“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 law school!–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.

Above the Law Publishes Horrible Advice to Law Students

Yesterday Above the Law published a piece by Jake Heller entitled “Law Students: How To Make The Most Of Your Law Degree If You’re Not Going To Practice.” The article contains so much terrible advice and general nonsense that I must attack it paragraph-by-paragraph. (The article is tagged “Sponsored Content,” but it’s also tagged “Law Schools” and “Technology” and it’s currently the top story on ATL, so there is some danger of law students actually reading it.) Away we go:

In law school, some people you meet were born lawyers — their first words were “summary judgment,” their family tree is all lawyers for like five generations, and they feel more comfortable in a suit than jeans. They probably even dressed like this at their first Halloween.

OK, so far, so good, except that I have never met anyone like this in my entire life, the last sixteen years of which I’ve spent at law schools and law firms.

And then there are the rest of us. Those that wonder, do I actually want to be a lawyer? What if $180,000 of debt and the three hardest years of my life were a huge mistake? The thought crossed my mind more than a few times in law school.

The time to ask yourself whether you actually want to be a lawyer is before enrolling in law school, not during law school.

But now that there are a few years between me and law school, I am happy to report: going to law school is the best decision you’ve ever made, even if — and especially if — you don’t want to be a lawyer.

Good Lord. Where do I even start? I can only hope that by “you’ve” you mean “I’ve.” If not, who are you writing this to? Are you aware that there are over 200 law schools in the country, and that at least a quarter of them are so bad that merely enrolling in one of them is, by any objective measure, a terrible decision? And the “especially if” part? So going to law school is a better decision for people who don’t want to be lawyers than for those who do? I can’t imagine that anyone in the world actually believes this, but if they do, they should really read Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) by Paul Campos. Professor Campos devotes an entire chapter to shooting down the argument that you should go to law school because there are lots of great things you can do with a law degree besides practicing law.

Why? Because in law school you are learning deeply about a profession that comprises only 0.3% of the U.S. population but serves tens of millions of people. That is, it’s an enormously important profession where only a select few have the knowledge to fix it — and soon you’ll be one of those people. The opportunity to make an impact is enormous. And your skepticism about the status quo will only help you.

You know what other professions comprise a tiny fraction of the U.S. population but serve tens of millions of people? Most of them! Grocers serve hundreds of millions of people. So do gas station proprietors. And doctors. And so on. I’m pretty sure those professions are important, too.

The key is taking control over your path in the law now, today. By seeking out the right experiences in school and after graduation — which aren’t always the same things your classmates are doing — you’ll build your credibility, develop real insights about the industry, and better identify what you can uniquely bring to the table to make a difference.

OK, great. Now we’re getting somewhere. So in the next paragraph, you’re going to tell us what experiences law students should be seeking out.

This is precisely what I did. I founded Casetext in response to a problem I saw as a litigator: merely accessing the law is insanely expensive, creating an unequal playing field that advantages the well-heeled. With knowledge of the law and a commitment to social justice, we’ve built a free legal research website that draws on the collective knowledge of the legal community. And we’re disrupting a billion-dollar industry in the process.

This reminds me of an Onion headline from the 2008 Presidential Campaign: “McCain Unveils Economic Plan: Everyone Marry a Beverage Distribution Heiress.” I mean, it’s great that you founded Casetext (which actually sounds like a cool thing, by the way) and that it’s working out well for you, but what about the rest of us? We can’t really found Casetext because you already did.

We needed to be lawyers to make this happen. Half of our team attended law school, got a J.D., passed the bar, and spent years practicing law. (Even some of our amazing engineers are lawyers!) We worked at big and small firms, for state and federal government, and in roles as diverse as defending inmates on death row to litigating patents. But now we’re completely rethinking legal research and publishing, and supporting a movement within the legal community that’s changing how lawyers and the public access the law. We wouldn’t know that the problem existed, let alone have any idea of how to fix it, if we didn’t have a background in law.

OK, so you needed to be lawyers to make this happen, but . . . only half of your team attended law school? So I’m guessing the other half of your team did not? I suppose you’re right that whoever came up with the idea of Casetext had to go to law school to know about the problem, but I’m not sure anyone else did.

So the question to ask yourself is: If not practicing law, then what? What is going to be my path? How am I going to help make the legal industry more egalitarian, more efficient, more sustainable, more profitable, or more tech-forward?

OK, I’ll be sure to think about those things, but in the meantime, I need a job. On the off-chance that I don’t come up with the solution to our not-egalitarian legal industry, I’m still going to need to feed my family.

That’s what this time in law school is for: seeking out experiences that will make you not only practice-ready, but innovation-ready. It’s why we’re offering select law students the opportunity to gain real entrepreneurial experience while in school and build a movement of legal innovation and open access to law at their schools as part of our law student ambassador program. It’s one thing to talk about changing things, but there’s no replacement for seeing firsthand what it takes to do something truly new in an old industry.

Legal entrepreneurship isn’t always the easiest path — there are no big bonuses or public interest fellowships, and you’ll face naysayers and days where you wonder if it can even be done. But if your interest in the law is more “big thinking” than brief-writing, it may be the more gratifying, impactful route for your career. By giving support and direction to some of the most ambitious, innovative law students in the country, we hope to foster the next generation of lawyers that can rethink what it means to practice law. We’ve seen firsthand the countless challenges in the law that demand innovation, and we’re looking for law students who, like us, want to think outside of the box and make a difference.

I get it now. This isn’t really an article or blog post after all. It’s a help wanted ad.

So you’re in law school, but you may not grow up to be a lawyer — don’t panic. Embrace it. 

On second thought, panic. And when you’re done panicking, figure out whether or not you want to be a lawyer. If you don’t, you should probably drop out of law school. If you do, you should look at your law school’s employment statistics and determine whether your chances at getting the kind of legal job you want justify the financial and other costs of continuing your legal education.

Happy British Open!

It’s that time of year again, the time when I get super annoyed by ESPN’s refusal to call the British Open the British Open. When I was a young golf fan in the 80s and 90s, golf had four major tournaments: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA. The British Open was then known as the British Open because, unlike the U.S. Open, it was played in Great Britain. Calling the British Open the British Open made a lot of sense and seemed to work quite well for a lot of years. Here is what the television coverage looked like in 1995:

british open

Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we have to stop calling the British Open the British Open and instead call it the Open Championship, because that’s what the Brits call it. So now when you watch the television coverage, you hear the phrase “Open Championship” approximately every twelve seconds.

Why does this bother me so much? Probably because it shows how damn insecure we are as a nation. Yeah, we have our johnny-come-lately U.S. Open–which has been contested for 120 years–but it’s not the real Open.

As Bill Maher recently pointed out, we’re also insecure about the way we talk. We think everything sounds better if it’s said in a British accent. And so the baby on Family Guy, born and living in Rhode Island, has a British accent, as does one of the leading conservative talk radio hosts (even though he’s Canadian!). We lavish praise and Oscar nominations on utterly unremarkable movies just because they’re British. And on it goes.

Maher thinks it’s because on some level, we recognize that we are a fundamentally unserious country. Maybe he’s right. We do live in a country where millions of people believe, or at least claim to believe, that Donald Trump should be President of the United States. Maybe our country really isn’t as good as their country, and our Open isn’t as good as their Open. But I kind of miss the days when we at least pretended that we were capable of producing stuff as good as the stuff over there.

Anyway, enjoy the British Open Open Championship, everyone!