Thursday, May 05, 2011

Angry Law Students and the Economy

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Yesterday, Professor Lisa McElroy wrote a thoughtful guest post on this blog about the controversy over alleged bait-and-switch tactics by U.S. law schools. A piece in Sunday's New York Times described how some law schools (including my own) use merit-based scholarships to entice students to enroll in their J.D. programs, only to take away the scholarships from the students who fail to maintain a sufficient (usually 3.0) grade-point average. The effect of losing a scholarship amounts to making the scholarship worth one-third of its apparent value ex ante. As Professor McElroy points out, the story has been accompanied by much commentary, and by an outpouring of angry on-line comments by current and former law students, who claim that the merit scholarship "game" is merely one small part of a larger scam that law schools are perpetrating on unsuspecting applicants.

Professor McElroy helpfully analyzes this flood of angry comments from the perspective of law school transparency, suggesting that we in the legal academy are failing to make students understand the fascinating and even joyful nature of studying law. If our students (current and former) are so angry about things like merit scholarships (as well as other matters of recent controversy, especially job placement statistics), and if that anger is based on an apparent belief that law schools are simply out to cheat them, then we professors and administrators have profoundly failed to make ourselves clear. Students should like law school because it is great to study law, and we should do a better job of showing them why this is so.

I found myself nodding in agreement with Professor McElroy's description of what makes the study of law important and fulfilling. This is not especially meaningful, however, because my own experience with law school was quite different from that of most law students. Having entered law school in middle age, as a career academic, I was immediately drawn to the intellectual joys of studying law. Deciding almost immediately that I would become a law professor (and knowing that I could do so without spending years in a large law firm), I could treat the three years of my J.D. program as a smorgasbord of intellectual delights. That, even more than the age difference, made me a true outsider to the standard law student experience.

Nonetheless, I was a law student, which meant that I received the same flow of information that my classmates received. One of the first things I noticed was that law students seem never to listen to advice from institutional sources. When I started law school, the dot-com bubble was going strong, which meant that 2L's considered themselves a failure if they did not have at least five offers (that really was the number I heard repeatedly) for summer jobs. On-campus recruiting was a game, and the winner was the one who could stockpile the most offers from Covington, Sullivan & Cromwell, Cravath, and so on.

Our Career Services Office, meanwhile, had been receiving anguished feedback from recent graduates, complaining of the debilitating conditions at big law firms. The office thus engaged in a major effort to tell my classmates the truth about life in BigLaw World. Every wall in the law school was covered with posters containing information about the realities of big firm life. For example, we were told how many people quit after one year, two years, and so on. The numbers were staggering (with, as I recall, a drop-out rate of well over 50% within five years).

This informational campaign had no impact on my classmates. When I asked various classmates about it, they scoffed and said that the Career Services Office was a bunch of do-gooders who just wanted them to take low-paying public service jobs. In any case, the students felt no need to change their plans just because of some data that could not possibly be relevant to them.

The point of this anecdote is not -- I repeat, NOT -- to say that it does not matter what we tell students, because they do not listen, anyway. Indeed, if anything, my experience suggests that law schools (at least as a group) might have little to fear from sharing even bad news with their students and potential students. In any case, I agree with Professor McElroy that more transparency is inherently a good thing. Some students (maybe even a large majority) refuse to become informed, but providing information is both ethical and at least potentially useful to those who care to think more carefully about their career choices.

What I think is missing from the discussion, however, is the economic context within which we are seeing the current outpouring of anger. While there might be some unfortunate long-term changes in students' attitudes about law as a career, and about law school as a non-intellectual means to an end, I suspect that law professors have been forever unhappy that our students do not love the study of law as much as we think they should. What is different today is the fury that disappointed students are directing back at their law schools.

Part of this, of course, is the expansion of outlets for expressing anger. Whereas an article in The New York Times once might have led to five published Letters to the Editor, we can now read hundreds of unedited comments on every story. Entire blogs can be devoted to venting anger about law school, which then creates an echo chamber effect.

Still, the reductionist in me (and the economist in me) cannot help but say that this is all about the economy. Law students have, as a group, probably always been alienated by the experience. That is a good argument to continue to try to improve the law school experience, to update pedagogy, etc. It is instructive, however, to remember the difference between a young lawyer who hated law school but has a job, and a young lawyer who hated law school and is unemployed. Every negative aspect of the law school experience is intensified for the unemployed (highly-indebted) young lawyer. Someone is to blame for their plight, and one strong candidate is the law school that took their money but left them without a job.

As easy as it is to put this in economic perspective, that is no reason to feel confident that this, too, shall pass. We cannot be sure that the current anger over legal education will not result in cataclysmic, damaging changes to the legal academy. As I have discussed on this blog (most recently here), the scariest aspect of the ongoing economic crisis is that it threatens to lead to truly ugly outcomes. While complaints about inadequate disclosure of relevant information in choosing law schools should be taken seriously on their own terms, it is essential to think about the implications of the current, seething anger. People who are this angry are capable of becoming captive to a cult of self-reinforcing anger, with potentially society-changing results. Getting them back to work is the only way to defuse that time bomb.


Blogger said...

Again, this post glosses over the substance of the critique, emphasizing instead that students should learn to enjoy "the smorgasbord of intellectual delights" rather than complaining when they knew BigLaw life would be tough.

Professor Buchanan completely misses the point -- most law students will not have the opportunity to get a BigLaw job, and the information they're missing is not what a tough job it is, but just how unlikely it will be that students will get such jobs. Buchanan then shrugs off student anger with an ad hominem claim that students' concerns are not that meritorious because they're just bitter that they don't have a job and ignored the warning signs that the schools gave them.

Similar to the charge against law school scholarship programs, Prof. Buchanan here tries a bait-and-switch. Yes, students have enough information to know that many find BigLaw life to be awful. But they don't have adequate disclosure from law schools about what their employment prospects will be like. Often, law schools even manipulate their employment figures to mislead students into thinking that most people get highly-paid jobs after graduation. To this, at the end of his post, Buchanan says, "While complaints about inadequate disclosure of relevant information in choosing law schools should be taken seriously on their own terms, it is essential to think about the implications of the current, seething anger."

Law students don't need help with anger management. (OK, maybe some do, but that's not relevant to the larger point here.) They need accurate employment information ex ante. And clever devices like disappearing scholarships should be viewed with the same same opprobrium that the we have for predatory loans, ballooning credit card APRs and mortgages, and unscrupulous investment offers. Although all of the victims in these examples technically had notice about risk in the contracts they signed, economic regulation and securities laws exist precisely to protect the less sophisticated from asymmetries of power and information. Buchanan surely knows this.

Perhaps some of these principles should be applied to law schools' offers to invest in a legal education. If the law schools can't appropriately self-regulate, perhaps an external regulator should step in.

michael a. livingston said...

I think one has to distinguish between the actual situation and the use of the "crisis" to do things that people wanted to do for other reasons anyway. Accurate employment statistics--and perhaps a principled shrinkage in the size of many law schools--are a reasonable response to the facts. Using the crisis as an excuse to attack on the tenure system or to try to force professors to teach practical rather than theoretical subjects--the very short-term approach that has led to the economic meltdown--are not.

Blogger said...

Agreed, Professor Livingston.

After reading your post and the last few by other law professors on this topic, it occurs to me that law professors may be genuinely confused about the substance of the critique students are making about law schools. So I thought it might be helpful to make a list of what the critique is NOT about so that the discussion does not continue to get distracted by red herrings.

The recent law student complaints are NOT about—

(1) the level of academic or intellectual stimulation offered by law school classes;
(2) the extent to which law professors sincerely care about their students’ learning or success;
(3) the tenure system;
(4) the “practical” focus of law classes or other concerns about course offerings;
(5) insufficient warning about the stress involved in law practice;
(6) the uselessness of student-edited law journals, problems with the grade curve, the expansion of the Bluebook, issues of student diversity, or other miscellaneous issues perennially debated in faculty lounges.

However, the recent student complaints ARE about—

(1) Insufficient, misleading, and false information provided by law schools about the nature of students’ post-graduation employment prospects;
(2) Insufficient information about the likelihood that a given student will retain her scholarship; and
(3) (to a lesser extent) the sticker price of tuition and the increasing number of J.D. degrees awarded nationwide.

So, don’t worry, we don’t want you to lose your tenure, teach practical subject matter, or be more warm and fuzzy with the students. We just want your dean to make available some kind of meaningful prospectus about the investment opportunity law schools are offering.

michael a. livingston said...

@blogger--very well put--and may I say a good legal argument!

Daniel said...

An interesting piece by law professors proposing a solution to the problem of the mountains of debt law students obtain, and as a way of making law schools more accountable, can be found here:

Simon said...

Liberal arrogance in favor of the status quo.
I find his fear that the bad economic times may lead to “truly ugly outcomes” arrogant. If the bad economic times lead to tax and regulatory reform and deficit reduction, it would be good. I can only imagine what he might have said about a conservative in the 1930s saying this about the New Deal during the great depression

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