Japan’s Law Schools Should Take Lessons From Their American Counterparts

Oh Yomiuri Shimbun, why must you blight the Internet with such nonsense in your editorials on legal education?

[T]he number of lawyers employed by local governments and business corporations has not increased as much as anticipated. A large number of people are unable to find jobs after passing the bar exam.

Some law schools have been increasingly inclined to withdraw from their field of education in recent months. The move has accelerated since last autumn, when the education ministry said it would curtail grants-in-aid to law schools whose graduates perform poorly on the bar exam.

There was a time when law schools bloomed, with their number peaking at 74. But the number of law schools accepting applications for admission next spring is expected to decrease to 54. It is only natural for law schools to quit if their students do badly on the exam.

Clearly Japan’s law schools’ mistakes aren’t emulating the U.S. system but not emulating it enough. Employing the strategies used by U.S. law schools could really make a difference at these institutions because over here, we’ve internalized the following lessons. When graduates don’t pass the bar or don’t find jobs, do the following:

(1) Capture the accreditation system and calibrate it so that if graduates from all schools fail the exam at about the same rate, the schools keep their accreditation. You’re not over-enrolled if you’re just average.

(2) Blame the magazine rankings. (Don’t worry if they blame you back, you both make your money on the (prospective) applicants. It’s just part of the business.)

(3) Shake down your alumni to finance a new, gratuitous, state-of-the-art law school building. That’ll show ‘em.

(4) Blame your graduates for being greedy, entitled, and unwilling to make the tough sacrifices, like opening practices in rural areas. Lots of people in Shikoku need lawyers.

(5) Alternatively, blame your graduates for moving too far from the school and trying to make money where the jobs are, like Osaka perhaps. After all, it’s not the school’s fault for enrolling too many students for the local market; rather it’s the students’ fault for wandering too far from where their degrees have any signaling value.

(6) Advertize your school’s discounted tuition thanks to senior students who are asked to pay full freight courtesy of unlimited government loans. (Japan has those, right?)

(7) Complain that the press and the blogs don’t use any facts—because they don’t.

(8) Use Pyrrhonian skepticism to dismiss government employment projections showing that there is no need for your graduates’ professional labor.

(9) Notwithstanding (8), point to the imminent wave of retiring lawyers whose positions will need to be filled.

(10) In case Abenomics fails, waive away any predicted productivity increases in legal services, low household incomes and formation rates, the apparent income elasticity of demand for legal services, and predictions that the economy is going to stagnate for many years to come. Do not waver: The backlog of graduates will clear!

(11) Claim that your graduates are easily finding jobs after the employment data are collected. Disregard the findings of longitudinal studies like After the JD in the U.S., which found that graduates who enter the profession in good years frequently leave law practice several years later due to massive attrition.

(12) Throw out marginal product theory, the law of diminishing marginal returns, and the sheepskin effect and argue that your school’s degrees are “versatile,” ensuring that graduates will get an earnings premium in any occupation besides law practice because all schooling increases earnings for all positions regardless of the skill required.

(13) Ask rhetorically, “What else will intelligent young people do?” Obviously law is the answer.

(14) Plead that your school is virtuous because it enrolls minority students who do poorly on exams. It doesn’t matter if they never enter the profession or can’t service their debts. (They have IBR in Japan, right?)

(15) Use the crash in applicants to encourage people to apply. After all, it’s not like everyone will seriously heed this advice and make it self-defeating.

(16) U.S. law schools haven’t tried this yet, but yous should: Insist that the profession’s licensing rules are so restrictive that they prop up prices for lawyers’ services, which is why so many of the highest earners in the country are lawyers. Therefore, anyone who graduates from your law school is a lucky ducky. If anything, the country should allow foreign-trained lawyers to practice as it will drive costs down.

(17) And if all else fails, compare the number of attorneys per capita in your country or region to others because that’s an obvious measure of lawyer shortages. Duh.

So Yomiuri Shimbun and all Japanese law schools, the problem wasn’t adopting the American model; it’s not adopting it all the way.

NALP’s Fuzzy Definition of ‘JD Advantage’…

…Is largely the same as the ABA’s, but that’s not the point, which is that you should read:

NALP’s Fuzzy Definition of ‘JD Advantage’

on The American Lawyer. It’s probably the first time I’ve written on this curious topic.

I don’t have any music for you as I’m beating a virus today that’s hampering my productivity. Since my organs haven’t liquified yet, I’m ruling out Ebola.

Peace.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the ‘JD Advantage’ Category

…Pretty much sums up my response to the National Association for Law Placement’s analysis of the class of 2013’s employment outcomes.

Quoth Executive Director James Leipold:

As the legal services market continues to change at a rapid pace following the dramatic downsizing during the recession, the variety and diversity of jobs that law grads take now is greater than ever. In general, the picture that emerges is one of slow growth, and growth that is a blend of continued shrinkage and downsizing in some areas offset by growth in other areas.

Although the NALP changed its terminology from “JD Preferred” to “JD Advantage” starting with the class of 2011, this year marks the record percentage of JD Advantage jobs.

Percent Employed by Status (NALP)

The good news is that the percent not working (aka the unemployment rate) has fallen to 12.9 percent. The record was 14.6 percent in 1993. I’m confident that record will not be breached, so there’s some good news. Indeed, I think it’s disturbing that the early ’90s recession mauled law practice so badly.

As for the JD Advantageers (seriously, slap a jetpack on them and shoot them into the sky), though, I did a quick correlation analysis for the 2001-2013 period. JD Advantage has a surprising -0.94 correlation with Bar Passage Required and an unfortunate 0.85 correlation with Not Working. This bodes ill for the merits of JD Advantage generally.

As for the correlation between JD Advantage and employer types, again, private practice correlates at -0.94. (Wow.) Business and Industry weighs in at 0.97, but Public Interest comes in at 0.91, which is either good or means that Public Interest has been watered down with people who couldn’t find work in firms.

(I forgot to mention that Business and Industry hit a record 18.4 percent of employer types this year.)

So yeah, strong positive correlations with unemployment is usually something you don’t want when making sense of employment categories. Thus, when Leipold says that the picture is one of “slow growth that is a blend of continued shrinkage and downsizing in some areas offset by growth in other areas,” I caution against seeing growing proportions of JD Advantage outcomes as plausibly representing a positive future for law school graduates.

Leipold, lamentably, disagrees:

It is not true that there are too many lawyers — indeed even today most Americans do not have adequate access to affordable legal services — but the traditional market for large numbers of law graduates by large law firms seeking equity-track new associates is not likely to ever return to what it was in 2006 or 2007, and thus aggregate earning opportunities for the class as a whole are not likely to return to what they were before the recession.

Not too many lawyers? Tell that to the JD Advantage cadre.

Site Update: Lawyer Overproduction Page

You can find it here or in the “original research (updated)” menu above. It’s long overdue as I’ve received requests for its sources.

I also delisted the “law schools and law students per capita” page. It hadn’t been updated in around three years, and the lawyer overproduction page pretty much supersedes it. It’s a little sad because that was the first research project I started on this blog back in the summer of ’10. Maybe I’ll come up with a reason to put it back into the mix, but not now.

On the Am Law Daily: ‘ABA Task Force Report: Part Good, Part Baffling’

You can find my latest Am Law Daily article here:

ABA Task Force Report: Part Good, Part Baffling

Per the discussion on my first cut at the topic, I added a little bit more on the possibility of limited-licensing programs reducing costs. There’re other changes to the original post.

http://www.americanlawyer.com/home/id=1202643728147/ABA+Task+Force+Report+Part+Good+Part+Baffling%3Fmcode=1202617075486&curindex=3

Why the Stagnant Labor Productivity in the Legal Sector?

In my last Am Law Daily article, I discovered that contrary to all expectations, the quantity of private legal services provided per hour worked has stagnated for more than two decades. I think this is one of the most important insights I’ve come across, and I think the macroeconomic data on the legal sector is greatly undervalued in commentary on the future of law and law school. The lack of productivity increases certainly deserves a bit more discussion than I gave it in the article.

Legal Sector Labor Productivity

(Sources: BLS multifactor productivity tables, BEA, author’s calculations)

So, were lawyers (okay, legal sector workers, but I may use the term interchangeably) more efficient when they used paper reporters than LexisNexis?

Unlikely. I think there are other things going on here.

One, (private) legal services aren’t homogeneous outputs. An hour spent on a criminal defense matter isn’t the same as an hour spent on a landlord-tenant dispute or a corporate merger. It’s possible that many lawyers (and firms) have become more productive over the years, but the composition of the average hour of legal services Americans are buying has changed.

All this observation does, though, is raise the question of how the average hour has changed, and there isn’t much direct evidence on the subject. There are some indirect data. For example, American Bar Foundation (PDF) statistics show that since 1980, large firms have crowded-out smaller ones, though curiously solo practitioners are about as abundant as they ever were.

Percent Private Practice Lawyers by Firm Size

In 1980, only 7 percent of all private practice lawyers worked in a firm larger than 50 lawyers; in 2005, 20 percent did. But this doesn’t show much because in most circumstances we expect larger firms to be more efficient than smaller ones, so they’d cost less per client. On the other hand, Bill Henderson tells us that the employment composition of biglaw has changed since the 1980s as well, which I think can support the idea that the average hour of legal services has changed.

We also know that in general legal services have become more expensive over the years, even as the number of employed lawyers has grown. Legal services cost twice as much on average in 2011 as they did in 1985 in real terms.

Real Legal Sector Price Index

(Source: BEA, author’s calculations)

So how do you square the circle of more lawyers yet costlier legal services? In two ways: First, you can argue that demand for legal services is wealth and income elastic, i.e. the more money one has, the more they like spending it on lawyers and they buy different kinds of legal services too. And wouldn’t you know it, just this morning The National Law Journal reported that $1,000 per hour billable rates for “in-demand partners at the most prestigious firms” aren’t rare anymore. Second, you can argue that as Americans’ incomes and wealth decline, they’re unable to purchase the legal services that they used to, and the lawyers who formerly served them either move to a higher-priced market or go out of business.

The only alternative you’re left with is that there’s an attorney shortage, and all those “excess” law school graduates are really just lazy, greedy, entitled, and unwilling to make the tough sacrifices like abandoning their current lives and moving to rural America to serve the poor. However, this argument requires throwing out rational behavior assumptions and leads us to wonder why the supposedly efficient large firms won’t serve the poor if the greedy grads will not. The “market failure” line is ever wanting for an explanation.

If the composition of the average hour of legal services hasn’t changed, then the only way I can think of where we get the same (or less) output for the same effort despite technological advances and rising prices is by systemic fraud and cartelized behavior on a spectacular scale. Lawyers lie in lockstep about the cost of their services. Then they work fewer hours a week and take Fridays off. New lawyers attempting to enter the market, work more, and charge lower prices face threats and sabotage.

I’m sure plenty of people believe the above is true, but there’s scant evidence of it.

********************

So we have stagnant legal sector labor productivity. I think it reflects wealth concentration rather than fraud.

Incidentally, clever observers might wonder how much it matters. Maybe increases in overall labor productivity have a long way to go to catch up to the legal sector’s, an observation that didn’t make the cut in my Am Law Daily piece. Indeed, most productivity gains over the last few decades have not gone to workers. Here’s a different measure, output per worker (instead of per hour, which is more precise).

Real Value Added Per Person Engaged in Production

(Source: BEA, author’s calculations)

By this measure, the legal sector has become 13.5 percent less productive between 2009 and 2011. This could mean that either all lawyers who didn’t lose their jobs in the Lesser Depression organized a work slowdown, or the Lesser Depression laid-off the most productive legal sector workers. In a variant of the latter, some practice areas might be more productive than others—especially those benefitting poorer clients and not the wealthy—and once poor people become destitute, an otherwise productive chunk of the legal sector goes out of business. Regardless, there may be significant deadweight workers in the legal sector.

What does this mean for the as-yet unmentioned prospective law student? As I wrote in the article, law will only consistently pay off for those who can serve the wealthy, at least in the short term. Also, as the largest purchaser of law graduates’ labor, the legal sector sets their wages. If legal sector productivity has stagnated while other sectors become more productive, there are probably better long-term opportunities than law.

A crucial independent variable here is how long the depression will last. Given the dismal December 2013 Establishment Survey figures (and the Obama administration’s shameful spinning of them), things are bad. Here’s the employment-population ratio for 16 to 54 year-olds and my projection of them based on the positive growth since September 2011.

Civilian Employment-Population Ratio (16-54)

(Source: BLS)

If the legal sector is sensitive to employment levels and wealth concentration, then it’s going to be a long while until law starts paying off consistently from the demand side. From the supply side, obviously, there are far fewer people going to law school, and I’m hopeful (yes!) that the median graduate in a few years will have less law school debt than in previous years. It’s also obvious that the trivial accounting identity holds true: The first person who doesn’t go to law school is the first not to be unemployed after graduating. The real questions are (a) whether the demand-side factors really are as bad as I think they are, and (b) whether some law schools’ reputations are so insubstantial that legal employers would rather hire an unemployed graduate from a better-regarded school.

No, It’s Still Not a Good Time to Apply to Law School

Forbes contributor and University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo gives three reasons people should apply to law school if “bad news” has otherwise discouraged them.

(1)  “Fewer applicants means schools compete fiercely for decent students.”

So what? Getting into a slightly more reputable school still doesn’t mean that career-spanning legal positions will be there on graduation. Similarly, excessive tuition minus scholarships often still equals excessive tuition. Scholarships are given to the extent they keep a student from matriculating elsewhere, not to ensure students get good deals.

(2)  “A lot of law jobs will be opening up over the next five to ten years.”

Calo writes:

“The demographics are such that knowledgeable folks like the head of the Washington Bar Association are predicting a market gap.  They worry that future demand for legal services cannot be met by a dwindling supply.”

“Knowledgeable folks” should look at their state government’s data. Washington is projected to add 460 new lawyer jobs per year between 2010 and 2020. The state admitted 1,148 lawyers in 2012 alone. Reasonable people can question the accuracy of the projections, but they do estimate a replacement rate based on current occupational demographics and typical retirement rates. A shortfall in projected jobs due to slow growth is plausible, an unprecedented wave of boomer retirements is not.

Since Calo’s is the second report this week to argue that the medium-run situation is improving, let me add a few points:

  • In order to count, future law graduate jobs must be indefinite-duration, career-track positions that require a law degree or the knowledge and skills imparted in law school. No part-timers, no definite-duration full-time jobs, and decent starting client bases for self-employed lawyers.
  • No law professor positions. “JDs to create more JDs” is unsustainable, and there are more than enough law professors now.
  • Similarly, there should be minimal job displacement by new grads of old graduates. Certainly there are times when more productive newer graduates outperform older ones, but these situations should be the exception.
  • Employed graduates must be able to maintain a respectable living standard, save for retirement, and repay some of their loans. I’m willing to bend my opinion of IBR’s loan-cancelation feature in this context, but jobs for graduates who face massive tax penalties in twenty years do not count.

Because of the large backlog of JDs out there, secure jobs and compensation are a long way off, even if the number of graduates falls below the number of jobs created annually.

(3)  “Reports of the death of the legal market are greatly exaggerated.”

This line’s my favorite:

“I simply do not agree with the predictions that the legal market will, uniquely, fail to rebound with the rest of the economy.”

The unique failure of the legal sector to recover along with the economy is not a prediction. It’s an empirical fact.

Real GDP & Legal Sector Value Added (Billions 2005 $)

(Source: BEA)

Calo cites claims of clients’ disenchantment with biglaw and technological advances as driving a shift in demand for legal services. I agree that these phenomena may be exaggerated, but there is no reason to be optimistic about long-term trends, particularly in smalllaw.

Primarily, young Americans aren’t making money, so they aren’t getting married or building wealth (whether genuine or positional assets). Without wealth there’s little need to hire lawyers to draft wills and the like. Without marriages, people aren’t getting divorced (this might be good overall but not necessarily for lawyers, sadly). Without investment, people won’t start new businesses. Wealth concentration benefits a handful of lawyers handsomely, but overall the profession suffers.

In sum, the bad news about law jobs is in fact bad news about law jobs.

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