The ABA’s media relations arm has released a YouTube video (full transcript below) in which the ABA President, Steve Zack, speaks about the need to get better information into the hands of prospective law students.
It’s great to see the President of the ABA weighing in on this issue again. Back in October, Mr. Zack emphasized the need for law schools to provide cost and employment information to applicants.
But this time around he focuses more on the causes of uninformed decisions. He rightfully identifies the disconnect between the legal market and what prospective law students believe about the economic realities for new lawyers. This disconnect often provides some foundation for the decision to attend law school.
Uninformed decisions (which, to be fair, do turn out just fine for some people) ultimately start with available information of all types. Opaque job information would be less troubling if applicants did not already think that lawyer starting salaries justified debt-financing their education at any cost. But this and other information perpetuate presumptions about the legal profession, and these presumptions are largely caused by how the market for law students has been conditioned.
Recently, I spoke with a college sophomore about her desire to go to law school. We discussed what she wanted out of a J.D., particularly the “lawyer salary.” The desire to make a good living is not bad on its face, and economic security can coincide with other motivations. But she has yet to think about what it would cost to attend the schools on her shortlist and she was shocked to learn that all lawyers don’t make a ton of money right after law school. Sure, this misperception is correctable with a little research, but these presumptions exist before applicants try to understand school-specific job prospects.
Market conditioning ultimately provides the greatest challenge to informed decisions, and reconditioning requires time for better graduate employment information to penetrate the market. As Mr. Zack points out, some misperceptions stem from popular culture and other stories of huge salaries, despite efforts from NALP, LST, and others to shed light on what salaries really look like for recent graduates. (To this point, the ABA has not collected recent graduate salary information from law schools because it does not currently consider it to be “basic consumer information.”) The attractive “lawyer” status, especially among many proud family members and friends, feeds optimism and indebtedness. Law schools understand that their applicants relish the rosey attitudes and figures that, while technically true, mislead the wide-eyed prospective lawyer because they do not paint the correct picture. This is what Mr. Zack is talking about when he says there is a need to clarify.
Mr. Zack also emphasizes that the cost of attendance should play an integral role in an applicant’s calculus. However, his examples miss the point. He calls for information about “hourly credit cost” and the “standard of living in [the schools'] given areas . . . over a three year period.” The ABA already collects and distributes this information, and all schools provide it on their websites. School projections might serve some function, but they generally do not have any knowledge of or control over rising tuition. Mandating projections would be a waste of time and money because it’s something applicants can already do within a reasonable degree of specificity.
Mentioning cost transparency is an easy public relations win for Mr. Zack, but it has no substance as presently conveyed. To be fair, he does cite these suggestions as examples for how schools can share “what the real cost of their legal education will be.” But the real problem isn’t with understanding how much the degree costs. The difficulty is trying to comprehend what $200,000 looks like over the life of repayment, including interest. Requiring that debt service schedules accompany every law school application and acceptance letter might help, though this would be information that is already available via an internet search.
What would be of more use is fair disclosure of scholarship requirements and statistics on how difficult the scholarship is to keep. This knowledge affects the expected value of the scholarship over three years, and with it the school’s affordability. In some of the most egregious cases, schools furnish a scholarship to a percentage of the class in excess of the amount that can possibly keep it. For example, imagine that keeping your scholarship is conditioned upon finishing your first year in the top 15%, and that 35% of the class received scholarships with the same condition. This situation may be made worse by the disproportionate number of scholarship recipients in your 1L section. It may also be complicated by when class rank is calculated: Is it before or after top students transfer to other programs?
It is important to be realistic about the effect of better information on the decisions made by prospective law students. Some of the effects will be difficult to measure, as intelligent use of better information will cause a number of prospectives to choose a different school rather than no school at all. These decisions will be based on a clearer understanding of how certain schools best meet certain career objectives, rather than U.S. News rankings.
But even without this more-efficient allocation of students to schools, general consumer protection principles apply. In no other area of consumer protection do we question whether new information will be completely understood or heeded. We only ask that more, quality information be disclosed.
We always need new lawyers. The question is, do the people going to law school really understand what the future of the practice holds in store for them? What are the real economics of the practice? Everybody watches L.A. Law and Boston Legal, and they see the newspaper reports about these massive salaries paid at Wall Street Firms – $160,000 starting salaries. But the truth of the matter is that the mean salaries of lawyers around the country is $62,000. And before there is a commitment to take loans in excess of $100,000, you have to understand what the real economics of the practice of law might be for you as an individual. We’re asking law schools to better inform potential applicants as to what the real cost of their legal education will be. For example, what their hourly credit cost is, and what the standard of living in their given areas will cost over a three year period so they can evaluate for themselves whether it’s worth it for them and what their liability and risks are when they graduate.