentrators face drastically fewer jobs than existed two months ago when many completed Wall Street internships, marketing, operations, and IS concentrators face tightened hiring budgets, and accounting concentrators face–well, I don’t know what they face.  I haven’t talked to any recently.  Gallows humor and anxiety are the plat du jour.

Gallows humor, anxiety, and thoughts of graduate school.  It’s law-school application season, I’m working through my stack of LSAC recommendation letters (this weekend’s goal is to write four), and I’m talking about law school almost daily.  A number of students for whom law school was a possibility in a few years have penciled it in for September 2009, and others are seriously considering it for the first time.  Common sense says that the number of applications for next year’s 1L class will be up.  Competition, already intense, will be fierce, squeezing applicants from their reach schools.

Those who choose law school because the job market is bad are betting that they’ll graduate to better prospects in 2012.  As I’ve written many times the stratification in the legal profession means that a small number of law grads each year compete for well-paying BigLaw jobs while many struggle to earn enough to cover their student loans.  No one goes to law school expecting to finish in the bottom half of his or her class but, of course, the math dictates that every other law student will land there, where employers don’t recruit.  The legal profession is not recession proof.  In A Grim Verdicit Awaits Law Grads the National Law Journal reports “[t]he number of legal jobs nationwide is steadily declining . . . Jobs in the law sector shrank by 2,000 in September — the fifth consecutive month of losses. The legal work force of 1,165,100 was down by 1.15 percent from a year ago, when the industry employed 1,178,600 people.”  As I was writing this another headline (also from the National Law Journal) popped into my email inbox:  Grim Report Advises Law Firms to Prepare for a Long, Painful Slide.  Did the NLJ get a special on the word “grim?”

What to do?  Some prospective law students should consider an alternate course following graduation next May.  One student I spoke with last night is considering Teach for America.  It is already quite competitive and becoming more so, but it and similar programs allow one to defer law school, gain life experience, grow older (life experience and maturing being consistent with my mantra that there should be a gap between college and law school), and, most importantly, do something worthwhile for others. “Helping others” is not a career objective I hear often from my students but this economy may force some to re-evaluate their choices.  My decision to attend law school and my orientation to law were shaped by my college and post-college experience doing prisoner’s rights and legal services work.  It would not be a bad thing if more of our bright, ambitious students spent time in public service work.

Science 101

Following a discussion of employment law this week a student sent me this article: Biologist fired for beliefs, suit says. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute fired postdoctoral researcher Nathaniel Abraham from his position in the biology lab because he believes “that the Bible presents a true account of human creation.” Abraham was hired to work on a project that “studies how aquatic animals respond to chemical contaminants by examining ‘. . . mechanisms from a comparative/evolutionary perspective,'” did not inform anyone that he does not believe the fundamental tenets of evolution underlying the research, and was fired when he disclosed this fact.

Is belief in evolution a bona fide occupational qualification for this position? Woods Hole fired him because of his religious beliefs, yet his beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with his job responsibilities. How could he even take such a job? It would be like an adherent to Christian Science–which treats illness through prayer rather than medicine–being trained as an oncologist. The article puts it this way: “‘A flight school hiring instructors wouldn’t ask whether they accepted that the earth was spherical; they would assume it. Similarly, Woods Hole would have assumed that someone hired to work in developmental biology would accept that evolution occurred. It’s part and parcel of the science these days.'”

Ugly Americans

A recent discussion of employment discrimination led into a discussion of racial politics in Boston, and that led to a discussion of the chaos surrounding Boston’s court-ordered school-desegregation. This is ancient history for the students involved, having occurred a decade before most of them were born, and they know little about it. The quickest way to convey a sense of Boston circa 1974-1976 is through a photograph most of them have never seen, Stanley J. Forman’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of anti-busing demonstrators attacking Boston attorney Ted Landsmark with the American flag on City Hall Plaza. It can be seen here on the Boston Press Photographers Association’s website. This is the largest copy of the image I could find. If anyone locates a larger copy please let me know and I’ll add a link to it.

UPDATE:  Here’s a link to a larger image:   http://www.umass.edu/legal/Hilbink/lpscf03/bostonflag.jpg (Thanks to JS)

Judicial Pay Raises

After Chief Justice Roberts called for judicial pay raises in his annual State of the Courts address, a few students asked my thoughts. Judges are underpaid, in the same way that teachers are underpaid: their salaries don’t reflect their worth to society and are inadequate compared to what they could earn in related fields. Judicial salaries will never be fully competitive with, say, those available in private practice, nor should private-sector parity be the sole benchmark for the adequacy of judicial pay. One generally becomes a judge (or a teacher) for reasons not driven primarily by compensation. Most judges care deeply about, and are good at, what they do. There are always exceptions, of course, but I don’t perceive a pervasive lack of judicial quality. I’m speaking here as an outside observer, not a trial lawyer. I might have a different opinion if I argued in court regularly, but I’m not convinced that an extra $50,000/year would address what irked me. If a judge is incompetent it reflects the appointment process more than a lack of qualified applicants. I’m also speaking as someone who lives in a state with appointed, not elected judges.

One student argued that any pay above $150,000/year is “nothing to complain about” and assumed that most judicial appointees would have adequate savings to cushion a drop in pay. We could quibble about the threshold, about whether the “complaint line” is $100,000 or $200,000, without accomplishing much. His $150,000 mark is reasonable–and higher than the salary of most on the bench. You cannot assume that everyone who becomes a judge has built an adequate nest egg. A lawyer who has always been in the public sector before joining the bench will not have had the same opportunities for wealth accumulation as one in private practice. A lawyer in private practice who has always lived up to his or her means (i.e., just about everyone) will not have much left over to save. We all speculate “what’s the amount I need to make every year to be happy,” but that number is elastic. People tend to ratchet up their standard of living as they earn more and their threshold earnings requirement increases accordingly.
This is beside the point anyway because whatever number one picks as adequate for a public sector job will always be less than what one could earn in the private sector. Public-sector employment should not be the path to fantastic wealth. That a fourth-year associate in a large firm can earn $200,000 year with bonuses while a state court judge with 30 years experience earns $115,000 does not mean the judge should get a $100k raise. A $20-30,000 raise, sure. Career decisions involve trade-offs. When I left private practice and business to become a teacher I walked away from larger paychecks. The satisfaction is not only in the remuneration. It would be dandy if we all had top-rank psychic and financial compensation. I’d like the Red Sox to win the 2007 World Series, too. Judicial pay should be fair and rational within the context of public-sector compensation. As long as qualified lawyers want to serve on the bench judicial pay should reflect the social importance of an impartial, dedicated judiciary and be high enough for judges to maintain a standard of living commensurate with their status as professionals, without regard to whether they can earn three times as much in the private sector.

More: Smoking and Employment

Others have picked up the story about Scott Co.’s termination of Scott Rodrigues for smoking. Legal Blog Watch mentions the story here. Jottings by an Employer’s Lawyer has a post about the story and links to Do No Evil and its 200-plus comments on the suit, to Out of the Jungle’s topical links and articles, and to Worker’s Comp Insider, which has followed this issue since 2005.

The Cup Runneth Over

The problem in teaching Internet law is choosing what to cover. There is no such thing as “Internet Law,” not in the sense of an integrated body of legal principles such as contract law, tort law, or constitutional law. “Internet Law” might better be described as “The Legal System’s Response to Problems Arising from Use of the Internet and Digital Technology for Commercial and Other Transactions.” That’s a title certain to scare away prospective students, and still probably incomplete.

When Internet Law, or Cyber Law, entered the legal consciousness about eight years ago textbook publishers rushed a number of Internet law texts to market. I looked at all of them, tried out a few, and now don’t use any. One problem they shared was the lack of clear vision as to what they should cover. They spent time on topics like non-disclosure agreements for employees of tech companies or forms of business organization for Internet start-ups. These are interesting topics in an employment law or entrepreneurship course, but pose no issues unique to the Internet. Teaching this course requires guidelines to determine what topics are in and what are out. Two Internet law professors might use different guidelines and disagree about whether to include a particular topic. For instance, I don’t discuss patent law in my Internet law course. Patent law raises vitally important issues these days, such as the patentability of methods of doing business and the Patent Office’s need to vet prior art thoroughly, but in my view these cutting-edge issues do not turn on unique Internet characteristics.

Fortunately the news abounds with issues of Internet law. These are some of the stories that came across my desktop yesterday:

Darren Waters, Warnings over ‘broken up” Internet, BBC News, Oct-11-06 (reporting on concerns that countries such as China will tailor Internet architecture to their specific needs, resulting in “island of connectivity that have no inter-connectivity between them”)

Jonathan Bick, E-Communications Policy: Getting It Right, E-Commerce Law & Strategy (Law.com), Oct-12-06 (recommendations about employer policies governing employee use of “Internet, computer, and electronic assets” that recognize the ubiquity inherent insecurity of current methods of electronic communication)

Jack M. Germain, The False Promise of Browser Security, E-Commerce Times, Oct-11-06 (“Vulnerabilities are so embedded in any browser that surfing the Web is no safer than driving a tank through a mine field while blindfolded.”)

Does YouTube Make Google a Big Target for Copyright Suits?, The Wall Street Journal, Oct-11-06 (Discussion between John Palfrey, Harvard law professor and Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Stan Liebovitz, University of Texas economics professor and Director of the Center for Analysis of Property Rights and Innovation)

Susanna Hamer, Google’s big bet, CNNMoney.com, Oct-12-06 (Advertisers will use databases of personally-identifable information, tracking cookies, geo-location software, and other devices to deliver personally-customized video ads to Internet users)

Like I said, the problem in teaching Internet law is choosing what to cover. There is too much.