Cracking down on law schools with low bar-passage rates

This article from the National Law Journal contains more promising signs that the ABA is finally cracking down on predatory law schools. In August, the ABA issued a “finding of noncompliance” to Ave Maria School of Law, and now it has publicly censured Valparaiso and placed Charlotte Law School on probation. In all three cases, the ABA found that the schools failed to “maintain sound admissions policies” and failed to avoid admitting applicants who do not appear “capable of completing [the school’s] program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” A few observations:

First, it’s tempting to say, “three down, twenty to go,” since there are so many law schools that charge absurdly high tuition and have low bar-passage rates and poor job-placement statistics. And you can’t really say “three down” because these three law schools are a long way from actually closing. But you have to give the ABA credit for trying to do something about this.

Second, by at least some measures, the ABA’s new focus on these issues is working, at least at Valparaiso. Valpo’s median LSAT has risen from 144 in 2013 to 147 in 2016. That doesn’t sound like much, and 147 is still awfully low, but clearly the school is trying to admit stronger students. Perhaps a more telling number is that first-year enrollment has fallen from 200 to 103. Some of that is attributable to market fluctuation, but it certainly suggests that Valpo is being more selective.

Third, the three schools the ABA has chosen to punish all deserve what they got, but I must say I do not really understand the ABA’s criteria. Charlotte’s bar-passage rates are in the 40s, which is abysmal, but Valpo and Ave Maria appear to be in the 60s. There are plenty of schools out there with passage rates below 60–Thomas Jefferson comes to mind–so it’s not clear to me why a school like Ave Maria, which posted a respectable 66.7 passage rate for the July 2016 Florida exam, is being punished.

Fourth, the blog Law Deans on Legal Education recently reported that Arizona Summit Law School has found a horrifying way of getting around ABA requirements that relate to bar passage. Arizona Summit apparently now requires students with low GPAs to pass a “mock bar exam” as a prerequisite to graduating. Students who don’t pass simply are not allowed to graduate, which in turn prevents them from taking the bar exam. The school keeps their $136,062 in tuition, and the students don’t drag down the school’s passage rate. A win-win! (Meaning two wins for the school, but zero for the students.)

Anyway, Above the Law has more on the “crackdown” here.

Adventures in Bluebooking

The other day I was working on a citation exercise for my students. The exercise was about citing statutes, and I wanted to show the students how to find the correct date to include in the citation. Here is what the Bluebook says:

12.3.2. Year of Code

When citing a bound volume of the current official or unofficial code, provide parenthetically the year that appears on the spine of the volume, the year that appears on the title page, or the latest copyright year–in that order of preference.

This is insane. Bound volume? Spine? Are the people who write the Bluebook not aware of the existence of computers?

The last time I looked at a statute in an actual book was in my first year of law school, which was seventeen years ago. Not only is everything available online now–as it has been for at least seventeen years–but when it comes to statutes, I can almost always find them for free. There is simply no reason, or at least no reason I’m aware of, to drive (or ride your horse? do the Bluebook people know about cars?) to the nearest law library to look at a statute in a “bound volume” with a “spine.”

So the question becomes, how do you find the date of a statute you’re looking at online? Answer: You don’t. It’s impossible, which is why nobody does it.

Just to make sure of this, I called Westlaw this afternoon and asked the reference attorney how to find the date of the most recent code publication for a statute I’m looking at on Westlaw. He said there is no way. That information simply is not available on Westlaw.

When I was researching an article I wrote on legal citation, I picked at random twenty federal court briefs that cited the federal jurisdiction statute. Guess how many of them included a year in the citation? ZERO. I rest my case.

“It’s a mess”

Today the New York Times published an article that should be required reading for anyone thinking of going to law school. The article focuses on Valparaiso, a fourth-tier law school in northwest Indiana. It tells a familiar tale of heavily indebted graduates with grim job prospects. While the article breaks little new ground, every article like this brings some hope that the message–which basically boils down to, don’t go to low-ranked law schools with lousy employment statistics–will reach its intended audience.

Valpo is a fairly typical low-ranked law school. Its “real” employment rate–the percentage of graduates with jobs that require a law license–is below fifty percent, and its bar passage rate recently plummeted from 77 to 61. Like far too many law schools, Valpo is charging people around $120,000 (annual tuition is $40,372) for at best a 50-50 chance of becoming a lawyer. It gets worse: only three of the 131 people who graduated from Valpo in 2015 got jobs with large law firms. The rest of the graduates who are fortunate enough to have jobs as lawyers probably make around $40,000 to $50,000.

I’m sure a lot of future law students will read this article and think, “this doesn’t apply to me because I’m going to ________ law school, not Valpo.” If you’re going to a law school ranked in the top 15 or 20, then you’re probably right. But it’s important to recognize that everything is relative. If you go to a second-tier law school and finish in the bottom half of the class, your job prospects and likelihood of passing the bar will be roughly equivalent to a top-quarter graduate from a place like Valpo.

The article eventually gets around to wondering whether law schools like Valpo should exist at all. If the alternative is continuing to charge people $120,000 for a 50-50 shot at becoming a modestly compensated attorney, then absolutely it should close. What probably should happen is that the school should figure out how many students it’s really “working” for. How many students in each class have a ninety-percent-or-higher chance of passing the bar and an approaching-eighty-or-ninety-percent chance of landing the kind of job they came to law school to get? I suspect that at a school like Valpo, the answer is around 20 to 30 students per class. I don’t know if it makes sense to have a law school with just 20 or 30 students in each class, but in a more just world, that’s the decision schools like Valpo would have to make. What Valpo is actually doing–reducing its student body by roughly one-third “over the next few years”–is just rearranging the deck chairs.

One final note on this: the article contains a rather tone-deaf quote from a constitutional law professor named Roaslie Levinson. Speaking about tenured professors accepting buyouts to leave the school, she says, “just personally, that was difficult.” I’m sure it was difficult seeing friends and longtime colleagues essentially paid off to go away, but something tells me those folks, and Ms. Levinson, are going to be OK.

The person who almost certainly will not be OK, at least financially, is Sarah Tapia, a 2015 Valpo graduate profiled in the article. Tapia has failed the Indiana bar twice, she has “massive” debt, and she’s working in the clothing department of a Meijer store in Goshen, Indiana. But Tapia is not Valpo’s problem anymore. Her tuition checks cleared, thanks to the federal student loan program, and the money went to pay the salaries of people like Ms. Levinson and the buyouts for her former colleagues.

Law schools still aren’t closing

In December 2014, I published an op-ed in which I predicted that “fewer than five ABA-accredited law schools will close by 2020, and the number will probably be zero.” Since I made that prediction, no schools have closed. So far, so good. (And by good I mean bad, since I want a lot of the lousy schools to close.)

However, last year two law schools in Minnesota, Hamline and William Mitchell, agreed to merge, and in December the ABA approved the merger. While technically this is not a closure, it certainly cuts against my overall point was that the number of accredited law schools in the U.S. only goes up, not down. (I should also note that the law schools at Rutgers-Camden and Rutgers-Newark are merging to become “Rutgers,” a single law school with two campuses.)

Meanwhile, the law schools most frequently mentioned as being at risk of closure continue to soldier on. This week brought news that Charleston School of Law will have its largest entering class ever this Fall, with as many as 200 suckers students. According to the school’s employment data, these students will have at best about a 49% chance of getting jobs as practicing attorneys, and probably less than that because a larger class means more competition for jobs. Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego currently has an astonishing 765 students despite a California bar passage rate of 44.68% and even though in 2015 just 59 of the 241 (24%) TJLS graduates obtained full-time jobs practicing law.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a couple more mergers similar to the one between William Mitchell and Hamline. Ohio and Illinois in particular have way too many law schools, and it might make sense for some of the lower-ranked ones in those states to join forces. But I still think that if you’re waiting for closures, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

Ban the Independent Study?

Rebecca Schuman, Slate.com’s outstanding higher education columnist, has called for banning independent study papers in graduate schools (and undergraduate schools as well, although such papers are far less common there). She thinks–based on strong, if anecdotal, evidence–they too often lead to sexual harassment and that their limited value does not outweigh this risk.

Schuman is clearly writing about traditional graduate programs for master’s and Ph.D. candidates, and not professional schools that award degrees in law, business, or medicine. Nevertheless, since many law schools, including mine, offer independent study options, it’s worth considering whether law schools should get rid of them.

I’ve probably advised 8-10 of these papers in my six years of teaching. They are generally positive experiences for the students and for me. I generally don’t have a lot of face-to-face interaction with the students I advise (usually one or two meetings total, with the rest of the advising done via email), but there is nothing stopping a professor with inappropriate intentions from requiring multiple meetings. So I think Schuman is right that these situations can put students, especially young women, at risk.

The question is whether the risk is outweighed by the value of these independent papers. I’ve had several students publish their independent papers, and getting a publication on your resume before graduating from law school can lead to interesting professional opportunities. But I don’t think a law student necessarily has to work one-on-one with a faculty member in order to write something of publishable quality. A lot of students at Michigan, where I went to law school, did this in the context of an upper-level seminar where there was no final exam and students were required to write a scholarly paper.

There are other downsides to the independent study paper. At Miami, there are no grading guidelines, and I gather from conversations with students that most independent papers end up getting A grades. Also, there is really nothing preventing a situation where both the student and the professor do very little work on the paper. The student walks away happy if he or she gets an A, and the professor is able to list the advising in his annual report to the Dean of his contributions to the school.

Another important consideration is whether independent study papers really create additional opportunities for sexual harassment to occur. Sexual harassment of students by law professors is a very real problem (see here for a recent example). But any law professor who wants a lot of one-on-one time with a particular student is probably going to get it, even without advising that student on an independent study paper. Professors often spend a lot of time working one-on-one with their research assistants. And professors can very easily require one-on-one meetings with a particular student as a condition for passing the course or getting a high grade. I actually do this myself quite often, although not for the purpose of harassing students. I often write on student papers something like, “I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with me right away so we can begin the process of improving your writing.”

We should not ban law professors having research assistants, and I could not do my job effectively without a lot of one-on-one conferences with students. I’m ultimately not in favor of banning the independent study paper either. Instead, law schools must be vigilant in detecting and punishing sexual harassment of students by professors. Understanding and acknowledging that independent study papers create additional opportunities for sexual harassment to occur is an important step in combating such behavior.

Law School Applications Are Up

Per the Wall Street Journal’s law blog, applications to accredited law schools are up 2.9% compared to this time last year. The article points out that we’re less than halfway through the application cycle, but LSAT takers are up 7%, so it looks like there will be more law students nationwide in Fall 2016 than there were in Fall 2015.

There was of course no doubt that at some point law school enrollment would stop falling.  We may have hit that point. The question–one question, at least–was (and is) whether, after bottoming out, enrollment would hold steady or creep back up again. This latest news provides some support for the “creep back up again” hypothesis.

I suspect that we will eventually see a “new normal” in law school enrollment that is somewhere between the 2010 highs and the 2015 lows, and closer to the latter than the former. This latest data, showing a modest increase over roughly one-third of one admissions cycle, is not nearly enough to tell us what to expect going forward.

Law School Enrollment Falls 2.2%

Over at Above The Law, Kyle McEntee has a helpful summary of new ABA data on law school enrollment. A couple takeaways:

1. Enrollment is down a little, and that could be big.

McEntee notes that first-year enrollment is down 29.4% since 2010. That doesn’t really mean much because 2010 was when enrollment peaked. But he also notes that enrollment is down 2.2% from last year. This actually is significant because a lot of people thought that last year, or at least the last few years, represented rock bottom. The latest decline also comes at a time when the job market for lawyers is relatively decent and the U.S. economy overall is doing OK. This suggests that the decline in enrollment is partly or mostly due to people waking up and realizing that a law degree is not a golden ticket, and is, at many schools, a terrible investment.

2. Enrollment declines are always good news, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Here’s a nice chart showing that in the United States in 2013, 44,253 people graduated from ABA-accredited law schools, and there were 20,860 openings for jobs as lawyers. These numbers fluctuate from one year to the next, but there are always tens of thousands more graduates than job openings. Those of us who want law graduates to have a good chance–well above 50/50–of obtaining full-time employment as practicing attorneys should cheer any decline in enrollment, but obviously a 2.2% decline does not come close to closing the supply-demand gap in the market for the services of recent law grads.

3. Law schools will do anything to stay in business, but we already knew that.

McEntee writes:

[M]any law schools have made the choice to enroll students who face significant risk of failing the bar exam. In this sense, dozens of law schools did not cut enrollment enough. Had they, many would close down due to a lack of paying customers.

As always, the message from these bottom-feeding schools is, “screw the students, let’s keep taking their money so we don’t have to find new jobs.”

Babycakes

I just had the following conversation with the cashier at Einstein Brothers, who loves calling people “babycakes”:

CASHIER: Whatcha havin’, babycakes?

ME: A Coke Zero, please.

CASHIER: Medium or large?

ME: Do you have any large cups?

CASHIER: Just medium, babycakes.

ME: I’ll have a medium, then.

CASHIER: Two fifty-five, my babycakes.

New Boss Similar to Old One

I just read the preface to the Twentieth Edition of the Bluebook, in which the editors explain how the new edition differs from the previous one. Some highlights:

  • “Rule 16.6(a) requires that opinion pieces in newspapers be cited as ‘Opinion’ rather than ‘Op-Ed.'” [Talk about a game-changer!]
  • “Rule 10.2.2 clarifies that words in a case name that would be abbreviated according to Table T6 should not be abbreviated if the words are part of a state, country, or other geographical unit that is the entire name of a party.” [Thanks for “clarifying” that!]
  • “Rule 13.5 clarifies what year should be cited when a debate occurs in a different year from publication in the Congressional Record.” [I hate when that happens, but at least now we have a rule for it.]

And on it goes.

The Write Stuff Feels The Joementum

Saturday’s NYT article on Joe Biden “taking a new look” at a presidential campaign contains a curious opening sentence:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his associates have begun to actively explore a possible presidential campaign, which would upend the Democratic field and deliver a direct threat to Hillary Rodham Clinton, several people who have spoken to Mr. Biden or his closest advisers say.

The problem here is that the sentence contains two separate but related ideas, only one of which is likely coming from people close to Vice President Biden. The point of the sentence, I think, is that, according to people close to Biden, he and his associates have started to actively explore a presidential campaign. Fair enough. But the author, Amy Chozick, also wants us to know that a Biden campaign “would upend the Democratic field and deliver a direct threat to Hillary Rodham Clinton.” This may or may not be correct: according to realclearpolitics.com’s poll of polls, Clinton currently leads Biden, 56 percent to 14 percent. But by putting the phrase “which would upend the Democratic field and deliver a direct threat to Clinton” right next to “several people who have spoken to Biden or his advisers say,” Chozick at least suggests that the People Who Have Spoken To Biden said his candidacy would upend the field and threaten Clinton. I doubt that they did. A clearer (and more honest) way of phrasing this would be:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his associates have begun to actively explore a possible presidential campaign, several people who have spoken to Mr. Biden or his closest advisers say. If it materializes, a Biden campaign would upend the Democratic field and deliver a direct threat to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In other 2016 campaign news, slate.com is having a contest to see if anyone can diagram the following gem of a sentence from Donald Trump (I cannot, nor do I think it’s even possible):

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.