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The scandal

[ 22 ] September 24, 2012 |

O'Brien

If you want a glimpse into the short-term future of American legal education, take a look at what New England Law did this year with its entering class. NEL has, even by the standards of low-ranked law schools, atrocious employment statistics: only a little more than a third of the 2011 class got legal jobs (full-time long-term bar admission required; and this figure is bolstered by 15 people who listed themselves as starting solo practices), one in five graduates was completely unemployed, only four graduates out of 308 got jobs with law firms of more than 50 attorneys, and the median reported salary for the class was around $50,000, even though less than 25% of the class had a reported salary (Given these stats, it’s likely the true median salary for 2011 graduates of NEL was under $30,000.)

NEL has raised its tuition faster than almost any other private law school in the country, nearly doubling it since 2004, from $22,475 to $42,490 (these figures don’t include health insurance, which will run students close to another $2,000 if they purchase it from the school, and which they’re required to have under state law). The 2011 class had a mean reported law school debt of $120,480, but keep in mind this figure doesn’t include accrued interest, private non-government guaranteed loans, and other educational debt. Taking these factors into account, the average 2011 graduate almost certainly had at least $150,000 in educational debt, and quite possibly as much as $175,000.

The large majority of NEL grads aren’t getting legal jobs, and almost everyone who does get a legal job isn’t getting one that justifies the cost of attending the school. So what did this institution decide to do this year, given these extraordinarily dire statistics? If you guessed “raise tuition more than twice as fast as inflation and increase the size of the incoming class by 17%” you win a prize. NEL increased its incoming class from 385 to 452 students. It achieved this, while applications to law school in general were plummeting, by dropping the median LSAT score of full-time matriculants from the 53rd percentile to the 41st percentile, and that of part-time students from the 41st percentile to the 33rd (fully a quarter of the part-time admits had LSAT scores below the 26th percentile of test takers).

But we haven’t even gotten to the punch line yet, which is that the dean of this monument to catastrophic market failure is John O’Brien, who was none other than the chair of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar during the 2011-12 academic year — that is, the section of the ABA that is supposed to be regulating the conduct of accredited law schools. (O’Brien was paid $867,000 by NEL in 2010-2011).

What we have here, in other words, is the academic equivalent of what in the world of finance is known as a pump and dump operation. With an eye for the main chance that would make the likes of Whitey Bulger proud, O’Brien, who has been dean of NEL for 24 years, seems to have decided that he might as well get while the getting is good. With unlimited federal loan money there for the taking, NEL continues to jack up tuition as fast as it can, while tossing any semblance of admissions standards out the window, and not even pretending to care whether graduates are taking on life-wrecking amounts of debt in return for degrees that will rarely produce returns that justify their cost, and which indeed in many cases are going to be worse than worthless.

And while it’s true that if something can’t go on forever, it will stop, there’s still at the moment nothing to stop people like O’Brien from running educational boiler rooms. Yes the whole thing is starting to crash, but in the meantime there’s still money to be made, and lots of it. (My guess is that, as fiscal reality slowly sets in, a lot more law schools will stop trying to hold their LSAT medians, and instead admit whoever they have to admit to keep classes from shrinking even further.)

I suppose in a perverse way it’s a positive sign that a “special board” was appointed last year to make sure that O’Brien’s astronomical compensation — his salary is around three times larger than average for a law school dean — is warranted.

The only actual achievement cited by the review board is that, like a lot of bottom feeding schools, NEL has been turned into an apparently effective three-year bar review course.

NEL makes a very big deal of the fact that it spends lots of student tuition on paying SCOTUS justices to give little talks and such. There is to put it mildly zero evidence that this has produced any “elevated prestige” for the school.

As for “financial stability,” until about 15 minutes ago running a crap law school was a license to print money, and it would have taken an extraordinarily incompetent dean to fail to achieve “financial stability.”

The best part of this is citing heading the ABA Section of Legal Education as evidence that this guy is “strengthening the field” (the field, remember, being the practice of law) overall. Just imagine how bad employment stats for lawyers would have become if John O’Brien hadn’t been strengthening the field by running the Section of Legal Education.

As Michael Kinsley once observed, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal — the scandal is what’s legal.

Comments (22)

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  1. Lee says:

    The solution to the law school problem is going to have to start earlier than law school. Unless your independently wealthy, most people are going to need to work. Most people want jobs that come with greater prestiege and income potential than other jobs. A lot of people who don’t know better see law has a high income/pretiege job because thats how law is depicted in most movies and tv shows. A lot of people elect to go to law school because want the money and prestiege but lack any particular pasion or interest an another field.

    Law is basically being treated as a default job for intelligent but passionless people and the law schools are milking it for all its worth.

    • mpowell says:

      I don’t know what you mean by ‘earlier’. If people realize that law school is a giant scam (particulary low ranked schools), they will stop going to law school. It’s probably better that they realize this earlier on as an undergraduate, but the information problem is basically the same. People need to learn that being a lawyer is frequently a crappy job and also that becoming a lawyer right now is a terrible proposition for anyhow who can’t get into a top 10, maybe top 3 law school.

      • New Pre-Law Advisor says:

        This is exactly what I’m setting out to do as a new pre-law advisor. As a law school grad who went the PhD route I have a little more credibility with my students when I point out the horrible, inflated debt and the chances of getting a job to pay them off. I still don’t know if it’s having the desired effect, but at least I can sleep easily at night knowing that they had the info that I was denied.

        • JoyfulA says:

          I got the horrible news today that my husband’s nephew wants to go to law school (or maybe my sister-in-law wants him to go to law school). Fortunately, I have plenty of material to send him.

      • Lee says:

        I think the basic problem is that a lot of people are approaching law school mentality thats something like “I don’t really have any passion but I want to make money and have prestiege, so I’ll become a lawyer.” To many people realize that this isn’t really true way too late. Even if they decide to decline to go to law school, it might be hard for them to get training an another field.

        If people realize the difficulties of becoming a lawyer sometime before their junior year of college, we might avoid a lot of hardship.

        • mpowell says:

          Sure, people shouldn’t be majoring in pre-law. I just don’t know how much harder it is to inform sophomores as opposed to seniors.

    • L2P says:

      I don’t know what you mean by “before law school.” What other people mean by “law school” is by making people know what “law school” means, and trying to rationalize the costs of “law school.”

      People need to realize that they have a 50% chance of getting a stable $150k job if they go to a top 20 law school, and an essentially 0% chance of that happening anywhere else. I mean, it MIGHT happen; you might be one of the top 5 grads from Loyola, but don’t count on it. Once they realize that, the problem isn’t solved, but it’s a lot better.

      But there are still 20 people going to Hollywood for every acting job, and more actors busing tables than speaking lines, so part of the problem will never go away.

      • saucyturtles says:

        There’s no tuition to pay for going to Hollywood, plus there are other things you can end up doing in the film industry if you don’t become a movie star.Compared to law school, it looks pretty good.

        • Lee says:

          With acting you could also try for television, theatre*, or even running a high school drama program. There are lots of behind the scenes jobs to if you are inclined.

          *My brother was trying to get into theatre but doing behind the scenes jobs. It wasn’t easy. He got frustrated when actors he knew turned down roles in productions in regional theatres because they wanted to stay in New York.

      • SamR says:

        And the guys busing tables are making money to bus tables.

        That’s the thing with law school—it costs 40k+ in tuition a year, plus all your living expenses, and you accumulate no savings during those 3 years. Then you have to pay a bunch more money to have someone teach you how to take the bar exam.

        So you leave with loans that earn interest. Each month, $600-$900 or so vanishes from your pay, but you get to watch your loans rebuild themselves to almost the previous level by the next month (and of course you still are taxed by what you make, though there is a deduction).

        If you’re thinking of going to law school, and you can’t find a way to substantially lessen the loans you take out, do this thought experiment: imagine you have a rich benefactor. This benefactor offers to pay for your law school and all your living expenses. Or, in the alternative, he’ll just give you the money. Call it 200k.

        If you’d still choose to go to law school, go to law school. But if you’d choose the 200k, don’t go to law school, because you’re being offered that deal in reverse, except instead of 200k vs. $0, its $0 vs. -$200k.

    • Shane says:

      *you’re

  2. Just Dropping By says:

    Did a whole bunch of comments get deleted on this post? Because I could swear there were 20 or 30 when I first looked at this morning.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I once went to a BarBri session at NESL because of a scheduling conflict with my regular one. Inside, it looked like a high school. Didn’t really feel like a professional place.

  4. Aaron B. says:

    Well, you’ve convinced at least one prospective law school student not to go, Campos.

  5. Actual NEL student says:

    I actually am in my third year at New England Law. I went to a large state public school and just simply did not get the grades to go to a top law school. I did however get excellent LSAT scores and got a full ride to New England Law. That scholarship, I will admit, is the only reason I chose New England Law over others. I will come out of New England with significantly less debt than my peers and that makes me happy.

    What also makes me happy I picked New England Law is the faculty. Of course some aren’t the best but this would be the case at nearly any law school. The faculty is helpful and just as eager as the students to raise the image of the school.

    So while our dean is not the most ethical dean around and I most certainly do not agree with many of the decisions the school makes, I find that this article is somewhat lacking. It fails to consider the students themselves. We are all trying to do our best to pass the bar and join the work force.

    I appreciate articles like this one because I do think that those in charge should be held accountable. However, talking about how shitty our school is will not help those who go to it. Not all of us went there because they pulled the wool over our eyes. I went there fully knowing the decision I was making and I feel as though I have made the right decision.

    Overall, my point is not that this article is untrue or has no value. It has plenty. I have half a mind to mail it to the dean myself. But I feel as though the author should have given the students and the faculty of the school a bit more credit.

    • Scott M. says:

      Glad to know you got a free ride. I’m so happy that other students have to pay for your tuition. I always hated that crap. It’s not like my parents could pay for school, yet, because I didn’t have the correct reproductive organs or skin color there was no way I was getting any financial help. NESL, as I was known then, was a bastion of liberal ideology. I doubt much has changed. I wish I quit my 1 st year like I had wanted to do, but I threw good money after bad because I was already thousands into it.

  6. Actual NEL Grad says:

    I second everything “Actual NEL Student” wrote. Please be aware that, as has been true through for nearly a century, there is big difference between academia and reality. Though the NEL career prospects *at this moment* are grim, part of that can be attributed to the overall crises in the legal industry and broader economy – certainly not NEL’s fault (mostly the fault of lawyers at all levels who can’t ‘do math’ and thus run their businesses into the ground during tough times). Moreover, though the institution may be flawed; the intellectual achievement of those passing through it is not predictable nor static. The sins of the parent should not be vested on the child. Articles like this, though important, help to perpetuate an undeserved negative reputation placed upon NEL students.

    • Mike says:

      I too am a past graduate of NEL many years ago. When I went it was a second or third tier school but the professors were strong and the education was practical. All of my fellow grads got jobs within a year and we all had a good base to start a practice or work within one. In those days none of rthe NEL grads got jobs at the top law firms but neither did Suffolk’s. I constantly tell those interested in Law School today to not attend but if they must, to not consider practicing law. The education is a temendous asset in business but not worth the money they charge today. NEL is like other law schools, they make money – either independantly like NEL or for the university they operate within. Average class size is 100 and facility requiremnents are minimal. That is why seats in law schools have proliferated. Shame on NEL to embarass its graduates with the current antics. I praised the school for years as oone that could teach a young man or woman how to be a good lawyer. Not sure what they teach today for that kind of money

  7. NESL grad 2004 says:

    It is hard enough to have graduated from a school that is in the same city as Harvard, BC, etc., and which is dumping all of those new lawyers onto the market alongside us NE(S)L grads, without O’Brien making it worse by giving creating grounds for articles like this. I never considered New England as a ‘bottom feeding’ school, but if it is lowering the LSAT bar for admissions just to bring in more tuition money, (and then of course the 2nd and 3rd year professors will flunk out all of those students before they have the chance to drag down New England’s all-important bar pass rate), the reputation is deserved. Sadly. Because many of the professors are good (though some are horrible), as are most of the students. Nothing like discovering your own law school is undermining you.

  8. Scott M. says:

    All of you graduating from law school who have not been “out in the world” will learn that there are NO morals or ethics out there. Do not believe what you were taught about ethics. It’s all BS. All your firms you work at will care about one thing and one thing only…money. I learned this the hard way.

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