Legal Academy Approaching an “Endgame” Predict Bill Henderson and Andrew Morriss

First of all, because I’ve spent a good portion of my adulthood in Japan, my thoughts go to the victims of the recent earthquake near Sendai. As far as I know, all of my friends are safe; I hope they continue to be.

Now, to the topic.

Legal Academy Approaching an “Endgame” Predict Bill Henderson and Andrew Morriss

U.S. News’s Bob Morse chafes at shilling law schools’ gamed employment data because it makes his publication look like nonsense, so he pleads the law schools to stop making him look bad. He then ups the ante:

In an effort to make our law school employment data more reflective of the current state of legal employment, U.S. News has modified how we calculate the employment rates that are used in the new law school rankings. We will also be publishing more detailed law school employment data on our website as part of the new rankings.

Professors Bill Henderson and Andrew Morriss predict this will come about not by increasing the weighting on employed-at-graduation numbers—which more and more law schools mutinously decline to submit—but by one of two ways:

  1. “[Heavily penalizing] schools that withhold the employed at graduation data,” or by
  2. “[Formulating] a way to quantify how many jobs at graduation map onto full-time professional jobs that require a law degree…Unknown may also be treated as 100% unemployed rather than the current 25% presumption of employment. Such changes would have the law schools scrambling to report better numbers in higher weighted categories rather than just finding ways to goose up the employed-at-graduation and employed-at-9 months figures.  Remember that Bob Morse explicitly endorsed the Law School Transparency movement.”

Are you convinced?

I’m not, but I won’t cry if proven wrong. When Morse says “modification,” I don’t think he means “significant punitive reweighting.” I believe as ever that U.S. News picks winners and not losers. In other words, it will never give a law school a vote of no confidence, nor will it allow its fourth tier to bulge.

Readers, take note: The flipside to “cynical” is “strategic,” and that’s the motivation I attribute to U.S. News and the law schools (sounds like I have a name for my next garage band), and hey, if law school professors can speculate, why can’t I?

U.S. News is caught in a rare and beautiful thing: a trilemma. It wants to sell magazines and maintain its credibility. To that end, it can’t let the law schools game its rankings lest it publish numbers the public won’t take seriously; it can’t ask law schools questions they’ll refuse to answer; at the same time it wants the law schools to take its rankings seriously enough that they’ll compete over them. While it’s reasonable to believe Bob Morse wants transparency for moral reasons, he doesn’t want to take up the spear himself lest he alienate more law schools into employment data noncompliance. Recently, he said he wants the ABA to make transparency happen and won’t directly ask for more from the law schools. His support of LST is similarly strategic because it can take the rejection that U.S. News prefers not to shoulder. Nor did he flippantly title a blog post, “LSAT Will Still Be Weighed Heavily in Law School Rankings.” For these reasons, I doubt that any law schools will find themselves in the “Unemployment Factory” tier on the Ides of March.

Indeed, the letter U.S. News editor Brian Kelly sent to the law schools that Morse reproduced for our entertainment stated quite clearly:

The main responsibility to gather data and implement quality standards lies with the ABA, which also accredits law schools. For whatever reason, it appears that some schools do not treat the ABA reporting rules with the seriousness one would assume. We understand that the ABA is working toward the creation of tighter, more meaningful standards, which seem promising.

“For whatever reason”? Mr. Kelly, there is one reason the Villanova Scandal happened: Law schools know full well your magazine’s ranking is their bond rating, and they’re willing to lie to the ABA to preserve it. I cynically—not strategically—believe other law schools are doing the same.

Kelly doesn’t issue an ultimatum. Instead he begs the law schools fall on their swords and maintain the status quo so his publication doesn’t publish more nonsense.

But the ABA can’t do it alone. Whatever the ABA’s ultimate decision, we would urge you to make sure that the information your school is reporting is as accurate as possible, and to consider going beyond the current industry standards. Perhaps we need metrics besides total employment rates to evaluate a successful law program. More data—on employment or other topics—is a positive factor for our readers and your students. We stand ready to work with you to find ways of publishing it.

Funny, I thought the ABA was in charge here. Law schools know that what makes U.S. News happy won’t necessarily make them look good.

Yet why is yours truly showing a sliver of optimism? Because if ever there was a time to leave the law schools holding the bag, it is now. Bill Henderson, and last week Bill Chamberlain, a dean at Northwestern, have both publicly alluded to the attorney oversupply problem and the likelihood of law schools closing. No one seriously believes that (private) law school tuition increases are anything other than rent-seeking by the schools. Consequently, in the medium term tuition and enrollments will drop, and for our viewing pleasure, U.S. News is deservedly caught in the middle. Profit from another year of one-size-fits-all rankings or purify itself for the new legal education order?

Henderson and Morriss, for their part, believe that law schools must submit to transparency or suffer decisive judicial or executive intervention:

At some point, all our lawyerly rationalizations will come to a bad end because a governmental agency or a court is going to challenge our right to self-regulation, thus ushering in a truly disgraceful chapter in the history of American legal education.

Now is one of the very few moments in our careers as academics where we have to make hard choices and demonstrate that we warrant the trust and respect of our tenured positions.   Through our governance organizations (ABA, LSAC, NALP, AALS), we need to implement a system of complete transparency on employment outcomes.  If the system has real teeth, it will force us all to work very hard to ensure we are delivering value commensurate with the tuition dollars we collect.

It’s the end of the road.  We likely have one last chance to get it right.

My bet’s on intervention.



    1. Ethesis, I’ve thought out endgames in the past here.

      I would really like it if either Congress or state governments intervened as those could solve the problem decisively, but like Bill Henderson I think it’s a matter of time until the Department of Education revokes the ABA’s accreditation privileges.

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