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Monday, March 05, 2012

On "Wining and Dining" Admitted Students

I am a daily reader of Paul Campos's "Inside the Law School Scam" blog. Early on, when I criticized the blog for its excesses, I added that whatever we may think of it or its author, the issues it discusses are real and worth paying attention to. I promised I would continue to read it and would pass along anything original or valuable I learned there, and let readers here make up their own minds. That hasn't involved much effort on my part, because Campos's blog rarely says anything original or valuable. (That's a high bar, and I'm not being unduly critical here. The same thing is true of most of blog posts, including mine.) But I did think it was worth sharing Campos's post from today, because it touches on my own school, the University of Alabama School of Law.

Campos's post is about efforts by schools to recruit admitted students to the law schools. He notes that on his recent visit to the University of Georgia, he encountered a number of recent admittees who were visiting the school to help make up their minds. And he adds that he heard from one student who had also been admitted to Alabama. Here's the key section from his post:

Alabama had flown him and several dozen other scholarship admits in for a recruiting weekend. The school paid for airfare and lodging -- something that must have added up to several tens of thousands of dollars.

I hadn't been aware that schools are actually paying 0Ls to visit, although given what else they (OK we) are spending money on, it makes sense. It probably makes more sense to spend $50,000 to fly people to your school and put them up for a couple of days than to spend money producing the garish "law porn" -- promotional materials advertising the school's virtues and accomplishments -- that has become ubiquitous in the age of the USNWR rankings.  Given how sticky institutional reputation is among law schools, this kind of thing seems like an almost complete waste of resources, both arboreal and human. 

I have no particular bones to pick with Campos's description. As far as I know, Alabama regularly brings in admitted students. I don't know how much it spends on these affairs, although I'm happy to try and find out. Certainly the number is less than $0, if only because of the lunches and the balloons, although I wouldn't assume it's $50,000 either. It also regularly allows admitted students, whether on those occasions or if they're just dropping by, to sit in on classes. It also makes special efforts to put admitted students in touch with professors and students who might answer their questions one-on-one.

Why go to this effort? That and more after the jump.

I can think of a variety of more or less cynical or worthy answers, depending on one's perspective--although I agree with Campos that in any case it's far better to spend one's money on prospective students than on brochures mostly intended for other law professors. One answer, which I consider unlikely in and of itself, is that Alabama (like most schools) is proud of what it does and wants to encourage any student who has been admitted to enroll. I'm sure that's true, but it seems quite incomplete.

A more likely, mostly pure of heart answer, is that Alabama wants the "best" admitted students to enroll, and puts its best foot forward to make that happen. I have a slight problem with this, because what "best" signifies is complicated. The "best" admitted students might, by some measures, simply be those who tested the best; but what potential clients in the state of Alabama might need most--and keep in mind that clients, not professors or law students, are the most important, needy, and potentially least well-served constituency of the law schools--could be students who are most likely to practice in underserved areas of law within the state, regardless (up to a point) of their test scores. So even this answer is not without moral complications. But it's not an outrageous answer; it's not wicked, I think, to want high-performing admitted students (along some measure) to attend one's law school.

Then there are some of the reasons why law schools want to capture the largest number of high-performing students in the pool of admitted students. Obviously, numbers and US News are a big part of this. Visits, scholarship offers, and so on are part of an effort to give the entering class the best possible numbers for purposes of the US News rankings. An important part of that story is implicit in another word Campos uses in his post: "Georgia." Peer schools in the same region often end up competing for the same pool of admitted students, and each wants to get the best "class," or the best "students," or the best "numbers," for itself. It's no surprise that Campos found that both Georgia and Alabama were entertaining admitted students, and that many of those students were one and the same.  

In Alabama's case, I would suspect (this is more speculation than inside knowledge) that a couple of additional factors are involved. They may not be utterly unique to our school, but certainly I think they are factors here. First, we are proud of the school. And that makes a difference because the school is in 1) Tuscaloosa, 2) Alabama. Tuscaloosa was hit by a tornado last year, and it may be especially important to bring students in to dispel any concerns or myths about how Tuscaloosa is doing. (We're doing great, thanks.)

And then there's what I think of as the "Alabama" issue. Most of our current students are from Alabama or the South and intend to practice in the area and hopefully the state itself. That's fitting, for a state school, and one value of our (relatively) low tuition and the state's low cost of living is that it makes in-state practice in important but not highly lucrative fields more feasible. But of course, we also have some broader ambitions. We want our school to be seen as a good place to come no matter where you're from, and as a school that provides the goods to send students (including those who were born and raised in Alabama) anywhere they want to go. Although many of our students attended undergrad schools in state and worked in the region before attending law school, others come from elsewhere. Moreover, some are Alabamians who went elsewhere for college and/or work, often to elite schools in other parts of the country. Some of them actively desire to return, and some are simply considering it. Both for reasons of numbers and for the good it may do for the state to reverse the brain drain and repatriate these talented young people, we are eager to bring them back home. For many of these varieties of admitted students, and especially those who have never been South before, there are often both myths and valid concerns about what it's like to live here. Even setting aside, family, money, work, and other serious constraints, there are plenty of 0Ls (and prospective professors too!) who would rather go to a so-called lower-tier school in New York or LA than a so-called higher-tier school in Alabama or [name your own state here]. My experience with symposium speakers, faculty prospects, and so on is that once people are in the building and on the ground, they tend to cast off their blinders and view Alabama, both the school and the state, quite positively and with a much less suspicious or prejudiced eye. There's real value to having them here and not just trying to convince them with a brochure or over the phone.

Is any of this "wining and dining" (which, incidentally, is much less lavish than it sounds) of admitted students good or bad in and of itself? My answer leans between neutrality and (mildly) "good," but with some caveats. As Campos writes, surely it's better to spend money on letting admitted students kick the tires for themselves than to spend it on flashy brochures. I definitely think there's a particular value for schools in places that are either less glamorous or more subject to certain prejudiced assumptions in bringing admitted students in situ to judge for themselves. (Yes, the building is nice. Yes, the teachers are good. Yes, the students are friendly, welcoming, and diverse. Yes, there are Thai restaurants.) The money spent at least goes to prospective students, and the visits provide at least some value for decision-making.

I have two or three caveats, I think. The first is that, again, we--all law schools, not just Alabama--need to consider our admitted students' needs, and the legal needs of our state, and not just US News numbers or our ambitions for the law school's "ranking" in making these decisions. I'm not saying we aren't doing so; among other things, I'm not on the admissions committee. But certainly it ought to be an important, if not the primary, consideration. That doesn't mean numbers or test scores or similar factors are always irrelevant. It makes sense to me that if a highly talented and accomplished person who was born in Alabama and went away to some top university or important job is contemplating returning, we should make a serious effort to bring that person in. I dare say that Alabama has a greater need for talented and engaged young lawyers than, say, Cambridge, MA or the Upper East Side. At upper-tier law schools in top cities, almost every year a graduation speaker (Bryan Stevenson, say) will tell the crowd of students that their services are needed far more desperately all over the country than in New York, DC, Boston, or LA, and encourage them to move to the places where the need for legal services is greatest. Few listen; even the genuine public-interest types would, on the whole, rather be somewhere with ample Thai dining options. If we can bring in these people rather than losing them to the standard list of schools, the state may get some good out of it, and so will our own class body. But the point should be the good that comes out of it, not the numbers themselves.

Second, it matters just as much what we tell these admitted students as it does that we bring them in the building. We should provide them with numbers--accurate, hard numbers, to the extent they're available (and they should be). The numbers may or may not tell the whole story, but they're still entitled to them. My understanding is that Alabama's LST numbers are very low, although I'm not sure whether that's because we don't provide information to students or because we haven't yet provided them to LST. (I'm working on a better answer.) In any event, we should make sure students are given all the information they need to make a decision. Some numbers will work in our favor: small class sizes, fairly low tuitions, and, more so than many other schools, real opportunities for "practical" clinical work for many or most students and not just a select few. Others doubtless will work against us. But it should be their choice. We can certainly accentuate the positive, but we shouldn't eliminate the negative. (I'm not saying we do; I lack much information either way. I'm just discussing what we certainly ought to be doing.)

Third, I suspect one of the big issues we face is talking to students about their job prospects out of state rather than in state. I'm not just talking about job crisis issues here. My experience in talking with my current students is that some come from in state and want to work in state; their greatest challenge is building ties with lawyers in the region or practice area they want to work in. Others came from out of state and want to work in state after graduation, and some say that they face suspicion on the part of employers, who assume they don't really want to remain in Alabama. And another group came from in or out of state but definitely want to work elsewhere; here, they complain that they have not been given enough support in finding jobs outside of Alabama. (I'm not verifying those complaints; I've heard both sides. But I'd be happier still if I heard nothing but good things from my students.)

We can accurately tell incoming students, I think, that we have a good success rate in placing our graduates in legal jobs, although certainly the current economy has affected that. But it may be just as important to work with students up front to help them think about their own particular needs and ambitions, even appreciating that those ambitions may change over three years. Alabama may make a tremendous amount of sense for some admitted students, reasonable sense for others, and less sense for others. (Say, someone who was also admitted to NYU and knows she wants to practice corporate law in New York after graduation. She could do just that after graduating from Alabama, but would find it easier if she went to NYU. Of course, her debt load will be substantially different, and so will the difficulty of taking a lower-paying job should her ambitions change. But it would still be important to point out the advantages of NYU to her.) We should do everything we can as a school to make Alabama an excellent option for every admitted student, and I hope and believe we're doing just that. But that's always a work in progress. In the meantime, I think it's important we give admitted students enough information to help them make the kinds of individualized decisions that would help them decide where to go.

Three final remarks. I'm addressing Alabama because it's my school and I think I have an obligation to do so; I've tried to do so fairly and without tilting the scales too much in either direction. But most of these remarks could apply to just about any school, and certainly any school that has to do more than rely on its name or US News rank by way of convincing admitted students to enroll. I would add as a corollary to that that all schools, including Alabama, should be willing to discuss with students the advantages of not attending law school at all.

Second, a personal note. I don't participate in every admitted student event but certainly have talked to admitted students along the way at various times. I see my role as primarily being one of helping them to make a decision, not convincing them to come to Alabama. Even before the extent of the drop in the law school economy was evident, I certainly tried to get a sense of what they want to do and what they're choosing between in answering their questions, and where it was clear to me that they would do better for one reason or another at another school, I was willing to say so quite clearly. Of course I spoke up for the things I admire about my own institution, but I am more interested in their making the right choice for them than in their choosing our own institution. I hope all other faculty members, here or elsewhere, do the same. I'm not sure whether I've specifically advised someone not to go to law school, but certainly I am willing to do so and see nothing wrong with that depending on the circumstances. I am sure that my discussions have dealt more with debt, jobs, and other issues recently; generally, I have raised those issues myself. I can't speak to whether those students are more informed about those issues lately or not. Whether they are or not, I think it's my duty to raise those issues.

Finally, lest I be misunderstood, I think there are many reasons to attend Alabama. I think it's a great school and I'm proud to be here, and proud of my students. They do face challenges, as just about every law student does these days, some of which I'm becoming better informed about over time, especially as I delve into these issues more in class and in personal discussions. I think my school does some things right and needs to do other things better or differently, and I have tried to listen to students (and recent graduates) on those issues and convey their views, and mine, to the administration. It has been responsive as well as proactive, although as with any school there is always more work to be done. Nor am I the only faculty member or administrator who has raised these issues, here or elsewhere; many have, both here and at other schools. Whether that's enough is, of course, a separate question.

I would welcome hearing from those, if any, who have read this far and have more to add, positively or negatively, about experiences at their own schools, particularly with respect to dealings with admitted students. Among other things, perhaps some schools are doing new and good things in this area, and it would be great to have an opportunity to learn from them and get a sense of emerging best practices. And perhaps others have views about schools that have done it wrong and need to reform how they go about dealing with admitted students. Please try to keep answers on point and polite--which is not to say non-critical; criticism is welcome.

 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 5, 2012 at 11:24 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Paul, Alabama has a lot of work to do on disclosing job statistics; I encourage you to spend some time talking with your dean and colleagues about this. The front page of your site currently features a picture with the prominent caption "High Post-Graduation Employment." There's no link from that picture to any specifics or further information; it's pure puffery. But I ultimately found my way to the Career Services page with information for prospective students. http://www.law.ua.edu/career-services/prospective-students/

The first problem with the information on that page is that it relates to 2009. The majority of law schools posted 2010 information sometime early last fall; your dean's office certainly has had the 2010 info for at least that long. It's hard to imagine a good excuse for still having 2009 information on the site in March of 2011; indeed, our school is getting the 2011 data ready for posting. To the best of my knowledge, 2010 outcomes were significantly worse than 2009 outcomes for every school in the country. Unless Alabama is very, very unusual, those 2009 statistics are seriously outdated and misleading.

The second problem is that the site claims, without further elaboration, that more than 97% of the class was employed within 9 months of graduation. But Alabama's ABA stats (which US News reveals to people who pay a "premium" subscription) show that only 87% of 2009 grads were actually known to be employed in jobs 9 months after graduation. Alabama apparently achieved the 97% figure by adding grads in full-time degree programs (3.6%) and unemployed grads who said that they were not seeking work (a very high 7.1%) to the percentage actually known to be holding jobs. That's one way to calculate "employed," but I think it's pretty misleading--especially when no caveat is offered that "employed" includes those in degree programs or not seeking work.

And then, of course, there's the fact that the "employed" statistic doesn't distinguish part-time and full-time jobs, jobs that require a JD from those that do not, or jobs provided by the law school itself. A lot of schools are now disclosing that information; I think it's the minimum necessary to claim any sort of candid disclosure. (Even that, I hasten to add, is not "gold standard" disclosure, which would include even more detailed information about job type, salary, and other matters.)

I've looked at a lot of law school career sites during the last few months and I have to say that Alabama's is the worst I've seen that is currently still on the web. Some others were as bad six months ago, but they have been improved in response to criticisms. The Alabama site is pretty appalling for March 2011, given the use of outdated numbers, a questionable metric for "employed," and lack of other detail. Alabama could be giving better information to students in other contexts, but the web is an obvious place for applicants and admitted students to look. Based on the website, Alabama admittees are not getting anywhere near the candid information you want them to have for decisionmaking. I hope you'll take this input in the spirit it's intended--as specifics you can carry to your dean to get the kind of information you want for admitted students. Best, Debby

Posted by: Deborah J Merritt | Mar 5, 2012 11:02:40 PM

DJM,

Thank you.

You cut through all the waffling and struck at the heart of the matter.

Posted by: terry malloy | Mar 6, 2012 8:48:24 AM

Thanks for the comments; I should add that I also read the comments on the Campos site, as I generally do. On Prof. Merritt's point, I'm glad she raised these issues, and appreciative for the work she did. As I've written before, I hold no brief for law schools that fail to provide sufficient and sufficiently accurate information. There are many things I am happy to say in favor of Alabama, but if it is doing a bad job on this, that needs to be changed. As I've written before, and will say again in answer to a question on the Campos site, I have raised issues of this sort with my school and am happy to do so again. And I do take it in the spirit it is offered, not as what some commenters at the site call a "takedown" and so on. My post was about two things: 1) why schools might bring in admitted students, both for good and bad reasons, and 2) what they ought to do by way of talking fairly and accurately to those students so they can make proper choices. Prof. Merritt didn't discuss 1). On 2), I agree with her that transparency and accurate data must be a part of our dealings with both current and admitted students.

I do have a comment on two of the comments on the Campos site. I generally agree with the commenter at 2:04 p.m. who writes that it is possible to work outside the South, including at top firms, with an Alabama degree, and who adds that in any event it is a fine choice for people who want to work in the region. But I wouldn't put it unduly rosily. I would add the caveat that, especially in this economy, that takes work. There are some larger firms in several cities in this region, but traditionally many of our graduates also end up in government or in smaller firms, and there is no easily greased route to those jobs. (This was true before the downturn, incidentally, and is not all about economics; a number of students have an interest in working in particular towns and so on.) My personal (and thus limited) experience is that the grads I'm talking to are working, and working specifically in law jobs, but the lag between graduation and employment is longer these days and the amount of work that goes into the job hunt can be substantial. I don't think this comment is unique to Alabama, incidentally, and I think there remain many good reasons to attend this school. But I do generally urge my students to make the job hunt a full-time part of their work beginning in their first year--to treat it as an enrolled class to which they devote several fixed hours every week.

I do want to express my distress at the comment at the student who complained that at the Alabama event itself, the school did not give enough information about how to get jobs out of state and how possible it is. I think there's a distinction between having an ambition to be a national school (which can mean a variety of things in addition to jobs), or having an ambition to be able to place students across the country (which, I should think, is a good ambition for schools to have, both for the school and the students), and describing it as an utterly easy or automatic process. As I said in my post, when I talk to admitted students, if I talk to students who are interested in working in New York, I recommend they seriously consider going to schools with huge placement numbers in New York; if I talk to one who wants to work in Oregon, I recommend they look at law schools in Oregon. It seems to me that if I were doing the wining and dining myself, I would tell students that the best job prospects are in Alabama and the South, including some major cities in the region; that top students have placed in jobs across the country, both with and without clerkships, but that there are no guarantees of those outcomes and they will take a lot of up-front work; that for out-of-state jobs of a different variety (ie., someone who doesn't want to work in Biglaw in New York but wants to move to a particular state or city elsewhere), it is possible but depends a lot on working with the alumni/employment office and working early to build contacts in that region, and the surer they are that they want to work in a particular place, the more strongly they should consider going to school in that particular place. As I wrote earlier, I think there are many excellent things about my school, and that they're worth talking about, but I don't think we should eliminate the negative in talking to admitted students.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 6, 2012 9:58:15 AM

I appreciate your forthrightness, Paul. I just wanted to point out that for prospective students who may be reading this that in general, outside of a dozen or so law schools that are truly "national" in placement (and even then, students at Chicago tend to end up in Chicago, at Columbia in NYC, etc), if a student has a particular geographic area he or she definitely plans to live in when he graduates, he should go to a law school in that area. I think it would be quite foolish, for example, to go to Fordham or BU or GW over U.A., even though they are "higher-ranked," if one is dead-set on working in Birmingham when one graduates. On the other hand, prospective students should consider whether they really "need" to be in a particular region, or whether attending a "better" school (providing more career opportunities0, or one that would result in much lower debt, might make it worthwhile to change one's geographic preferences.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Mar 6, 2012 10:45:56 AM

Mirabile dictu: I agree with David. And I think both aspects of what he writes are worth emphasizing. 1) If you want to work in a particular city or region, focus your decision-making on schools in that city or region. 2) Even so, a variety of factors will still feed into your decision, including how badly you want (or need--let's keep in mind family and other circumstances) to work in a region, how much you want the general (but hardly guaranteed) opportunities that might come from going to a "higher-ranked" or "national" school, and other factors including debt load, class sizes, practical orientation, and many others. I emphasize again that, regardless of these many factors, schools should provide accurate information, both positive and negative.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 6, 2012 11:01:45 AM

I should add parenthetically that I was asked a question by one MacK, if I recall the moniker correctly, at the bottom of Campos's comments. I posted a reply, twice, but neither have shown up. Sorry about that; I tried, and perhaps they'll turn up eventually. Love your movies, by the way.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 6, 2012 12:04:03 PM

Paul, I have no problem with admitted student weekends; we do them as well, and they can offer important information to students. But the weekends do underscore the fact that law schools market themselves fairly aggressively to students. Given that, as you recognize, it is essential to provide accurate information.

If you are encountering resistance from your dean and colleagues on making Alabama's information accurate, you might stress that this is a matter of academic quality and professional integrity, not "just" marketing. What grade would the faculty give a paper that described a "97% employment rate" without giving a definition of "employed"--and when the method for calculating "employed" is the one that Alabama apparently uses? What grade would the faculty give a paper that was based on statistics that are so far out of date, when newer statistics were readily at hand? (My original comment erroneously referred to the current month as "March 2011." It's obviously 2012 now--and Alabama is publishing job outcomes for May 2009 grads.)

Equally important, are these kinds of representations the type of candor that the courts and public expect from ethical professionals? Suppose a plaintiff's PI lawyer used similar methods: A banner touting "High settlement rates" on the front page of the website, followed by two-year-old statistics (when the practitioner had more recent, less favorable stats at hand), with the figure for "settlements" including cases that the plaintiff decided not to pursue? I think an ethics committee or state supreme court would call that advertising improper.

So I see two issues, not just for Alabama but for any schools that are still massaging employment statistics in some way (and we all may be doing so to some extent--all of us need to keep examining ourselves critically on this issue). One is whether schools are misleading students with out-of-date and/or cherry-picked statistics. The other is what we are saying about ourselves as academics and legal professionals if our institutions engage in that behavior. At the end of the day, should a student want to learn the law at an institution that accepts partial, outdated statistics as appropriate for decision making? Or at one that engages in marketing that would be unacceptable from practicing lawyers?

Posted by: Deborah J Merritt | Mar 6, 2012 1:04:35 PM

Deborah, thanks for the addendum. I don't think we have any substantive disagreement here. I'm not encountering any internal resistance here; the reply I tried to post on Campos's blog said in brief that I have gotten no criticisms or negative reactions within the school when raising these issues, and some positive results, although I make no great claims or promises here. And I agree that it is a question of integrity rather than marketing. Indeed, one of the very first posts I put up on these issues last summer argued that transparency and similar issues are things law schools ought to be concerned with regardless of the state of the economy, in good times and bad, because these are fundamentally matters of integrity in and of itself. (I was, incidentally, attacked vociferously by a number of scamblog readers for saying so.) Whatever other reasons may apply, schools ought to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 6, 2012 1:11:47 PM

I don't want to hijack the comment thread, but what is up with that quote from "Apocalypse Now"? Does he fancy himself as Colonel Kurtz?

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Mar 6, 2012 1:34:11 PM

gabion box

Posted by: ning | Mar 8, 2012 10:46:14 PM

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