Monday, August 20, 2012

Dean of Thomas Cooley Law School Takes on Critics of Law Schools

It would be an actual ad hominem fallacy to dismiss out of hand these remarks because of their source.  In fact, it seems to me the Dean makes a number of fair points, including about the echo chamber irrationality of some of the "scam" blogs.  Here are some highlights worth noting:

A relative handful of critics re-circulate the same increasingly tired arguments,  thus reinforcing one another's views, nearly all of which are not remotely  objective and without support in fact.

The Recession Hit Our Profession Hard . . .

In late  2008, a recession hit the American economy, a bad one.  The legal business was hard hit as well,  precisely because the legal business is so vital to our free market, capitalist  economy.  The recession heightened in  2009, and the recovery that followed has been exceptionally slow.  Business at all levels has slowed, economic  activity is down, and tax revenues that support government activity are down as  well.   

So, the law  business, including the government law segment, has suffered.  Employment of lawyers declined during this  recession, and employment of recent graduates was in turn more  challenging.  Of course, that is true for  all segments of the economy and all management and professional occupations.

. . . But Not As Hard As the Critics of Legal Education Say

In 2008, the national unemployment  rate reported by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics was 5.8%; in 2009, it  climbed to 9.3%, then to 9.6% in 2010, and declined by less than one percent to  8.9% in 2011.  The BLS-reported national  unemployment rate for all management and professional occupations in 2008 was  2.7%; this rate leapt to 4.6% in 2009, rose to 4.7% in 2010, and declined  slightly to 4.5% in 2011.  Compare these  rates to the unemployment rates the BLS reported for lawyers during the same  period:  1.9% in 2008, 2.3% in 2009, 1.5%  in 2010, and 2.1% in 2011.  These related  employment facts, which provide the necessary context to this discussion, have  been completely ignored by the critics. 

The  National Association for Law Placement began publishing data about employment  of recent law school graduates in 1975.  This  is the fourth recession the economy has gone through since then, and it was the  longest in duration.  We recovered nicely  from all of them, although each time it has taken several years for complete  recovery to be realized.  NALP's data  shows that the new lawyer unemployment rate following each recession since 1975  has included several years of double-digit unemployment.... 

What the  critics completely ignore is that the law schools, like every enterprise in a  market system, are sensitive to market forces.   The fall 2011 entering class was 7.4% smaller than that in 2010.  The 2012 class will be smaller still.  When these classes graduate in 2014 and 2015,  the job market will be absorbing a correspondingly lower number of graduates in  those years.  The current employment  market has already affected applicant behavior, and the schools in turn have  responded to those market forces.  We  need no mandate to make adjustments dictated by accrediting agencies, education  departments, or legislative bodies.   Supply and demand clearly are at work; they are just not recognized by the  critics.

Of course, there are reasons identified by Bill Henderson (Indiana) and others to think many changes in the legal workforce are structural and permanent, not just transitory effects of the recession.  Overall BLS statistics are also misleading, since they include many lawyers who began their careers during periods of time when American universities were actually not graduating enough new lawyers to meet demand (yes, there was such a time).  And there really are reasons to think that a  minority of currently accredited law schools are a bad investment at any price, and that an even larger number are a bad investment at their current prices (the Tamanaha book is a useful compilation of the data on this score).  The contraction in the applicant pool and in law school class size is, indeed, a "market" adjustment, as will be the likely closure of some law schools in the next few years.  (The "market" here is, of course, affected by both government and private regulatory policies.)  There may, of course, also yet be political or economic events that will exacerbate the speed or magnitude of all these changes (e.g., another economic collapse, a change in federal education loan policy). 

UPDATE:  Jonathan Weinberg (Wayne State) writes:

The irony in Dean LeDuc's statement that most struck me is that while law schools as a whole are enrolling fewer students,  Cooley is not.  The schools most sensitive to their US News rankings, and thus their LSAT/GPA numbers, are the ones most motivated to reduce class sizes.  Cooley, and other schools like it, aren't responsive to those market forces.

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