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.