"We Should Be Ashamed of Ourselves"

A huge thank-you to law professor Paul Caron for shining a public spotlight on a big problem.

Professor Caron has highlighted some astonishing bits of a recent podcast from a meeting of law school admnistrators:

AALS Committee on Research Program (Jan. 9, 2009), Citations, SSRN Downloads, U.S. News, Carnegie, Bar Passage, Careers: Competing Methods of Assessing Law Schools (podcast):

Bill Henderson (Indiana):

  • 25:55: At 50 law schools, 20% of the students are either unemployed, flunked out, or are unknown, yet the ABA and LSAC disavow the use of data to rank law schools.

Richard Matasar (Dean, New York Law School):

  • 1:16:50: "We are an input-focused business, and outputs are what the students are paying for."
  • 1:21:20: "We should be ashamed of ourselves. We own our students' outcomes. We took them. We took their money. We live on their money to pay to come to San Diego [where the conference was held]. And if they don't have a good outcome in life, we're exploiting them. It's our responsibility to own the outcomes of our institutions. If they're not doing well ... it's gotta be fixed. Or we should shut the damn place down. And that's a moral responsibility that we bear in the academy. It's a leadership responsibility that each of us has. And damn the U.S. News if it affects our rankings. The kids are not gonna show up. Do you know that LSAT registrations are flat to down this year. That students' applications to law school are flat to down in a substantial number of law schools. That's never happened in a downturn in the economy before. They're catching on. Maybe this thing they are doing is not so valuable. Maybe the chance at being in the top 10% is not a good enough lottery shot in order to effectively spend $120,000 and see it blow up at the end of three years of law school.

Jason Solomon (Georgia):

  • 1:29:20: "We're mad as heck and we can't take it anymore. ... To the panelists and others in the room: what are we going to do? Are people from AALS leadership here?"

Bryant G. Garth (Dean, Southwestern):

  • 1:32:00: "This group has stonewalled completely and killed any kind of real consumer information for 20 or 30 years, and that's what made U.S. News own this particular enterprise. And it's something that maybe those that stonewalled for some long might have to take some initiative and responsibility in remedying the situation we find ourselves in." 

I'm also grateful to these law school professors and administrators for taking both moral and practical responsibility for this state of affairs. Dean Matazar in particular deserves a lot of credit.

Prof. Carson also called attention to this great article by Kathy Kristof in Forbes magazine called The Great College Hoax, a hoax that also applies to graduate school. In relevant part:

Accepted into the California Western School of Law, a private San Diego institution, [Joel] Kellum couldn't swing the $36,000 in annual tuition with financial aid and part-time work. So he did what friends and professors said was the smart move and took out $60,000 in student loans.

Kellum's law school sweetheart, Jennifer Coultas, did much the same. By the time they graduated in 1995, the couple was $194,000 in debt. They eventually married and each landed a six-figure job. Yet even with Kellum moonlighting, they had to scrounge to come up with $145,000 in loan payments. With interest accruing at up to 12% a year, that whittled away only $21,000 in principal. Their remaining bill: $173,000 and counting.

Kellum and Coultas divorced last year. Each cites their struggle with law school debt as a major source of stress on their marriage. "Two people with this much debt just shouldn't be together," Kellum says.

The two disillusioned attorneys were victims of an unfolding education hoax on the middle class that's just as insidious, and nearly as sweeping, as the housing debacle. The ingredients are strikingly similar, too: Misguided easy-money policies that are encouraging the masses to go into debt; a self-serving establishment trading in half-truths that exaggerate the value of its product; plus a Wall Street money machine dabbling in outright fraud as it foists unaffordable debt on the most vulnerable marks. ...

Not only are college numbers spun. Some are patently spurious, says Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA. Law schools lure in minority students to improve diversity rankings without disclosing that less than half of African-Americans who enter these programs ever pass the bar. Schools goose employment statistics by temporarily hiring new grads and spotlighting kids who land top-paying jobs, while glossing over far-lower average incomes. The one certainty: The average law grad owes $100,000 in student debt. "There are a lot of aspects of selling education that are tinged with consumer fraud," Sander says. "There is a definite conspiracy to lead students down a primrose path." 

Here's what I've written on this subject before:

Readers of the Ivey Files and also my book (The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions) know that I've been discouraging people from attending all but the top law schools in the country, mainly because of simple math. As I wrote in The Ivey Guide:

You need to think of your legal education as an investment, and you should calculate your expected return on that investment. That's why it's so important to think about your career options coming out of various schools. If you have to pay $1,000 a month in after-tax dollars to cover your student loans, you'd better be sure you will be able to find work at a well-paying law firm after you graduate. If you graduate $100,000 in the hole, don't assume for as second you can run off and work for a public-interest legal clinic. And until you've paid off your debt, or unless you attend a law school with a generous loan-forgiveness program..., you won't have the freedom to go sit on a beach and stare at your belly button while you contemplate what you really want to do with your life. Think of it this way: Lots of people rush off to law school on the assumption that a law degree gives them freedom, but you don't really have freedom when you've mortgaged the next ten -- or thirty -- years of your life. (Law school graduates who join big firms don't have much trouble repaying their loans on the ten-year payment plan, but most law school graduates don't end up joining big firms, and many end up extending their loan-repayment schedules to thirty years.)


The further down the food chain [of law schools] you go..., the less of a safety net you have. Once you get to the second tier and below, you need to be at or near the top of your class to end up at a top firm in your region or with a top judge in your region (the national market is a much more difficult proposition), and people in the bottom half of the class often face grim hiring prospects.

Law school applicants fight me on this all the time, but I stick to my guns. Most ABA-approved law schools are not worth the investment. It's painful for people to hear, and most insist on learning this truth the hard way.

Read the rest of that post (and a discussion of the dodgy and arguably fraudulent recruiting and reporting practices of schools) here.

I'm also intrigued by Kathy Kristof's comparison, in her Forbes article above, of this college/law school hoax to the housing bubble and the real estate mess we find ourselves in. Economist Richard Vedder and his Center for College Affordability have done interesting work on this subject. Read their thoughts here and here.

Edited to add: A recent BU Law School grad's one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. "Don't Do What I Did."


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).