Saturday, December 15, 2012

OK, so the industry is on hard times -- but is it all that bad?

I had a very tardy flight on Thursday and I couldn't sleep last night, so I've plowed about 1/2 way through Brian Tamahana's Failing Law Schools. Without much running going on in my life the past couple of weeks (my jog today in a sub-40-degree rain doesn't merit a post!), here's a dated discussion of what I've been able to stomach of what reads like an opportunistic expose of flaws in the market for legal education. I don't follow the myriad law professor blogs that are not about running, so I'm sure I'm repeating things that have been said before.

What's wrong with Tamahana's book? It's a little like watching Fox news -- this is largely sensationalism masquerading as reporting information. I'm grading exams, so I'm hung up on adverbs that mask a lack of knowledge: "probably," "likely," and so on. Tamahana uses a lot of that kind of phrasing. "This probably isn't the career path these students envisioned." (My example.)

Tamahana's book uses numbers casually -- even irresponsibly. The book switches from a discussion of debt averages to overall national debt figures -- student X from Y school owes on average Z thousand, with a national market for student loans in the A billions, reflecting B percent increases which outpaces inflation by C . . . . In so doing it creates vague impressions unrelated to real circumstances. ("Oh my goodness, this problem reaches into the billions!") The same goes for graphical depictions: they are scaled such that trend lines go up at 45 degree angles, making things look very grim, but it's just a question of scaling.

The book relies on proportions in places where absolute numbers might be more appropriate. Several times Tamahana repeats what is apparently normal advice that student load debt totals should never, never exceed starting salary, and monthly payments should never, never exceed 20% of monthly income. Both conclusions rely on incredibly ham-handed analyses. A better comparison for student debt load totals might be expected average salary over the course of the payment period -- and even that should be cost-of-living adjusted. Otherwise, my $35000 starting salary as a Ninth Circuit clerk (and even my $40000 starting salary one year later as a GS-12 in the Antitrust Division) put me far out of compliance -- and I was a state school grad in the years before super-inflationary tuition hikes. The 20% rule is even sillier, unless you assume that everyone should expect to live a lifestyle proportionate to his or her salary. If you instead assume a base cost of living that is unrelated to salary, higher-salary professions permit much greater proportions of monthly income to be spent on student loan repayment. In other words, groceries, car insurance, and rent cost the same whether I am employed by Teach for America, Judge Trott, or Skadden Arps.

Then there's the amazing logic that Yale law professors bear the fault for problems in the law school market, because (get this causal chain) most Yale law professors are progressives, progressives care about social justice, concern for social justice should lead to concern for access to education for the impecunious, and by raising tuition Yale caused everybody else to raise tuition also. Oh yeah -- and Yale professors can afford not to be paid as much as they are paid.

And there are actual errors. One not insignificant error relating to an important point caught my eye before I gave up and went back to grading exams. Pew Research apparently crunched some numbers and concluded that law school on average continued to be a sound investment over the course of a career. Pew relied on the opportunity cost ($32000 yearly -- the average salary for a young social science college grad) and the cost of law school tuition ($25000 yearly) in its calculation. Tamahana's analysis would add the cost of living in law school, arguing that the right number is closer to $300,000 than to Pew's $170,000. But of course that is double counting. Cost of living is covered by the salary the student would be earning if not in law school. If this were a passing point, I might say the argument was prejudiced by careless editors. But "is law school worth it" is the title of Chapter 11 -- and nearly doubling the assumed cost fundamentally changes the equation. (It causes me to doubt the other numbers, which I've already complained are thrown around so casually as to be misleading.)

Enough on this. Now I need to see how the rest of the class handled Debtor Inc.'s claims and defenses against Lock and Key lending.

1 comment:

  1. My bigger problem with this whole conversation about the value/price of law school is that we, the law professors, have done a really wretched job of articulating law school's value proposition -- as an educational opportunity. To the world, and to our students, we hold ourselves out as nothing more than credentialing bodies who prepare our students to be admitted to practice, and provide a ticket (of varying quality) to a lifestyle.

    To offer an example from my own teaching area, we don't explain what skills we give to future business lawyers/business people. We also probably don't do a good enough job of thinking through the body of knowledge a business lawyer should have -- not just corporate law, contracts and tax, but also basic finance, statistics, and policy analysis.

    In the spirit of not wasting a good crisis, we should think hard about what we teach, but even more about how we explain what we teach in a substantive rather than instrumental way.