Is “Fraud” Too Strong a Term for What Some Law Schools Say?: Not According to One Law Professor

“My salary is paid by the current structure, which is in many ways deceptive and unjust to a point that verges on fraud.  But as a law professor, I understand that what is good for me is that the structure stay the way it is.”

      –Paul F. Campos, professor, University of Colorado School of Law

That’s the most stunning statement in yesterday’s New York Times article on the law school admissions market.  The Times sometimes takes awhile to catch up to what market participants have known for some time but this is the second recent article in the Times targeting law schools.  Like its last article on excessive law school debt, yesterday’s piece doesn’t provide a lot of new information to the well-informed but it’s a must-read distillation for anyone considering applying to law school.

Here are some highlights:

1.  The flat structure of law school tuition.  The article focuses on New York Law School and its (soon-to-be-former) “reformer dean,” Richard Matasar.  The article notes that NYLS tuition and fees now exceed Harvard’s, despite the obvious difference between Harvard and NYLS in reputation, graduate placement, and virtually everything else that matters to a law student.

We’ve talked about the flatness of the tuition structure on the Advise-In Solutions website and this blog repeatedly.  It’s one reason why law school is a risky, uncertain investment.  If you want to make that investment anyway, it’s vital to improve your attractiveness to better law schools as much a you can by raising your GPA (with challenging courses), getting your best LSAT score and submitting a top-flight application package.  You’re likely to pay virtually the same amount regardless of what law school you attend, but the payoff from higher-ranked law schools is astonishingly better than from other law schools.

2.  The squishiness and unreliability of law school employment data.  While the ABA has announced some reforms relating to the employment data law schools are required to report (more on that in a future blog), the current data is often less than useless.

We won’t use Prof. Campos’ “F” word but, for example, NYLS reported to US News that its “median” graduate starting salary was $160,000 (in other words, it’s median was the starting salary at large New York City firms)—and this despite the acknowledgment that “most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.”  I don’t know how to parse that—a “median,” by definition is a peg that is supposed to reflect that one-half of the relevant group are above the median and one-half below.  So, even what should be a clear statistical measure is, apparently, not.

This kind of data indicates why it’s important to ask law schools the right questions, and to have a strategy for doing so.  The median, even if it were reliable, doesn’t tell you anything about the average starting salary.  Nor does it tell you how those salaries are broken down by class rank.  One of the key differences between law schools is the depth of the bench, i.e., how far down the class rank the really good jobs go.

That doesn’t even touch the question of low reporting rates from graduates.  NYLS’ (and every other law school’s) data is based on those who responded to its requests for initial employment information—a whopping 26% of its class.  You don’t need to wonder whether the unemployed are less likely to report than the employed, or whether the underemployed are less likely than the fully employed.  They are, so law school data, even absent “fraud,” will always reflect a cheerier reality than, well, reality.

I’ve talked about the difficulty of getting law schools to provide meaningful employment information.  In some cases, law schools simply refuse to do so, or don’t do it after promising that they will.  I’m happy to say that none of my clients have attended any law school to which they’ve been admitted who didn’t provide meaningful employment data to them.  To do so would be like buying a stock when the company refuses to disclose financial information.  It’s a bad idea.  No qualifications.  Just a bad idea.

3.  Law school tuition continues to rise, and it’s rising at a pace considerably faster than undergraduate education.  In the late 1980s, annual law school tuition was, on average, less than undergraduate education; now, it averages considerably more.  We should not expect that trend to change, unless and until there is less demand for the limited number of law school seats available.

*************************************************************************************

There’s a lot more useful data in the Times article but they key points are these: law school are a business, and a lucrative one.  What’s more, law schools are institutional businesses.

To say they’re businesses isn’t a slam (I run a business, too), it’s just a fact.  But its being a fact—and that you should expect law schools to act like businesses—is not always clear to applicants, and law schools not only don’t make it clear, they often cover their business mission in a veneer of “education”- and “altruism”- speak.  That’s persuasive to a lot of people because we have a cultural image of people who go into education as self-sacrificing and underpaid.  In a lot of cases, that’s true, but not at law schools.  There’s a lot of money to be made, and law schools don’t mind making it.  Dean Matasar, when asked about one of the contradictions between his “reformist” agenda and what NYLS (and a lot of other law schools) are actually doing, said simply “The answer is that we exist in a market.”

That’s a refreshing admission but it’s worth noting that Dean Matasar is stepping down as dean and is pursuing future career options “outside of legal education.”  That gets to the institutional point.  It isn’t that law school administrative personnel or faculty are terrible people; it is that they’re part of an institution and respond to institutional imperatives.  They’re not business owners that can respond solely to their own demands of integrity (or, in some cases, lack thereof).  So, while Dean Matasar, Prof. Campos and others can acknowledge the problems, there’s only so much they will be willing to do to solve them.  That’s why meaningful oversight from the ABA as well as pressure from outside groups such as pre-law advisors, bloggers and advocacy groups is so important.

But the most important pressure is going to come from prospective law students.  I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes but applicants have power, principally the power to vote with your feet.  Know the information you need from law schools and develop a strategy for getting it.  If you can’t get that information from a particular law school, don’t go there—and tell the law school why.  The bottom line is this—institutional businesses in a competitive market will, some of them anyway, get away with what they can.  One way to distinguish those who are legit from those who aren’t is whether they’re forthcoming with meaningful information (a good caution for the LSAT prep market as well).  The only way that some of the less wholesome practices of law schools will stop is, in the end, for applicants to make them stop.

At a “macro” level, that may already have started to happen.  The Times’ data on spiking law school enrollment is old and doesn’t account for the steep drop in applications this year.  That decline is a good sign but it doesn’t really help those who really do want to go to law school and become lawyers.  If you’re one of those, you can help yourself by doing you due diligence and not accepting unsatisfactory answers to legitimate questions.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 18, 2011.

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