Intersecting Reports that ABA May Press for More Informative Law School Employment Data, and a Prediction that Some Law Schools Might Go out of Business: Maybe, but Don’t Use an Axe to Do the Work of a Chisel

Sometimes, there’s a convergence in legal news that’s striking.  Two academics recently opined that the law school market is unsustainable, and will likely force some law schools to close their doors.  In apparently reinforcing news, the ABA appears poised to bow to increasing pressure to make law schools disclose enhanced employment data.

Both of these items are of considerable importance for prospective law students, many of whom face the prospect of following recent graduates into a cycle of crushing debt and limited employment prospects.

Let’s talk about the stories in order.  The conclusion of the academic paper by Messrs. Burk and McGowan is dubious.  To be sure, their view that, in the current climate, elite law school dominance will be even greater than it traditionally has been strikes me as correct, and it’s something I’ve said on Advise-In’s website for the last year.

But that’s a long way from saying that law schools will close.  This seems empirically incorrect—there have been announcements in the last few months of several new law schools planning to open, and facts should always trump hypothesis and theory.  There are other facts—law school tuitions continue to rise, and applications have increased each of the last two years, with most admissions personnel expecting another increase in applications this year.  So, if I’m a law school, what, exactly, is going to make me shut down?  I’m making more money than I did, and demand is increasing.

Part of the problem in Burk’s and McGowan’s analysis is their implicit use of the “rational decision-maker” model of modern economics.  Haven’t the last three years persuaded us that maybe this model isn’t, um, helpful?  Or true?  Yes, if applicants knew that their prospects were limited—and didn’t “irrationally” discount that information for various reasons—well, then, demand would dry up, the number of seats and applicants would come into closer balance, and some law schools that don’t provide great opportunity might be strangled.  But where’s the evidence that that’s happening?

Enter the ABA’s floating the idea that law school accreditation might be tied to schools providing clear employment data with every admissions acceptance letter.  What employment data the schools will provide is an open question but that fact that the ABA is considering measures, and that ABA President Stephen Zack is now willing to state his belief that “some of the numbers are cooked” is, on balance, positive, especially since some of those incredibly unhelpful numbers have for years been implicitly sanctioned by the ABA.

I hope the ABA’s efforts come to fruition.  They can’t hurt and they’ll probably help.  But here’s the thing.  No matter what disclosure regime you have, there will always be ways to game it.  That’s not to gainsay having a strong disclosure framework but there’s a reason why, no matter how good Securities and Exchange Commission rules are, and no matter the great progress that the Dodd-Frank bill made, we’ll see more securities fraud and eventually, another banking crisis.  The bottom line is that rules are always backward- rather than forward-looking, designed to solve the problem at hand, not the next one.

Why is that important for a prospective law student?  It means that irrespective of what the ABA does, whatever new information is available should be your base, not the end of your investigation.  And you shouldn’t take “disclosure” as a security blanket, because there will always be ambiguities and inconsistencies in data, even if not “cooked” but merely distilled.

I’ve talked before about questions that prospective law students can ask law schools to get the information they need, whether or not the ABA, the Law Transparency Project, blogs like this one, student pressure or other persons or organizations succeed in wresting better information from law schools.  For my clients, I develop focused strategies to ask the questions my clients want answers to, stage those questions at various points along the admissions process for maximum effect, and work out ways to leverage information provided to maximize my clients’ law school admissions and financial aid prospects, and to help them have a clear idea, when they enter law school, of the range of their employment prospects after they finish (and in law school, we build on what we’ve done to help those opportunities come to fruition).

Here’s the point—no disclosure regime will replace the need to do targeted, intelligent work of your own.  Disclosure, so long as you understand what is disclosed and, more important, what isn’t, can help immensely.  To the ABA’s credit, it’s looking at the prospective new requirements in just that way, as a springboard to law students’ obtaining additional information.  But the danger of disclosure—as we’ve found out in the investment world—is that it makes you believe you know more than you do, and encourages a certain laziness.  It’s your future, your life, and your risk, in the end.  Whatever information a law school provides, it will always provide less than you need, and much of what it provides may not be relevant to you.  Figuring out what you need, and how to get it, is an art; disclosure is an axe; it’s useful but only as an axe.  If you master the art, it won’t matter to you whether suboptimal law schools stay open or not—you won’t be going to one.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on October 22, 2010.

One Response to “Intersecting Reports that ABA May Press for More Informative Law School Employment Data, and a Prediction that Some Law Schools Might Go out of Business: Maybe, but Don’t Use an Axe to Do the Work of a Chisel”

  1. […] the farcically self-ranked Thomas Cooley Law School) and the ABA, which pitches and moans about “cooked” data and figures carping is enough (despite the fact that it clearly has the power to force law schools […]

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