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Monday, July 02, 2012

What Can the Elite Law Schools Do About the "Law School Crisis?"

One last "law school crisis" thought for today. A while back, my colleague Rick had a post about Brian T.'s new book and asked, toward the end of the post, "So, after reading Failing Law Schools, what big steps could, or should, the faculty and administration at [elite law] schools do?  What could they do to lead, that might have ripple / cascade effects?" I have heard various views on this matter--including the idea that, given the cascade effect on salaries caused by the rankings race, the professors at those schools could start by accepting a cut in their very generous salaries. 

I am generally a little skeptical about reform proposals that start at the very top of what is effectively a two-tiered market. For one thing, this is like arguing that "[w]e may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart," or that we should focus our attentions with respect to equal educational opportunity on affirmative action at elite law schools rather than K-12 reform, because the former will provide important "role models" and new perspectives in the leadership. There is some truth to it, to be sure, but it is not entirely coincidental that this approach ends up focusing more of our time and attention on the concerns that are near and dear to the elite classes engaging in these conversations than on those most in need.

For another, I don't really care all that much what the salaries of professors at top law schools are. Those things make for good headline fodder or outraged blog comments, but while I'm sure a reduction in these salaries help drive salaries lower down, I think the market is sufficiently stratified that the competition would continue for some time among those schools that are really competing with each other, not with the top ten. Moreover, to the extent that the very top schools are closer to providing good job outcomes and relying less on false promises or unjustifiable student debt, the salary market there is closer to rational.

What would I really like the top law schools to do? They can skip the sackcloth and ashes, as far as I am concerned. What those schools really have is resources. On a recent trip to Harvard Law School, what really impressed me was not the building or smarts of the full-time faculty, but the sheer number of seemingly well-funded institutes, centers, directors, fellows, and other ancillary individuals and institutions operating out of the law school. Most law schools lack those resources, and the additional resources they invest are usually devoted to improving their own status. We need more, better, and more sensitive sources of information and measurement (and, yes, ranking), using better measures and proxies than the US News Report does. I would be delighted if a large elite school would invest some of its resources in creating and administering new and better measures and rankings, including such matters as employment outcomes,  student debt, tuition, and other such measures, and a stronger focus on regional markets. I would also be delighted if it put serious effort into collecting, collating, and reporting on reform efforts at individual schools.

These schools have the resources to do this kind of thing. They also have sufficient insulation from some of the effects of doing so: if Harvard ranked itself at number 5 rather than number 1, its success would not suddenly plummet, while lower-ranked schools that engage in these kinds of alternative rankings lack the resources to do a serious job of it and in any event end up coming up with measures that give them an absurdly high ranking, as in the famous Cooley ranking. As far as I'm concerned, what these schools have that the rest of us (including students) could really benefit from is the resources to do a better job of collecting information on and evaluating the legal education market. That's what they should focus on -- not more symbolically powerful but less productive matters. Keep the salaries; give us your centers. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 2, 2012 at 10:35 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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You want HLS to rank law schools? Why? Is there no other outfit, the ABA, that could do this?

Posted by: Anon | Jul 2, 2012 11:05:27 AM

Paul, it turns out that surveying law grads to get usable and interesting data is a bit harder than appears at first glance. In an effort to adopt such a survey at NYU, I have been spending some of my summer researching past and current efforts of elite schools to survey their current students and grads about their working conditions, salary, type of practice, job satisfaction, and the like. None have been able to make the survey an unqualified success.

Under the leadership of David Chambers, Michigan Law School conducted the most elaborate survey of its grads (5, 15, 25, and 35 years out, if I recall rightly), from 1981 until 2006: The instrument was nine pages long, with a broad array of questions about job satisfaction, work-family balance, salary, type of practice, and the like. But Michigan never seemed to make much use of the data, and the surveys were discontinued after '06. Harvard and Illinois have tried similar surveys with much less elaborate survey instruments and much lower response rates, I believe. The "After the JD" project spent around a million bucks on a nation-wide sampling survey (http://www.americanbarfoundation.org/publications/afterthejd.html. For some monographs based on this data, see http://www.nalp.org/afterjdmonographs). The ATJD surveys, however, do not disaggregate data by law school, so that data will not help a prospective law student choose among schools.

There are several obstacles to a single law school's using a survey of law grads to generate data interesting enough for a school to want to bear the considerable expense of the effort (expenses resulting mostly, so far as I can tell, from the telephone follow-up to bug grads into answering the survey and in hiring someone to update stale addresses). First, the response rate will invariably be low unless one invests a big effort in tracking down grads, updating stale addresses, and bugging the alums to respond with annoying 'phone calls. In particular, law grads do not much like disclosing their salaries: Getting them to answer the salary question turns out to be a hassle. Second, it is hard to generate very specific information about where grads go after "Big Law," which is one major potential benefit of such a survey. The one clear conclusion is that law grads tend to go to practices with fewer lawyers -- in-house, government, non-profits, boutiques, and so forth -- but the choices are so varied and variable that they are hard to aggregate into meaningful categories with sufficiently large "Ns" to provide meaningful information to incoming students, current students, or fellow alums.

This is not to say that we should not administer such a survey: I am hoping to persuade my colleagues that such an effort can be worthwhile. But I want to caution you about the value of the data that a single institution can generate. Ideally, such a survey would be required by the ABA as a requirement of accreditation: If similar instruments were used by a lot of schools and administered with similar methods to boost response rate, then the surveys might generate some data that could help prospective students get a better sense of the professional prospects in law.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jul 2, 2012 11:17:24 AM

To add a bit of levity to this thread, here's what happens when Harvard takes it upon itself to rank the law schools, as its students did back in 2005. To the surprise of all, HLS came in first: http://hlrecord.org/?p=12614

As The Record commented of these infallible rankings in a Very Serious Editorial (http://hlrecord.org/?p=12507):

"The 2005-06 Record rankings have revealed that Harvard Law School is the best law school in the nation. Because HLS students have a knack for getting the right answers, we are not surprised that HLS has achieved this accomplishment. There is absolutely no way that 104 HLS students can be wrong.

While no ranking system is perfect, HLS should take pride in this prestigious and much deserved honor. We concede that all rankings systems have methodological flaws, but the fact that HLS is ranked #1 should alleviate at least some, if not most, of these concerns. The fact that HLS students have proved that HLS is the greatest American law school demonstrates the scientific validity of our study."

Posted by: HLS | Jul 2, 2012 1:12:27 PM

A law school ranking law schools... But, seriously, what is this about? Is this all for prospective law students or is it a tool to help law schools figure out what they should doing in the way of pedagogy? Can it really be that prospective students need to know the salaries of all graduates of law schools going back decades before they can decide to go to law school? At graduation employment I get, because that is most closely a function of the school the person attended. But 10, 20 years out; that's on the person-- the kinds of choices he/she made, the kind of luck he/she did or did not have. It's interesting, but I can't see why a law school would be anxious, other than for its own edification, to set up permanent structures to try to beat (metaphorically) this information out of people.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 2, 2012 2:03:41 PM

I don't think anyone needs to wait for Harvard to build a better data collection system for law graduates' employment outcomes. NALP already has a good one; see this as an example of the data NALP already collects.

Obviously, U.S. News isn't going to fill that much printed space with each school's employment particulars, but the cost of publishing this information on the school's website is trivial. It also doesn't cost much to add an amplifying statement about how useless a measure U.S. News' median salary standard is, when you have fewer than half of graduates in a given category reporting their salaries - or to tell prospective students to call an admissions officer to ask questions about what it means before they sign their lives away. While we're dreaming out loud, law schools might also circulate a petition for the ABA to vote against the recommendation of the ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education that school-specific salary data not be reported.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jul 2, 2012 2:03:45 PM

My html wasn't appreciated by the website, so here's the link that was meant to be the "this" is "see this as an example":


Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jul 2, 2012 2:05:04 PM

School specific salary information should not be included. As mentioned above it is very difficult to get out of people, and rightfully so. Schools will end up with not enough reports, they will report them anyway, and be criticized as attempting to mislead because they posted numbers based on these low reports.

Posted by: anon | Jul 2, 2012 2:13:38 PM

As you can see from the NALP data, they managed to get several dozen reports out of people. Seattle's actually on the low end, as far as responses regarding salary go. If they didn't have responses, NALP made that clear by including columns indicating the number reporting employment in a given sector and the number reporting salaries. They also included the 25th percentile, the median, the 75th percentile and the mean. Concerns about anonymity and privacy are satisfied.

It's also a useful data point for 0Ls comparing schools to see that one school has half its students reporting salaries and another has three-quarters or more.

Again, this information is already being collected. It's just that NALP is not at the forefront of 0L consciousness when it comes to comparing employment outcomes yet. Law schools can either lead and publish the best information available, or they can wait for the scam blogs to accomplish the same thing in a year or two.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jul 2, 2012 2:22:03 PM

The scam blogs are going to get salary information out of grads 5, 10, 15 years out?

Posted by: anon | Jul 2, 2012 2:36:29 PM

@2:36 p.m.:

No, but Prof. Horwitz started this conversation by asking whether HLS could help evaluate the "legal education market" in a way that other individual participant-schools were unable to do, and Prof. Hills mentioned "several obstacles" and "considerable expense" related just to getting information from the most recent class. In response, I pointed out that NALP already does a pretty good job of getting information from the most recent class, even if each class drops off NALP's radar after the nine-month surveys go out, and the expense of that survey is apparently bearable at present.

As for your question about data on graduates further out from graduation, NALP is currently working on a longitudinal study of 4,500 graduates from 2000, whom they identified in 2002 and have recontacted periodically since. The costs of the research are borne by NALP and the American Bar Foundation, among others. While I'm sure that they could benefit from HLS or some other angel philanthropist throwing money at them, it seems like they're reasonably able to get and analyze data with the money they already have.

The scam blogs aren't researching these questions, and they don't need to - NALP already is. The gap between the schools' presentation of employment outcomes through their own outlets (including U.S. News) and NALP's findings harms their institutional credibility. Claiming that it's too expensive or difficult just makes law schools seem even less credible, when so much data is already being produced.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jul 2, 2012 2:57:18 PM

It will be excellent to get the information for the longitudinal study. The last sentence in your previous post suggested that if other entities don't publish this information people will have to "wait for the scam blogs to accomplish the same thing in a year or two". That seemed to be referring to publishing salary info. I just wondered where and how they were going to "accomplish" getting that.

Posted by: anon | Jul 2, 2012 3:08:59 PM

What’s wrong with elite American education? The law school crisis is as much a crisis of our obsolescent legal system. Our elite law schools—profiting from the present system—have failed to bring to legal education and to the bar generally the disturbing idea that our dysfunctional legal system might learn from foreign legal systems. They have brought to their faculties many Ph. D.s in almost everything from anthropology to zoology, but precious few doctors in Civil Law. That would be true diversity in law schools! Any one of the giant international law firms has more lawyers with dual U.S./Civil Law training and education than all U.S. elite law schools put together.

The elite schools paid no attention to what the first Carnegie Report (somehow overlooked in Brian T.’s new book) told them:

“the American law teachers of our time … should not doubt that the great reform in teaching which Langdell introduced is the very thing which qualifies them, and earnestly summons them, to do the great work that lies before them now: namely, to apply the resources of European legal science, with its development of nearly two thousand years, to the establishment at last of a scientific system for the common law, thereby opening the way for a most fruitful development of national law and procedure and raising and invigorating the principle of social and economic justice in the life of the American people.”

Ezra Thayer, then Dean of Harvard Law School in private criticized “the very general principle of calling in Germans to pass on American instruction” and confided that “none of us are enthusiastic about the idea of an investigation by a foreigner.” The first Carnegie Report was authored in 1914 by Josef Redlich, a distinguished Jewish Austrian law professor of the day.

Nearly a century later, 2008 Harvard in its “Curriculum of New Realities” observed that “The case method is still important, but it will be supplemented by a new emphasis on statutory, regulatory and international sources of law ...” Did Harvard in 2008 finally get Redlich’s message when it “Resolved: “No student should graduate from law school without exposure to law beyond the United States.” ?

James Maxeiner

A plug, perhaps, but a source for citations: Harvard Law Bulletin, Winter 2008 and Maxeiner, Educating Lawyers Now and Then, available in book form with the 1914 report at http://www.amazon.com/Educating-Lawyers-Now-Then-Foundation/dp/1600420338 or without the report free at http://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=ijli or http://ssrn.com/author=825054

Posted by: James Maxeiner | Jul 2, 2012 4:21:51 PM

Nothing is legitimate in America until some wealthy/celebrity/elite person/organization pronounces on the subject. We can't see problems unless presented by our perceived-to-be social "betters". So, it's up to HYS and other "elite" schools to save American legal education. Schools of lower rank can't do anything about their salary structures unless the top ten schools act. They can't change their curricula. They can't do anything about the numbers of people they enroll. If only HYS would act, we'd all be saved.

Posted by: anon | Jul 2, 2012 5:00:09 PM

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