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Cooley Law grads blame school for their own naiveté

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Aug 12, 2011 in Unsolicited Commentary

Tonight’s entry was originally going to focus on some of the economic unpleasantness unfolding at NCCU Law courtesy of our state legislature’s emasculation of North Carolina’s university system.

But Twitter is temporarily sending me in a different direction :D

One of the highlights from attending the ABA’s Annual Meeting was finding out who are among the most prolific law Tweeters, most of whom used the #ABAannual hashtag to keep their followers updated on what was going on.

Is reasonable reliance on law school stats even possible in the Google era?

David Pardue of @georgiatriallaw is one of those folks, and he mentioned this story in the Wall Street Journal about a class action lawsuit filed against Cooley Law School (by its own graduates) over the school’s disclosed employment statistics.

I’ve posted our Twitter convo on the right so you’ve got an idea of where this entry is going :)

Now let me preface the rest of my commentary by saying I don’t disagree with anything David has tweeted.1 He’s right about the reasonableness of these students’ reliance on Cooley’s stats being a key issue in the case. I suspect/hope he’s also right about law schools being less inclined to screw with their numbers as a result of this lawsuit. And I agree that the court will be considering the circumstances as they existed at the time these students first enrolled, not as they exist today.2

Let me also say here (just so I don’t have to repeat it later) that the response from Cooley Law’s general counsel Jim Thelen to blame the ABA is also shamelessly disingenuous. There’s nothing at all preventing any law school from collecting and releasing far more granular employment data on its graduates — they simply choose not to do so for fear of looking bad from the results.

But with those two caveats out of the way, this is another case of only focusing on the Big Bad Law Schools. I stand by the implication of my admittedly rhetorical question to David on Twitter: can any law school student who enrolled after the proliferation of Google really claim they reasonably relied on a law school’s employment statistics?

Ignore the fact that you can probably count on one hand the number of law students you know who actually based their decision to go to law school in any part on a given school’s stated employment statistics; even though I’ve never met one, I’m assuming arguendo that they do in fact exist. I’m also assuming, simply because they claimed it in the complaint they filed (h/t to Above the Law for this entry on the lawsuit), that the named plaintiffs in McDonald v. Cooley are among them.

Look at when these folks graduated though: 2 of the 4 graduated in 2010, meaning they began enrollment in either 2007 (if full-time) or 2006 (if part-time); the 3rd graduated in 2008, meaning enrollment in 2005 or 2004; and the 4th graduated in 2006, meaning she enrolled in 2003 or 2002.

Google, by contrast, began in 1996. Its world-famous PageRank search algorithm won patent protection in 2001. It already had 50%+ of the global marketshare for search engines by the time the earliest of the 4 named plaintiffs ever decided to attend Cooley Law, reaching such ubiquity that Merriam-Webster added the verb “to Google” to the dictionary in 2006.

And if through some miracle this well-educated class of plaintiffs3 had never heard of Google, they still could have used search engines on Yahoo!, or MSN, or AOL, or Lycos, or AltaVista, or Ask Jeeves, or…

…you get the point ;)

It’s pretty safe to say the concept of internet search was already a widespread and well-ingrained phenomenon before any of these students enrolled, particularly among the well-educated, and has grown even more widespread and even more well-ingrained the later in time that enrollment choice was made.4

“But TDot!” you exclaim, “Just because search engines were available doesn’t mean these students would have found anything of concern!”

Which brings me to the 2nd prong of this analysis: people have known law schools were juicing their employment statistics for most of the past decade.

With my own search on Google.com, I came across this 2007 piece from the Wall Street Journal on the imploding legal job market. Here’s a snippet, with emphases added by me:

Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers
Growth of Legal Sector Lags Broader Economy; Law Schools Proliferate
SEPTEMBER 24, 2007
By AMIR EFRATI

Evidence of a squeezed market among the majority of private lawyers in the U.S., who work as sole practitioners or at small firms, is growing. A survey of about 650 Chicago lawyers published in the 2005 book “Urban Lawyers” found that between 1975 and 1995 the inflation-adjusted average income of the top 25% of earners, generally big-firm lawyers, grew by 22% — while income for the other 75% actually dropped.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the inflation-adjusted average income of sole practitioners has been flat since the mid-1980s. A recent survey showed that out of nearly 600 lawyers at firms of 10 lawyers or fewer in Indiana, wages for the majority only kept pace with inflation or dropped in real terms over the past five years.

The news isn’t any better for the 14% of new lawyers who go into government or join public-interest firms. Inflation-adjusted starting salaries for graduates who go to work for public-interest firms or the government rose 4% and 8.6%, respectively, between 1994 and 2006, according to the National Association for Law Placement, which aggregates graduate surveys from law schools. That compares with at least an 11% jump in the median family income during the same period, according to the Census Bureau…

Sure this piece only talks about solos and government/public-interest attorneys. But I also found that in under 30 seconds earlier today. Just 30 seconds, despite 4 years’ worth of new websites and blogs and other data Google has indexed clogging up my 2011 search results.

In other words, had any of these students done a same or similar search in 2007 (or earlier), they could have found the exact same IRS / BLS / NALP data indicating a difficult legal job environment in the exact same amount of time (or less!) with a much better signal:noise ratio than I’m getting now.

And that’s not even getting into the “common sense” factor here: you know there’s a stagnant legal market if for no other reason than living in an economy barely recovering from the September 11th attacks (and ensuing diversion of resources to improve homeland security), and yet you really believe your law school had a 90%+ employment rate? While nearly every other law school in the country claimed 90%+ employment over the exact same time?

Really?

Now I’m not the type to categorically trash all graduates from a law school, so I have to assume this “I really didn’t know! I really did reasonably rely on this data even though contradictory information from more reputable sources was literally right at my fingertips! Really!” mentality is atypical of Cooley Law graduates.

But this particular argument requires the willing suspension of disbelief to be plausible — and like the other works from whence that phrase was derived, this lawsuit should be recognized for the fiction that it is ;)

Have a great Friday night and an amazing weekend everybody! :D

  1. As a random aside, have any of you noticed how double negatives are not only commonplace but widely accepted in law? Once upon a time I was taught that a double negative was bad grammar and now I use them regularly :crack:   []
  2. I tried to convey that last point by the “2004+” reference, but I think my inapt inclusion of the word “now” gave a wrong impression of my meaning :beatup: []
  3. Remember, a baccalaureate degree is now required for law school admission. Meaning anyone enrolling at Cooley Law or any other law school is already among the top 10% of the US population in terms of educational attainment. []
  4. Translation: no sympathy at all for the 2010 Cooley Law grads now crying foul. []

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Where are the HBCU advocates?

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Aug 5, 2011 in The 3L Life

Today was Day 2 of the ABA’s 2011 Annual Meeting in Toronto Canada, and in the ABA Law Student Division that meant an opportunity to hear from candidates for a handful of LSD offices about their plans for the future and their responses to questions from us.1

One of the things I teach organizations as part of my T.I.D.E.S. leadership development presentations is that questions are usually the most potent weapon in any leader’s arsenal. So I came prepared with a pair of my own: (1) asking what, specifically, these folks will do to address the embarrassingly low volume of students seeking ABA leadership positions;2 and (2) with the ABA again considering an increase in the minimum bar-passage rates required for reaccreditation of law schools, how would they ensure those reforms don’t disproportionately harm the country’s 6 HBCU-based institutions?3

A couple things stuck out to me in asking that second question: apparently I was the only one interested in bringing it up,4 and almost no one knew anything at all about it.  :surprised:

If you’re not familiar with what the ABA is considering, take a look at this story on Law.com. Here’s a snippet:

ABA Faces Diversity Dilemma With Proposed Change to Law School Standards
The ABA is trying to reconcile the legal profession’s need for greater diversity with its desire to push law schools to better prepare students to pass the bar. For the second time in four years, it is considering raising the minimum bar-passage-rate requirement for law school accreditation.

By Karen Sloan (07-22-2011)

Nearly 70 percent of the entering class at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law was black in 1998. A decade later, that figure hovered at around 30 percent — the lowest percentage among the country’s six historically black law schools.

The catalyst for that shift was a 1999 letter from the American Bar Association urging the school to examine its admissions standards and low first-time bar-passage rates. The school responded by accepting students with higher credentials, but the percentage of black students began to decline as the average Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores rose.

That experience highlights the dilemma now confronting the ABA. The organization is trying to reconcile the legal profession’s need for greater diversity with its desire to push law schools to better prepare students to pass the bar. For the second time in four years, it is considering raising the minimum bar-passage-rate requirement as part of a comprehensive review of law school accreditation standards.

Definitely take some time to read the full article, there’s a lot more in there.

Three initial points I want to make on this:

  • I totally agree with some form of a “bright line” cutoff with bar passage rates and accreditation. While many of those advocating for the cutoff seem to hope it will lead to fewer accredited law schools and (theoretically) fewer new attorneys as a result,5 I’m of the more-economics-oriented belief that the simple existence of the cutoff will incentivize law schools to better serve their students. People respond to incentives, it’s as simple as that.
  • I also agree with The Chief’s quote in that article about other schools having a harder time complying with a heightened cutoff before HBCUs. NCCU Law in particular has enjoyed passage rates well above the state average for most of the past decade, even while joining FAMU Law and SULC in taking in the broadest array of students in the nation. The schools facing the biggest challenge will be those whose business model is based on being a diploma-mill, bringing in thousands of students a year just to get as much federal student aid $$$ as possible.6
  • But, while it’s true other non-HBCU law schools will have a steeper hill to climb, HBCUs will still face an acute challenge because of the timing of this proposal. It comes at a time that could be considered a “perfect” storm” for them: industry complaints of all law schools churning out too many incompetent students with JDs, prompting industry-wide reforms, while the economy has basically imploded with no hope of an immediate recovery. The publicly-funded HBCUs are facing substantial budget cuts7 and an inability to raise tuition at whim, while both public and private HBCUs face a steep drop in the alumni and corporate donations that enable institutions to improve things like their academic support services. Couple that with fewer paying jobs available for their students to raise $$ for bar prep courses while in school — prep courses apparently being the primary method for learning bar material at high-performing law schools — and you’ve got all the ingredients for a cow pie of a proposal.

I’ve gotta head to bed so I can get up for an SBA “Roundtable and Idea-Raiser” in the morning, but wanted to put that issue on the radar for my HBCU-attending colleagues who didn’t know what was coming down the pike.

Have a great night y’all! :D

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From the law:/dev/null ABA Annual Meeting-related archives:

  1. I also took an opportunity to check out a “Hot Topics in Internet Law” CLE class with Ian Ballon and some other panelists, which was amazing and reminded me of my Privacy Technology, Policy & Law class in my last semester at N.C. State. I also got to meet two folks I’ve been talking with on Twitter: Monica Goyal of My Legal Briefcase, and Vanderbilt Law student Amy Sanders (who I serendipitously sat in front of without even realizing it) :D []
  2. Several of the ABA LSD Circuit Governors were either unopposed or chosen after floor nominations because no one filed for office. And the first candidate who responded to my question gave such a non-specific, mealy-mouthed response I couldn’t help but think of offering this in response. :roll: []
  3. For those who haven’t seen the acronym, “HBCU” stands for “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” The overwhelming bulk of these long-lived institutions are in the Southeast, created as the only means for black students to receive a legal education during the de jure segregation era. See footnote 5 in this entry for some federal case law relating to the UNC system. []
  4. If you think a middle-aged white Republican being SBA President of a HBCU law school is odd enough, imagine that same middle-aged white Republican being the only person to proactively bring up an issue that could affect it and others — despite representatives of other HBCU law schools being in the same room :beatup: []
  5. Not to disparage any of these undoubtedly-kind folks, but I consider that analysis not only too self-interested to be a valid decision-making criterion, but also utterly Pollyanna-ish in assuming the remaining schools wouldn’t simply expand their own enrollments. []
  6. Here’s looking at you, Cooley Law. ;) []
  7. 14% at NCCU for the upcoming 2011-12 academic year, basically meaning $1 of every $7 has now disappeared. :crack: []

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