Deflategate (no, not that one)

Kudos to Shannon Achimalbe and Above the Law for shining a light on the dubious practice of grade deflation at lower-ranked law schools.  Achimalbe found some good data to support what those of us in the legal academy have known for years:  lower-ranked law schools give lower grades than higher-ranked ones.

Achimalbe identifies two reasons for this practice, neither of which reflects well on the law schools that engage in it:

One is to make it difficult for students to transfer elsewhere. Keeping the average GPA low automatically disqualifies students from schools that have a minimum GPA requirement for transfers. Others will be so demoralized by their low GPAs that they will not even bother to apply. The second reason schools do this is to ensure that students lose any scholarships if they do not meet the minimum GPA requirement.

At Miami Law, I’m required to give at least 5% of my first-year students grades of C- or lower.  (This is public information.  See page 18 of our Student Handbook.)  I’m not required to give any grades of C or C+, but I kind of have to unless I want one or two outlier grades of C- and all the rest B- and above, which makes for a weird distribution.  So the result is that in my classes–and, I suspect, most other first-year courses–around 10-20% of the students end up with some kind of C (or a D or F, although those are quite rare).  While 10-20% doesn’t sound like a lot, students take something like nine graded first-year classes, meaning each student has nine chances to get one of those low grades.  Add it all up and a lot of our students get at least one C or lower in the first year.  I would imagine it’s difficult to transfer to a higher-ranked law school with that on your transcript.

I’ve never asked, and nobody has ever told me, why we have that requirement.  But the fact that the requirement applies only in the first year suggests that transfer prevention may be behind it.

My only quarrel with Achimalbe’s piece is that she may be underestimating how pervasive this practice is.  Miami is not, to my mind, a “lower-ranked” law school.  We’re currently ranked 63rd out of roughly 200 ABA-accredited law schools.  Pretty much every law school in the country except Harvard, Yale, and Stanford has to worry about students transferring to higher-ranked schools, so that incentive to deflate grades exists not only at the “lower-ranked” schools Achimalbe writes about.  I’m less knowledgeable about the scholarship rationale, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t apply everywhere.

Law schools are like Rasputin

As I’ve noted before, it’s really hard to kill a law school.  Just a couple weeks ago, it looked like the end was near for Charleston School of Law in South Carolina.  First the school announced that it might not enroll any students in the Fall.  Then, in a video leaked to Above the Law, a member of the school’s board told the faculty that “the only viable option for the survival of the school”–a sale to the for-profit consortium InfiLaw–was off the table because InfiLaw was no longer interested in buying the school.  Obituaries were written.  But it turns out that CSOL will not go quietly into the night.  Now comes word of “some very skilled local attorneys” working on a plan to save the school by placing it into receivership.  And the school now says it will enroll new students in the Fall after all.

CSOL is not out of the woods yet.  Not even close.  As one of the articles linked above points out, ABA rules prohibit the school from closing abruptly; rather, a school must submit a “teach-out” plan detailing how current students can finish their legal educations.  So there is some chance that all of the recent maneuvering is just setting the stage for an eventual closure.  But more likely, CSOL is simply doing what troubled law schools do: limping along and doing whatever it takes to stay open.  As long as at least a few people are willing to attend the school and pay its tuition, then closing it means turning down money.

That’s one way to say it

Here’s a doozy of a sentence from a nytimes article on “finding a candidate you’d like to have a beer with”:

And last year as her poll numbers were fading, Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana attended a keg stand outside of a sporting event in Baton Rouge.

I have never in my life heard someone use any variation of the verb “attend” in connection with a keg stand.  A keg stand is something you do; it’s not something you attend.  And why write “sporting event”?  Ten seconds of googling reveals that it was an LSU football game.  Just say that.

BREAKING: Law Grads Still Struggling

Today’s New York Times features an article about heavily indebted law graduates unable to find work as practicing attorneys.  It’s virtually identical to another article published in the Times in 2011.  Here’s the first sentence from the 2011 piece:

If there is ever a class in how to remain calm while trapped beneath $250,000 in loans, Michael Wallerstein ought to teach it.

And the first sentence from today’s article:

Jonathan Wang has not practiced law since he graduated from Columbia Law School in 2010, but he did not plan it that way.

You can pretty much figure out the rest without reading either article.  Wallerstein and Wang both entered law school with dreams of landing high-paying BIGLAW jobs after graduation.  Instead, they’re struggling to make ends meet while burdened with six-figure student loans.

Today’s article has virtually nothing new or interesting to say about this issue.  (The headline alone–”Burdened With Debt, Law School Graduates Struggle in Job Market”–clearly signals that we’re not breaking any new ground here.)  The Times did manage to find some rather unusual–and, I would argue, atypical–subjects this time.  Mr. Wang, we learn, “makes over $100 an hour,” which the Times declares is “far below what he would make at a law firm.”  $100 an hour comes out to an annual salary of $200,000, assuming a forty-hour work week.  I suspect most law-firm associates would love to be paid $200,000 and work just forty hours a week.  Maybe things aren’t so bad for Mr. Wang.

We’re also introduced to one Hyatt Shirkey, a 2010 graduate of Ohio State’s law school, who the article claims accumulated $328,000 in student debt during undergrad and law school.  Given that out-of-state tuition at OSU is currently $43,508, one can’t help but wonder where Mr. Shirkey went to undergrad (and how much it costs to go there).

And finally there is G. Troy Pickett, who attended something called South Texas College of Law “with the intent of becoming a big-firm mergers and acquisitions lawyer.”  According to that school’s employment outcomes data (available here) “STCL” graduates around 310 people annually, of whom about a dozen secure jobs at large firms, which I’m very broadly defining as having more than 100 attorneys.  What we learn from Mr. Pickett’s plight, then, is that people who make bad financial decisions sometimes end up in bad financial situations.

 

Something wicked this way comes

Just got an email from my faculty assistant regarding the twentieth edition of the Bluebook.  Her email included a Passover-style four questions, to which I could not respond “no” quickly enough:

1.  Will you need a complimentary online version of The Bluebook (20th ed)?

2.  Will you need the Teacher’s Manual, Understanding and Mastering the Bluebook, by Barris (20th ed)?

3.  Will you need a complimentary online program to use along with the teacher’s manual, Understanding and Mastering the Bluebook Interactive Exercises (20th ed)?

4.  Will you need Interactive Citation Workbook for the Bluebook: a Uniform System of Citation (20th ed)?

As I argue in detail here, we don’t have to take this lying down.  Let’s not let a bunch of law students dictate how we teach legal citation to our students.

A proposal so good it will never be adopted

Every once in a while, I read something so smart it makes me wish I’d written it.  In today’s Washington Post, David Lat of Above The Law suggests that the federal government either stop lending people money to go to law school or “impose per-student or per-school caps on loan amounts” as a way of forcing law schools to lower their tuition.

Let’s consider what would happen if the government actually adopted the most radical of Lat’s proposals and simply stopped lending people money for law school.  Surely a lot fewer people would go to law school.  Law schools would, as Lat writes, be forced to lower tuition, but they wouldn’t lower it to zero. A lot of people would not be able to afford law school, even at the reduced prices, and would not be approved for private loans.  These people simply would not go to law school.  This is a good thing, because law schools currently enroll and graduate way too many people in comparison to the actual demand for new lawyers.  In 2012 and 2013, law schools produced 46,364 and 46,776 graduates respectively, but only 57% of those graduates obtained full-time jobs requiring bar passage.

Inevitably, some law schools would be forced to close.  Again, this is a good thing.  This country doesn’t need 200 law schools, and unfortunately, there are a lot of predatory law schools with dismal employment statistics.  (Lat mentions that just 22.9 percent of Cooley Law School’s 2013 graduates got jobs as lawyers.)

The main argument for preserving the current system of taxpayer-subsidized legal education goes something like this:  fairness, blah blah blah, elitism, blah blah blah, opportunity.  (Maybe throw in something about underserved communities.)  The idea is that without federal loans, only people who are rich or “elite” would be able to go to law school, and that’s not fair.  Rich people could still go to law school because they could just pay for it, as they do now.  “Elite” people–for example, those admitted to T14 law schools–could still go to law school because private lenders would happily loan them money based on their earning potential.  Everyone else would be screwed.

The problem with this argument is that way too many people are screwed under the current system; they’re just screwed differently.  Instead of being told they can’t go to law school, they’re told they can, as long as they don’t mind borrowing $150,000, and they don’t realize until it’s too late that their job prospects are terrible.

There is no inalienable right to a legal education.  It’s not something that should be accessible to anyone, regardless of one’s ability to pay or demonstrated potential for success.

In the interest of full disclosure, I financed my legal education through a combination of grants, personal savings, and yes, federal student loans.  (OH THE HYPOCRISY!  Federal loans for me, but not for thee!)  How do I sleep at night?  Well, I went to Michigan, and my predictors suggested–correctly, it turned out–that I would do OK there.  Doing OK at Michigan Law in the late 1990s and early 2000s meant a virtually guaranteed six-figure salary.  My combined debt from undergrad and law school was around $110,000, and I paid it off in five years.  The federal government made money off its loans to me.  Had there been no federal student loans available when I entered law school in 1999, presumably some private lender would have been happy to loan me money for law school.

That Steven Solomon column: maybe not so “smart” after all

After Professor Steven Solomon published a column in the New York Times about the legal market last week, I called the piece “smart” and said my only problem with it was the pointlessness of asking whether now is a good time to go to law school.  Well, it turns out there are some other problems with Solomon’s column, as Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency pointed out on Above The Law.  I can’t improve on McEntee’s commentary, so I’ll just recommend that you read it.

Whenever one writes about the legal job market, it’s important that all statistics used be accurate and complete.  It’s now clear to me that Solomon’s column falls short.

Is now a good time to talk about whether now is a good time to go to law school?

Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon published a smart piece in the New York Times last week about “signs of vigorous life in the legal job market.”  The article is remarkably balanced, giving equal time to arguments against going to law school.  My only problem with the article is that it starts by asking whether now is a good time to go to law school.  It’s such a stupid, meaningless question–the only answer one can ever give is “it depends”–and yet it keeps coming up again and again.

Asking whether now is a good time to go to law school is a bit like asking whether it’s a good time to stay at a hotel.  In order to provide any kind of helpful answer, I’d need to know a lot more about the person considering hotels:  Where are you right now?  Where are the hotels you’re thinking of checking into?  Which hotels are you considering, and how much will they charge you?  What is your financial situation?  Why are you thinking of staying at a hotel?  Where will you sleep on the nights in question if you don’t stay at a hotel?

Just as there are a lot of hotels, there are a lot of law schools in the United States, and talking about them in general terms makes no sense.  There really is never a bad time to attend Yale, Harvard, or Stanford, as long as you want to be a lawyer.  Graduates from those law schools have excellent job prospects even in bad economic times.

On the other hand, there is never a good time to enroll in a law school like Cooley, regardless of what its President might tell you.  In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available on Cooley’s website, only 308 of the school’s 1143 graduates–that’s 27%–secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage.  Cooley’s employment statistics vary from year to year, but its placement numbers are never anywhere near high enough to justify paying its $43,540 annual tuition.

There are a lot of law schools–nearly 200–in between Yale/Harvard/Stanford and Cooley.  Is now a good time to go to one of those schools?  Again, it depends, and it depends much more on why you want to go to law school and what schools you get into than on the current or projected market for legal services.

The consequences of a bad decision to go to law school are much more serious than the consequences of a bad decision to stay at a hotel.  Law school can leave a person hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, unemployed, and with little hope of finding a job as a practicing lawyer.  In deciding whether to attend law school, prospective students should choose wisely, and that probably means avoiding, or at least avoiding deciding based on, articles on whether it’s a good time to go to law school.