Thursday, May 7, 2015
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
A better grading system
Professor Merritt argues that mandatory grading curves can be unfair when one class has stronger students than another. I agree.
Statistician Valen Johnson—whom I cite in my last post as an authority on grade inflation— has developed a clever solution to this problem which involves adjusting grading curves within each class based on the ability levels of the students. A Johnson-inspired proposal was nearly adopted at Duke University in the late 1990s, but was blocked by departments that offered higher grades and attracted weaker students.
Most law schools try to balance their sections in term of student ability levels and overall quality of faculty. Nevertheless, anomalies like a “smart section” (as Professor Merritt calls it) may occasionally occur. Johnson’s proposal would be an excellent solution to this problem.
Professor Merritt asserts that there is some sort of problem with the market for lawyers and law graduates that makes competition and inequality uniquely bad in the context of law. These assertions are implausible given the low barriers to entry for both law schools and lawyers, aggressive competition between law schools for students and between lawyers for clients, and widespread inequality outside of law school and legal practice. Some form of regulation is the norm in many areas of employment and in many industries, and a licensing regime for lawyers and an accreditation system for law schools do not in any way make these occupations and institutions unique or unusual. According to a recent study, nearly a third of U.S. workers are licensed, licensing is more common as education and skill levels increase, and licensing does not affect inequality among the licensed.
As a general matter, deregulated market competition and greater inequality are a package deal. Inequality can be reduced through regulation, taxation, and politicization of compensation through unionization or growth of public sector employment.
Professor Merritt’s critiques follow the standard playbook of law school critics—take something about law schools that is widespread and common out of context, claim that it is somehow unique to law schools when it is neither unique nor unusual, and then demonize it.
Jeremy Telman responds.
In her latest post, Deborah Merritt maintains that scholarships conditioned on maintaining a minimum GPA or class ranking are troubling when used by law schools, even though such conditions are routinely used by other educational institutions and state government programs.
According to Professor Merritt, the problem is that the mandatory curve in law school is such that not all students can keep their conditional scholarships. But Professor Merritt presents no evidence that conditional scholarships retention rates are any higher for undergraduate or government programs than for law schools. She infers nefarious motives on the part of law schools based only on the fact that law schools require students to compete for scholarship funds that are in limited supply.
Perhaps Professor Merritt believes that competition for scarce and valuable resources is inherently immoral. She does not explain why this is so or whether these views apply outside the context of law school scholarships. If only one out of ten associates hired at a law firm will make partner and earn $1 million per year, is it inherently immoral to ask associates to work hard and compete for the opportunity? If only one actor will be selected for a part, is it immoral to ask more than one actor to try out? Is any competition for promotions, clients, or recognition immoral? If so, we are living in a wicked, wicked world.
Perhaps Professor Merritt believes it is inherently immoral to limit “A” grades to students whose academic performance is superior to most of their peers, since an “A” is simply a data point and can be replicated and distributed to everyone at zero marginal cost. But liberally handing out “A” grades is costly for students and employers. Labor economics studies suggest that grade inflation is associated with reduced effort by students and reduced learning. Educators are not doing students or employers favors if they allow high grades to become a birthright rather than a marker of distinction that must be earned through hard work and exceptional performance.
Statistician Valen Johnson and others have argued that many perverse incentives in undergraduate education could be ameliorated if mandatory grading curves were imposed across majors and grade inflation and grade shopping were stamped out. If certain undergraduate majors have succumbed to the pressure to inflate grades in order to keep student-customers happy, that is quite troubling. Employers will likely distrust grades from such programs, question how much students have learned, and harbor suspicions about the work ethic of students who would opt into programs known for awarding easy “A’s” for minimal effort. Programs that have resisted the pressure to inflate grades and maintained more rigorous academic standards are more likely to retain the confidence of employers and to teach students knowledge and skills that are valued in the labor market. Indeed, grades are notoriously lower in STEM fields than in the humanities, even though STEM majors spend more time studying and have higher standardized test scores.
Professor Merritt suggests that law students do not require any incentives to work harder, since they are all already studying at full capacity. Some students presumably are, but there are many law students who can and should focus more on their studies. A roll call in most classes will reveal students whose attendance is well below 100 percent—so much so that the ABA now requires law schools to enforce minimum class attendance policies. When students do attend class, a visit to the back of a classroom and a glance at computer screens will reveal some students who are not giving their undivided attention. Cold calling will reveal students who have not done the required reading—although they do appear to be well informed about the latest sports and celebrity news. Some students have family or employment obligations that understandably limit the amount of time they can devote to their studies. But in the evening, while some student who are less constrained are studying, a stroll past the local bar will reveal others who are spending their time on less academic pursuits.
Shortly after graduation, some students who did not show up for class enough, did not pay attention enough, did not prepare for class enough, did not review after class enough, and did not seek out their professors when they were confused will find that they have not passed the bar exam and will not be permitted to practice law until they learn how to work hard and study. Others will find, rather less dramatically, that what they did not work hard enough to learn in law school could have made them more valuable to their employers.
Law schools can observe LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs, but they cannot directly observe students’ work ethic and drive to succeed. Just as law students want to attend the best law schools, law schools want to educate the best students who have the motivation to become leaders in law, business, and government.
Given the goal of attracting and retaining the best students, rewarding motivation and ability seems like a reasonable policy. Anecdotes notwithstanding, the evidence suggests that most college and law students understand the terms of conditional scholarships well.
Monday, May 4, 2015
Many critics have attacked law schools for offering merit scholarships that can only be retained if students meet minimum GPA requirements. Jeremy Telman has a fascinating new post analyzing these scholarships in light of common practices in higher education and the peer-reviewed social science literature. It’s a powerful counterpoint to a previously unanswered critique of law school ethics.
Professor Telman notes that similar conditional scholarships are widely used by undergraduate institutions, and even some state government programs. Undergraduates behave as if they understand how conditional scholarships work, which suggests that most law students, who are older, wiser, and more sophisticated, probably understand the terms of these agreements as well.
Moreover, minimum GPA requirements can motivate students to study harder, pay closer attention, and learn more. This seems particularly likely in the context of the first year of law school where mandatory grading curves and required curriculums remove the opportunity to shop for “easy A’s”. (Professor Telman does, however, express concern about inadequate performance feedback to law students until the final exams at the end of their first semester).
Professor Telman notes that law schools may struggle to predict at the time of admission which students will be the most successful. Conditional scholarships help institutions gather additional information about students’ abilities and work ethic and ensure that limited merit scholarship resources go to the students who are most deserving. Students who are deemed undeserving and lose their scholarships retain the option of transferring to another institution for their remaining years of law school.
Professor Telman doesn't object to additional disclosure about the percent of students retaining their scholarships, but he doubts it would have made much of a difference in prospective law students' matriculation decisions.
Zachary Clopton who will join the faculty at Cornell University. He is currently the Public Law Fellow at the Law School. He graduated magna cum laude in 2007 from Harvard Law School, and also earned a Masters in International Relations from Cambridge. He clerked for Judge Wood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and was an Associate at WilmerHale in the National Security group for two years, before serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Civil Division of the Northern District of Illinois for three years. His teaching and research interests include civil procedure, international business transactions, federal courts, conflicts, torts, and national security law.
Genevieve Lakier who will join the faculty at the University of Chicago. She is presently a Bigelow Fellow at the Law School. She graduated cum laude from New York University School of Law in 2011, where she was a Furman Fellow and Editor-in-Chief of the NYU Review of Law and Social Change. She also earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2014. She clerked for both Judge Sand in the Southern District of New York and then Judge Daughtrey on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, before coming to Chicago. Her teaching and research interests include constitutional law, criminal law and the criminal justice system, comparative law, administrative law, and law and society.
John Rappaport who will join the faculty at the University of Chicago. He is presently a Bigelow Fellow at the Law School. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2006, clerked for Judge Reinhardt on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, then worked for two years as a Deputy Federal Public Defender in Los Angeles, before clerking for Justice Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court. He also spent two years as a litigation associate at Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, and clerked for six months for Judge Watford on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit before coming to Chicago. His teaching and research interests include all aspects of criminal procedure and the criminal justice system, as well as federal courts, constitutional law, evidence, and civil procedure.
You can see a list of past Bigelows and where they now teach here.
Sunday, May 3, 2015
In the bad 'ole days when law schools were not very forthcoming about employment outcomes, LST was a useful counterweight. But since Senators Boxer and Coburn prevailed on the ABA to mandate more detailed reporting a few years ago, LST has persisted in its misleading practice of treating JD/PhD students as "underemployed" and treating JD/MBAs or pure JDs in consulting and other renumerative professions as not part of the employment count for schools; so, too, the JD/Masters in Public Policy types who go into think tanks also don't count. Notice that, by the odd LST methodology, Yale only has about 73% of its class employed, no doubt because there are many JD/PhD students as well as students in these other categories. LST really ought to change with the times, instead of massaging the data in ways that are misleading.
Friday, May 1, 2015
Sarah Lawsky (UC Irvine) is, as usual, gathering the data, and so far there are only 55 tenure-track academic hires, with, I gather two or three more expected. 15% of all the hires so far are either Chicago grads (5) or Chicago Fellows (3) who were on the market; only Harvard and Yale appear to have had a bigger share.
Last year, there were 64 tenure-track academic hires. Before the crash in applications, 150-180 rookies would be hired into law teaching positions most years.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
An interesting, and not implausible, list. The JD comes in 6th, though most of the other options are unlikely to be pursued by an undergraduate humanities major--one reason, among others, why we have probably hit bottom in terms of the applicant pool and will probably see a slight uptick in the next couple of years.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A number of critics have argued against extrapolation from Professor Merritt’s study of the Ohio legal market to the national legal market. In her response, Professor Merritt makes some good points, and also several key points with which I disagree.
Professor Merritt suggests that an important contribution of her study is providing up-to-date information about national legal employment through the prism of Ohio. However, there is no shortage of up-to-date data that can provide a more accurate picture of national trends than a study specifically focused on Ohio.* The primary value of Professor Merritt’s study is as an isolated snapshot of a single cohort in Ohio at a particular point in time. Without additional information, it is hard to know how much, if at all, Professor Merritt’s findings should be generalized to other legal markets or other time periods.
There is no reason to believe that the single Ohio cohort tracked by Professor Merritt will better predict outcomes for those currently enrolling in law school than a national cohort. The single Ohio cohort will likely be less predictive than a long-term national average across multiple cohorts. Indeed, as Professor Merritt acknowledges, her study is not a study of going to law school in Ohio because of selection issues from law graduates leaving for larger markets, coming to Ohio from other markets, and from non-bar passage. **
Year-to-year changes in employment, earnings, and economic growth can vary widely from state to state. Absent evidence of a history of correlated economic activity, a single state should not be used as a proxy for the U.S. as a whole or for other states.
There is no reason to believe that the trajectory of Ohio’s legal market from year to year will closely track national trends, particularly when the national legal market is heavily concentrated elsewhere. Washington D.C. and the top 5 states by size of legal market*** collectively account for more than half of the national legal market.
If Professor Merritt wishes to use Ohio as a proxy for the rest of the U.S., then she should supply evidence that Ohio tracks national trends, and she should compare Ohio to Ohio at different points in time and Ohio to the U.S. at the same point in time.
Second, Professor Merritt suggests that focusing on Ohio is just as reasonable as focusing on New York or California. New York and California collectively constitute 28 percent of the national legal market.*** Ohio constitutes 2.5 percent of the national legal market. Moreover, the New York legal market is unusually large relative to the New York economy, while Ohio has a legal market that is small relative to its economy.
Third, Professor Merritt suggests that Ohio can be made nationally representative by deflating salaries elsewhere by cost of living differences. Cost of living differences are not the reason corporations—who can send legal work anywhere— pay a premium for lawyers in the major legal markets such as New York, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston and Houston. Rather, corporate clients believe that differences in quality of work justify higher billing rates for important matters. New York, D.C. and other high-paying markets are importers of top legal talent from across the country.
Differences in costs of living are not random, but rather reflect real differences in quality. Cost of living indexes often focus on quantitative rather than qualitative factors. For example, a restaurant meal in Manhattan may cost more than a restaurant meal in Buffalo, but the quality of the experience in the restaurant in Manhattan will on average be higher because the high prices restaurants in Manhattan can charge will attract the most talented restaurateurs. Similarly, there may be differences in the quality of healthcare, legal services, education, policing, parks and recreation, environmental safety, transit, housing and other factors. Money attracts talent. Some amenities or opportunities may only be available in particular locations, and people are willing to pay for proximity to consumption, employment, and social opportunities.
Many costs are not local, but rather national. These include automobiles, items ordered online, higher education at major universities, and investments (stocks, bonds, etc.). For law school graduates—who will typically be able to earn far more than they consume in a given year—it is financially better to work where both income and costs are proportionately higher because this will maximize the dollar value of savings. Law graduates can always retire to a lower-cost location later in life if they wish.
One quantitative measure for differences in quality of life is differences in life expectancy.**** High cost, high income, high infrastructure states like New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts generally rank well on this measure, while lower cost, lower income states rank less well. This pattern can also be seen internationally and individually—higher income and higher life expectancy are correlated.*****
There will indeed be some lucky individuals who find low-cost locales both more attractive and less expensive, and some unlucky individuals who find high cost locales unworthy of the price. Costs of living reflect the aggregation by the market of many individual preferences, not any particular person’s idiosyncratic views. Nevertheless, local prices can contain important information about quality of life that we should not assume away.
* There are numerous sources of up-to-date (2013 or even 2014) national information, including data from:
- the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
- the U.S. Census Bureau’s
- American Community Survey (ACS),
- Current Population Survey (CPS), and
- Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP),
- the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), and
- from the American Bar Association (ABA)
NALP and ABA data are for the most recent graduating class shortly after graduation. SIPP earnings data includes earnings as recently as 2013, but only through the class of 2008. ACS and CPS have young lawyers and young professional degree holders, but cannot specifically identify young law degree holders. The Department of Education also has information on student loan default rates for recent cohorts. Default rats remain much lower for former law students than for most other borrowers.
Another valuable source of information is After the JD III. Professor Merritt notes that response rates for higher income individuals may be higher in After the JD, but the After the JD researchers, like the U.S. Census, weight their sample to take into account differences in response rates.
**The selection bias issues may be more severe than Merritt has acknowledged. Looking at Ohio State’s 509 report for 2011, there were 24 students who took the NY bar vs. 136 who took the Ohio bar—a substantial percentage of the class taking a bar in a non-adjacent state. The New York bar takers had much higher bar passage rates (11% above the state average for N.Y. vs. 1.3% above the state average for Ohio), which is consistent with positive selection out of state. In any given year, roughly 25 to 50 percent of Ohio State law school graduates who are employed 9 or 10 months after graduation are employed outside of Ohio. For Case Western graduates, employment seems to be even less Ohio-centered than Ohio State.
*** Size of the legal market calculated using ACS data, multiplying number of lawyers by average total personal income per lawyer to get aggregate pay to all lawyers. In other words, the measure is a dollar count, not a body count.
**** It is probably preferable to consider life expectancy within race (life expectancy varies by race, and racial demographics vary by geography).
***** After controlling for GDP per capita, societies with less income dispersion tend to have higher life expectancy. Another issue is selection effects vs. causation. For example, those with higher life expectancy to begin with may choose to pursue additional education and therefore have the opportunity to live in high cost, high income states.