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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is Dean Lawrence Mitchell right about law schools?

In a New York Times op-ed piece (here), Dean Lawrence Mitchell of Case Western Reserve makes the case that law school is a good investment.  I know that a lot of my colleague deans loved the op-ed, but I found myself very uneasy while (and after) reading it.  And my reasons for my unease are precisely why what I'm about to say will alienate many fellow law deans.*

Sure, law school can give people a great education, even if law graduates find themselves working in non-law jobs.  Any good graduate program that helps students develop their analytical, research, and communication skills will be a plus for all sorts of jobs.

But most legal education is expensive, and students who are borrowing thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable debt need to think clearly about whether they'll be able to pay off that debt upon graduation.  I'm guessing that most law students are not particularly comforted by the idea that they'll find jobs eventually, over a 40-50 year span.  Therefore, Dean Mitchell's suggestion that "[t]he focus on first jobs is misplaced[; because we] educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years" fails to consider the very real fear that many recent graduates have about making ends meet when their loans first kick in.

What this op-ed represents, at least to me, is confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is a powerful phenomenon.  For those who want to suggest that law school is always a good idea, they can focus on the fact that many law graduates do get good (or at least decent) jobs and that applications to law school haven't dried up yet.  On the other hand, applications to law school have been dropping.  Bad job market + non-dischargeable debt = decline in applications.  That's no coincidence.  Potential law students are starting to do some basic arithmetic.  If you want to work against the natural confirmation bias that law deans probably have, see, e.g., here and here.

We can spend a lot of time congratulating each other on the idea that law school can produce well-educated people, or we could pay attention to some very disturbing trends.  Those trends include the bimodal distribution of law salaries, the changes in law firm economics (see here, here, and here, for starters), and--frankly--the changes in law school economics.  I didn't see Dean Mitchell's op-ed address those issues, but to be fair, an op-ed is likely not the right forum in which to address them.

I believe that legal education can be a wonderful thing, and I believe that law is an honorable profession.  I'm proud of the legal education that Boyd Law provides to its students, of the legal research that our faculty does, and of the service we provide to our community.  But just as the phrase "thinking like a lawyer" grates on my nerves because it implies that no other profession teaches top-notch analytical skills, the idea that legal education is important because it's the best way of teaching how to reason and communicate is dangerously naive.

That's why you won't see me posting Dean Mitchell's op-ed on our law school's website.  Maybe I can now add "and persona non grata" to my Interim Dean title.

* Now that I'm Interim Dean, I need to mention that these views are mine alone, and not those of the law school or of UNLV (even though you probably already figured that out).

UPDATE (11/30/12):  For a more fun way of saying the same thing, see LawProfBlog's post (here).

UPDATE (12/2/12):  And for a way more erudite way of saying it, see The Faculty Lounge's post (here).


  1. Dean Mitchell wouldn't survive 10 minutes of cross examination. Ironically, I did not learn how to cross examin a witness until after I graduated law school.

    The law school rankings could help if they factored the cost of legal education into their equation. Wise law school Deans would do everything they could to keep costs of a legal education in check. They would begin by eliminating idiotic programs which no one other than academics cares about. More energy would be placed on raising money for law school scholarships as opposed to building funds

    Good for you for not standing on the sideline cheering Dean Mitchell and drinking his Kool Aid.

  2. Professor and Dean (a.i.) Rapoport - I'd be surprised if such a mild (almost milquetoast (not intended to be insulting)) critique would make of you a persona non grata amongst the law dean set.

    Still, I think it is very important that you, a dean (even if a.i. ;-) ), should write any critique of Dean Mitchell's advertisement (oops, `scuse me, "Op-Ed"). I suppose that may make of you an unpopular dean with the other deans who are celebrating Mitchell's piece.

    As for being proud of Boyd - you do a heck of a lot better job when it comes to employment outcomes for your graduates than does Larry at CW. And you do it for almost $100,000 less in total COA than does Larry.

    Anyway - thank you for writing this. I do think it's important that a Dean and movie star step up to the plate and make mention that the emperor is underdressed.

  3. This discussion about 40-50 year career is entirely misguided. Except for self-interested law school academics, everyone knows that if you can't find a job in law within 9 months to a year out of law school, you basically are damaged goods. No firm is going to hire you now; and certainly no firm is going to hire you in 40 years. There's a whole generation of law graduates that are SOL since they never obtained the experience. Even with experience, the longevity of a lawyer in private practice is not good. For example, your salary becomes too high and the partners replace you with cheap fresh meat. All these academics are just trying to delude prospective students and keep the gravy train rolling. Too bad it won't be much longer before all the b.s. comes to a grinding halt. I applaud Nancy for having some semblance of dignity and revealing the true story even though it may not be the story that benefits her livelihood.

  4. Shouldn't law schools be lobbying to make the loans dischargeable in bankruptcy?

    The students and youngest lawyers can't. They don't want to be called losers or have potential employers nix their CVs because a Google search revealed activism.

    But, if the federal funding of student loans continues, the law schools would still be paid up front, regardless of whethere the student declares BK in five, ten or more years.

    1. Anonymous--I agree that law schools should work w/Congress to make the loans dischargeable, but I don't agree that students and youngest lawyers should be afraid of speaking up. I would hope that we're not raising a generation of law-trained people who are afraid of advocacy--or of the repercussions of speaking up for things about which they're passionate.

    2. I disagree with the concept of discharging student loans.

      I represented several private universitites in Ohio in the late 80s, when student loans were dischargable. My clients lent money directly to their students for undergrad and graduate school. I listened to my clients talk of the dramtic financial problems that were created when large percentages of grantuating classes walked down to the courts and flushed the loan debt the day after graduating.

      The moral hazard of discharging student loans needs to be considered.

      Personally, I would prefer one-to-one year service for loan trade-off. Whereby a student or graduate would perform military, government (state, local, or federal), or other charitable service (peace corps) in exchange for having their loans forgiven.

  5. NR -- People are not afraid of advocacy, but they are terrified of saying something which could harm their employment chances.

    With hundreds of resumes per advertised opening, firms can reject people for any perceived shortcoming. If you make the cut for a possible interview, they will Google your name, and blog posts or interviews about student loan bankruptcy discharges will cause concern solely because of the topic. It's irrational, but people presume that any young person advocating for BK discharge must be an irresponsible, lazy wastrel.

    The tight job market is creating an age of hyper-conformity.

    The students and young lawyers

    1. Anonymous--it's possible that you're right, but when I visit with folks at firms, they tell me that they're Googling for serious judgment issues (drunk pix and the like). Not one of them has told me that speaking up would be a problem. It's possible that they're just not mentioning that, but it's also possible that they don't care about whether their associates speak up on important issues. And because networking is the name of the game, associates who don't get their names "out there" in the world are actually at a disadvantage.

  6. JVN -- Your argument proves too much, as all lenders are financially harmed when borrowers do not pay. Lenders should adjust for that fact through their interest rates and underwriting decisions. And perhaps institutions of higher education should stick with what they know and stay out of the banking business.

    I would think that your burden would be to establish why student loans out of almost all other consumer debt are treated differently. The issuing banks are harmed every time someone defaults on a credit card, regardless of whether the card was used to pay for health care or for gambling. In those cases, BK protection exists. Why not for student loans?

    Your service idea seems unworkable. An entire corps of managers would need be hired to find something for these people to do and then to manage them. In any job, it takes a few years to learn the ropes, and under your program that's exactly when they would leave. Meanwhile, the Bankruptcy Courts exist, and their people and procedures are already in place; all that needs to be done is a change in the statutes. But your service proposal raises the same overriding question: Why should student loan discharges be treated so differently?

  7. I'll let Jeff speak for himself, but there are other types of debt that are also non-dischargeable, so it's inaccurate to suggest that student loans are the only types of debt that have discharge issues. For a list, see here:

  8. The burden is on the graduate to get a job in one of these areas. I'm not remotely saying that we should create jobs for them. I'm saying if they are willing to take what is normally considered a low paying job then maybe we, as a society, should give them a break on their student loans. Of course with the current austerity moves and reducing the size of government to cut the budget, that leaves fewer options, except the military or possibly the peace corps.

    I don't buy the idea that such a proposed program is flawed simply because lots of folks will leave immediately upon fulfilling their "obligation" and getting the last of their loans forgiven. We already have a revolving door population, where few people stay in their jobs more than 4 or 5 years before moving onto something else. That is certainly true of most law firms and the military now.

    At present the law is clear. It was changed (in part) to stop the abuses noted in my earlier post. The burden falls on the folks who want to see the law changed to explain why the rampant abuse that happened before is not likely to happen again. That might happen, maybe not - in the meantime they are nondischargable.

  9. Anonymous at 08:10, "I would think that your burden would be to establish why student loans out of almost all other consumer debt are treated differently. "

    Are there other consumer debts that may be discharged in bk for which there is no thing which may be repossessed by the creditor or their successor?

  10. This is a welcome post.

    The reality is that law schools are not good investments for most students. For some, who can get into an Ivy, or who graduate from their law school in the top 20% or 30% it may well be worthwhile. But what about all the others? Should law schools have a disclaimer to this effect: " we are a 2nd, 3rd or 4th tier law school, and if you don't graduate in the top X percent, you will likely not find a job."

    There is a second issue here that Mitchell misses. Law school is not like graduate school in the social sciences, for example. At a research university most faculty teaching graduate courses are bonafide scholars. This is not the "case" for most law schools. Faculty can have published in a 4th tier school's "law and ___" jounal or even in any of a number of low level student edited "flagship" law journals, and still be promoted. Why then pay very high salaries to these law professors, on the back of law students; half of whom, of course, will be in the bottom 50% of their class?

    I have no argument with paying the high salaries to faculty at top schools, who have substantial records of scholarship, and whose law schools are recognized by employers. But once we reach below the top 15 or maybe 20 law schools, the value for investment drops dramatically.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous--I agree with a lot about what you've said, but I wouldn't cut off the value of law schools at the top 20. They're great, of course, but so are a lot of top state schools. The important issue is whether a particular law school is a good value, and there are a lot of factors that can contribute to value. I'm not a fan of arbitrary cutoffs in general, but I sure do agree with you that law school is not an automatically good choice.


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