Law professors stir national debate

geiger_lawschool-1
Photo by Jacob Geiger.

“I am willing to leave law school, without a degree, at the end of this semester. In return, I would like a full refund of the tuition I’ve paid over the last two and a half years,” wrote a third-year law student at Boston College Law School in an anonymous open letter posted online two years ago. Citing a poor employment market, he lamented a lack of employment opportunity but received no public response from the interim dean of BC Law School, to whom the student directed the letter.

But Yale Law School professors Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 and Ian Ayres ’81 LAW ’86 are now pushing for law schools nationwide to offer their students a similar deal.

In a controversial proposal published in the online magazine Slate last November, the duo calls for law schools to offer to pay off part of their first-years’ loans should these students realize that their prospects of successful legal careers are slim. No law schools have policies like this one, and the law professors want Yale to be the first to adopt their proposal.

“I think it could be an advantage in marketing to prospective students and in distinguishing ourselves from our competitors who aren’t willing to put their money where their mouths are,” Ayres said.

The pair also urged law schools to openly provide detailed, disaggregated statistics on students’ job performance after graduation. Yale already discloses thorough facts on its students’ post-graduation employment, with the University of Chicago Law School adopting Yale’s format last month.

While a dozen professors and administrators interviewed agreed with the need for more honest disclosure of statistics, many criticized the idea of paying students to drop out of law school.

“My first thought was, ‘maybe they’re being tongue-in-cheek, given that both of them are members of the faculty of the highest-ranked law school, where few students are likely to take up such an offer,’ ” Judith Areen LAW ’69, a professor and former dean of Georgetown Law Center, said. “Perhaps the real goal is to get schools to focus more clearly on whether they are taking advantage of their students in any way.”

But as lawyers, professors and administrators have continued to debate the article — most recently in the National Law Journal last week — the argument hits a classic question: Should the responsibility of a student’s success in school fall on the school or the student?

PREDICTING SUCCESS?

Law professors and administrators agreed that students should have access to more statistics regarding graduates’ salaries, career paths and bar passage rates. Still, those interviewed warned that students should hesitate to use this information as the sole predictor of their future success.

Amar’s and Ayres’ proposal recommends that law schools provide students with access to information that allows them to compare their grade-point averages and LSAT scores to average salaries and bar passage rates of others with similar credentials.

“If you were about to go off to a particular school and you learned that people with your entering credentials had a 40 percent chance of becoming a lawyer,” Ayres said, “you might wonder, ‘My God, do I want to take this gamble? Do I want to rack up these bills?’”

Nancy Rapoport, a former dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law and the University of Houston Law Center, said some law schools mislead their students by providing vague information or skewed data — an act she said was tantamount to lying.

Yale was the first law school to release detailed statistics on its alumni employment statistics and salaries after graduation, with the University of Chicago following suit this year.

Third-year law student Jeff Love LAW ’12 said the statistical information Yale provided him when he was applying to law school was detailed enough to make what he feels was an adequate judgement of his employment prospects; Yale provides graduates’ ultimate career fields and percentile salaries. Love added that Yale was forthcoming about how the statistics were calculated, clearly stating how students who did not provide data on their employment factored into the figures.

Whereas Love said some other schools avoid counting such students altogether, Yale assumed the worst and marked them as “unemployed.”

Yale’s statistics do not go as far as Amar and Ayres recommend in their essay. But Nathan Robinson LAW ’14 said he felt the data Yale provided were detailed enough and did not need further elaboration, adding that he was unsure whether the statistics should be used to gauge students’ likelihood of succeeding.

“It can never be accurate to tell students, ‘This is what your chances are because of your LSAT and GPA score,’ ” Robinson said. “While [the credentials] might be good predictors, they cannot really assess the individual student.”

Marjorie Shultz, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, completed a 10-year study in 2008 that found LSAT scores correlated mostly with law school grades rather than practice. Because of the test’s limited applicability to success outside of legal academia, she said it would be a “fool’s errand” to attempt to predict a student’s chances of succeeding in law in general with the LSAT and undergrad GPA scores alone.

“There are students at every school in the country who had top scores on [the LSAT] and they’re highly polished applicants — but they bomb,” she said. “Every law firm will tell you that: that they’re not good at lawyering, that they can’t get along with people, that they can’t manage stress.”

RESPONSIBILITY SHIFT

But LSAT scores are linked to bar passage rates — and without passing the bar, a student cannot become a lawyer, Ayres counters.

Amar and Ayres suggested that schools maintain a financial stake in their students’ success, which Ayres said would constitute a sign of their “faith in their good product.” If schools are providing their students with a quality education, Ayres said, they should have nothing to fear in offering to cover part of their students’ loans should these students decide to quit.

Areen, the former Georgetown Law Center dean, said she thought if students had enough information to carefully decide whether to go to law school, students should be provided academic assistance to help them pass the bar rather than encouraged to leave.

Several professors and deans expressed concern that, in offering students money to drop out, students who struggle in their first year would lose incentive to work to their full potential.

Robert O’Neil, a law professor who studies higher education policy at the University of Virginia Law School, said the proposal would implicitly encourage students to quit prematurely. He questioned whether an educational institution should incentivize students to drop out.

“Do we really want students to be put in that position?” he said. “There’s something counterintuitive about it.”

Several professors said the proposal places blame on law schools if students fare poorly.

Ayres said the responsibility for a student’s failures should rightly rest on the law school if students are not given honest information about their chances of success from the start. Giving schools a financial stake in their students’ futures would encourage law schools to be more selective and admit only the students they know will succeed.

“The proposal gives the student and the school joint responsibility — they both have skin in the game” Ayres said. “So [schools] won’t have bad incentives to admit students without disclosing to them that they’re taking bad risks.”

But even with more statistics and financial incentives, Stephen Petrany LAW ’14 said he thinks most students are confident that they will succeed, even if it means going against the odds.

“The point is that folks who want to go into law school are Type A personalities,” said Allan Tanenbaum, who chaired the American Bar Association’s Commission on Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession and on the Public’s Legal Needs. “They all think they’re better than everybody else: ‘Of course I’m going to get the best grade in the class and of course I’m going to be editor of the law review.’ ”

Ultimately, many professors said, the proposal — though thought-provoking — would be difficult to enact.

Rapoport, the former dean of the University of Houston Law Center and University of Nebraska College Law, added that even if schools wanted to offer their students financial incentives to quit, it would take years of planning to accommodate the risk of students leaving into schools’ budgets. She said that many law schools’ budgets are carefully restricted to specific uses, with roughly only 5 percent left for unspecified purposes.

Robert Berring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s law school, compared the proposal to an essay published by a pair of law professors after World War II. The essay, which called for several changes to legal education, was highly controversial at the time.

“But none of that ever got taken up, and that will probably happen with this too,” he said.

Comments

  • btcl

    great piece

  • BK70

    Doesn’t go far enuf. Yale Law should (a) guarantee that every matriculant will graduate, (b) guarantee every graduate a minimum stipend of $100,000/year, and (c) provide every graduate with nightly milk, cookies and tuck-in services.

    • ldffly

      I thought they did that already?

  • fairhavendoc

    Why do law schools need financial incentives to be more selective and choose candidates they think are more likely to succeed? I thiught this is what thu were supposed to do, irrespextive of the inducements or incentives. Why is it any different than medical school? Undergraduate colleges? What those schools do differently is interview. Sounds like they just need to look at the admissions process and just tighten things up there.

    • little_mango

      or let’s all go into medicine or business and die fat and filled with cash in a gold bathtub!