Monday, August 19, 2013

Strange Notion of What Makes a Law School

Volokh Conspiracy reports on the Southern California Institute of Law (a law school) that is objecting to a requirement by their accrediting agency that they list on their website what percentage of their graduates pass the bar exam.  I can see why they aren't interested in reporting this:
None of the 43 SCIL graduates who took the 2012 California Bar Examination passed, according to state data. Over the course of a dozen test cycles between 2007 and 2012, SCIL graduates failed 93% of the time, the defendants claim.
Yeah, yeah, the bar exam is hard; lots of law school graduates fail the bar exam, but since passing the bar exam is a requirement to practice law, I think that there might be some legitimate connection between the quality of a law school and ability to pass the bar exam of the state in which that law school is located.

Worse, the law school is now claiming that their accrediting agency's requirement violates their First Amendment freedom of speech rights.  If you don't want accreditation -- don't sign up for it.  Otherwise, you are agreeing to abide by those requirements.

Something that many people do not realize: lots of lawyers make surprisingly little money.  If you graduate from the top couple tiers of law schools, you may well make very high pay, but there are a lot of law schools that are not in the top two tiers, and these days, many graduates from even pretty good law schools are struggling to find jobs.

UPDATE: A comment from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous concerning being a lawyer:

I am one of those lawyers out there that make very little money as a solo.  Some years it's well under $30,000 after expenses have been paid.
 
Fortunately I went to law school when it was cheaper, and when a wealthy relative died, I used what I received from her estate to payoff my law loans.  It almost goes without saying that neither of these two advantages is available today to the average law student.
 
I wish to get out of the law, but I've been practicing long enough so I can't hide my occupation on my resume without leaving a decade long gap.  So short of appearing to have been hospitalized or incarcerated for robbing a liquor store, I have to discuss my current profession, and sadly what Paul Campos says about HR professionals, lawyers, and applying for non-legal jobs is true.  You work under the JD Disadvantage (tm)
 
But enough about me, no-one forced me to go to a second tier law school, and graduate in the bottom 20% of my class.  What I did not know at the time, was such a record places a premium on your ability to do sales, and at the same time operate efficiently as a small business owner.  If you can't do both well, you have a problem.
 
In the law profession we currently have something of a class war between the law school faculty and solo and small firm lawyers.  The first trick to winning a class conflict, is for those receiving the most benefit, to pretend that such a conflict does not exist. That's generally what tenure track law school faculty do.
 
The law school faculty somehow rigged the federal aid system so that any one who goes to an ABA or state approved law school (see California) can obtain loans to cover the full cost of their law school tuition and educational expenses.  This has had the perverse incentive of law schools to create new law schools,  expand their student bodies, and increase their tuition at roughly twice the rate of inflation for over twenty years. 
 
 It also allows almost all such law schools, regardless of their rank or ability to place students, to charge the same premium rate.  So if Harvard charges over $50,000 per year, it can place many of its students into big law jobs in which the new associate has a realistic chance to pay off their $150,000+ in debt.  Go to a fourth tier law school that charges the same, and which places 2% of its graduates into big law, and you have a situation that will force many into income based repayment, a federal program which prevents a hard default, while ensuring that the student never pays the face value on their loan, and while having their credit damaged.
 
There are not enough good law jobs out there to pay for the ridiculous amounts of debt that many law students run up by attending law school.  The schools use these federal loans to guarantee that they admit over 45,000 new law students a year whom they send out into the profession after three years, to compete for the 22,000 to 23,000 lawyer jobs that open annually.  The small firm lawyers who are already in practice get to deal with additional competition,* while the tenure track law school professors collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation each year for producing twice as many of us, as the economy needs. Tthe surplus of lawyers makes it hard for us to find the individual paying clients you build a practice upon.
 
Once again the discomfort of lawyers like me would not matter if 1) we could be more easily absorbed into other white collar jobs in society and 2) Thousands of new law students each year, who are not needed by society, would not  be used to pay for an overgrown law school and law school faculty system. 3) This system is increasingly going to rely on the income based repayment program to ensure that the law schools get paid up front even though the interest and much of the principle on these Federal Loans is never going to be repaid, and the number of law school graduates who use IBR, and the number of those using IBR, from any particular law school remain a guarded secret.
 
Republicans often proceed under the assumption that ANY tax cut is good.  Liberals proceed under the assumption that ANY form of higher education is good for society and this was used to justify the current law school loan system.. Unfortunately we in the legal profession allowed the law schools free reign and they did what was best for their faculty, and not what was best for the profession.
 
* Its often been asked whether the increasing number of lawyers is a public good because it reduces legal prices for the average consumer.  The answer is yes, to a certain degree, for legal products with fixed costs such as wills, as verses conducting litigation.  However the benefit it not particularly sizeable because about 70% of the US population can not afford to pay any lawyer for even reduced legal fees.  For example see the number and percentage of people who use public defenders, not because they want to, but because they have no real alternative.

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