Sunday, January 09, 2011

Response to NYT article on Law School Employment

Thanks Bob. [my dean circulated the article.] I think many of us and our students have seen this. While it lays bare law school complicity in something akin to the mortgage lending crisis, some parts of the article, or those quoted by it, are hard understand.

First, one suggestion near the end is that lower tier law schools should (but won’t) close. I take it by tiers the reference is the to USN&WR rankings. Seems to me that both criticizing the ranking system and then using it as a measure of which schools should close is illogical. Much of what goes into a lower ranking is subjective and has little to do with the quality students. The idea that limits would be put on law schools based on their tier as published by USN&WR and manipulated by schools and their graduates seems like more of a concession to the rankings than an effort to address the problem. Of course, if bottom tier schools are mainly 100% private, I do not understand why the market does not take care of the “problem.”

Second, what is the problem? Investors, like those investing in human capital, make bad decisions all the time. Why should we be more concerned about a law student losing his or her shirt than a franchisee who buys into a burger chain but cannot make a go of it? My answer to this is that it is a problem to the extent the sellers of the “product” know it will not work. In other words they are engaged in a misrepresentation. The issue is what does it mean to “work?” If by “work” if we mean earning enough to live comfortably and earn a fair return on the investment then clearly we should say nothing to encourage this impression. In fact, given that we are aware of a misimpression, I think we need to provide accurate information to our applicants about employment percentages and starting salaries. As far as competition in the State with respect to these figures, I doubt anyone would not think our numbers were not the most favorable.

Third, I am discouraged by the hypocrisy of our own alums. If my facts are correct, they explode if we fall in the rankings. I suppose because this affects their status or income. On the other hand, I wonder how many of them, after enjoying their heavily subsidized education are willing to dip into their own pocketbooks to hire a grad which would then help us with the ranking they put more stock in than we do. What about an example of wanting it all!

Finally and more broadly, we are not sure how to determine how much legal service is required. It is determined by market demand or need. If it is by need, then the quid pro quo for receiving a state subsidized education would seem to be a commitment to public service. None is required. I suppose the actual theory is that if we assist in increasing the supply or lawyers, their fees will fall and services will be available to a greater number of people. (By the way this has never been my theory for why public law schools were created. Instead I think it was a way for those with property and, therefore in need of legal services, to have the cost of the services they need spread across all taxpayers.) The employment numbers suggest this is not working. There are many reasons why it does not work but one is that the state investment in providing legal services is actually not sufficient. In any case, like health care, we seem to be caught between viewing legal services as a privilege or a right. If it is a right then there may not be a glut of lawyers at all, just an unwillingness of government to provide what is needed. Of course, we know where that funding would come from given current tax structures.


Jen said...

I completely agree with you on all points. The market will correct itself. Applicants should be given accurate information regarding their future employability. I also think that this information should not be focused as much as it is on big firm jobs and big firm pay. As far as the rankings are concerned, as an alum, they make absolutely no difference to me whatsoever. Further, I'm happy to chip in, as you've suggested, by hiring a new grad. Good job bringing this to light.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Thanks Jen. I am not sure why we -- the faculty -- have the impression that alums are worried about the ranking -- especially if UF should fall below FSU.

Monica said...

Professor Harrison, I think your points about the article are valid. Maybe the article is another piece of evidence that will push the market back into balance and make potential law students think about their debt before they enter into it.

But even if they don't, isn't it a societal problem to freely give loans to hundreds of thousands of students who will never be able to pay them back (and not offer a way out in bankruptcy)?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

M: Depends entirely on your view with respect to how paternalistic we should be. Should society watch out for 21-30 year olds who take out loans for unprofitable efforts. Ideally we would not but if they are misrepresentations in the market, then I swing back the other way.

Anonymous said...

I'm a UF Law grad and I think the New York Times article has brought important media attention to this problem. I think everyone makes valid points, but the fact of the matter is the "market" has not corrected the problem, nor will it. The business of legal education does not operate in a free market. Even with all of the information about dismal job prospects slowly (very slowly) getting out, twenty-two year olds are still applying to law schools and assuming enormous debt in record numbers. The ABA continues to allow new law schools to open where they are clearly not needed. Too much supply + not enough demand + pervasive misiformation = dismal job prospects and no market correction.

Law schools must close, or at the very least, no more opened. I'm not suggesting lower ranked schools be forced to close, but there simply ARE too many of them out there producing unneeded attorneys, simple as that. Legal academia and the ABA has clearly shown they are incapable of governing themselves in this matter, maybe because of the inherent conflict of interest ($) involved. My other suggestions are (1) no longer admit students straight out of undergrad, require at least one year of tangential legal work (paralegal, legal assistant, court clerk, etc.) to weed people out, and (2) clear information on employment prospects.

And before you criticize law alums who are angry about rankings, maybe you should leave the Ivory tower of legal academia to see how incredibly cut throat it is out there.