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Tagged: Law School

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Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 2)

LincolnIn my last post, I discussed how the commentary on Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree” has illuminated a separate and worthwhile avenue for further research—namely, whether the presence of powerful gatekeepers who oversee the practice of law should make us confident that the value of the law degree will be relatively stable.

Most helpful in this regard has been Deborah Merritt’s post regarding the impact of the typewriter on lawyer education requirements.  At the risk of putting words into her mouth, Merritt observed that the typewriter may have contributed to the decision of the New York bar to make attendance at a three-year law school a prerequisite to bar admission and, therefore, that S&M were too hasty in concluding that people misconceived the typewriter to be a threat to the value of the law degree.

My earlier post explained that we must be careful not to conflate structural changes in the law degree’s value with structural changes in the credentials that one will need to become a lawyer.  By keeping the two separate, we can better understand how the gatekeepers to the industry might be able to insulate the value of the degree from exogenous forces.

In this second post, I’d like to offer some final observations on gatekeeping.  I begin with the acknowledgement that the effects of gatekeeping extend well beyond the population of degree holders, though S&M had perfectly valid reasons for focusing on that population.  Thereafter, I return to the relationship between gatekeeping and nostalgia, highlighting the strange role that the late Abe Lincoln played in the adoption of education requirements.  To finish up, I briefly explain how gatekeeping measures have long been—and will continue to be—a tempting tool for those with the power to wield them. Read More

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Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 1)

gatekeepers image

When I first read the commentary concerning Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” I was most surprised by the attention that the commenters paid to the paper’s passing reference to the typewriter. S&M are aware that their work arrives at a time when it is popular to believe that technology has wrought a structural change to lawyers’ earnings. For their part, S&M cite Frank Miles Finch’s obloquy against typewriters in the first volume of the Columbia Law Review to show that worries of technological ruin are nothing new in our line of work. After listing several other examples (such as word processing and Westlaw), S&M maintain that “lawyers have prospered while adapting to once threatening new technologies and modes of work.”

Taken out of context, this last statement might sound as if S&M are engaging in bold fortunetelling based on a scant historical record, but a few paragraphs later, S&M concede that “past performance does not guarantee future returns” and “[t]he return to a law degree in 2020 can only be known for certain in 2020.” When read in conjunction with the rest of the paper, the typewriter reference serves as a brief and lighthearted reminder that we, like others before us, can fall victim to nostalgic gloom and doom.

Despite its minor role in the article, commenters have been eager to mention the typewriter observation, with references ranging from the favorable (here), to the neutral (here and here), to the mildly dismissive (here and here), to the critical (here). Having given some thought to the last entry on this list, Deborah Merritt’s wonderful blog entry on Law School Cafe, I now realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the attention paid to the typewriter; it turns out to be an important point for S&M to make.

Merritt argues contra S&M that (1) Finch was not engaging in sky-is-falling melodrama and (2) that the typewriter “may have contributed” to a structural change in lawyers’ earnings—specifically, the creation of three-year law schools and formal schooling requirements for bar admission.  As to the first point, Merritt explains that Finch mentioned the typewriter to bolster his argument that apprenticeships had ceased to be a viable training environment for lawyers. He was not predicting that the typewriter would lead to the demise of his profession; rather, he was talking about the need for an adequate training substitute. As to the second point, Merritt points out that the New York bar adopted Finch’s recommendations, in part, because it was persuaded by his Columbia article. I add that the ABA would eventually adopt similar requirements as well, also referencing Finch’s article in the process. Merritt highlights that Finch’s main point was that the typewriter limited apprentices’ exposure to the study of important legal texts and created a difficult learning environment. As a result, Finch argued, law school was the far better educational option.

Merritt’s post is thoughtful, well-researched, and concise. Moreover, she is largely right. Finch was not engaging in nostalgic sky-is-falling reasoning. In S&M’s defense, however, the notion of a Typewriter Doomsday was not altogether uncommon in the early Twentieth Century. To take but one example, Arkansas law titan George B. Rose mentioned the following in a 1920 speech to the Tennessee Bar Association:

A great menace to the wellbeing of the bar is the disproportionate increase of its numbers. With the invention of the typewriter, the simplification of pleadings and the improved methods of travel, one lawyer can now do the work of two in the olden time; yet the proportion of lawyers to the remainder of the community has enormously increased.

Rose’s remarks were received with great applause and an honorary membership into the Tennessee bar.

More importantly, Merritt stands on solid ground when she argues that technological change contributed to a shift in the business practices of legal professionals and, in turn, the shape of American legal education. There can be little doubt that this shift can be described as “structural.”

But I disagree with Merritt insofar as she believes that a structural shift in schooling requirements weakens S&M’s paper. To the contrary, it helps the paper by providing a prima facie explanation for relative stability in the law degree’s value.

We must be mindful of the distinction between structural shifts in lawyers’ earnings and structural shifts in other aspects of the legal profession, such as educational requirements. Clearly, Merritt’s focus is the latter, and S&M’s focus is the former. And just because S&M have chosen to focus on one kind of structural shift does not mean that they have “dismissed” other structural shifts, as Merritt says. S&M readily acknowledge that the structural shifts can occur with law school enrollment:

These distinctions and widespread publicity may enable critics to influence college graduates’ career plans, the judiciary, and perhaps the future of legal education. They may have already contributed to a steep three-year decline in law school applications and enrollments.

The more critical point is that breaking up structural shifts into various types can be a useful analytic tool. Distinguishing between structural shifts in the value of a law degree and structural shifts in access to the practice of law permits us to make an important observation—namely, that it is possible for the latter to prevent the former. Critics of S&M doubt that the past performance of law degree holders is a reliable predictor of future performance. We can hypothesize that, to the extent law degree holders can insulate themselves from exogenous forces that threaten the value of their services, they will increase the stability of the degree’s value and, therefore, the reliability of predictions based on their past performance.  The underlying reasoning for the hypothesis is as follows.  All other things being held constant, those who are within service industries that have the power and willingness to manipulate the supply of available service providers will likely be better at braving exogenous shocks than those who are not. Under those circumstances, when such measures are taken to protect those already possessing the credentials necessary to perform that service, the value of those credentials will tend to be relatively stable.  Whether these measures have been or will be effective enough to stabilize the value of the law degree is a question worth considering.

There are several important gatekeepers to the practice of law: law schools, the American Bar Association, state bar associations, state supreme courts, etc. These gatekeepers possess, and sometimes use, tools that have the potential to protect the economic value of the law degree. They can change the qualifications for entry, expand or contract the domain of permissible services, raise or lower rate maximums, or regulate advertising practices, among other things.  And while a considerable minority of law degree holders do not practice law (about 40% according to the SIPP data that S&M consider), there are enough practicing lawyers to give protectionist measures a fighting chance to stabilize the overall value of the degree.

Merritt deserves much credit for bringing this observation to the fore in connection with the S&M paper, although she did not expand upon it (an excusable omission in light of the fact that we are talking about a single blog post).

Having the luxury of multiple posts, I will use Part 2 to discuss a few of the protectionist measures that gatekeepers have taken over the last century.  I will focus in particular on the measure that Merritt discusses–the advent of a law school prerequisite for admission to the bar.

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Preparing for the Three Ring Circus (But Not Yet)

Many, many thanks to Dan and the other CoOp regulars for having me back this month.  For Court watchers, June can feel like a vigil for the term’s final, big decisions, but this year that tension is heightened in anticipation of all that may occur in Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  To wit, SCOTUSblog has issued what is effectively an emergency preparedness plan.  I am working on a presentation and a workshop paper for two conferences related to the spending and healthcare action this term and will turn to my favorite topics soon.  But, as Gerard noted recently, many are suffering from healthcare reform overload, malaise, exhaustion… .  Accordingly, as I am coming up for air after grading 70 Constitutional Law essay exams (what is that, at least a thousand pages of grading?), I am thinking about the semester’s high and low points and ways in which I can improve my classroom performance. 

There is nothing like the marathon of grading to initiate this kind of reflection, which I think is a useful exercise before diving into the pleasures of summer research and conferences.  I imagine we have all experienced the gratification of seeing that our students have learned something well and rose to the challenge on an exam, and the disappointment of realizing that no one understood a word we said on a particular topic.  It can be hard to self-correct during the semester except to clear up the immediate points of confusion (though I do make notes in my syllabus when topics don’t proceed as planned).  But, the next year’s students can benefit from the prior year’s lessons, some of which can be learned from student evaluations, and some of which can result from ‘exam reflection.’  Taking a moment to reconsider can result in fruitful actions such as better exams, rewriting part of a syllabus, restructuring a class to introduce material better, considering supplemental materials, or revisiting casebook choices.  Sometimes a deliberate choice not to act occurs to see if the issue is a blip or a trend. 

In light of these musings, I have two questions, one general, and one more specific to Con Law:

1.  Do you use exams to reflect on the success of the semester’s teaching?  If so, how?  What kinds of issues do you think warrant attention given the limitations of the law school exam structure?

2.  Do you provide any background materials that are the equivalent of the civics lessons of yore?  Every year I have students come to my office concerned that they will be left behind in Con Law because they know virtually nothing about American history, politics, civics, or the Constitution.  My first assignment is always to read the Constitution, which levels the playing field a bit (funny how many poli sci majors think they know everything but have never actually read the document).  But, I have yet to find a good, concise background reader for my nervous con law newbies.  I don’t think this lack of background affects exam performance, but I would like to find a good resource.  Suggestions?

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My First Class

I taught my very first class today, and let me tell you, it was nothing like what I anticipated. Contrary to my expectations, I did not simply stare at my students blankly for an hour. Nor did I break down crying or throw up. Indeed, I thought we had a very nice, intelligent, lively discussion on how questions of identity are and are not relevant (and are and are not dangerous) in resolving important social justice questions.

Right now, my evaluation of teaching is that is equal parts exhausting and invigorating. Despite the aforementioned success in not running out of things to say in the first half-hour, my main concern continues to be making sure I pace myself properly (this isn’t helped by my tendency to talk at something approximating Mach 3).

I do want to say that, while between many years of being a student and a few scattered experiences as a guest-teacher I had some inkling of what I was getting into — no, really, I didn’t. It is exciting though. And practice makes perfect. So next week, it’s back into the breach once again.

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Technology Musings

Recently the New York Times carried a front page story about an eighth grade girl who foolishly took a nude picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to a fickle boy – sexting. The couple broke up but her picture circulated among her schools mates with a text message “Ho Alert” added by a frenemy.  In less than 24 hours, “hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost.”  The three students who set off the “viral outbreak” were charged with disseminating child pornography, a Class C felony.

The story struck a nerve, not only with the affected community, but with the Times’ readers as well.  Stories about the misuse and dangers of technology provide us with opportunities to educate our students, and us. In a Washington State sexting incident, for example, the teen charged had to prepared a public service statement warning other teens about sexting to avoid harsher criminal penalties.  But the teen’s nude photo is still floating around.  Information has permanence on the internet.

Few of us appreciate how readily obtainable our personal information is on the internet.   Read More

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What Difference Representation: Randomization, Power, and Replication

I’d like to thank Dave and Jaya for inviting me to participate in this symposium, and I’d also like to thank Jim and Cassandra (hereafter “the authors”) for their terrific paper.
This paper exhibits all the features of good empirical work.  It’s motivated by an important substantive question that has policy implications.  The authors use a precise research design to answer the question: to what extent does an offer of representation affect outcomes?  The statistical analysis is careful and concise, and the conclusions drawn from study are appropriately caveated.  Indeed, this law review article might just be the one with the most caveats ever published!  I’m interested to hear from the critics, and to join the dialogue about the explanation of the findings and the implications for legal services work.  In my initial comments about the paper, I’ll make three observations about the study.
First, randomization is key to successful program evaluation.  Randomization mitigates against all sorts of confounders, including those that are impossible to anticipate ex ante and or control for ex post.  This is the real strength of this study.  A corollary is that observational program evaluation studies can rarely be trusted.  Indeed, even with very fancy statistics, estimating causal effects with observational data is really difficult.  It’s important to note that different research questions will require different randomizations.
Second, the core empirical result with regard to litigation success is that there is not a statistically significant difference between those offered representation by HLAB and those that were not.  The authors write: “[a]t a minimum, any effect due to the HLAB offer is likely to be small” (p. 29).  I’d like to know how small.  Here’s why.  It’s always hard what to make from null findings.  Anytime an effect is “statistically insignificant” one of two things is true: there really isn’t a difference between the treatment and control group, or that the difference is so small that it cannot be detected with the statistical model employed.  Given the sample size and win rates around 70%, how small of a difference could the Fisher test be able to detect?  We all might not agree what makes a “big” or “small” difference, but some additional power analysis would tell us a lot about how what these tools could possibly detect.
Finally, if we truly care about legal services and the efficacy of legal representation, this study needs to be replicated, in other courts, other areas of laws, and with different legal aid organizations.  Only rigorous program evaluation of this type can allow us to answer the core research question.  Of course, the core research question isn’t the only thing of interest.  The authors spend a lot of time talking about different explanations for the findings.  Determining which of these explanations are correct will go a long way in guiding the practical take-away from the study.  Sorting out those explanations will require additional studies and different studies.  I spend a lot of time writing on judicial decisionmaking.  My money is on the idea that ALJs behave differently with pro se parties in front of them.  But this study doesn’t allow us to determine which explanation for the core findings are correct.  That doesn’t mitigate against the importance or quality of the work; it’s a known (and disclosed) limitation that leads us to the next set of studies to undertake.
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Volunteering in a Recession

I heard an interview today with a representative of a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers with organizations in need—a sort of match-maker in the volunteer context. Interestingly, the representative reported an increase in the number of available volunteers during the recession (see also here and here). She attributed this trend to two things: people who had lost their jobs wanting to keep up their skills while searching for new employment and people generally wanting to help others in need.

The report piqued my interest regarding whether the recession was having a similar, positive effect on the provision of pro bono legal services. I suspected that more people were in greater need of legal assistance as a result of the recession, which in fact turns out to be the case (see here and here). I did not know, however, whether lawyers were meeting this increased demand. I like to think we are, but the profession’s record on this point is not necessarily encouraging (see, e.g., here).

The results appear mixed. Some reports suggest that the level of pro bono activity has remained the same or increased slightly in the past few years (but see here). (For interesting perspectives on the recession and the legal profession, including pro bono legal services, see here and here.) Nevertheless, even these increased activity levels fall woefully short of the reported need. So, given high lawyer unemployment rates and the desire to better train new lawyers, why does this gap exist?

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Teaching Professionalism

One of my favorite courses to teach is Legal Profession (i.e., ethics and professionalism) because it truly is an “ah-ha” moment for many law students. I tend to believe that not many students consider the “profession” part of the “legal profession” prior to attending law school. Rather, I suspect they view law school as a means to an end—landing a lucrative job (or at least that was the case in days gone by; see here,  here and here). They probably give little thought to the fact that they are preparing to join a “profession.”

I know that many even inside the legal profession question whether it remains a profession or is now just a business and all about the bottom line. (For interesting discussions of this debate, see here, here, here and here). I am very traditional in this respect, and I hold dear the notion that the law is an esteemed profession. (I particularly like Roscoe Pound’s definition of the legal profession as “a group…pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service—no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood.”) And I am proud to be a member of that profession.

For this reason, I stress the nature of the profession and what it means to be a professional in the early days of Legal Profession. I often quote the Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to emphasize that a lawyer does more than serve clients. “A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” I then use a series of hypothetical problems to work through what that triad of responsibilities means for lawyers. You can actually see the light bulb go off for some students.

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Socializing Students to the Practice of Law

When I was in private practice, I never gave much thought to how law schools prepare students for a career in the legal profession. I was fortunate to have a very positive law school experience and even more fortunate to end up in a small practice group within a big law firm that took pride in training its young associates. (I also had a wonderful mentor during my judicial clerkship experience.) As a result, I never felt unprepared for the practice of law.

It was not until I left practice and started teaching that I truly appreciated the gap between legal education and legal practice. I know that statement is not a new revelation; many have discussed the lack of practical skills imparted to students during their three years of law school (see, e.g., here, here, here and here). And I do not make it to criticize legal education (for the most recent critique, see here).  Although some things could be done differently (for a collection of articles on legal education reform, see here), I believe that teaching students critical analytical skills provides a solid foundation for legal practice and inculcates a skill set that translates beyond the legal profession (see here and here). I raise it, however, to share my recent, very enjoyable experience with third year law students in Business Planning.

This fall, I co-taught Business Planning with my colleague, Dan Goldberg, who focuses his teaching and scholarship on tax law. Dan and I worked together to prepare lesson plans and assignments, and we co-taught each class meeting. In fact, we structured the class to simulate a small law firm; Dan and I played the role of the tax and corporate partners, and the students played corporate associates.  (For a discussion of training law students to be more client ready, see here.)

The class started with one of the law firm’s long-time individual clients seeking the law firm’s assistance in structuring a new business venture among the firm’s client and two other individuals. The students confronted ethical issues presented by this request and then helped the individuals evaluate their entity choice options from tax, governance and general business perspectives. This exercise introduced students to business plans, balance sheets and organizational documents. The hypothetical law firm and student associates served as counsel to the newly-formed business entity during the remainder of the semester, and they helped this hypothetical client work through liquidity and growth issues, an unsolicited purchase offer and an initial public offering.

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Choosing a law school, part 7

In this post, I’m going to argue that prospective students should care whether a law school’s faculty publishes. Not everyone agrees, and we’ve all had professors who were great scholars but indifferent classroom teachers. I also freely concede that teaching ability does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with scholarly ability, so that a school’s best teachers need not be its best publishers. Nevertheless, I still think that faculty who publish have a better chance of offering outstanding classes than those who do not.

To illustrate, I’ll reveal a bit about two classes I have taught: copyright and evidence. I’ve published a reasonable amount about copyright, including a casebook published by West. By contrast, I’ve published nothing about evidence, with my background in that area coming from my work as a litigator.

Students have rated both of these classes well. In fact, I don’t think there’s any significant variation in the numbers. Yet, I firmly believe that I teach better a copyright than evidence class because the things I learn from research and publishing enable me to give copyright a deeper and more nuanced treatment. I know more about the overall structure of the area, respond better to student questions, and challenge students in more ways in copyright than in evidence.

Now granted, I don’t think this is something that students always pick up. My evidence class is pretty “black letter,” sticking to how lawyers need to work through evidentiary problems in courtrooms. This makes sense given how students will use evidence, and I think students feel that the course serves them well. Nevertheless, I am aware that I don’t blend in the “big theory” issues as well as I could because I don’t know them that well.

By contrast, I pack a lot into my copyright course. This sometimes frustrates students. Some only want “black letter” law (something that is very elusive in copyright at best). Some dislike what they consider theoretical digressions from what they need to know for practice. I could teach copyright to that lower common denominator, but I choose not to. And I like to think that my students come to appreciate that the complexity they encounter ultimately serves them well when they deal with that subject’s frustrating ambiguity in practice. In short, although I teach what I think is a good, competent evidence course, the academic “ceiling” in my copyright class is much higher.

To be clear, I am not saying that publishing is the only thing that prospective students should care about in evaluating a law school’s faculty. As I suggested in an earlier post, some law schools clearly value teaching and their professors are accessible to students in ways that can matter a great deal. Students should visit schools, talk to existing students, and see if classes are well-received. Such inquiry will probably identify a number of schools that appear to have good teaching. At this point, I think it makes sense for a prospective student to then compare publication records of the faculties to see how often they will learn from professors who are at the forefront of their fields.