Monday, January 19, 2015

The Table I Built, Law Schools, Hospitals, and Hard Choices

It will come as news to no one that law schools have high fixed costs in the form of tenured faculty salaries. In fact, as applications and admissions fall these are rapidly becoming what regulatory economists call stranded costs.  You can think of them as hospitals that have overbuilt and have empty beds.

We also know that one way law schools are dealing with costs that would otherwise be stranded is to admit students who they would not have been admitted ten, five, or even three years ago. You could think of it as welfare for law professors at the expense of taxpayers and students who incur massive debt.  Since high GPAs mean little these days, the focus is has been on low LSAT scores. I do not know the details but it seems that, once a score falls below 150, the risk of success falls and the idea of admitting students  in the low 140s is especially troubling. But the schools need the revenue and so it goes. It's not that different from hospitals who, before insurance companies cracked down,  also needed the money and admitted people who did not need to be admitted and kept people longer than necessary for fear a bed would be empty.

People who write about law schools and are self appointed protectors of potential law school applicants moan about the ethics of admitting students who are in these high risk categories. There is a catch though. Like all averages, they know which students are at risk but not which ones will fail. In fact, I am sure there are many students with borderline LSAT scores who have done well in law school and even gone on to pass the bar, practice, and even do so ethically.

It's way too easy for the hand-wringers to wring their hands about admitting these students. This is especially true if applicants understand that risk goes up as scores go down. Just which students with a 145 LSAT should be excluded?  Should it be all of them? Should they all be excluded because some may fail? If so, should the hospital deny medication to sick people because it does not work all the time? 80% of the time, 50% of the time.  It is true that the side effects of law school can be nasty  but it is very hard to predict that on an individual basis.

No, what I sense is going on with the self-appointed protectors of 21 years olds who want to go to law schools is that they like the feeling of being perceived as as concerned  but not the feeling of actually doing the work to increase the accuracy of measures that predict law school success or step up to the bar to help students who would be much less at risk if law schools began assessing deficits and offering programs to address them. That would be work but no pub!


Anonymous said...

Hospitals may have an incentive to admit people who do not need to be there, but they do not have an incentive to keep them longer than necessary. Just the opposite. Since the 1980s, they have been paid per diagnosis based on the expected length of stay, so if they get people out quicker they make the same amount but save on costs.

The analogy for law schools would be -- if schools were paid the same per student if they completed their degree in two years versus three, you would see a lot more two year programs.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Thanks. Maybe a better analogy is a doctor I used to see. No matter what I saw him for there was a blood test. Then I switched doctors and no blood tests. Then I found out the first doc had invested in some fancy blood work machine. I am sure you are right about hospitals today now that insurance companies have the bargaining power but 'twas not the case some years ago.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

BTW, I have seen some finagling with diagnoses designed to make sure insurance or medicare will play.

Former Editor said...

One problem with "actually doing the work to increase the accuracy of these measures" is that that the underlying data is not released by law schools. Without a transparent picture of admitted, graduating, and bar-taking law school classes over a period of years, it's pretty hard to paint a much clearer picture than what we already have.

Also, regarding "pub", there are some of us that would rather not have it at all (hence the use of pseudonyms).

Anonymous said...

"You could think of it as welfare for law professors at the expense of taxpayers an students who incur massive debt."

Epic. Simply epic.