This op/ed is available on The Careerist.
The Cooley Strategy
Last week, Nelson Miller, associate dean of Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, wrote an editorial, “Lawyer Employment Remains Strong,” that appeared in The Careerist. Using employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he argues that lawyer job prospects are strong, that the legal profession has less risk than others, and that any noise questioning the value of obtaining a J.D. is as erroneous as it is inflammatory.
We will not spend much time discrediting Dean Miller’s “data-based” arguments, including Cooley’s Cooley’s Report One, which is the basis of this latest editorial. (That report has been thoroughly and thoughtfully discredited in an article by Matt Leichter.) To make a long story short, the underlying data upon which Report One depends excludes at least one broad segment of law school graduates: People who never became lawyers in the first place because they couldn’t find legal jobs.
So what is Miller’s editorial really about? Is it just an honest attempt by a law school administrator to educate students and allay unfounded fears propagated through the media? We don’t think so.
Law schools like Cooley are facing significant hardship because prospective students are increasingly more informed about the risk of taking on six-figure debt for the chance of entering the legal profession. In addition to numerous anecdotes, we are seeing this play out through fewer LSAT-takers and law school applicants. Unfortunately for these schools, this will translate into fewer people willing to pay $30,000, $40,000, or even $50,000 per year in tuition.
Miller has every incentive to distract consumers and conceal what Cooley graduates face after graduation. The 2009 Cooley graduates had an average law school debt in excess of $106,000, but only 42.2 percent obtained full-time legal work by February 2010. This statistic does not even account for Cooley’s unparalleled attrition rate, and we do not know how 2010 and 2011 graduates fared on these postgraduation metrics because Cooley does not share this information with its applicants.
The truth is that unless Miller and the rest of the Cooley administration can convince almost 2,000 people next year that a Cooley investment is worthwhile, they will be forced to make a series of hard business decisions in the coming years. This includes whether to keep the Michigan-based school’s new Florida campus and other satellite campuses open.
Commissioning reports,in-house rankings, and aggressive public relations are all part of a very smart strategy. The Cooley administration understands how these efforts affect prospective students. If Cooley can confirm to prospective students that law school is a magic ticket to financial security, it can continue to operate without introspection about what’s really wrong with legal education today.
As prospective students become more informed and the ABA exerts greater oversight to protect consumers of legal education, some enterprising deans will find ways to reduce tuition and class sizes, adapting their schools’ models to stay in business. Others will close up shop for lack of demand. And in the interim period, representatives like Miller will attempt to convince anyone who will listen that there is nothing wrong with taking on $106,000 in nondischargeable debt for their Cooley law degree. This continued, shameless promotion is part of the reason his law school has been hauled into court by former graduates amidst allegations of fraud and misrepresentation.
Miller’s advocacy for his law school at others’ expense belies his ethical responsibilities as both a lawyer and an educator. This country needs law school administrators who are capable of ethically recruiting and training the next generation of lawyers, judges, advocates, and educators. We do not need people running law schools who engage in Miller’s level of deception.