A while back I wrote about how the ABA was convening a Task Force on the Future of Legal Education and how it has its work cut out for it. It’s asking for comments before its February 9 meeting in Texas, so if you feel like saying something, do so. I’m reprinting my comment here, with a couple of corrections to watch out for in the endnotes. I admit I didn’t plan on submitting a comment until I was asked to, but it helped me summarize my thoughts on what the problems are and how they should be solved. It also gave me an opportunity to dumpster-dive into the LSTB and find posts on topics that don’t come up often but lurk in the background. The LSTB crested 300 posts recently, so there’s a lot there.
I’ll add that some of the comments are quite good (UC-Hastings dean Frank Wu’s is getting some deserved attention), and I mentioned a few of the better ones. I’ve at least skimmed through all of them (not so much the one by the Canadian lawyers that spanned hundreds of pages), but of the ones uploaded after mine I recommend most the one by UC-Los Angeles law professor Richard L. Abel because it addresses the history of how lawyers are licensed in the U.S.
January 16, 2013
Task Force on the Future of Legal Education
c/o Art Garwin, Deputy Director
Center for Professional Responsibility
American Bar Association
To the Honorable Randall T. Shepard and Task Force members,
I write at the encouragement of Task Force member Thomas Lyons, and I thank you for considering outside opinions such as my own. The Task Force is to be commended for accelerating its timetable, for such eagerness reflects positively on the ABA’s willingness to take seriously the problems facing new lawyers and legal education.
Until now, legal education reform has primarily focused on what I consider “demand-side issues”: furnishing more accurate information about law school graduates’ employment outcomes to prospective applicants so they can hopefully make informed decisions about becoming lawyers. The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar responded quicker to the information deficit than I’d predicted, but the successes of demand-side reforms of legal education pale against those problems remaining on the supply-side of lawyer licensing: The barriers to obtaining a law license (which includes law school costs) are too high and arbitrary, and they harm both aspiring lawyers and the public the profession serves. I recommend the Task Force consider legal education as one of many practices that require reform.
The Task Force Should Encourage the ABA to Shift Its Position on Federal Student Loans and Bankruptcy Reform, Embrace Novel Education Financing Options
That said, the education requirement for becoming a lawyer is obviously the most salient issue today, but recognizing that one of the Task Force’s subcommittees is dedicated to improving the delivery of legal education, I believe this is one of the last items that require revision. Overall, I find demands for “practice-ready” attorneys to be a distraction from more legitimate concerns. If employers want certain skills they should train their workers themselves and advocate simplifying the lawyer-licensing process accordingly. That’s how it works other industries, and asking educators to provide training for jobs that employers aren’t obliged to create costs students unfairly.
Rather, the dominating problem with law school is the over-generous Federal Direct Student Loan Program (DLP), which obligingly lends most students up to $20,500 in Stafford loans and the remaining total cost of attendance plus living expenses in Grad PLUS loans each year. I believe that access to unlimited student loans, well-intentioned as it may be, enables law schools to increase their tuition for as long as people are willing to attend them.[i] I suspect that without Grad PLUS loans and the restrictions on discharging private student loans in bankruptcy, both authorized in Congress’ 2005 bankruptcy reform,[ii] tuition at private law schools would have begun to level off or even decline by now because students would have been unable to finance it.
My views break with those long held by the ABA, which regularly supports increased lending to law students,[iii] and calls for ending the DLP are often met with hostile responses that the legal profession would only be accessible to the wealthy. I disagree. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a surplus of law school graduates into the indefinite future, I see no justification for the government to lend money to people to buy degrees for which jobs are unavailable.[iv] Nor am I convinced that legal education is a public good requiring government support. I further believe the often-made claim that legal education is versatile and opens job opportunities beyond law practice to be unsubstantiated and fallacious.[v] Cheaper lawyer training is possible, and the current system does not open doors to the poor but in fact creates poverty by saddling law students with large loan burdens.
Consequently, many of the people who will graduate law school in the future, to say nothing of those from the past, will have very large debts and no place in the legal profession commensurate with the effort they put into law school. Although the government’s Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan will rescue these students from destitution, it will still require them to pay essentially an additional, regressive tax on their earnings for twenty years, which will be acutely felt if they are not working as professionals. IBR’s loan cancelation privilege (if it is not abolished in the near future)[vi] coupled with excessive loan burdens persuade me that the federal government will lose billions of dollars canceling money lent to law students. Law schools and the ABA ignore the approaching confrontation with legislators at their own peril.
The ABA’s most-recent response I know of to existing student loans is to advocate requiring private lenders to extend IBR-like protections to debtors.[vii] I think instead the ABA should shift its position towards reforming the bankruptcy code to restore full bankruptcy protections to all student loans and ending the DLP. It can also encourage state governments to require their public universities to offer, instead of debt financing, an equity option called “human capital contracts,” which obligate graduates to pay a certain portion of their incomes for a fixed time period back to their universities. Unlike IBR, this type of policy forces universities to internalize the costs of their own programs, and if their programs become insolvent, universities should terminate them.[viii] Embracing these policies would signal to the public that the ABA understands the causes of factors enabling law school tuition increases and excessive student debt, and it would begin to heal the generational rift forming between new law school graduates and the profession from which they are increasingly alienated.
As for the law schools themselves, the student loan system animates many of their frequently discussed inefficiencies, such as competition over U.S. News rankings, overcompensation of employees, needless new buildings, funding positions for graduates to improve their employment statistics, over-focusing on GPA and LSAT scores at the expense of other factors,[ix] and using fees from some students to attract well-credentialed students with scholarships. If possible, rather than regulating bad behavior, the ABA should address the incentives that encourage bad behavior.[x]
Even other reforms such as easing accreditation requirements or reducing the required number of credits for law school[xi] might not affect how law schools operate so long as their students are fully financed by the government. For example, many private law schools that do not rank very highly on U.S. News are nevertheless very expensive. Also, the lure of federal loan dollars is so powerful that many law schools in states that license graduates of non-ABA institutions forgo the option of delivering cheaper legal education in favor of national accreditation and the DLP loans that accompany it. For these reasons I believe the Task Force should take student loan reform as the most urgent priority for law licensing and legal education reform.
The Task Force Should Encourage Bar Authorities to Reduce Remaining Entry Barriers to the Profession
Student loans, however, are not the only problem the profession’s entry system faces. In recent years critics have used the discontent directed at law schools as an opportunity to advocate for deregulating the legal profession entirely. Many of their arguments are poorly researched, particularly those demanding reform by claiming without evidence that doing so would cure an attorney shortage in the United States.[xii] They are correct that the profession’s entry barriers are arbitrary, and the longer the profession defends them and the DLP, the more likely outside forces will unilaterally rescind its autonomy. Outside of the risk of incompetent practice, this might not be a bad thing, even if done for the wrong reasons, but rather than resisting calls for change, the Task Force should acknowledge the weaknesses in most states’ lawyer-licensing rules and encourage efforts to change them.
For instance, bar exams in their current form are not defensible entry barriers. They almost always occur long after bar petitioners have sunk enormous costs into legal education,[xiii] they are too hard for some people who might otherwise make fine lawyers (“false negatives”), they test many obsolete legal doctrines, and they also omit entire substantive practice areas to which many attorneys dedicate their entire careers. Although I agree that some showing of legal knowledge (especially of ethics and constitutional law) is justifiable, demanding too much is not. Streamlining bar exams along practice lines would greatly reduce the incidence of false negatives among bar petitioners and conserve resources for all test-takers.
Simplifying the bar would also reduce the possibility of law schools knowingly accepting applicants who probably lack the aptitude to pass the exam because of the correlation between LSAT scores and bar passage.[xiv] Perhaps between five and ten percent of ABA law school graduates who take a bar exam never pass. Some test-takers might take more than one exam, passing one and not another, but the ABA should do everything in its power to prevent law schools from enrolling students who will waste precious time and money for a license they probably will not obtain, even if it means tightening bar passage requirements for accredited law schools. It’s unfair to deny people a place in the profession because the exam wasn’t calibrated to the knowledge they need as practicing attorneys. It’s also unfair to the clients they could have served.
It’s also probable that the law licensing system allows too many “false positives,” people who by virtue of their LSAT scores and GPAs appear to make good lawyers but don’t.[xv] I’m not knowledgeable of data on firm associate retention rates or similar topics, but front-loading the legal education requirement makes it too easy for people who do not know if law practice suits them to enter the profession. It also widens the information asymmetry between law school applicants and law schools, which the latter has greatly used to their advantage by admitting applicants who serve law schools’ reputational goals before their students’.
The mandatory legal education requirement doesn’t serve potential lawyers well either. For instance, the aforementioned correlation between LSAT scores and bar passage rates disserves those on the opposite end of the bar exam aptitude spectrum as well, which raises the question: Why require someone who will likely pass the bar exam by self-study anyway to attend law school? If the principal benefit law school provides these individuals is signaling their competence for good job opportunities, then I believe the Task Force should consider eliminating the formal legal education requirement altogether.
Declining applications and hostility towards law schools and law practice are teaching the public that demand for legal education (or, rather, law licenses) is not connected to demand for legal services. If the near-term solution to many of legal education’s problems is curbing the government’s lending to law students, the longer-term solution is to align the profession’s licensing system to the public’s need for legal services. I believe adopting my suggestions will accomplish both goals.
Thank you for considering my thoughts.
[i] For information on the theoretical basis of my beliefs, I recommend, Andrew Gillen’s “Introducing Bennett Hypothesis 2.0,” from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. http://centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Introducing_Bennett_Hypothesis_2-1.pdf (PDF). I have yet to see a convincing author discredit Gillen’s analysis.
[ii] [Update: This is incorrect. Grad PLUS loans were authorized separately from bankruptcy reform by Congress in February 2006.]
[iii] See e.g. ABA president Carolyn Lamm, “Law School Debt Has a Manageable Solution,” 2009. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_students/initiatives_awards/advocacy/debt_solutions.html
[iv] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Lawyers,” Occupational Outlook Handbook. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm
[v] Matt Leichter, “The Juris Doctor Is ‘Versatile’ Thanks Mainly to Numerous Logical Fallacies,” The Am Law Daily, August 14, 2012. http://www.americanlawyer.com/PubArticleALD.jsp?id=1202567415810&The_Juris_Doctor_is_Versatile_Thanks_Mainly_to_Numerous_Logical_Fallacies
[vi] One bill that may make its way through Congress proposes to end the loan forgiveness portion of IBR for future students, which will condemn many law school graduates to a lifetime of debt. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-04/student-loan-collection-targeted-for-overhaul-in-congress.html
[vii] ABA Resolution 111A, Young Lawyers Division, http://www.abajournal.com/files/111a.pdf (PDF).
[viii] Similar ideas have been proposed by a student organization advocating reform of the University of California systems, called “FixUC,” which I wrote about here: https://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/fixuc-stumbles-onto-human-capital-contracts/.
[ix] One comment to the Task Force that illustrates law schools valuing incoming student credentials over applicants’ strengths is by non-traditional law student Elizabeth Paskiewicz, who has significant experience in the legal profession as a non-lawyer and performed very well in her paralegal education, but most ABA law schools overlooked her because of their mechanistic decision-making processes that exclude applicants with low undergraduate GPAs.
[x] For example, even without the student loan system, law schools still have an incentive to compete over their magazine rankings, which is fine, but they may still falsify student data they send to the ABA. If so, then auditing them is a good idea.
[Update: This sentence didn’t come out right. Something more like “If possible, rather than regulating bad behavior, the ABA should address the factors that aggravate bad behavior.” My point is that we might not be able to live in a world where law schools don’t engage in needless competition (over their U.S. News rankings, for example). Regulations like auditing make more sense if addressing the loan program is insufficient.]
[xi] Although there have been growing calls (most recently in New York) to reduce the education requirement from three years to two, I discourage the Task Force from endorsing such proposals simply because the third year is expensive and not useful. This ignores the root cause of tuition increases, and one private law school in five has raised its tuition by 50 percent or more since 1999, meaning two years in 2011 buys a full degree then. Rather, I recommend the Task Force address the DLP but flip the question of usefulness around: How much formal legal education is necessary and why?
[xii] The primary example that springs to mind is Clifford Winston’s, Robert W. Crandall’s, and Vikram Maheshri’s book, The First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All The Lawyers, 2011. A blurb from their Wall Street Journal article on the subject can be found on TaxProfBlog: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2011/08/its-time-.html. I’ve written more on the topic: https://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/wsj-op-ed-brings-shock-doctrine-to-law-practice/, https://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/the-economist-has-never-heard-of-the-bureau-of-labor-statistics/.
[xiii] One influence for this section are the sentiments expressed in the comment to the Task Force by Nicholas L. Georgakopoulos.
[xiv] Here are two examples documenting the connection: http://www.unc.edu/edp/pdf/NLBPS.pdf (PDF); http://academic.udayton.edu/thewhitestlawschools/2005twls/chapter2/Legaled04.htm (more recent, but hearsay).
[xv] I believe the “26 factors of lawyer effectiveness [plus one]” cited in Nancy B. Rapoport’s comment to the Task Force are the definitive factors for “true positive” lawyers.