California Bar President pwns law schools in lengthy screed

By J. DeVoy

Howard B. Miller, President of the State Bar of California, had harsh words for California’s law schools in May 2010’s California Bar Journal.  Acknowledging the bleak outcomes for graduates in the classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010, Miller calls the economic cocktail of few jobs, high competition and massive debt “devastating.”

The exact numbers at the margins are not as clear as we would like, because so much involves small firms and personal circumstance, and many of the changes are too recent for complete accuracy. The average debt of law graduates now approaches or exceeds $100,000, and because of recent increases in tuition, especially at public institutions which historically have been more affordable, debt burdens will be even greater in a couple of years.

Based on outcomes alone, Miller’s commentary doesn’t seem addressed to Stanford, UC-Berkeley, USC or UCLA.  At least he acknowledges what has been common knowledge for many years, though: The picture is not as rosy at California’s 16 other ABA-accredited law schools.  The ABA-accredited distinction is important because there are 18 California-accredited and six unaccredited law schools within the state, the graduates of which may sit for the state bar exam.  There’s not much by way of economy, either:  The California-accredited San Francisco Law School charges $16,700/year, a number the school leaves potential students to discover on their own.  Bay Area neighbors UC-Hastings and Stanford are also pricey at $43,693 (non-resident) and $42,420 annually, respectively.  None of these numbers reflect living expenses, which can easily be 50% of tuition — especially in San Francisco, Palo Alto and surrounding areas.

There is notoriously unreliable self-reporting by law schools and their graduates of employment statistics. They are unreliable in only one direction, since the self-reporting by law schools of “employment” of graduates at graduation and then nine months after graduation are, together, a significant factor in the U.S. News rankings — which are obsessed over, despite denials, by law schools and their constituencies.

This is a valid sentiment, considering that events as low-rent and mundane as each number drawing of the New York Lotto are audited and monitored by Big 4 accounting firm KPMG.  Miller acutely notes the considerable value U.S. News rankings have for prospective law students and law schools, yet the the data reported to the magazine is unmonitored.  Nearly every year some school, however good, makes the untenable claim of 100% employment 9 months after graduation; past offenders include the University of Pennsylvania, UC-Berkeley and, most recently, Duke University.  Such a claim is almost laughable in this economy, especially considering how many students cling to their job offers with only the most tenuous of grips.  If anyone stood to lose from objectivism in this context, it would not be prospective students.

 A recent survey by the Kaplan organization showed that though 52 percent of pre-law students are “very confident” of finding a legal job after graduating from law school, only 16 percent of those students are “very confident” their classmates will have similar success.

A shocking revelation to lawyers and law students, but not surprising as a feature of human psychology.  As Richard Posner pointed out in A Failure of Capitalism, nobody listens to Cassandras.  In this age of participation trophies and good grades for merely showing up, prospective law students fancy themselves the scions of the legal field and shimmering guardians to the Eastern European refugees whose human rights they’ll never protect. LOL “international law”; moreover, LOL “human rights.”

Part of this distortion may be the source.  Within the law admissions community, Kaplan is regarded as inferior to TestMasters/Blueprint, and therefore attracts a less sophisticated student base.  This only considers people who pay for formal LSAT prep, too.  It’s unclear whether Kaplan students are more deluded than everyone else or actually representative of prospective law students, but there are problems with the sample Miller cites.

Miller then veers off onto a discussion of practical lawyering and its importance in bar admissions.  This idea has taken root some places, as the entire third year of law school at Washington & Lee is now an extensive clinical program.  The measure of practical ability is also measured by the National Conference of Bar Examiners’  Multistate Performance Test, which is included in the California bar exam.  There are merits to a practical apprenticeship-based approach versus traditional legal education, much like the differences between a D.O. and M.D. degree — either one confers the ability to practice medicine, but the D.O. develops an emphasis on holistic and preventative medicine while a M.D. places greater emphasis on diagnosis by symptoms and prescription of medication.

Eventually, Miller brings the piece back home:

Finally, we need to be transparent with potential lawyers about the cost and benefits of studying law. All law schools need to gather, verify and report, in consistent and specified ways, the employment record of their graduates, as well report on those who may have started, paid tuition, but never graduated. A good place to start is with our own California-accredited and registered law schools, over which the State Bar and the Committee of Bar Examiners have jurisdiction.

For a state with 44 law schools, that would be an excellent start.

15 Responses to California Bar President pwns law schools in lengthy screed

  1. Alan says:

    What does this have to do with the law schools? They have no debt and are not looking for jobs. The law schools simply offered a product. Is there some allegation they were deceptive in the marketing of their product? I see no evidence of that in the article.

    The title of your post should be “California Bar President pwns all of the idiots who decided to go to law school”. Those are the people facing massive debt and no job prospects, but the reasons are entirely due to their own personal decision to take that gamble. Are the students now entitled to blame everyone else for the position they put themselves in? What happened to personal responsibility?

    • MikeZ says:

      I always thought that it was pretty standard college marketing practice to say this degree would help you professionally. Certainly they said that when I got my engineering degree. Just quickly clicking on some of the links of accredited CA law schools I see:

      “At Empire College, we offer the career training you need to be successful.”, “Your Success – Our Priority”, “For over 110 years, we have been serving motivated, determined students who want a wide variety of options and a competitive advantage in the career marketplace”.

      So yeah I’d say the marketing might not be straightforward. Probably not with any intended malice, just the fact that Professors tend to think they are necessary.

      Certainly the students are also to blame, but I bet they were given some pretty lousy advice*. At the school I went to this data was collected, of course I went during an economic boom so they were happy to publish the data. I don’t know if they still do now that things are tougher.

      *I think the bad advice/choices probably started prior to law school. I suspect there are a lot of students entering Law School as a way of justifying their 4 year History/English degree. No desirable job there so they throw the dice and go to school for another few years.

    • evrenseven says:

      When you’re being lied to your face about your employment hopes upon graduation- it becomes the fault of the liar, not the recipient. The incoming class of law in 2005 at Santa Clara was given some glowing 97% employment rate after 9 months with a few percent chasing other degrees afterwords. Why would you *not* try? If it weren’t for my background and other qualifications, I’d be on the beach in Costa Rica working at a bar for $5/ day avoiding my law school debt.

      I went to this “law jobs mixer” at my law school and seeing the 2009/ 2010 grads was the most depressing thing ever. None of them could even sniff a job. They were *also* told 97% of them would be employed 9 months after graduation.

    • JPM says:

      Should Honda be able to say that a Civic does 200 mpg when it does 40mpg?

      Should Home Depot be able to sell lumber that they claim is pressure treated waterproof when it isn’t?

      I’m sure your answer to those is no and no.
      Btw….if either company made such false representations they would be looking a massive class action lawsuit.

      Should law schools be able to publish false or misleading employment statistics to induce people to pay for their product? Why else do they publish these statistics if not to induce people to go to their law school?

      It’s simply not fair to blame the student entirely and say “caveat emptor.” I should also mention that in the vast majority of states, “caveat emptor” has been replaced with “seller beware.”

      Another thing is I don’t know anyone who thought they would walk into a $160k job after law school… about any job at all???

      How do we stop this problem? Actually we could get the government out of th student loan industry entirely. Paradoxically they make law school less affordable by allowing anyone with a pulse to get loans.

      1. Loans to smart people who would not be able to go to LS otherwise i.e. 170 plus on LSAT.
      2. Abolish Federal funding of loans.
      3. Bankruptcy protection for loans.
      4. Invest money saved by funding state law schools properly so that they truly are AFFORDABLE. (note UMASS LAw has just opened with tuition of $24,000 a year!)

  2. There was a time when practical apprenticeship was the method of education. When you and Marco criticize the law school process, is that what you advocate? As an older person who would love to consider law, the idea of entering a new job market with $100K in debt is a real deal-breaker. I love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter.

    • evrenseven says:

      Unless you are (going for free) OR (incurring minimum debt AND have a near guaranteed job through a connection) DON’T do it.

      PS if you understood that logical statement you can be a patent lawyer.

  3. David says:

    I think that he could have gone a little more easier on the students really. It is hard enough to go through the schooling for some and then the market is even more struggling. However, maybe this is what students really need. It is a trying world out there and there are many who would want to make it even more bad for them. Good post illustrating the point of view that needs to be displayed.

    • J DeVoy says:

      Agreed. Students should be more cognizant of the risks, but that’s difficult, if not impossible, when the only information that’s vaguely credible is in comments on abovethelaw and message boards.

      • David says:

        But you never know. The generation is changing and more and more reliable information is going out there and will help. Hopefully. I was a law student for 4 years and decided that I wanted to reroute to teaching instead of practicing it.

  4. Twelve Ex You says:

    But I’m going to make a zillion dollars as a lawyer and fight for the rights of the little man just like Denny Crane and Jack McCoy. Fuck Yeah!

  5. evrenseven says:

    Ok, this is really starting to piss me off. 10 comments, 3 of them from me, on this site. 3 joking comments on BL1Y. Above the law hasn’t even covered this. Clearly, what’s going on in the law student community is that students would like to throw all blame unequivocally on the law school businesses who led them with false promises of 6 figure jobs to incur 6 figures of debt. However, the lack of coverage, and the lack of interest where covered, of the PRESIDENT OF THE CA BAR acknowledging exactly that is very telling. Now that there may be a powerful ally on the side of students who can’t find a job, everyone shuts up because they can no longer complain?

    Some of us are unemployed/ marginally employed because we got shitty grades at shitty law schools. Done and done.

    • rh says:

      But if you got shitty grades at a shitty law school whose fault is that?

      On the one hand yeah, the employment stats are complete bullshit. Low ranked schools do have unfair practices, such as my alma mater (accredited, barely) that cuts almost a third of the 1L class every year. On the other hand I think there is a bit of willful ignorance on the part of students who don’t really think all that much about the tremendous risk they are taking when they sign that promissory note and send in that acceptance letter to a low ranked law school. Adequately assessing risk to reward is after all an important part of being an attorney. Some of the solutions people discuss, such as making it more difficult to get loans or eliminating law schools, will unfairly harm those people who knowingly want to take that risk, and for whom the reward was well worth it.

      • cb says:

        Right on. I knew I was taking a risk when, in my mid-thirties with a wife, kids, mortgage, etc., I decided to go back to school.
        Law was not my initial inclination, but it seemed to involve things I liked–advocacy and writing. I figure it will pay off in about ten years. I had no illusions that I would drastically increase my family’s standard of living in the short term. But I know that I will be able to practice law much longer than than I would be able to wire homes.
        I just graduated. I plan on passing the bar and getting to work, on my own if necessary. Being an attorney involves a professional license for christ’s sake. While it would be ideal to get some “mentoring,” it is apparent to me that whether I have a mentor or not, it is up to me to figure out how to get the job done. I would take having paying clients over a “job” any day.
        To be clear, I think a legal education–at least at a TTT the likes of which I just left is way overpriced. But that applies to just about any post secondary education. I resolved not to let the fact that I was not independently wealthy keep me from pursuing a certain career.
        Bottom line is that I knew it was risky. Should it be that risky? I don’t think so. Society in general benefits from its members being educated. Will I feel cheated if I never get a BMW? Not really. There is such a thing as helping people in need and applying yourself in a way that can make things better for others that follow. For me, it was not simply about buying a bigger house. Working for wages was a dead end. Ideally, in the legal profession merit–in its broadest sense–will be rewarded.
        Crushing debt sucks. But I knew what I was doing when I signed up. If I let it be only be about the debt, then it will only, and always, suck.

  6. Locke says:

    I’m with you, evrenseven,

    The fact that the Prez of the Cali Bar has the cojones to say in a public forum what scam bloggers and TTTT grads have been screaming about for years is huge!

    California is a huge state and a major legal market…if the CA Bar begins to change the system, or at the very least openly admit that the current system is frakked up, there might be some hope for the 0Ls.

  7. Harry Mauron says:

    Law schools have a pretty evil business model. It’s more like a Japanese game show with an undisclosed jackpot than like job training – especially for students who want to actually practice Reallaw (as opposed to Biglaw) upon graduation.

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