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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Henderson: Transparency on Employment Data is Like Cancer Treatment

The Legal Whiteboard, Transparency on Employment Data is Like Cancer Treatment, by WIlliam D. Henderson (Indiana-Bloomington):

Over the last several months, I have reluctantly concluded that law school employment transparency is a lot like cancer treatment:  it can beat back symptoms and buy time, but it won't necessarily cure the disease. 

Over the last 18 months, three separate ABA groups -- the Questionnaire Committee, Standards Review Committee, and the Council on Legal Education -- have given sincere and focused attention to the law school employment controversy.  Frankly, I am in awe of the breadth and depth what they have accomplished.  ...

With the ABA getting its house in order, and yesterday's dismissal of the alleged deceptive employment data against New York Law School (albeit there are cases pending against other law schools under different consumer protection laws), it is possible to begin conceiving of US legal education in a new post-scandal era. This is all very good.

Going back to the cancer metaphor, however, the ABA industry-level transparency efforts are going to beat back a lot of symptoms of what ails us.  But they won't provide a permanent cure.  Further, the relief will be, at best, temporary. Going forward, every ABA-accredited law school needs to seek out additional aggressive treatment in order to increase our odds of beating back the long term threat.

On this score, we legal educators cannot lose sight of the fact that the lack of transparency was precipitated by structural problems in legal education that aren't going away:

  1. Our costs are too high
  2. The market for traditional legal jobs is stagnant and likely in long term decline
  3. There is industry overcapacity (50,000+ 1L seats per year)
  4. Public subsidies are going away
  5. Near total financial dependence on loans from the US Dept. of Education
  6. Law is on the precipice of a radical information revolution led by technology, knowledge management, and process engineering
  7. Tenured faculty control hiring and curriculum and have a limited appetite for retooling
  8. We law professors don't understand that we are running a business
  9. Our rankings are based on high costs and admissions sorting
  10. Thus, based on #9, there is no market reward for innovation or value-add in legal education.  In fact, the concept--that education can trump sorting--still needs to be proven.

In the short to medium term, industry-level transparency will have two effects that pull in opposite directions. First, the legal education industry, at least at the ABA self-regulation level, will have clean hands.  That really matters.  But second, and pulling in the opposite direction, transparency will give rise to a whole new rankings industry that will rival and potentially supplant US News.

Why? Because law students don't really care about rankings per se -- instead, they care about the number and quality of employment options created by their law school investment.  In the US News rankings, top law schools rankings are highly correlated with a multitude of wonderful options.  But in the new transparency era, it will be possible to use hard data to make more precise decisions for all the other law schools. ...

To be clear, transparency will not create law jobs for law school graduates.  Instead, it will reveal in minute detail the value proposition of every ABA accredited law school. Everything needed for the new Employment Transparency Rankings will be in the public domain. ...

For those of us that accept change as the one bankable constant, change is less a threat than an opportunity.  Over the next five to ten years, maybe slightly longer, a more sustainable Post-Langdellian business model for legal education will emerge.  This new model will likely place a higher emphasis on communication, collaboration, and problem solving, which are the skills needed to price, allocate and manage risk.  Winning a case in court is only a sliver of the calculus.  Technology and new pedagogy will pack a much better education into three years.   At least some scholarship will be highly applied.  And at the best schools, teaching, service and scholarship will merge, and the most valuable faculty will be less ivory tower.   It will be an exciting place for students, professors and alumni.

If we pursue the right treatments, we can survive to help create and experience this new era.

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Although the comparison makes sense, it would be wise not to go there. Comparing the plight of law student/recent graduate versus cancer patients/treatment will certainly offend quite a few people, even if you "reluctantly conclude" such.

Posted by: Lt. Dangle | Mar 22, 2012 12:15:27 PM