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!