Tag Archive for 'graduates'

Is Real Legal Education Reform Coming?

For the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about the current state of legal education. And not much of it has been positive. First, there’s the long-running criticism that law school does not do much to teach students about the actual practice of law. When pressed, most law professors and law school administrators will admit this, and claim that instead they teach students to “think like lawyers,” because there are so many different legal rules and details of practice that it would be impossible to provide students with any meaningful exposure to them in the three years of law school.

However, with the legal job market being incredibly competitive right now, law firms, corporations, and government agencies are far less inclined to hire new law school graduates, on whom they will have to spend a significant amount of time and money training, when there are thousands of experienced lawyers who have been laid off, who do not need nearly as much training as a recent graduate. This makes it that much harder for new law school grads to find a job.

On top of that, the state of the overall legal job market is, to put it bluntly, abysmal. While the economy is recovering (albeit slowly), and most employment sectors are gradually ramping up hiring, the legal job market, which was incredibly hard-hit by the 2008-2009 recession, has been slower to recover than most other sectors.

This has led to tens of thousands of law school graduates entering the workforce with student loan debt often reaching six figures and dim job prospects. Because most people go to law school with the expectation of being able to land a good job after they graduate, this has led to some jobless law school graduates ending up kind of, well, bitter.

Some of these students are focusing their energy into action, creating a movement to reform legal education. Their main grievances include skyrocketing law school tuition, a glut of law schools producing far more new lawyers every year than the job market can possibly absorb, and what they claim are misleading employment and salary statistics released by law schools. Many of these criticisms have expanded to cover higher education in general, as well as the fact that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Because the American Bar Association is responsible for accrediting law schools in the United States, and can therefore exert large amounts of pressure on them, many people calling for the reform of legal education have targeted the ABA, rather than individual law schools – the idea being that the ABA could force the law schools to change their practices by changing its accreditation requirements.

The ABA has apparently been listening, and has created a list of proposed changes, such as releasing more detailed job and salary statistics each year. They have opened these proposed changes to public comment, and it appears that the general public, to the extent that it cares, is largely supportive of these measures.

However, the new rules are pretty watered-down, compared to what some people in the law school transparency movement would like to see. The rules, if adopted, would require law schools to place more information on their websites, giving prospective more information on job placement, bar passage rates, and retention rates on conditional scholarships, among a few others.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a class-action lawsuit against several law schools brought by former students claiming that they were outright defrauded by the law schools they attended, by being presented with deliberately misleading employment and salary statistics.

This lawsuit was recently dismissed by a federal judge in New York, but the plaintiffs are appealing that decision, and the case is likely far from over.

While I think more transparency in law school admissions is certainly a good thing, and I actually think that the revisions proposed by the ABA could go much further than they do, I’m not sure how I feel about this lawsuit.

First of all, I have doubts that it will prevail. Proving that somebody engaged in deliberate fraud is difficult, especially with something like job statistics, because most schools count every graduate who has any type of job as “employed,” even if they have a law degree and are working in a coffee shop. This may be a little underhanded, but it’s technically accurate.

Second, the public’s perception of lawyers is not exactly positive. A common joke is that 90 percent of lawyers give a bad name to the other 10. When they hear that new lawyers are having trouble getting jobs, the reaction of a large sector of the public is probably going to be something like “I guess you should have learned how to do something useful. Cry me a river.”

Finally, the general public already views lawyers (and, by extension, lawyers in training) as litigious, but also as fairly intelligent and sophisticated. So, the argument is likely to go something like “back when you were a wannabe lawyer, you should have understood the risks of taking out thousands of dollars in student loans to get a degree that doesn’t guarantee a job.” While, in some cases, the fact that a plaintiff is a highly sophisticated individual (or, more often, corporation), will make it harder to prevail in a fraud case, on the grounds that they should have known better. However, it’s important to remember who these plaintiffs are: they’re recent law school graduates, arguing that they were defrauded before they attended a single day of law school classes. When they made the decision to go to law school, most of them were straight out of undergrad, and in their early to mid 20’s.

Think back to when you were about 22 years old. Do you think you were in a position to make perfectly intelligent and rational decisions when the ramifications of these decisions, whether positive or negative, might not be apparent until years, or even decades, in the future? Chances are, the answer is “no.”

So, what should be done about this? To be perfectly frank, I have no idea. The problems with law school are, in many ways, symptoms of a larger problem with higher education in general. As with any complex problem, there are no easy solutions. However, I think providing consumers (including consumers of educational services) with more information is probably a good start.

Should Practical Skills Training Be Required for a Law License?

Anyone who’s gone to law school will tell you that the vast majority of graduates leave knowing next to nothing about the actual practice of law. Successful law grads may know how to “think like lawyers,” which is important, but when it comes down to the everyday, nuts-and-bolts aspects of practicing law, they’re clueless.

This has been known for decades – law firms that hire new graduates have resigned themselves to the fact that they have to train their new lawyers in virtually every aspect of practicing law. The larger firms have structured orientation and training programs for this purpose.

Apparently, the State Bar of California has taken notice of this fact, and is looking into taking steps to change the status quo. They have formed a task force to study the pros and cons of requiring law students or new law school graduates to complete some type of internship before they are allowed to take the bar exam and become licensed attorneys. The comments on the blog post I just linked to already show that the proposal is controversial, which is understandable.

The practice of law, and legal education, are steeped in tradition. Accordingly, they’re fairly resistant to change. Also, there’s some concern that such a requirement would lead to law schools turning down a large number of applicants based on the actual or perceived preferences of employers who would offer internships, perhaps leading to discrimination based on race, gender, or, as one commentator put it, “the number of piercings” an applicant has.

However, it’s hard to argue against the proposition that the current legal education model is antiquated and inefficient. And with competition for legal jobs being incredibly fierce in today’s economy, one could argue that the current model does a disservice to new law graduates. The fact is, many of them will not find employment as lawyers, whether it’s with a law firm, in-house at a corporation, or with the government. Many consider starting their own law practices as a backup option. But, if a new lawyer doesn’t know the first thing about the practice of law, starting a solo practice is a huge risk.

And the risk is not just financial (though that’s certainly a big part of it). If a young lawyer makes a few too many rookie mistakes, their reputation in the legal community can be ruined before their career even gets off the ground. This also puts clients (i.e., the general public) at risk. Having incompetent legal representation can be ruinous for the unfortunate client – possibly costing them huge amounts of money, or even their freedom.

On balance, I think that this is a good idea in principle, even if implementing it would raise some practical issues. But once these issues are worked out, such a system would produce a more efficient and competent legal profession, and probably improve overall job satisfaction of lawyers (which most surveys suggest is extremely low, on average).

The legal profession would be more competent, for obvious reasons – law school would actually teach its graduates some of the basic skills necessary to practice law. The profession would become more efficient because employers won’t have to spend nearly as much time training new hires – allowing new attorneys to immediately get to work on client matters. This, in turn, means that law firms won’t have to spend as much money training their new associates, and some of those savings will be passed on to clients.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the internship requirement, especially if it has to be completed early in one’s legal education (the summer after the first year of law school, for instance), will give prospective lawyers a first-hand view of what the legal profession is actually like, so they can determine if it’s a career they actually want to pursue before investing too much time and money in it.

This would probably increase first-year attrition rates at most law schools, but I think it would be worth it. If new lawyers know exactly what they’re getting into, and have an early opportunity to get out if it’s not for them, those who stick it out will do so presumably because they enjoy the work. This should increase the overall rate of job satisfaction among attorneys, which would also improve their quality of life and the quality of their work product.

It would probably also lead to fewer people graduating law school each year. With the competition for legal jobs being incredibly fierce, with the supply of new lawyers vastly outstripping demand, a “residency” could prove very beneficial. Reducing the number of new lawyers who enter the marketplace each year, while simultaneously improving their competence, should eventually balance out the legal marketplace, making it less stressful on its participants, and improving the level of service to clients.

And finally, all of these benefits taken together would help improve the legal profession’s standing with the general public. After all, if legal services are more affordable, new lawyers are more competent, and clients do not have the impression that they’re paying for the training of new attorneys, they’re likely to be far more satisfied with the legal services they receive. Also, the current law school model, which is highly academic and theoretical, leads to some law school graduates entering the world with an inflated sense of their own intelligence and wisdom (to be fair, this happens with lots of college graduates, too). Treating legal education more like trade school – and law school does teach a trade, after all – would probably produce graduates who are more grounded in reality, making lawyers more likeable.

And most lawyers know that the profession could always use a bit of help in that department.

For-Profit Colleges Facing Federal Scrutiny

For-profit colleges have been in the news quite a bit recently. As the name implies, these are educational institutions operated by private companies for the express purpose of earning a profit. Most private colleges and universities operate on a non-profit basis. And, as far as I know, so does every public educational institution.

However, like most educational institutions, the students at most for-profit colleges are eligible for federal student loans, as well as educational financial assistance that’s made available to military veterans.

However, because these colleges need to make a profit to stay in business, rather than relying on public funds, private donations, and endowments, many critics have raised concerns that they seriously compromise educational quality in the name of profits, and aggressively recruit students, regardless of the job prospects they’ll have when they graduate.

This can leave students saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in non-dischargeable (meaning it can’t be eliminated or restructured in bankruptcy) student loan debt, with job prospects that were no better than they were before they attended school.

In some cases, this has led to lawsuits against the schools by former students. One of the biggest sectors of the for-profit educational industry is culinary school. Across the United States, there are a large number of for-profit culinary academies. Several culinary colleges, such as the California Culinary Academy, are being sued by former students, who are claiming that they were misled about their job prospects, and the reputation of the school.

One of the most controversial practices engaged in by for-profit colleges is the way in which they recruit former military service members. Under the laws governing federal student loans, for-profit colleges are bound by the so-called “90-10 rule.” This means that at least 10% of the tuition they receive must come from sources other than federal student loans and grants, such as private loans, or from the student simply paying out-of-pocket, and the other 90% can come from federal loans and grants. If the college fails to meet this standard, its students become ineligible for federal student loans, which make up the vast majority of the college’s income.

However, there’s a loophole in this law: educational funds given to members of the military in the form of the G.I. Bill count towards that 10%. So, for every former soldier they enroll with tuition paid for via the G.I. Bill, they can enroll 9 civilian students who can pay with student loans.

This gives them a very strong incentive to heavily market to former soldiers, and get them to enroll regardless of their future job prospects, or even their ability to complete the coursework. For example, there have been cases where they signed up combat veterans who were still recovering from fairly severe brain injuries, as well as mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of these students couldn’t even remember what classes they were signed up for. But it appeared that the school didn’t care that they were getting nothing out of their “educational” experience, as long as their tuition checks (paid for by Uncle Sam) cleared.

Not surprisingly, graduates of for-profit colleges tend to default on their student loans at higher rates than other colleges and universities. And because most student loans are paid for by the federal government, it’s the taxpayers who are ultimately on the hook for these loans.

These problems, and the fact that they disproportionately affect students at for-profit colleges, have led to the federal government taking action. The Obama Administration has announced that the Department of Education is instituting a so-called “gainful employment rule” that applies to for-profit colleges receiving federal student loans. Essentially, the rule would require for-profit colleges to meet at least one of three requirements:

  1. At least 35 percent of graduates are actively paying down their loans – lowering the total balance by at least one dollar per year.
  2. Graduates, on average, spend less than 30 percent of their discretionary income on paying down their student loans.
  3. Graduates, on average, are spending less than 12 percent of their total income paying down their loans.

For-profit colleges would only have to meet one of these requirements to maintain eligibility for federal loans. A program that cannot meet any of them will lose this eligibility, effectively shutting it down.

Federal officials estimate that, once these rules are implemented, about 5 percent of for-profit programs will be shut down.

These requirements seem pretty reasonable, and any college that is unable to meet them probably shouldn’t be receiving federal funds. Most for-profit colleges are already responding to these rules by becoming more selective in their admissions (which should lead to smaller class sizes, and a student body that’s more qualified to be in college in the first place), and providing more accurate information about a graduate’s likely employment prospects, and information on avoiding excessive debt.

Hopefully, these new rules will improve the overall quality of for-profit colleges, and the education they provide. Despite their problems, these institutions can fill a valuable niche in the educational market, especially since they largely focus on vocational training that more traditional universities often ignore. However, we shouldn’t allow them to engage in deceptive recruitment practices or saddle the vast majority of their graduates with debts that they cannot hope to pay off.

While the gainful employment rule might be disruptive to some for-profit colleges, I think that, in the long run, it will improve the quality of the education they offer.

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