Due to errors in the original post, click here to read the corrected version. I apologize for the errors in this version.
Whittier Law School announced it will no longer enroll 1L classes but will graduate the students it has. It is the first fully accredited law school that is straight up closing, i.e. it isn’t merging with another school or finding some other way out of its problems. It’s going for good.
Whittier is not the school I would’ve predicted to be the first to close. Certainly it was in a high-risk category, but I thought others were in direr straits, and Whittier isn’t even freestanding. Charlotte lost its federal loan funding. The ABA censured Valparaiso (pdf), put Arizona Summit on probation (pdf), and told Ave Maria it was out of compliance with its standards (pdf). La Verne lost its provisional accreditation once, and the fates of (un)merged Camden and Penn-State Dickinson appear sealed. Indiana Tech immolated on the launch pad. These days the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s Web site looks more like an academic police blotter than an accrediting body’s homepage.
The question all this raises is: What law schools might be in situations similar to Whittier’s?
We can answer by comparing Whittier to other law schools on various dimensions, particularly debt, employment outcomes, and estimated revenue from full-time students paying full tuition. (Others have already done most of the work on bar-passage rates.)
This past year, U.S. News ranked Whittier as number two for average disbursed graduate debt, $179,056, but its figure was 20 percent higher than last year. It’s a volatile measure, but this year some of its notable nearest neighbors were Thomas Jefferson, San Francisco, American, Golden Gate, John Marshall (Chicago), and Florida Coastal. Most of these law schools featured prominently on debt rankings in previous years.
A couple years ago, I applied the Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule to all law schools—not just for-profits—and found that Whittier’s 2014 graduates would need to earn more than $80,000 to avoid a failing grade. Four years of failing would mean losing access to federal funding, and nearly a quarter of Whittier’s graduates were totally unemployed after graduating. That figure hasn’t improved since (~23 percent for class of 2015 grads). We’ll soon learn how bad the class of 2016 is doing, but Whittier’s full-time, long-term, bar-passage-required employment rate has been so abysmal that it ranks near the three law schools in Puerto Rico. (Yes, bar-passage rates feed into this outcome.)
The one metric where Whittier wasn’t doing as badly as many other (private) law schools was its cumulative losses in tuition revenue from full-time students. In 2015-16, it took in nearly $6 million, but in 2011-12 it received $13.5 million. The 56 percent drop puts it at number 64 among private law schools (though the top schools, Vermont, Brooklyn, WMU Cooley, and California Western, reported more students receiving grants than they had full-time students, which would probably bump Whittier up a few notches). 56 percent is rough, but a bunch of private law schools lost even larger shares of money—and some took in only a few hundred thousand dollars in full-time tuition revenue last year.
Here’s what the situation looks like for all private law schools, sorted by the percent decline. Note that for once, I am including the two private law schools in Puerto Rico because I feel their performance is indicative of the worst. These figures are adjusted for inflation.
|REVENUE FROM FULL-TIME STUDENTS PAYING FULL-TUITION|
|#||SCHOOL||2011||2015||CUMULATIVE LOSS||PERCENT CHANGE|
|5.||St. Thomas (MN)||5,743,284||37,941||-5,705,343||-99.3%|
|7.||Washington and Lee||6,903,362||185,988||-6,717,374||-97.3%|
|12.||New York Law School||41,803,974||4,530,080||-37,273,894||-89.2%|
|22.||Lewis and Clark||8,873,433||1,611,792||-7,261,641||-81.8%|
|23.||Case Western Reserve||8,801,033||1,705,620||-7,095,413||-80.6%|
|45.||Atlanta’s John Marshall||16,084,711||5,613,700||-10,471,011||-65.1%|
|56.||John Marshall (Chicago)||25,576,716||10,437,840||-15,138,876||-59.2%|
|77.||Arizona Summit [Phoenix]||12,828,297||7,562,152||-5,266,145||-41.1%|
|78.||St. Thomas (FL)||16,799,445||9,990,390||-6,809,055||-40.5%|
|85.||Western New England||3,630,743||2,375,332||-1,255,411||-34.6%|
|104.||New York University||46,942,488||46,870,700||-71,788||-0.2%|
(Source: ABA, author’s calculations)
Obviously full-time, full-tuition revenue doesn’t tell all of the story—and not just for part-time-focused operations like WMU Cooley—but it definitely illustrates the kind of circumstances many private law schools find themselves in. The same must be true for public law schools. It’s in this context that we can ponder the solvency of other at-risk law schools. Whittier is the first big closure, but it won’t be the last. Universities whose law schools are losing lots of money and have poor employment and bar-passage outcomes are watching Whittier and its neighbors.
“I don’t think anyone seriously expects Republican control come 2017,” I wrote just over two years ago, yet here we are. And since we’ve survived President Emolument’s administration for this long—and the Senate just eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees—I have time to hold myself accountable: Was I wrong about the “prophetic fallacy” two years ago?
In 2015, I responded to a Vox editorial arguing that the U.S. constitutional system is doomed for structural reasons: Its 18th-century separation-of-powers mechanisms cannot withstand today’s ideological gridlock, so eventually the parties will exceed mere norm-breaking, triggering a constitutional crisis that will result in a new (parliamentary?) system of government. First, senators threaten to destroy the filibuster, then presidents legislate with executive orders, and then we’re Venezuela.
I countered that Vox was committing the “prophetic fallacy,” which I think I coined. It means unfalsifiable, apocalyptic predictions couched as thoughtful political science. It’s not certain that the U.S. government will fail because the parties don’t get along, and Vox‘s argument rested on the position that “both sides do it too (except the Republicans are worse).”
So, it sure looks like the constitutional system is in jeopardy, but is it doomed for the reasons Vox outlined? To be fair, I expected that Republicans had no chance of winning the presidency going forward (and not just popular vote) and that the history books would look back at this era as one of incremental change by mediocre Democratic presidents. Now, I will never doubt Democrats’ ability to lose elections.
However, the foundation of Vox‘s argument was that both sides are breaking democratic norms to the point of constitutional fracture. This still is not correct. There’s a difference between Democrats’ breaches of norms and Republicans’. That is: Are there any win-sets for either party when it’s in the minority?
A “win-set,” termed by Robert Putnam, is any number of potential outcomes that would be acceptable to one’s own side in two-step negotiation. Applied to this context, there’s no evidence that Democrats would have rejected every single Republican Supreme Court nominee in 2017. I believe they would have accepted a 70-year-old conservative, for example, to fill the vacancy, believing that this individual would retire or die within several years. By contrast Republicans did not have any win-sets with President Obama. They weren’t going to accept any of his nominees—hell, they wouldn’t even let him fill routine positions in the executive branch—and in 2016 some of them even promised to obstruct anyone Hillary Clinton nominated to the Supreme Court.
So as of now, Vox‘s conditions for structural breakdown have not been met. Democrats still “play by the rules” and Republicans simply refuse to negotiate. We still have a problem of minoritarian power vetoing the will of the public, but the system hasn’t failed yet due to gridlock.
Now, what to make of our emolument-hogging president? This too is not something Vox or anyone else predicted in 2015. Moreover, Trump’s infiltration of the Republican Party didn’t occur because of gridlock; rather, it was the party’s ideological sclerosis. “Tax cuts for the few, and fetuses for all,” is an even less inspiring slogan for the majority of Americans than Trump’s blather, even when Ben Carson barks it. Beyond that, the norm-breaking involved with Trump isn’t Republicans obstructing Democrats; it’s Republicans failing to hold their extra-constitutional president accountable.
Let’s be clear, though: Some parts of the Constitution aren’t enforceable without a deep ideological commitment to its principles. For example, Trump’s missile attack on Syria wasn’t authorized by Congress and doesn’t fit into the War Powers Act. Is anyone going to impeach him for that? The same goes for emoluments. Separation of powers can cause needless gridlock, but checks and balances can fail easily too.
Thus, the fear today isn’t gridlock but its opposite: “constitutional retrogression” due to lateral control of the government by power-hungry authoritarians. Academics Aziz Z. Huq and Tom Ginsburg discuss this in their article, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” (SSRN link is down as I write this.) The authors argue that instead of a military coup or a dictator taking power, the more likely path to authoritarianism for the U.S. is a silenced civil society, compliant courts, and rigged or meaningless elections.
I emphasize that if this disaster comes about, its cause won’t be norm-breaking gridlock but norm-breaking procedurally successful governance. One can even imagine Trump leaning heavily on the president’s pardoning power to excuse his family and cronies from liability. It’d probably be constitutional even if the president is part of the conspiracy.
I’m unsure constitutional retrogression will blight us. At least, I think the courts are still sufficiently loyal to the Constitution to prevent that kind of subversion, and Trump really has not made many friends among the judiciary. But the only way Vox‘s argument holds up at this point is by predicting what happens once Republicans are out of power. Depending on the scale of his overreaches, it’s quite conceivable that Democrats (let’s say) would have little political choice but to prosecute Trump and his cronies for their criminal regime, breaking the presidential tradition of not going after one’s predecessors.
Once these trials begin we’re totally in banana republic country because the political discourse will disintegrate into endless recriminations and revenge prosecutions. Or, maybe Americans will tire of it and their politicians will get the hint and become civil again. That’s the prophetic fallacy for you.
Make that three administrations in a row that the number of LSAT takers has risen. At last, the LSAC has published the results of the February 2017 LSAT. 21,400 people took the test, up 5.4 percent from a year ago (20,301).
The four-period moving sum of LSAT administrations rose 1 percent to 109,354. By comparison, this administration year comes in slightly lower than 2012-13 (112,515). At the same time, the number of applicants is falling from last year, 1.9 percent lower than this time in 2016. As of now 55,100 people are projected to apply to law schools this year, but there may be a late surge in applicants as has tended to be the case in recent years. The number may be higher.
Although I’m still baffled why so many people would be interested in going to law school after such negative news in 2016, it’s even more surprising that more LSATs translates into fewer applicants. Perhaps LSAT takers are more strategic about their scores, which cautions against the hypothesis that the “wrong people” aren’t applying to law school (because, obviously, only high-LSAT scorers make good lawyers). So far, there’s no evidence of a Trump-induced surge in law-school interest. I’m confident that’s premature, but it’s something to bear in mind when the June LSAT takes place.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) usually completes its updates of its many measures of occupational employment for the previous year by April. Data for 2016 are now available, allowing a comprehensive summary of lawyer employment for that year. For detailed discussion of what the BLS datasets are and how they address lawyer employment, I recommend the lawyer overproduction page [updated!].
For context, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS), the number of people who reported working as lawyers in 2016 shrank 2.3 percent to 1,133,000—about where it was in 2014. The CPS also estimated 745,000 people working as lawyers on a wage or salary basis, a 7.2 percent decline from the previous year (-58,000 lawyers). This change is plausible because in 2015, the number rose 9 percent (+66,000) and could just indicate measurement problems with the CPS. By contrast, the more accurate Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program found that the number of wage-and-salary lawyers grew by 1.6 percent last year to 619,530 (+9,600 lawyers). The number of employee lawyers in the legal sector grew only a negligible 0.7 percent to 382,730 (+2,550).
Employee lawyers’ incomes were flat again in 2016. The OES estimated a scant 0.7 percent median hourly wage growth, although the CPS registered a -0.7 percent median weekly wage increase. Going by the OES, the last peak for lawyers’ earnings was 2009 (~$125,000 annually); incomes are about 6.7 percent lower (-$8,400) in real dollars since then. Here is an annualized dispersion.
These lawyer employment and income measures are not strong bellwethers for the value of legal education because they include many established lawyers and don’t measure recent graduate outcomes particularly well, especially those of graduates who do not promptly start careers in law. Readers seeking insight into that topic are instead advised to look at my criteria for predicting improvements in law graduate outcomes and the lawyer production page for a clear discussion of the BLS’s Employment Projections program.
Prior versions of this post:
- “Lawyer Employment Data Day at the Labor Department,” April 2, 2013
- “Wage-and-Salary Lawyer Employment Slows in 2015, Incomes Flat,” April 4, 2016
Each year U.S. News & World Report lists law schools by the average indebtedness of their graduates. Importantly, the figures exclude accrued interest, which can be quite considerable. However, these numbers are probably the best estimate of the cost of attendance at a particular law school presented in a comparable form. The ABA does not publicize graduate debt in the 509 information reports, making U.S. News an unfortunately necessary source.
Here’s the debt table. A recurring problem in U.S. News’ debt data is law schools that misreport their graduating students’ annual debt as opposed to their cumulative debt, which is what the magazine asks for. Thus, I include last year’s numbers for illustration and encourage ridicule of law schools that cannot follow basic directions, but I welcome corrections.
|#||SCHOOL||2015 DEBT||2016 DEBT||PCT. CHANGE|
|4.||New York University||166,022||167,646||1.0%|
|9.||John Marshall (Chicago)||162,264||158,888||-2.1%|
|12.||New York Law School||161,910||157,568||-2.7%|
|39.||Lewis and Clark||140,025||139,624||-0.3%|
|66.||Western New England||121,367|
|75.||Penn State (Penn State Law)||129,772||117,692||-9.3%|
|81.||Texas A&M [Wesleyan]||104,200||115,405||10.8%|
|85.||Penn State (Dickinson Law)||116,717||109,828||-5.9%|
|94.||Washington and Lee||110,067||105,426||-4.2%|
|95.||District of Columbia||108,095||105,330||-2.6%|
|104.||Case Western Reserve||105,854||102,370||-3.3%|
|107.||St. Thomas (MN)||101,950||100,805||-1.1%|
|115.||Massachusetts — Dartmouth||102,603||98,730||-3.8%|
|124.||Missouri (Kansas City)||96,639||93,678||-3.1%|
|129.||William and Mary||110,140||90,028||-18.3%|
|171.||Arkansas (Little Rock)||68,960||65,931||-4.4%|
|174.||North Carolina Central||27,972||60,479||116.2%|
Note: Mitchell|Hamline’s 2015 entry is the bare mean average of William Mitchell’s and Hamline’s 2015 figures.
And per this post’s title, here’s the List of Shame: Law schools that chose not to submit their graduates’ debt information to U.S. News, along with their last-reported figures and the year in which they reported them. Thanks to the gainful employment rule, I was able to track down median graduate debt at three for-profits. As I am merciful, I exclude the three Puerto Rico law schools from this count.
- Arizona Summit [Phoenix] – $178,263 [2015, median, for-profit]
- Atlanta’s John Marshall – $161,910 [2015, median, for-profit]
- Charlotte – $145,834 [2015, median, for-profit]
- Touro – $154,855 (2014)
- Southwestern – $147,976 (2012)
- Thomas (FL) – $140,808 (2014)
- New England – $132,246 (2013)
- WMU Cooley – $122,395 (2012)
- Appalachian – $114,740 (2012)
- La Verne – $112,628 (2012)
- Texas Southern – $99,992 (2012)
- Concordia – NEVER
- Indiana Tech – NEVER
These 13 law schools account for 2,282 graduates out of 36,664, or 6 percent of the total.
Normally, I would estimate the change in the weighted-average amount of debt law graduates at public and private law school take on, but because U.S. News reported absurdly high percentages of graduates with debt at each law school, I decline to make those estimates now. However, the unweighted-average private-law-school graduate debt, which is what is commonly reported, fell by 3 percent; it also fell by 4 percent at public law schools. Much of this is due to clear misreporting by law schools, some of which after all these years still report their graduates’ debt in their final year of law school.
Speaking of which, here are some curious results:
- Fluctuations: Hawaii (+50.1%), Chapman (+38.9%), Regent (+33.4%), Whittier (+20.7%), Tennessee (+20.2%), California-Irvine (-20.0%), Fordham (-22.0%), Kentucky (-23.9%), Belmont (-27.7%), and Loyola (IL) (-33.4%).
- Big raspberries: Howard (-63.9), Vermont (-66.4), South Texas (-68.2), Loyola (LA) (-68.5), Cleveland State (-69.1), Capital (-69.8), and Oregon (-83.3).
In all, it’s good the non-reporting count fell. Kudos to the law schools that reported this year that did not for 2015, even if I don’t believe Faulkner’s or Florida A&M’s grads finished with so little debt.
You can’t make this up:
The actual debt numbers look way low too, but I’ll give you an analysis a little later, perhaps once these numbers are corrected.