Sunday, January 9, 2011

They Cannot Repossess Your Law Degree

eNice piece in the NYT giving folks the details of a story we have been hearing and telling for a while: law school is no guarantee of anything, other than debt. 
Mr. Wallerstein, who can’t afford to pay down interest and thus watches the outstanding loan balance grow, is in roughly the same financial hell as people who bought more home than they could afford during the real estate boom. But creditors can’t foreclose on him because he didn’t spend the money on a house.
He spent it on a law degree. And from every angle, this now looks like a catastrophic investment.
At least PhDs graduate with far less debt, usually, and with a credential that can get them somewhat higher wages in high schools and government.

The article demonstrates how badly the job market for lawyers has become "grimmest ... in decades" while law schools remain in denial.
How do law schools depict a feast amid so much famine?
Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm,” says William Henderson of Indiana University, one of many exasperated law professors who are asking the American Bar Association to overhaul the way law schools assess themselves. “Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty.”
A law grad, for instance, counts as “employed after nine months” even if he or she has a job that doesn’t require a law degree. Waiting tables at Applebee’s? You’re employed. Stocking aisles at Home Depot? You’re working, too. 
And folks who do not answer their school's survey don't count.  No selection bias there, right? Ironic, isn't it, that law schools are lying pretty systematically.  Not only that, but some schools hire their former students so that they have a higher employment date for that magic date that counts.  I wonder what they teach in their ethics classes?  
“You’re beginning your legal education at an institution that is engaging in the kind of disreputable practices that we would be incredibly disappointed to discover our graduates engaging in,” he says. “What we have here is powder keg, and if law schools don’t solve this problem, there will be a day when the Federal Trade Commission, or some plaintiff’s lawyer, shows up and says ‘This looks like illegal deception.’” 
And what drives the desire to lie about employment?  That law schools are big "cash cows":

“If you’re a law school and you add 25 kids to your class, that’s a million dollars, and you don’t even have to hire another teacher,” says Allen Tanenbaum, a lawyer in Atlanta who led the American Bar Association’s commission on the impact of the economic crisis on the profession and legal needs. “That additional income goes straight to the bottom line.”
The problem is not about bad people but a broken system:
Critics of the rankings often cast the issue in moral terms, but the problem, as many professors have noted, is structural. A school that does not aggressively manage its ranking will founder, and because there are no cops on this beat, there is no downside to creative accounting. In such circumstances, the numbers are bound to look cheerier, even as the legal market flat-lines.
The rankings are created by US News and World Report, so we could ask them at least to fix the numbers problems by insisting on better data, rather than who's employed on Feb 15.  But they do not seem willing to budge:
And what about U.S. News? The editors could, but won’t unilaterally demand better data from law schools. “Do we have the power to do that? Yes, I think we do,” said Robert Morse, who oversees the law school rankings. “But we’d have to create a whole new definition of ‘employed,’ and it would be awkward if U.S. News imposed that definition by itself. It would be preferable if the A.B.A. took a leadership role in this.”
What great buck-passing?  With great power comes no responsibility.  Uncle Ben Parker would be ashamed.

Since reform isn't likely, the best way to address the problem is to educate the suckers--the next generation of law students.  There are heaps of blogs by disgruntled products of this system: Shilling Me Softly, Subprime JD and Rose Colored Glasses. Cool names.  I hope they use better stories and examples than the buffoon in the article--"hey, I have the prestige, even if it is not going to lead anywhere but more and more debt.  Bailout please?"

The frustrating thing about this piece and this problem is that everyone blames the system even though they have power to do something about it.  Yes, the schools that behave more honestly and even cut some slots for new fish would pay a price, but does not responsibility mean that one is willing to pay a price to act ethically?  If one is only ethical when it is free or profitable to do so, does it have any real meaning?

I should not be so vocal about this, since my sister and her husband teach at a law school, but I think I need to make many, many copies of this article and hand them out whenever students want a letter of recommendation for law school.  Re-posting this video is not sufficient but makes me feel good.

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

2 points:

1. Law school is still too easy and "obvious" of an option compared to other routes. If you have a given LSAT and GPA, you can get a fairly good idea of where you'll get in. Students looking for options after undergrad in a world where everything else is complicated and ruled by who you know can take solace in the very simple admissions process. If it's a choice between "move to DC and look for a job/serve on a desperate political campaign for a few months" or "go to law school," it's all too easy to do the latter. I hope professors can help encourage students to have the self-confidence and resourcefulness to accept temporary uncertainty and consider gainful employment.

2. The students should still, in the end, be held responsible for their massive debt. Lots of people had choices to make in what route they decided to pursue; subsidizing those who chose to take out loans should not be given a free ride at the expense of those who chose fiscally intelligent options. And while it's probably good for society that we don't have debtor's prisons anymore, that smarmy idiot in the article offers the best argument for them.