Thomas M. Cooley Law School is the largest in the nation by a healthy margin. The school, which was founded in 1973 by former Michigan supreme court justice and current right-wing crank Thomas Brennan, has four campuses in Michigan, and recently opened a fifth in Florida. (Brennan was at last check still drawing compensation of more than $350,000 per year from Cooley, nominally for compiling a ludicrous ranking system that declares the school the second-best in the nation). The school is now emitting more than 1000 graduates per year, three quarters of whom are not getting jobs as lawyers (Definition: full-time non-temporary employment requiring bar admission minus people listing themselves as solo practitioners). A quarter of the 2012 graduating class was known to be completely unemployed in February of this year, while another ten percent had disappeared completely (this latter stat is particularly remarkable in the age of the internet, which allows the typical law school to account for the employment status of 99% of its graduates nine months after graduation.)
The school’s dean and president, Don LeDuc, recently posted a “commentary” on the school’s blog entitled Myth-Busting. It’s an interesting document for a number of reasons, and I’m going to look at it in some detail.
The Internet abounds with misstatements about law schools and lawyer employment. Uninformed commentators and bloggers make the statements, and the media republish them without support, analysis or context, creating the impression that they are true. Here are some of those assertions.
1. MYTH: Unemployment among lawyers is widespread and severe.
False. According to U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics data, legal occupations have the lowest unemployment rate among the ten recognized professional and management occupations. Employment of lawyers is nearly the best among all individual professional and management occupations.
This is true in a tautological and therefore trivial sense, but the social truth is a bit more complex than Dean LeDuc’s statistics indicate. Nominal unemployment among “lawyers” is indeed very low, but this statement is misleading for several reasons:
(1) Someone who obtains a law degree and never becomes a lawyer, or who has given up on remaining in the legal profession, does not count as an unemployed lawyer. ABA-accredited law schools have granted about 1.4 million law degrees over the past 40 years, while according to the BLS there are about 730,000 people employed as lawyers in America currently (this latter number includes self-employed people — see below — and people who didn’t graduate from ABA law schools).
(2) A self-employed lawyer does not count as an unemployed lawyer even if he or she is deriving little or no income from the practice of law. The plurality of lawyers in private practice in America are solo practitioners, or at least hold themselves out as such. An unknown number of these people are “employed” in only a nominal sense.
(3) To count as unemployed, you cannot have had any gainful employment in the previous four weeks. A law school graduate whose income over the past month has consisted of ten hours of contract work at $15 per hour is, in the BLS statistics, an “employed lawyer.”
2. MYTH: Law schools continue to admit increasing numbers of students.
False. Nationally, first-year enrollment fell by 4,000 in 2011 and again in 2012, and will likely fall by at least that much again in 2013. First-year law school enrollment at Michigan’s five law schools is down over 30% over the past three years (2010, 2011, 2012), and will likely decline significantly again in 2013.
FACT: Thomas M. Cooley Law School has been forced involuntarily to reduce its enrollment, despite a de facto open admissions policy (the school admitted 87% of its applicants last year). Many other schools are finding themselves in a similar situation, with the more publicity-savvy among them attempting to make lemonade out of lemons, by characterizing this retrenchment as an act of spontaneous social responsibility.
3. MYTH: Law schools will drop their standards to keep their enrollment up.
False. Michigan’s law schools kept their entering class profiles relatively stable over the past five years, reducing class size rather than lowering their admission standards.
Since it’s difficult to lower non-existent standards, this statement is sort of true when applied to Dean LeDuc’s distinguished institution, but is quite untrue in regard to some other schools, such as for instance American University, a “top tier” law school which slashed the median LSAT of its 2012 entering class from the 86th to 77th percentile, and will probably slash it again this year.
4. MYTH: Law schools are charging exorbitant tuition.
False. Law school tuition is comparable to tuition charges for other professional schools and for doctoral programs. For At Cooley, a typical May 2012 non-scholarship graduate would have paid about $97,000 in tuition for his or her legal education. The typical scholarship student at Cooley would have paid about $75,000. Approximately 57% of Cooley students receive scholarships.
Besides being an egregious non-sequitur (it’s perfectly possible that other professional schools and doctoral programs are charging exorbitant tuition, whatever law schools may be doing), this also ignores that most doctoral candidates have full tuition waivers, while people who go to medical and dental schools all get jobs as doctors and dentists, etc.
5. MYTH: Law school graduates are experiencing alarming default rates because of the student loan debt.
False. Default rates among law school graduates are quite low, about one-third of the national average.
Because the federal government has taken over almost all student lending, and now graciously allows people to enter a quarter century of indentured servitude in order to pay off their loans, default rates on student loan debt are extremely poor measures of economic distress among law school graduates.
6. MYTH: The current admissions practices among law schools have led to a glut of lawyers.
False. Admissions to practice in Michigan have decreased in each of the past three decades and by 10% since 1973.
1973 to 1982: average annual admission to practice = 1,178
1983 to 1992: average annual admission to practice = 1,137
1993 to 2002: average annual admission to practice = 1,095
2003 to 2012: average annual admission to practice = 1,061.
It’s possible that this statement depends on a logical fallacy of some sort — one which prospective law students should be able to identify.
7. MYTH: Young lawyers, burdened by debt, are forced to take on cases that they are incompetent to handle, causing them to behave unethically.
False. State Bar of Michigan data suggest that recent law school graduates contribute relatively little to the work of the lawyer disciplinary bodies. And the annual report of the Lawyer Discipline Board shows comparatively few competency-based disciplinary actions overall.
If recent law school graduates are unable to obtain legal work, they will not burden lawyer disciplinary bodies at all. And while it’s true that a lawyer is far more likely to be disciplined for stealing client funds or for substance-abuse related behavior than for professional incompetence, this may be a product of the fact that the former behavior is far easier to identify than the latter.
8. MYTH: The law schools do a poor job at training students to be lawyers.
False. The quality of legal education, from the substantive, doctrinal courses to the practical, clinical courses, has never been better. Teaching is outstanding, facilities are the best in history, libraries are more comprehensive than ever, and technology has been employed in all parts of legal education. Focus on practice preparation by the nation’s law schools has never been more intense.
Even if one were to accept these (unsupported) statements as accurate, they are in no way inconsistent with an assertion that law schools do a poor job at training students to be lawyers.
9. MYTH: Big Law – made up of the ultra large international and national law firms, is the core of the legal profession.
False. Almost two-thirds of all lawyers in private practice work in solo practice or in law firms of from two to ten lawyers in size. “Big Law” has no relationship to the real world faced by almost all of our nation’s lawyers.
This is an especially egregious example of Dean LeDuc’s propensity for constructing and then incinerating rhetorical strawmen. Nobody claims that BigLaw is the “core” of the legal profession. What people claim is that Cooley, like most other law schools, charge tuition rates that make economic sense only if the graduates of those schools have a good probability of obtaining jobs with big law firms.
Given that exactly one of Cooley’s 1079 2012 graduates obtained a job with a firm of 500+ lawyers, this makes for a problematic return on the investment in a law degree, from that and many other institutions.
10. MYTH: We don’t need more lawyers.
False. Maybe there are plenty of lawyers charging $600 an hour and up to represent the largest corporations, but there clearly are not enough lawyers to serve the interests of the middle class, much less the indigent in society. Many rural counties in particular are severely lacking lawyers.
This assertion flunks Econ 101, for reasons that ought to be too obvious to bother pointing out, but what the heck:
(1) There are not enough lawyers to serve the interest of middle class and poor people, because lawyers need to be paid in order to be able to be lawyers (see discussion of lawyer “employment rates” supra). Poor people have no discretionary income, and middle class people have no money for lawyers, since they prefer to spend money on housing, food, transportation, health care, and many, many other things (including education, ironically enough) before they will choose to spend money on legal services.
(2) Many rural counties are severely lacking in lawyers because many rural counties are severely lacking in people who are willing and able to pay legal fees.
All of this seems screamingly obvious to me, but of course I’m not a naive 22-year-old who Don LeDuc is attempting to ensnare in order to help pay his increasingly grotesque salary (LeDuc’s total compensation from Cooley in 2010, the last year for which the figure is available, was $605,000).
This in turn raises an issue I’ve been turning over in my mind for some time now, which is: to what extent can or should we blame those member of the entering law school class of 2016 for making economically reckless choices, given the wealth of information that people have fought successfully to make available to anyone who bothers to research the matter? Here’s a blog post that gives a harsh answer to that particular question. I have thoughts of my own, but this post is too long already.
Total first year enrollment at Thomas J. Cooley Law School:
Since they get about 90% of their operating budget from tuition they must be hurting bad by this point, although if they’re laying people off (as at least four other law schools have done in the past few months) they’ve managed to keep it quiet so far.