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Flawed Logic: A Response to the New York Times’ David Segal

  • by Matt Shinners
  • Feb 08, 2012
  • Law School, News

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New York Times reporter David Segal has made somewhat of a splash over the past year talking about the state of legal education and how, to bluntly paraphrase, it sucks. You can check out what he has to say here and watch a short interview with him here.

If you don’t want to watch the video or wade through a 5-page New York Times article (though if you can’t make it through that, law school might be a rude awakening), the long and short of it is that he believes law schools, the ABA, and the US News and World Report rankings have created something of a self-interested scam with perverse incentives.

The ABA is both the professional organization representing lawyers, as well as the group that oversees accreditation of new schools (while technically the accreditation arm is an independent organization, many don’t believe in the separation). According to Mr. Segal, this creates a conflict of interest that results in law school tuition being driven up so that lawyers can continue to command high salaries.

He also rails against the rankings system, which, he claims, creates perverse incentives to give out merit scholarships instead of diversity scholarships and hire more professors than necessary in order to allow them to spend time writing articles.

What do I think of all this? I think he has some good points and some good ideas for reform, but he also makes some sensational claims. I want to address three of his issues: the high tuition, the rankings problem, and the ABA conflict of interest.

Attending School vs. Education vs. Learning Something Useful

Mr. Segal claims that the law schools and ABA intentionally drive up tuition to ‘justify’ the large salaries commanded by attorneys. This high tuition, even for lower-tier schools that often don’t send their graduates onto high-paying jobs, saddles them with ridiculous levels of debt. He also claims the onus is on law schools to sit down with students and make sure they understand the debt load they’re taking on.

Really?

Law school tuition is very high, and the debt burden can plague graduates for years. Even most of my classmates, many of whom find those high-paying legal jobs of story and fable, struggle under the debt. However, should it really be the job of the law schools to make sure the students understand this burden?

It seems to me that these students are adults (usually 21-25) who should be taking responsibility for themselves. He compares it to the purchase of a house, but then says that it’s different because people discuss the decision to purchase a house and make sure they think it through. If people aren’t doing that before investing $150K+ in law school, they’re doing it wrong.

If anyone is responsible for it outside of the individual taking out the loan, it’s the people giving out loans in exorbitant amounts to 21-year-olds who don’t have a clear career path. The loaners have managed to get these loans protected (from bankruptcy, etc…) to the point where they’re really not taking a risk – I think that should be changed. However, I don’t think the responsibility falls on the law schools to make sure students are aware how much they’re borrowing. If they report employment data honestly (which many aren’t, and which is a huge problem), they’ve done their part.

I think a lot of the problems in the system come from the current ideas this country has towards education. Mainly, people feel that education is the end of the journey, and that once you get that diploma, you’re going to be successful. They see that diploma as sufficient to be successful, not necessary. On top of that, it seems most feel like just showing up confers on them an education, and they don’t need to take responsibility for learning useful skills and concepts in undergrad. I don’t know if it stems from an ‘entitlement’ society, or rather one that was raised by a generation where a college degree was a valuable item that pretty much ensured some type of employment.

However, I do know that many students with whom I talk treat attending college as sufficient to land a job and be successful. They’re shocked when they find out that their English or Communications degree doesn’t qualify them for a high-paying job.

But a diploma is just the beginning; it’s a piece of paper that lets potential employers know that you have certain knowledge. This doesn’t guarantee success, however, and you still have to work to get anywhere in life. Higher education isn’t the promise of employment that it once was, especially with the explosion of majors that don’t teach skills that are useful in the modern workplace.

The expectations are shifting again, and an advanced degree (whether a Master’s or Professional) is the new college degree of our parents’ generation. However, the perception doesn’t mesh with reality, especially in the law school world where too many schools pump out too many lawyers for too few jobs.

The law schools have a duty to disclose honest employment information. The students have a duty to be realistic about the degree they’re earning (if you’re going to a regional school in Missouri, don’t expect to get paid market value in New York City) and actually evaluate the debt burden they’re assuming. If you can’t afford the $150K tuition over three years, it’s time to rethink that scholarship offer.

The Rankings ‘Game’

Mr. Segal also claims that the rankings system creates perverse incentives. I’ll agree that some schools have used the race for better rankings to do some shady things (see Villanova, for instance). However, that’s going to be true any time you develop a system that ranks anything – some are going to abuse that system to try to get ahead. That doesn’t mean that the rankings themselves don’t provide value, or that the ranking for some schools isn’t a true reflection of their quality.

To me, the rankings seem to be an attempt to quantify what the successful schools do so that other schools without a nationwide reputation can be viewed by students in that light. Whether there were rankings or not, I can guarantee you that Yale would be regarded as one of the best schools in the nation. If USN&WR stopped including library size in their calculations, I can guarantee you that Harvard would still buy up creepy books made from human skin (that they show off during orientation – that should have been a sign) to increase their library size as a point of prestige.

In short, USN&WR is trying to create an equation that ‘explains’ why the top schools are at the top, and then shows how the rest of the schools stack up.

Is it the best ranking system? I have no idea. I’m no statistician. I assume that it’s not, but it’s a solid system that does take into account a lot of data that reflects on the quality of the institution. Most importantly, it allows a student from California to assess the relative merits (which are published – I know what goes into the rankings) of a school in Maine of which they’ve never heard.

There certainly needs to be some type of independent audit for the information provided by the schools for the purpose of ranking to ensure that it is accurate (especially jobs data). And students have to take some responsibility in their decision by visiting the schools and getting a feel for the environment; in short, to assess the non-quantifiable aspects of the school. However, David Segal’s argument would seem to get rid of any ranking system, as I can’t imagine how to design one that wouldn’t incentivize some schools to ‘game’ it without making the whole thing completely opaque. That would severely limit the amount of information available to students, which is never a good thing.

The ABA, Accreditation, and Conflicts of Interest

Finally, I think the strongest of Mr. Segal’s points is the conflict of interest within the ABA. I agree that there is a perverse incentive to keep the cost of the education up (even when the investment isn’t worth it) in order to justify higher salaries.

However, I do find it troubling that he seems to want to vastly deregulate the entire process of licensing people to practice law, or at least ‘lower’ the standards for certain types of practitioners.

He compares it to business school; however, there are some fundamental differences. Acting as a lawyer for someone creates a very important relationship between the two people. If I’m your lawyer, I have a lot of power to represent you and speak in your name. I can create documents to which you’ll be bound, and I am making a lot of decisions regarding your rights. That’s not something I’m willing to consign to a less-rigorous approval process.

So how do we get people to practice law at a rate that is affordable for lower- and middle-class individuals? I think a lot of that comes from resetting people’s expectations about education (see the first section of this article). If you know that your JD from New York Law School (to borrow a school from the articles) isn’t going to net you $150K a year, you’ll probably reevaluate your decision to borrow that much to go there. If you realize that $150K of debt is going to control your life for at least 5 years after law school (best-case scenario), maybe you’ll take that full ride to a lower-ranked school and come out debt-free. And if more people realize that they won’t be earning six-figures and driving a Benz, resulting in fewer people paying sticker price to attend a law school, maybe those schools will have to push for lower acceptable tuition with the ABA to remain competitive.

FACETIOUS ARGUMENT ALERT!

(Only for those who are in LSAT prep hell and are seeing flaws everywhere)

New York Times reporter David Segal claims that, with applications down, law schools will either have to lower their standards or admit fewer students. That’s an exclusivity fallacy. It assumes that the drop comes from either a standard distribution of students, or is skewed towards the high-achievers. However, it could also be that the applications are down because 16% of people who weren’t going to get into law school anyway decided not to apply.

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