Friday, July 29, 2011

NYLS Dean Richard Matasar speaks to National Law Journal about NYT article

You know the one we're talking about.  Personally, I think the Dean Matasar is very sincere in his desire to change the supply-side problems with legal education and that the NYT's article unfairly singled him out for criticism. But don't take my word for it; in this interview with the National Law Journal, Dean Matasar tries to set the record straight (again) about high tuition, allegedly misleading employment stats and the slow process of legal education reform:

The National Law Journal spoke with Matasar about the Times article and why meaningful change at law school is so slow to come about. His answers have been edited for length.

National Law Journal: The New York Times reporter used your administration at New York Law School to make a larger point about legal education. Do you think it was fair to zero in on you?

Rick Matasar: You're going to zero in on somebody. I've been outspoken on the issues, and our school is an expensive law school. It's an easy enough set up: The person who represents an expensive law school is claiming we should lower costs. I wasn't surprised to be set up as a poster child, but I think it was unfair. Most of my writing and most of the things anyone can look at about the cost of legal education talk about how inflexible the costs are and how a minimum investment in a law school — in a regulated environment — almost ensures it will be a very expensive institution. I think it was unfair to focus on costs without focusing on value.

NLJ: But cost seems to be one of the things students are most concerned about.

R.M.: They are, but the question I always ask is, "What's the alternative?" When students ask the question upon graduating from college, "What am I going to do with my life?" they face high levels of unemployment as a B.A. out of college….When we have a conversation with students about that, we tell them, "Here is the cost side," so it's not a hidden discussion. We also tell them that the chance of landing a six-figure job immediately on graduation are not that great, certainly outside the top 10 or 15 law schools, but the long-term return on an investment in legal education has been, and continues to be, pretty good.

NLJ: You wrote a response to The New York Times article that said, essentially, that law schools can't cut costs because of the accreditation requirements set by the American Bar Association. It seems a little too easy to place all the blame on the ABA. The ABA didn't require New York Law School to build a new building, and it doesn't dictate what you pay your faculty. A recent IRS filing indicates that a few faculty members earn more than $300,000. Don't you have a responsibility to keep costs low for your students outside the ABA requirements?

R.M.: Yes, we do have that responsibility. There are ways that we've managed costs — though we are an expensive law school — that are quite different from other law schools. For example, a student who comes to NYLS never has their tuition increased while they are here. As far as I know, we are the only law school that does that.

NLJ: But can't you do that because your tuition is already high?

R.M.: We can, but when I came in as dean, almost 12 years ago, we were in the middle of the pack as far as New York law school tuition. We're still in the middle of the pack on tuition. In that time, we've also managed to put together a first-rate facility for our students and substantially increase the quality of our faculty with people who are doing almost all skills training, as opposed to doctrinal teaching. We improved our bar passage rate from 58% to consistently in the mid-80s or higher. We were an expensive law school 12 years ago and we are expensive law school now, but the increase in value over that period is exponential.

The second part is that we're in a competitive market….There are 15 New York law schools. Could we be the one law school in New York that decides it will reduce the quality of its program? Could we be the one law school in New York not to invest in student services, career services and a good faculty? Those are all things you have to be attentive to. Hiring a full-time faculty in a city like New York, you're going to have to be competitive with the salaries and benefits of other New York law schools. We don't have housing, as some of the other law schools in the city have. We don't have a university with hospitals where faculty can get their medical services. We're a stand-alone law school and we compete with law schools at very large universities that offer quite substantial packages for their employees.

NLJ: Do you think the typical New York Law School student would prefer a higher-profile faculty over lower tuition?

R.M.: All people want lower cost and higher quality. In the long run, we're talking about the preparation for a 50-year career. We can only reduce tuition by so much because we have a fixed set of costs in the people we've hired, and we have a fixed set of costs in the physical plant we maintain. We have a fixed set of costs that have to do with utility payments, the payments to maintain a library, the payments to keep an IT system functioning….It costs a lot to run a residential program if you're going to provide quality education to the students.

And, in the regulatory system that we have, there's a minimum requirement for what all schools must have to be an accredited law program….In the long run, any existing institution out there has to deal with the cost structure, but it's only got so many tools in the arsenal to deal with it. In the meantime, you still have to compete against the other 199 law schools that either will or will not choose to compete on cost. In this market, there are less expensive law schools. How much less expensive? Five or six thousand dollars. That's it. Except for [City University of New York School of Law] and [State University of New York at Buffalo Law School], the two publicly subsidized law schools.

NLJ: OK, but if your tuition is in the ballpark of the tuition at New York University School of Law, shouldn't your graduates expect to have similar job prospects as those coming out of NYU? It seems like buying a Toyota at the cost of a Mercedes-Benz.

R.M.: I sometimes talk about an education in terms that analogize it to a car — I give a talk to every first year student here that says coming to law school is like buying a brand new Mercedes-Benz every year on credit and pushing it off a cliff. But that metaphor isn't true. Unlike each Mercedes-Benz you buy, a year of law school takes you toward a lifelong career and the ability to practice law.

Education is not a commodity. It's not a product. It's a process of learning and becoming more than what you are before you start. The question becomes: If you are going to create an educational product for the student and equip them with the skills, and it's going to be expensive anyway, do you want it to be expensive and crappy or expensive and good? We've come to the conclusion that our first responsibility is to be as good as we can be.

NLJ: Most legal educators will agree with you that a law degree is a life-long investment, but most of your students are primarily concerned about that first job they will get when they graduate and how that will set them up for the rest of their career.

R.M.: That's true, but this is not a market when any student who comes to law school believes that the path is golden. The claims that, "I was so surprised to find out not every student gets a job at $160,000 a year," might have been significantly more credible three or four years ago. We are very forthright with our students about the job expectations they have….Students are not stupid and they're not naive. The testimonials we hear from students are very different from the stories that show up in the blogs, which is from a very dissatisfied group of students.

NLJ: What percentage of your students are finding full-time time legal employment nine months after graduation? The school's Web site says that 85% of the class of 2010 was employed after nine months, but doesn't separate those in full-time and part-time jobs.

R.M.: I can't tell you the exact number, but it's not as high as we'd like it to be. Most of the people who get their first job are getting it in something that's less than what they want. They're getting part-time work. They're stringing together a number of part-time jobs. They're getting full-time jobs at a lower salary that what they'd like. They're going to a small firm instead of a medium firm. They're not doing public-interest, they're doing government. But that's not different than it was 20 years ago or 30 years ago. The profession of law is incredibly mobile.

NLJ: The New York Times article discussed class size at New York Law School. Regardless of the so-called "bulge class" of 2009, which was 171 students larger than the previous class, you still graduate lots of students — about 500 a year. Do you think law schools have an obligation to reduce incoming classes in response to the job market? We've seen a number of law schools do that this year.

R.M.: That's a very complicated question. "We're reducing our class size." OK. Are you doing it because you want to or because you have to? I would say that the post hoc rationalization of reducing class size is one of the favorite tools of the world. New York Law School will have about 85 or 90 fewer students in the class that enters in the fall of 2011. I hereby declare we cut our class size. We did. Fewer students decided to come. That's a market. Fewer students decided to go to lots of law schools, and therefore they downsized. Ten students out of a class of 300 is a downsizing? I have some skepticism about the, "We are voluntarily choosing to downsize for moral reasons," when we are talking about very few numbers of students.

Secondly, let's suppose you can downside a law school, and by so doing you have to lay off faculty and staff because you don't have the income to pay their salaries. What are you doing to offset and improve the quality of the education of the students who are going to enroll? Will you cut classes? Will you cut the options they have in the upper level curriculum? Will you cut the delivery of career services? There is a relationship between the income of a school and what it provides to its students.

Cutting — where the purpose of the cutting is to achieve maintenance of your LSAT score to keep your rank in U.S. News, then accepting a large number of transfer students from some other school — is not cutting. That's predatory behavior. It does noting, in terms of the ultimate demand curve of education or the number of people out there in the job market. There are people who want to attend law school. They're going to attend my law school or they will attend the law school down the street.

NLJ: Given that New York Law School is stand-alone, and not expected to turn over a certain percentage of revenue to a larger university or answer to university administrators, don't you have more flexibility to experiment and find ways to lower costs? If you can't do that, what hope do other schools have?

R.M.: Yes. What are some of the differences? We have some control over our security costs, over building and grounds, over food service, over lots of central services that universities provide for their schools. When people talk about a tax rate [the percentage of revenue law schools are expected to turn over to their universities] — and I've been a university-based law school dean as long as I've been an independent law school dean — the cost of running places are very high, and universities bear those costs. So, schools are paying into a central overhead pool, and that's not a whole lot different than what happens at our law school, with us having to pay those costs directly. When you compare apples to apples, there's not going to be a lot of difference in the cost structures, although we have some more control.

As far as experimentation, our program is quite different. We do things that lots of university-based law schools would never do. We have a program that's directed toward our bottom-graded students that helps them get across the finish line and pass the bar exam. No schools, when we started, were doing this. We require the program. We staff it differently. We just brought in 15 first-year full-time faculty to teach a consolidated legal skills program in coordination with the other first-year classes. These are not rookie people right out of law schools. These are experienced, practicing lawyers making this their full-time job. That's a skills-training move that very few university-based law schools could do because they have the university telling them everybody has to be a research faculty member.

In terms of costs, we would push the envelope as far as we could with distance learning, and we've done that, but we can't go any further than what the regime [ABA] permits. We've got proposals to move to a two-year undergraduate program with a three-year J.D. follow-on for a total of five years, but we can't do that without ABA permission. There are things we are pushing all the way to the limit as an attempt to try things that will be more radical.

At the same time, the students who currently exist at New York Law School don't want to be at a school that is the Pariah College of Law and looks so different from every other law school that they feel they are at a disadvantage.

NLJ: But there's the rub. If no one is willing to take that leap, where will the change come from?

R.M.: It comes, as most things do, incrementally, unless the world comes to an end. If no one wanted to go to law school tomorrow, there would be a lot of radical change in legal education. People are still coming. I will say this: If you look across all law schools and ask the question of where things are happening, this is one of the places that is pushing and trying to make change occur.

NLJ: You've been talking about change in legal education for 20 years. In reality, how much appetite for change is there? People still want to go to law schools, law schools are still profitable and professors and administrations generally make good money. What's the incentive to change?

R.M.: There's some. For people who have been at this for a long time who are toward the tail ends of their careers, there's very little incentive to want to change. People can ride out the current world all the way to the end. They are secure and safe.

Younger faculty and administrators in our field see that there is a long horizon for this, and their appetite for change is quite strong. There are two drivers happening at the same time: a push and a pull. The push is easy. Students will push for changes. The government will push for changes. Reporters will push for change. The blogs will push for changes. People who see there might be a better way are pushing for change.

The pull portion is a little harder. The pull is coming from regulators. The pull is coming from those within. The pull is coming from the law firm world. And the pull is not very strong right now, but it is increasing. It will come from the employment world, as employers of all stripes do not want to be engaged in the training of law students. They do not want to be engaged in the finance mission of law students. They don't want responsibility for the young people in the profession.

I think the change period is upon us, and I think it will come to law schools probably sometime after it happens in other parts of the higher education hierarchy.


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