Law Schools, Amid Crisis, Blame Their Customers

Is the law school bubble finally beginning to burst? It appears so. To no one’s surprise, class-action lawsuits against law schools are popping up all over the country, claiming that the schools defrauded students by intentionally misrepresenting graduate employment statistics. Add that to the, ahem, rather negative attention law schools have drawn in Congress, the New York Times, and countless other media outlets, and you might think law schools would be making some major changes in how they present themselves to potential students and the public. Alas, you’d be wrong.

Admission by Party Opponent?

For example, read law school professor (and former admissions officer) Aaron Taylor’s recent guest post here on Lawyerist. My intent here is not to specifically pick on Professor Taylor, but I found his post fascinating in how it reveals an inside perspective on the crisis that starkly contrasts with Professor Paul Campos’ perspective.

Professor Taylor wrote about being an admissions officer (all italics below are mine):

My philosophy was always, I rather not get a student than have him walking around my school feeling as if I lied to him . . . I sought to err on the side of understatements when discussing the potential payoff of attending schools I represented. I know I lost some great people, but I slept well at night.

This strikes me as an honest admission that there’s a built-in conflict of interest for law school admissions staff. Their job is to go get the best students they can, but they must resist the urge to mislead potential students. Professor Taylor assures us he always fell on the right side of that line. If we take him at his word, much of what follows in his post is striking.

The heightened scrutiny on law schools was hastened by a legal job market that saw a contraction of jobs and salaries. As a result, more people experienced realities that looked nothing like their expectations. Feeling duped, they looked for targets of blame and found shortcomings in the manners in which law schools presented employment data. Law schools will now report nuanced employment data that will be more useful, and of course admissions officers will play major roles in communicating this information and ensuring that it is understood.

Truth vs. Nuance vs. Consequences

A class-action suit against law schools might might be grounded in the concept of fraud in the inducement. Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd Pocket Edition) defines that as:

Fraud occurring when a misrepresentation leads another to enter into a transaction with a false impression of the risks, duties, or obligations involved; an intentional misrepresentation of a material risk or duty reasonably relied on, thereby injuring the other party . . . esp. about a fact related to value.

Keeping that definition in mind, consider more of Taylor’s post:

The president of the American Bar Association recently stated that disgruntled law students and graduates are blameful for their own unrealized expectations. He found it “inconceivable” that they were unaware of the looming downturn in the legal job market. Unsurprisingly, he has taken much heat for those comments. But he is right.

And this:

I used to be amazed by how little research students did before deciding to go to law school. Thousands of hours and thousands of dollars are invested based on a school’s marketing materials, US News ranking, and a hunch. But there is a wealth of useful, and underused, data available online from sources other than law schools.

Taylor admitts to the inherent conflict of interest in every admission officer’s job. But what his post then says is essentially:

  • Prospective students should not take law schools’ employment statistics as truthful, although they may be a bit more truthful (“nuanced”) now, since people other than prospective students are reading them.
  • Unemployed JDs knew (or should have known) that the economy was tanking, and that many of them would not find jobs, so they have only themselves to blame for choosing to attend law school.
  • How could anyone have been so gullible as to trust the numbers law schools provided? Nobody would reasonably rely on those numbers!

That raises the question: why would law schools publish inflated (sorry, not-nuanced) employment numbers if they knew prospective students are obviously too sophisticated to be duped by them? What purpose would that serve?

Why Some Don’t Sleep Well at Night

Again, I’m not attacking Taylor in particular. I’m merely using his post as an example of what I think is a typical perspective from someone who benefits from the current system of legal education and licensing.

One irony here (among many) is that there are thousands of JDs out there who did in fact rely on law schools’ employment data, and it was not until they had a legal education that they were sophisticated enough to recognize not only how gullible they were, but also the ethical morass that life in the law invariably creates. If one learns nothing else in law school, one should learn that one’s claimed ethical values often directly conflict with one’s own interests.

(photo: Shutterstock)


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  • “This strikes me as an honest admission that there’s a built-in conflict of interest for law school admissions staff. Their job is to go get the best students they can, but they must resist the urge to mislead potential students.”

    That’s not what a conflict of interests is. The admissions people work only for the school, and I doubt any prospective students think otherwise.

    If you want to see the conflict of interests, it’s when the school begins providing advice to students about loans. Now they are purporting to act in the students’ interests by giving them advice, but have a conflict of interests because they also want to make sure the school gets paid.

    • I think the closest analogy would be dual agency in real estate, where the same agent represents both buyer and seller. With few exceptions, the only clear winner is the agent.

  • Harry

    Periodically a friend will breathlessly announce that their child is going to law school. The friend is usually bursting with pride that their child has a ticket to join the “elite” class of “doctors and lawyers.” The proud parent is never a lawyer. My attempts to gently but firmly give them a dose of reality is almost always rebuffed. I believe most people grossly overestimate the earnings and glamor of law practice. Too many lawyers in TV and movies who live in big houses, drive Porsches, travel the world, rarely work, resolve every case in 60 minutes, and always get paid in full by a fawning grateful client? Perhaps.

    I try explaining that wealthy lawyers usually work many long and hard hours. That the six figure starting salaries they’re always reading about are really quite rare, and that even those lawyers often regret getting what they’d wished for after discovering that they must work 100 hours a week for the obscene starting salary. That most lawyers only earn a decent upper middle class income, and some don’t even do that. I try telling them how happy I am to be well into my career and a litigator. Courtroom appearances and trials can’t be outsourced. Well, not yet anyway. That I fear younger lawyers will face increasing competition and declining incomes thanks to title companies, Legal Zoom, expert computer systems like IBM’s Watson, and offshoring of routine work.

    It always falls on deaf ears. They’re always convinced that little Johnny or Janey will be the exception and not the rule. I suspect that most secretly think I must be some sort of failure myself because I drive a 10 year old Ford and even bring the subject up. The fact is that my income is above average for lawyers in my state and I still can’t buy that Porsche.

    Sure law schools are partially to blame and they ought to do something about it. But I suspect there is, in fact, a lack of research. I can personally observe from these discussion I’ve had that there’s a certain amount of willful ignorance even when reality is explained. Perhaps there is a certain amount of “buyer’s remorse” when the new graduate, who is often now deeply in debt, discovers that he or she is the rule and not the exception.

  • JYL

    Law is a prestigious field, for some reason. Its true that many people attend these schools to feed their low self esteem. It is a financial disaster to owe 100,000 dollars or more, with dismal job prospects. In fact, its committing financial suicide to do this. If these students were truly bright, they would have done their due diligence and found out this was a losing game. Even if you switch careers, employers are going to ask why you wasted three years in law school if you weren’t going to do anything with the law degree. The law degree could close doors instead of opening them. Its going to be a huge red flag on your resume if you apply for other positions.

    Outsourcing is a threat to all Americans, regardless of what career field they choose. Almost any job can (and eventually will) be outsourced. There are also many schools out there, not just law schools, who are lying to students about their job prospects after graduation.