Yesterday we brought you a point-by-point analysis of Case Western Reverse Law's Dean Mitchell's op-ed defending law schools. You can read it here, or if you'd like the tldr version:
We lack good data on the long term payoff of a law degree, so let's focus on that, and assume that it's all good.
Today, we're going to pick apart an op-ed by Luke Bierman, Associate Dean for Experiential Education at Northeastern. But first, why so many profs and deans taking to newspapers (or in this case, HuffPo) to defend law schools? Probably because they have nothing interesting or relevant to say about substantive legal issues, so when legal education is itself a subject this is their one chance to see their name in print outside of a law journal.
Now, on to Ass Dean Bierman's article:
Pity the bright young minds considering law school today. By this point, they've heard the narrative propagated in voluminous news articles, op-eds, and a growing number of books, all playing variations on the theme that the suckers who enter law school in 2013 will graduate with burdensome debt, few relevant skills, and no job prospects.
Bierman overestimates the degree to which the warning has saturated the market. People who follow the subject may have seen it plenty of times, but an undergrad picking up a copy of the US News rankings may still have no clue. And yes, pity them, because they will be getting burdensome debt, few relevant skills, and no job prospects.
On the one hand, the sudden attention being paid to the employment prospects of law graduates is understandable. It's certainly true that disruptive social and economic forces have caused the collapse of major law firms and slowed hiring in the profession. In our recessionary times, this has created a character as appealing to the media as the proverbial man who bites the dog: the lawyer, once virtually assured of employment, unable to land work.
The decline of the profession actually started a few years before the recession, it was only BigLaw that didn't get hit until later. And the nation is not in a recession any more. Yes, the economy is still bad, but it's only a recession when it's getting worse. The economy is getting better. It's the legal industry itself that is still in a recession.
Jobless graduates are a grave concern to legal educators, and their heightened numbers warrant serious attention. Unfortunately, the consideration being paid is more often superficial than serious. Especially when American law schools make such a ready stock villain -- painted, as they often are, as greedy institutions thoughtless about their students' futures, wed to the Socratic Method of teaching devised in the late 19th century, and generally out of touch with the needs of the modern legal profession.
So, if jobless grads are a grave concerns, and you think the attention they're getting warrants better attention than what's out there, then what the hell are you doing about it? I doubt that's the direction this op-ed is going to go in though (haven't actually read it, just a guess).
It makes for great copy. I pity those who buy into it, however, for at least two reasons. First, the journalistic zeal to tell a juicy story about the prospects of legal graduates has too often crossed the line into inaccurate fear mongering. Take a recent news article that quoted an estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics claiming that only 74,000 new lawyer jobs would open from 2010-20. The reporter did not let the fact that 75,000 new law graduates have already found work since 2010 lead her to the obvious conclusion that the BLS's numbers were wrong. Instead, the reporter suggested another interpretation: that not a single new legal job would be created for the next seven years. And that's simply preposterous.
In 2010, 36,043 grads found jobs of any sort. In 2011, 35,653 did. That's 71,696 total jobs, shy of 75,000. Though, this is at the 9 month mark, so maybe some people found jobs later, though of course schools don't follow up with employed grads to see if any of the numbers went in the other direction. That's only an 83.5% employment rate. Worse than the economy at large.
But wait, there's more. That's all grads employed anywhere, but we should be talking about the legal industry. Percentage of 2010 and 2011 grads who found work (even part time or temporary) in jobs requiring bar passage? 64.5%. Ouch. And we excluded grads who didn't respond to the NALP survey from the denominator, so the numbers may be even worse.
The second shame behind popular coverage of this issue is that it entirely ignores an important part of the story: the response of forward-thinking law schools. Rarely if ever do the critiques acknowledge what many creative and thoughtful legal educators, students, lawyers, and clients know -- transformative change in legal education is underway.
Show a new, innovative program which results in grads being placed into more and better jobs, and the media will sing your praises. The stories all lean towards the negative for the same reason you're more likely to hear about Mexico's drug war than its space program.
There is growing recognition throughout the legal profession and academy of a need to rethink the way we prepare law students, the profession's greatest asset, for their careers in law. Almost 50 years ago, Northeastern University School of Law pioneered a cooperative model of legal education requiring students to spend a year immersed full-time in practice settings prior to graduation. NUSL is not alone -- today, law schools from Harvard to Hamline to Hawaii are making new commitments to experiential learning in order to make their graduates more effective practitioners. Legal educators from more than 80 of these institutions now have formed an alliance committed to developing a new approach to legal education to address the complex legal challenges of the 21st century. We recently shared our thinking at an inaugural symposium in Boston, bringing together judges, lawyers, students, and legal educators to forge a new paradigm for legal education.
The forward-thinking program he wishes would be covered in the news more is 50 years old. Maybe he needs to familiarize himself with the concept of timeliness... And sure, lots of schools have added some new classes of one sort of another, but none of them have shown results. All that we've seen are tuition rates soar as schools as more clinics and institutes and whatnots, which may be better forms of education, but they keep all the Law And fat as well.
It would have been nice to see more media coverage of that. I'm sure many aspiring attorneys would be interested.
Want more coverage? Fine, let's look at Northeastern's cooperative legal education model right now. After 1L year, students alternate quarters between classes and jobs. Kind of a shitty way to get real world experience since rarely to client's issues match up to the quarter system's schedule, but hey, at least you're trying something.
We're trying to figure out how this works though. If you're alternating between classes and work, then half of your education is outside the class room? ...That's not quite right though. At every school, students already work during the summer, so really Northeastern is only converting a third of its class time to work experience, rather than half. Still, that's a lot more work experience.
With all this time spent outside of the classroom, the school ought to operate a lot cheaper, right? A third of the upperlevel workload is being picked up by employers, so you need fewer professors. Let's just pull up the ol' LST Boston destination report and ...woah. Northwestern is the second most expensive school in Massachusetts, only Harvard costs more. But, that's total cost, which takes into account Boston's high cost of living. Looking at tuition specifically, the order is Harvard, Boston U, Suffolk, Northeastern, Boston C, New England, Western New England. That puts Northeastern at 4th, which might seem lower, but it's really not. BU is $42,654 a year, BC is $41,818. Northeastern is $42,296. They're basically all the same except for Harvard and Western New England.
Northeastern's innovative program where they provide 2/9ths less of classroom instruction has not translated into 2/9ths reduction in costs. We know you can't just reduce costs like that, a lot of the overhead is going to be a fixed price, or scales down at a slower rate. But even if they manager to cut costs by just 1/9th they'd be saving kids about $5k per year in tuition, and it'd be the cheapest Massachusetts school by about $1k per year.
What about performance though? Maybe the lack of cost reduction is worth it if Northeastern is rocking the employment game. And Northeastern certainly thinks employment is important, because they advertise that 40% of grads get jobs through this co-op program. ...Which seems pretty low. Any firm with a 40% summer associate offer rate would be blasted by Above the Law.
Some people will go on to clerkships or other positions that didn't hire quarterly workers, and some people will get a better job at a place where they hadn't been working, but those people aside, 40% strikes us as just terrible. ...And our instinct isn't wrong. Only 48.9% of Northeastern grads got jobs in full-time, permanent positions requiring bar passage. 8.2% were unemployed and seeking work. And another 31.4% were under-employed.
Despite it's innovative program that it's had 50 years to fine tune, Northeastern performs significantly worse than BU and BC, with lower operating expenses but the same costs passed on to students.
Is that what you wanted the press to devote more time to covering, Ass Dean Bierman?