September 2, 2009
Drawing the Right Lessions from the Bleak Entry-Level Legal Job Market
[by Bill Henderson, co-posted to the ELS Blog]
As the fall progresses, many law students and law school administers will be trying to assess the direction of three market trends: (1) the number or percentage of summer associates who receive offers of permanent employment; (2) the prevalence of deferrals among those lucky enough to be offered jobs; and (3) the volume of summer offers coming out of this year's OCI process. Nobody expects cheery numbers. But as the market information comes in over the next few months, law schools will be in a better position to assess the new landscape.
- Naivete. The modal student entering law school is not homo economicus. Rather, he or she is young, inexperienced, and overly impressed with branding--largely through US News--and the opinions of peers. IQ does not shield the young from overconfidence and the reflexive desire to impress others through the acquisition of positional goods. Indeed, sometimes intelligence in the absence of commonsense can make matters worse.
- Poorly Priced Credit. Banks have lent students funds without a sharp eye to repayment risk. The terms of loans are largely the same regardless of law school attended, geographic market conditions, and law school performance. Yes, historically law students have repaid their loans. But that is the same sloppy logic that created the housing bubble. The only way the math works is if the vast majority of law school graduates, despite low or no starting salaries, experience a steady, multi-year surge in income. This is a foolish assumption for anyone who understands the current state of law firm economics. Of course, just like most home mortgages, student debt over and above the Federal Stafford Loans, often get bundled together, turned into securities, and sold.
- Law Schools are Self-Interested and Locked in a Positional Competition. This is not a criticism; it is a statement of fact. Law schools work very hard to manage their market position, including their US News rank, because students and alumni can be completely demoralized with a significant decline. It does not matter if the decline in quality is illusory; stakeholders will declare the patient sick. This may surprise naive law students, but law schools cannot be counted on to be an objective broker. We need a regulator to level the playing field and force us to be transparent. Which brings me to my fourth point ... .
- Failure of Self-Regulation. The ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar bears some responsibility here, but not become it has accredited too many law schools -- the antitrust implications of barring market entry are real. Rather, the Section has become too focused on the comfort of its law school members. If the Section collected and published detailed employment outcome information in a way that facilitated school-to-school comparisons--yes, just like US News--the information would trickle down to potential law schools. It is not helpful to say that 15% of a school's graduates work in business -- they need to know how many of those 15% are waiting tables, driving a cab, or selling insurance. Re jobs in private practice, how many are working as contract attorneys? Nobody really knows, and the issue is not on the Section's agenda. If these data are published, some law schools would probably go out of business.
I really enjoyed the post. Wouldn't the prevailing approach in the academy be to keep one's head down and try to ride out the downturn? Are there any entrepreneurs out there?
Posted by: John Steele | Sep 3, 2009 7:46:56 AM
Overall, I don't disagree, however, I think points 1 and 4 are in tension. First, the claim is that most law students aren't acting in a perfectly rational manner and/or without perfect information. Then, the claim is that the answer is not real regulation, but the publishing of better statistics.
It would seem to me, at least, that, if point 1 holds, then no matter the quality of the stats, people will still end up with too much debt and too few job prospects. It would be great to know how many 1st year calls end up as contract attorneys, but do you think any budding pre-law student would ever imagine it could be them?
Posted by: Eric Grigg | Sep 3, 2009 9:41:32 AM
As always, well-done and much food for thought. Three minor points/queries: Engagement with practicing lawyers sounds correct, but what exactly do you envision? Busy lawyers may or may not have much to tell legal academia about how to teach law students better other than to say "give them some practical skills/experience, not just case-analysis skills", or "teach them excellent writing skills" (in my opinion as a lawyer who practiced 12 years before full-time academia, something law schools don't do well because it's too labor-intensive). But we already know this, so what exactly do you think that engagement with the practicing bar should look like?
Also, why not focus a little more on hiring law faculty who have significant legal practice experience, say 5 years or more? I know why that won't happen, but think that it's too bad the legal academy continues to de-value the deep skills and judgment that actual practice experience can provide, since I think it can enrich the classroom greatly.
Last, why empirical training? I'm a big fan of empirical training because I have an intellectual interest in it in my academic work, but am not convinced it makes one a better lawyer. But I'm open to being convinced!
Posted by: Bill Gallagher | Sep 3, 2009 11:12:42 AM
Your final paragraph made my day.
Legal education needs some serious reform. I think there needs to be more engagement in the classroom--professors should not just lecture, but should hold discussions. There should be more hands-on simulations: writing complaints, answers, motions, etc. And there should be a reinstatement of the old apprenticeship model. You're 100% spot on when you say this will require "engagement with practicing lawyers and recourse to empirical methods."
Posted by: GJELblogger | Sep 3, 2009 11:45:50 AM
Bill, I agree with the comments that note your usual thoughtfulness. I don't think your last sentence necessarily applies all the way up and down the rankings. I will focus, for better or worse, on what even Brian Leiter agrees can't be cooked in U.S. News, the peer reputation score, and assume for the time being that it is meaningful; it is in fact a substantial driver in the total U.S. News score. If the school's goal is to move up in the rankings (on the not unreasonable theory, per Russ Korobkin, I think, that rankings are indeed a meaningful coordination device), I suspect it's the case that a school in the middling top 100 is going to get more bang for the buck by being innovative in teaching methodology. That's because it's a bell curve out there, even if the rankings are ordinal, and small moves in faculty quality likely won't move you a tenth of a point. But if you are at the far end of the bell curve (i.e. lower third tier or fourth tier), making a splash on faculty hiring and retention, such that you get noticed, is likely more meaningful. That is, it's probably easier to move a couple tenths of a point, and that does scoot you up the charts.
Cases in point on programs I know almost nothing about - your point may be well-taken for Washington & Lee (I think it has an innovative third year program), but I'm not so sure it's correct for University of Detroit-Mercy (which I know has an innovative program). UDM got a splash - did it (or will it) actually move up the food chain?
Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Sep 3, 2009 1:49:45 PM
When I was a student going from an undergrad engineering curriculum to law school, I noticed that law school gave less feedback and gave it less often than in my prior field. Most education experts say timely feedback is very important for improvement. Yet in most law school classes, the first and only work a student submits is a final exam or a term paper. Writing classes offer some feedback, but still only several times a semester.
Finally, there seems to be an inconsistency between writing instructors on what constitutes the best writing technique, for example, what balance of trade-offs results in the most persuasive argument. Regardless of how many writing classes or law school papers a student writes, it is still quite possible that a law firm supervisor will consider that student's writing skills to be inadequate, until that student learns exactly what techniques the supervisor views as good writing. At a certain level, it seems that some skills are better learned on the job.
Perhaps the best way law schools could offer more value would be to reduce the length and cost of their programs, so students could start gaining on-the-job experience earlier and incur less debt. Many programs, institutes, and multiple layers of associate/assistant deans could be scaled back. Professors could be asked to teach more than one course so fewer professors would be needed, thus decreasing the cost of operating the law school. Many (non-law) graduate programs charge far lower tuition; students there typically have more close contact with professors.
Posted by: Practice of Law | Sep 3, 2009 10:34:34 PM