Credibility, statistics, and the legal profession

Elie Mystal at Above the Law has this take on a recent story involving credibility, statistics, and the legal profession:

This week, the law schools at Columbia, NYU, and Fordham have come under fire for their allegedly inflated employment statistics. A story in the New York Post specifically called out the top New York-area law schools for shady reporting of graduate outcomes when it comes to graduates employed by the schools….

I want to take a step back and look at what we’re really fighting about here: some of the best law schools in New York City have put out a statistic about how many graduates get jobs, and the New York Post and a bunch of other people immediately called “bulls**t.” Think about that. Even if the law schools can somehow convince people that, technically, their published information isn’t riddled with lies, we’re living in a world where such data can be assumed to be false absent a long and detailed explanation and discussion from the law schools. When somebody notices a discrepancy between a school’s numbers and what’s in the newspaper, we assume the school was full of crap, not that the newspaper got it wrong.

I suppose this isn’t very flattering to either newspapers or law schools.  Perhaps Americans now trust journalists more than lawyers (or at least legal educators)?

Commenting a few months ago on a scandal within academic sociology, Brian suggested several approaches to dealing with uncertain statistics:

This reminds me of Joel Best’s recommendations regarding dealing with statistics. One common option is to simply trust all statistics. Numbers look authoritative, often come from experts, and they can be overwhelming. Just accepting them can be easy. At the other pole is the common option of saying that all statistics are simply interpretation and are manipulated so we can’t trust any of them. No numbers are trustworthy. Neither approaches are good options but they are relatively easy options. The better route to go when dealing with scientific studies is to have the basic skills necessary to understand whether they are good studies or not and how the process of science works [emphasis added].

Brian’s point is a good one.  Unfortunately, it’s not possible to implement his “third way” here because the root problem is the lack of raw information rather than the inability to duplicate experimental/study results.  The question is not, in the theoretical abstract:  how many law students will get jobs when the economy is in condition X?  The question is rather:  as a matter of historical fact, how many 2010 law school graduates (or 2011, or 2009, or whatever) actually had jobs by date Y?

Elie faults the American Bar Association, which oversees and accredits law schools, for the current disaster of unreliable data:

The ABA is supposed to represent lawyers and law schools to the public. It’s supposed to relegate them so that the public can trust that moral and ethical standards are being upheld and enforced. And on that scale, the ABA has been an unmitigated failure. It’s done a disservice to all law schools. Nobody can trust any law school because the ABA has failed to impose effective oversight over all of them.

That’s tragic. A society is supposed to be proud of its institutions of higher learning, but the ABA has robbed us of that pride in our nation’s law schools. We no longer get to feel like our justice system is populated by people trained to the highest ethical standards, because we can’t even trust our law schools to tell us the truth about how many people got hired.

If the numbers published by law schools under the oversight of the ABA are unreliable, it goes without saying that it’s very difficult to derive these numbers through other means, especially in a form that allows for legitimate comparisons between schools and over time.  There are workarounds, of course, like journalistic attempts to compile and/or verify employment statistics independently of the law schools.  But those are obviously imperfect solutions, as The Economist recently noted in its analysis of the (surprisingly analogous) problem of Argentinan inflation statistics:

Since 2007 Argentina’s government has published inflation figures that almost nobody believes. These show prices as having risen by between 5% and 11% a year. Independent economists, provincial statistical offices and surveys of inflation expectations have all put the rate at more than double the official number (see article). The government has often granted unions pay rises of that order….

We [The Economist] hope that we can soon revert to an official consumer-price index for Argentina. That would require INDEC to be run by independent statisticians working unhindered. Until then, readers are better served by a credible unofficial figure than a bogus official one.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, I think we’re going to need to start seeing a lot more credible unofficial figures out there, both for Argentinian inflation and for law school placement statistics.

The $100k scholarly article

The National Law Journal reports that, according to Hofstra University School of Law professor Richard Neumann, “a law review article written by a tenured professor at a top-flight law school” is “in the neighborhood of $100,000”:

His estimate factors in the salary and benefits for a tenured professor at a high-paying school who spends between 30% and 50% of his or her time on scholarship and publishes one article per year.

It also takes into account possible research grants, which many schools offer professors to help fund their scholarly work, and the costs for research assistants.

ABA Journal has additional coverage here.

It would be interesting to see cost estimates of academic writing in other disciplines to see how the law compares.  I’m guessing that law may be on the high end insofar as law professor salaries are generally higher than most other academics.

WSJ: more regulations for law schools?

When the Wall Street Journal starts countenancing additional regulations for law schools, you know that the world really has changed:

Regulation? all you free-marketeers are asking. Really? Won’t regulation further drive up the cost of education, which is already stunningly high?

However, rather than dismissing the suggestion of greater regulation out of hand, WSJ blogger Ashby Jones finds Tung Yin’s argument for Sarbanes-Oxley-like regulation over at PrawfsBlawg “compelling”.  As Yin puts it:

If anything, it seems to me there’s arguably a stronger call for enforcing these sorts of disclosure and accuracy provisions on law schools (and universities in general) than on corporations. After all, the cost of corporate malfeasance with regard to balance sheets and the like is diffused across a huge number of investors, who are presumably not taking out huge loans with which to invest in said corporate stock.  (I guess there are margin traders, but really, they seem a less sympathetic group for concern than poor students with huge education debt.)  The cost of law school malfeasance in terms of misleading or false employment data is visited upon a (relatively) small number of students who are saddled with $50,000 or more in student debt.  Shouldn’t they be entitled to at least the same level of informational protection that stock investors now get?

I disagree with Yin’s analysis somewhat.  While it is true that there are “a (relatively) small number of students” with extreme educational debt, malfeasance by academic institutions has the same sorts of diffuse, wide-ranging implications that malfeasance by corporations has.  The federal government subsidizes or provides outright the bulk of law student loans.  Were it not for this subsidy, it is highly doubtful that law schools would attain their currently high enrollment numbers since no rational (i.e., unsubsidized) lender would loan six figures each to tens-of-thousands of 22-year-olds (at least, not on terms that would result in tens-of-thousands of new law students each year).

Like it or not, the U.S. government is heavily subsidizing legal education by providing students with access to virtually unlimited capital.  One can argue whether or not this represents a prudent investment in the nation’s future or an impending boondoggle on the scale of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but it seems clear to me that somebody should be requiring law schools to reveal the cold, hard facts on the value they are providing to their graduates.

The tired free-market-vs.-regulation arguments don’t really work here.  Law schools are not a free market; they’re a heavily subsidized one.  Unless and until that changes, I for one think the government is perfectly (and prudently) within its rights as the subsidizer to require fair, full, and accurate employment disclosure from law schools.

Line-drawing and merits in job hunting

Although not tailored to the specifics of the legal job market, an analogous debate concerning the mechanics of the academic job market is taking place over Inside Higher Education (hat tip:  Tax Prof Blog).

First up:  Joshua A. Tucker in Academe as Meritocracy, arguing

  1. that only the paternalistic would stifle the dreams of potential Ph.D students, and
  2. that a robust meritocracy exists within the academy.

As Tucker puts it:

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will?…Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make.

Tucker does recognize that a certain amount of truth-in-advertising is necessary, but he seems comfortable with letting admitted Ph.D students decide for themselves whether they should actually attend:

I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into — the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors — but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that’s the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to Ph.D. programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.

While I sympathize with Tucker’s paternalism argument, I think his analysis fails to appreciate that lines must be–and are–drawn somewhere.  All of us are unfit for certain occupations, and each of us must either (1) realize this ourselves or (2) be told this by others.  Moreover, this must happen (1) sooner or (2) later.  Tucker does not escape the inevitable moment of line-drawing simply by choosing “later”, i.e., after his Ph.D. admission committee has sent out its acceptances.

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by expanding on Tucker’s example of professional baseball.  Personally, I am objectively unfit to play for a minor league baseball team, let alone to be drafted into the majors.  Let us suppose that, for whatever reasons, I am too deluded to realize this for myself and will need to be told by others that I will never be a major league baseball player.  Should a minor league team still admit me to its roster?  What about a college team?  High school varsity team?  At what point should I be told, “Kid, you don’t stand a chance of ever playing in the majors.  You should pursue another career”?

This is a difficult question that will need to be answered differently for different individuals based on their own specific circumstances.  Tucker, however, does not attempt to answer this question or provide guidelines on how it should be answered under various circumstances.  Rather, he simply implies that Ph.D. students should be admitted first and allowed to sort themselves out later, regardless of changing job market conditions or the odds of success.

In contrast to Tucker’s faith in the meritocratic process, “Dean Dad” responds in “Meritocracy and Hiring” that the academy is NOT the sort of meritocracy that should be generating smug feelings of superiority:

As someone whose job it is to actually hire faculty, I can attest that merit is only a small part of the picture….In this funding climate, we can only afford to staff a few of the positions (whether faculty, staff, or administration) that we need. If the position doesn’t exist, then the relative merit of the prospective candidates means exactly zero….Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy. Tenure violates the foundational assumption of meritocracy.

The key is to recognize that hiring is always more about the employer than about the employee. Employers hire to solve problems they consider important. If you’re the best darn German professor who ever walked the planet, congratulations, but I don’t need you. I don’t doubt your brilliance, your hard work, your civic virtue, or your habit of helping old ladies across the street. They just don’t matter. It’s not about you.

I think Dean Dad is onto something here.  In discussions about job markets, the “right-place-at-the-right-time” factor is far too often overlooked .  Despite, for example, evidence that simply graduating from college in the middle of a recession can permanently lower lifetime earnings.  Dean Dad helpfully reminds his readers that failure to land a job in one’s chosen profession does not necessarily have moral overtones:

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it….[T]hey see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do….[L]et’s recognize the academic job market as the uneven, unpredictable, often unforgiving thing that it is. Good people lose. Frankly, some real losers sometimes win. It’s not entirely random, of course, but it’s a far cry from a meritocracy.

Although Dean Dad is writing about the academic job market, I think this is also a helpful point for recent law graduates to remember, especially in the midst of a recession.  Things don’t always work out, and that’s OK.  Sometimes, you just have to let it go and try something new.

The sun never sets on legal un(der)employment

John Flood, a U.K. legal scholar and sociologist, comments on the well-documented travails of recent U.S. law graduates, noting that their U.K. counterparts are facing similar difficulties as globalization changes the practice of law the world over:

What we’ve seen in the UK is a disjunct between the numbers of law students coming into the academy and the numbers of jobs available. For many the problem is that the academy is producing too many law graduates and should be more sensitive to job availibility rates….[T]here is also a big rise in the use of paralegals and I don’t mean those trained to be paralegals. Rather the unemployed would-be lawyers are turning to paralegaling in the hope that a training contract might open up while they are there.

What will entrench the stratification of the market is the opening up (de- and re-regulation) of the legal services market that’s now taking place. Fewer jobs will need to be done by fully-qualified lawyers. They can instead be carried out by a range of people qualified for certain legal and quasi-legal tasks. This is where corporatized law meets Tesco Law. [Tesco is a U.K.-based retailer similar to Wal-Mart.]

The US legal profession still thinks it can maintain a headlock on the control of the profession. How long for? At the expense of a cheap shot, [Egyptian President] Mubarek is finding a 30-year rule coming to end; [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair only lasted for 10 years before he was ejected. Permanent monopoly becomes increasingly hard to justifiy, especially in a global market.

Flood also references a recent Above the Law article, which noted that Thomson Reuters recently

announced that it was exploring the sale of BAR/BRI, its bar exam prep business, and purchasing Pangea3, a legal process outsourcing company. That’s a strong message that they think there’s more of a future in hiring people to do low-end legal work, work that technically doesn’t constitute “practicing law” under legal ethics rules, than in training the practitioners of the future.

I’d like to see a quantitative analysis backing up some of Flood’s assertions, but his general points are well taken:

  • There are more lawyers than jobs.
  • Many law jobs do not, objectively speaking, require lawyers.
  • Much legal work can be done at a distance–even across international borders–as a back-office service.
  • In the long- (and maybe even the short-) run, the established legal cartels are no match for these forces of globalization.

The American Bar Association issues a financial warning for prospective law students

The American Bar Association has issued a warning for perspective law students about the cost of obtaining a law degree:

According to the association, over the past 25 years law school tuition has consistently risen two times faster than inflation.

The average private law student borrows about $92,500 for law school, while law students who attend public schools take out loans for $71,400. These numbers do not include any debt law students may still have from their time as undergraduates.

Before the recession, the ABA cites statistics that show an average starting salary for an associate of a large law firm of about $160,000 a year. But by 2009, about 42 percent of graduates began with an annual salary of less than $65,000.

And those are just the newbies.

This is an interesting statement: a national organization warning students about the large amount of debt they will incur (and hinting at the lack of jobs to pay off this debt) for their own profession. What do law schools think about this? What sort of discussions took place before issuing this warning? How many complaints have come from people who did not know about the full cost of getting a law degree?

It would help to have some context regarding this statement. Is this the first time the ABA has issued something like this? How unusual is this across a variety of disciplines that require a professional or advanced degree? Are other organizations interested in issuing similar statements?

(Read the full statement here.)

h/t Instapundit

Intentional grade inflation

A story in the NY Times describes how at least 10 law schools have deliberately made their grades more lenient. The reason? To have their students appear more attractive in a weak job market.

[Loyola Law School Los Angeles]  is retroactively inflating its grades, tacking on 0.333 to every grade recorded in the last few years. The goal is to make its students look more attractive in a competitive job market.

In the last two years, at least 10 law schools have deliberately changed their grading systems to make them more lenient. These include law schools like New York University and Georgetown, as well as Golden Gate University and Tulane University, which just announced the change this month. Some recruiters at law firms keep track of these changes and consider them when interviewing, and some do not.

The article also discusses other interesting measures including abandoning traditional grades and paying students to take unpaid internships.