ABA Journal Podcast

How Law Schools Can Help Next Gen Lawyers Take Gamble Out of Hefty Tuition (Podcast)

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More and more, critics of ever-increasing law school tuition say enrolling only makes economic sense if students don’t have to pay tuition, or graduate from a top-tier school.

In those same conversations, there are often accusations that law school recruiters aren’t being honest with prospective students about post-JD career options.

In this audio program, ABA Journal Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward chats with our guests about tuition, disclosure and what could and should change about legal education to train the next generation of lawyers without saddling them with crushing debt. Business of Law reporter Rachel Zahorsky (@LawScribbler) tweeted their conversation live using the Twitter hashtag #ABAJchat.

Podcast Transcript:

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ABA Journal:The National Association for Law Placement recently reported that only 88.3 percent of 2009 law school graduates had employment. Twenty-five percent of jobs reported were temporary, and 10 percent were part time. The findings make some wonder if a JD makes economic sense. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and that is what we are talking about today at the ABA Journal Podcast.

One of our guests is Donald Polden, dean of Santa Clara Law school. He also chairs the standards review committee of the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Don, do you think these recent NALP numbers are accurate?

Polden: Stephanie, I think that the numbers are probably accurate as far as they go. And so for example the figure 88 percent is probably an accurate figure, but what that number does not tell readers is whether or not those individuals are employed at a law job or at a nonlaw job. Whether they are fully employed or underemployed. Or for that matter, whether it is even their highest preferred job, or a fifth- or sixth-preferred job. So I think that a lot of the criticism about that part of the numbers is probably accurate. How we could get more accurate numbers is of course another question.

ABA Journal: How do you think we could get more accurate numbers?

Polden: I think [it would be] at the cost of greater complexity in [the numbers]. If you take a look, for example, at the NALP-reported numbers and the numbers that law schools report to the American Bar Association, which are very similar, there is a tremendous amount of detail that is in those numbers. The percentage of your graduating class, for example, that are at large law firms, a number that go onto graduate or LLM programs. The numbers that go into small practices, or solo practice. So there is a lot of real detailed information that if you drill down you can get a little bit better picture of what the employment opportunities are like for graduates of particular schools.

So I think that is an area where some gain could occur, but perhaps at a greater cost. You also have to remember, as I frequently tell myself, this is all self-reported information. I think that most of the information that we get from our graduates is pretty accurate, but there are reasons that they might not want to be forthcoming.

ABA Journal: Also joining us is David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University law school. David, what do you think about that?

Van Zandt: Well, I think Don is right. I also think there is also another element to why they may not be as accurate as we would hope, and that, as I understand—and again, I do not have any data on this—but I understand that some schools sometimes have very low response rates to surveys. It is often difficult to get people to respond if they do not have a job. So I am a little skeptical of the 88 percent itself. I have long advocated that we use an outside organization to collect the data for the rankings. The business schools do that, I know that the Financial Times actually uses a large accounting firm to audit these kinds of numbers. I think we ought to be doing that.

ABA Journal: Also joining us is Kyle McEntee, a third-year law student at Vanderbilt University. He co-founded a group called Law School Transparency. Kyle, tell us why and how your group was founded.

McEntee: Basically, we recognized that the employment information Vanderbilt was releasing to its prospective students was incredibly helpful in explaining, I guess, where the graduates actually go. And so our goal is to sort of standardize their standard and create a new employment reporting standard that similarly provides meaningful information to prospectives. Law school is a huge investment, [and students need information to] explore an important decision. Basically, we do not think that most law students are currently making [informed decisions], and basically we end up blaming the flaws on the standards and not the schools. We think the schools mostly do comply with the standards. It is just that the standards tend not to ask the right questions.

ABA Journal: What would the right questions be?

McEntee: So we would actually like to see two anonymous lists provided by law schools: one that includes information more about the job itself, and another list that includes information about the salary related to the job. And these lists would be for every graduate from a particular year from a particular school. And so this way, prospectives could look at the list and say: “All right, here is exactly what people are doing from this school. Here’s the value that this particular JD has added for these students.” And of course there are many problems that fall from such a list, but our goal is to basically balance the interests of all the major stakeholders and create something that benefits the legal profession as a whole.

ABA Journal: Kyle, based on what you’re seeing and hearing as a law student, from some of your colleagues who are a few years ahead of you, do you think these recent NALP numbers are accurate?

McEntee: It’s tough to say. My experience has been mostly with Vanderbilt students, and it’s just one of 200 schools included in the NALP numbers. The problem with the survey seems to be more that it doesn’t help prospectives make the right comparisons even if it is accurate. Whether that 88 percent actually reflects the number of people who are employed or not, it’s kind of a separate question from what we’re actually concerned with and what we think will matter to students going forward.

ABA Journal: I’m curious—when you were considering law schools, what were you told by some of the schools about employment opportunities?

McEntee: Basically, I was just told the same information that’s provided to the ABA or the U.S. News [& World Report] and as collected by the National Law Journal, more specifically the 250 largest firms. And that’s probably the information that was most important to me at the time because it is such a sizable investment. And Vanderbilt is really the only school I can, again, attest to. They gave us this list of all our graduates, and where they went to work, including the employer name, state and the city. And from this it was a lot easier to get an idea and know comfortably what to expect.

Of course, no one expected the economic downturn. The information, I guess, seems more trustful when it’s right there laid out clearly for you. The other law schools, they didn’t do this except for Duke. And we actually think that Duke and Vanderbilt have seen kind of a bump in their desirability because of this among prospective students.

ABA Journal: How did that work exactly? They just gave you a list of recent graduates with their employers?

McEntee: To start, I guess, [there’s] a backstory. In 2008, Patrick Lynch, the co-founder of Law School Transparency, actually informed the Vanderbilt career services office that there was some misinformation floating around on a website. And so, as a result, they decided to correct it. And to do this they basically gave us a document that just listed every single graduate or just about every graduate. It didn’t include the unemployed graduates. But from the actual information on the document, including the percent employed, you could actually kind of deduce how many specific graduates were unemployed and how many were getting their LLMs and how many just weren’t seeking employment.

ABA Journal: David Van Zandt, do you think law schools could do a better job presenting the employment picture for incoming students?

Van Zandt: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And I think Law School Transparency is one good idea about doing that. I think one of the concerns is how do you get the information to the applicants as opposed to existing students, which I think, as I understand it, that’s what Vanderbilt was doing because by the time they’re existing students, it’s already too late to make a change in terms of … I suppose they could transfer … but too late to make a change in terms of the school they picked. Law schools need to publish results for all their programs broken down the way Kyle was suggesting. We do that even for our master’s programs—our LLM programs. We have sort of challenged other schools to publish theirs. But they seem very reluctant to publish data on LLM programs of that kind. But I think we all need to be very up front with the percentage of students that were both included in the reporting but also that had certain kinds of positions. I think that’s very important. I think probably, when I think about it, the most important question for an applicant is, “If I make a big investment in law school, what value added do I get from that? Will I get a higher salary coming out than I would have gotten if I had not gone to law school and you know, lost the wages and spent all that money on tuition?” That’s really the key variable. And I’ve actually argued that [having the information] should be one of the standards. There should be a certain … we should be looking at the employment rate of that kind.

Now as Don points out, that’s a very difficult thing to operationalize, and I can’t say that I have an easy way of doing it. How do you know what jobs you would not have gotten but for the law degree, and what jobs you would have gotten anyway, even if you didn’t have a law degree? But I think that’s something we should be looking for, and I think the standards should be approached to that. I also am very much in favor of other rankings that really focus on employment. Again, you know, US News, well, it’s a very small percentage of that. I’d welcome something like the National Law Journal has done recently. But that’s just a small slice of that. I would welcome some other ranker coming in and basing it upon employment surveys so applicants can get a sense of what their prospects really are.

ABA Journal: David, you mentioned auditors before. Overall, how are law school deans reacting to that idea when you mention it?

Van Zandt: Well, I haven’t heard much reaction to it all. One of the problems with rankings, I think for every law school dean, you know, it’s a major issue for them. And I care about that, students care about that and applicants care about that. So it’s a very strong tendency of law school deans. But there are [some deans] who really think the U.S. News & World Report rankings, if they could do away with it, they would somehow. They don’t think it’s right or legitimate. I’m actually a big fan of rankings in consumer information. I think what we do need to have is a couple more rankings out there so that applicants can see the way different people would take that data and combine it.

ABA Journal: David, given these recent employment numbers for law school grads, has Northwestern changed how or what it tells incoming students with regards to employment opportunities?

Van Zandt: Absolutely. I mean, we start right out, you know, we try to be very realistic about talking about the current market. In fact, on our webpage has a market trends page that anybody can get access to. It’s public. And we collect all sorts of data and information about the marketplace, whether it’s employment rates, generally, or different sectors or different geographic regions as well as salary information. Anything we can get we put up there. And so, we’re advising students it’s a more difficult environment. You have to broaden your search. You have to look at other kinds of things. You know, maybe the big law firm job is not going to be there for everyone. So you have to be flexible in terms of what you’re doing. You know, in reality we’re still doing very well in terms of the employment market. Our rate at 9 months out for 2009, I think, [the placement number is] 98.5 percent, so it’s not that much lower. But I would say the mix of jobs our students are getting has changed.

ABA Journal: Don, what about Santa Clara? Have you changed what or how you tell incoming students about the job market?

Polden: Yes, clearly. And I think a lot of the reasons for our change certainly have been the greater curiosity and interest and concern that applicants and admitted students have and certainly our own students as well. And I think that, as David had pointed out, the real clear focus on this is certainly prospective students at schools, to the extent that employment opportunities are a key part of their decision-making, there’s a need for schools to try to provide better, clearer information. So we have a series, for example, of open houses for applicants and admitted students. And we’ll have several hundred come through those very often with parents or partners and we have tried to be much more responsive to their specific information needs and interests that we have. We’ve tried in particular not to sugarcoat the current economic situation and the effect that it’s having on our graduates and on the opportunities that will be available to our graduates in the next couple of years. As David also pointed out, I think this is really an area where more information, better information, is necessary.

But getting meaningful information and presenting it in a way that is meaningful and accessible to those audiences, it’s very complicated. And so, for example, we captured information about our graduates who had accepted offers at firms, many of them the larger or national law firms. Then they were deferred. So, are they employed, or not employed? We do not have a category for deferrals. To the extent to which we know which ones of our graduates after they left on graduation were informed that they would be starting maybe next summer, or next spring.

ABA Journal: Do you think you should have a category for deferrals? Would that be useful information?

Polden: Maybe in this very current snapshot. This is a phenomenon that we saw about a year ago, a year and a half ago, and it is likely to continue. When the economy turns around, and I am one of those in a category that believe that it will turn around, there will be better days ahead for young lawyers. So the meaningfulness of that information is questionable. Because it is such a small episode on a longer scale of things. But in terms of describing that phenomenon to prospective students now, we in fact do that, and report to them that some of our graduates had accepted positions, and those were deferred. So greater transparency is absolutely necessary.

I think that the questionnaire committee of the [ABA] section on legal education is constantly working to try and make those reported figures. Because that is really the baseline, the numbers that are reported to the American Bar Association as a part of the annual report that every accredited law school does. It is really the baseline for this information. That is what U.S. News snags onto. And I know that NALP figures are largely based upon that same sort of methodology or formula. So they are working to stay ahead of the scammers and the schemers that are concerned about manipulating rankings, but also to get more meaningful information that is reported, and in a way that is not a big data dump for prospective students—so much information that it becomes meaningless.

ABA Journal: Don and David, you always hear this one side that some law schools do not do enough to let students know what the reality is. On the other hand, is there a sense that incoming students may not really be listening? A professor told me that it is really hard to puncture these mental models people have of what it means to be a lawyer, and what comes with it.

Van Zandt: There is something to that. I have recently done just a quick sort of a back-end analysis of when it is economically viable to go to law school. And what it shows is that if you take into consideration a sort of average salary that a person would get if they did not go to law school, plus the cost of law school, plus the opportunity cost of three years of being out of the workforce. It shows basically that coming out of law school you need to have a salary of about $65,000. Now this is an average, you know. We are using sort of an average for law school tuition, and some people are going to do very well, but that is sort of the average. And so if you are a rational person making a decision about going to law school, that should cause you some pause if you are considering a law school who reports a median salary of less than that number. And the reality is that there are quite a few law schools, more rather than less, which do report numbers below that threshold. So the way I look at it is that I think there are a lot of applicants who are just very optimistic. Because even in the law school with the lowest median salary, there are always going to be some people at the top that do very well. And I think what there is is sort of excessive optimism. Everybody believes that they are above average or that they are going to be in the top 10 percent.

ABA Journal: Right. 80 percent believe they will be in the top 10 percent.

Van Zandt: Which is a wonderful optimism to have with our young people for the country. But I think it sometimes skews the decision-making about this.

ABA Journal: God bless them.

Polden: I think on the ABA website there was a news story a few months ago about a study that was done of prospective law students. What David has described was exactly born out by this study. A high percentage of the group felt that there were diminished economic opportunities in the current environment. But an equally high percentage felt that that was not going to be applicable to them. That it was, you know, the woman sitting next to you, or the guy sitting next to you, in law school that was going to have that poor economic outlook for his or her career start. But that is not going to happen to me, they felt. I think that one of the interesting things we have seen in dealing with newly admitted students, applicants, and their families or parents and partners, is that it is the partners and the parents that are really much more focused on this. We do not get as many questions, and certainly not very detailed questions, from admitted students, or new students, about economic opportunities that they may face. But their parents, wives, partners, what have you, husbands of these law students are much more focused in on those economic realities.

ABA Journal: Kyle, what do you think about that? As someone who is still in law school.

McEntee: In terms of the, I guess, optimism by us?

ABA Journal: Yes, exactly. The optimism of law students, and incoming students.

McEntee: I guess, I mean it is very clear to me that everything that they have described is correct. Students do not really ask that question as much as they probably should be. And basically, I think again it comes down to just not having the right data and information to look at. And even with looking at the U.S. News & World Report salary information, using Dean Van Zandt’s figure from the class of 2007, or the $65,000 median, 53 of the schools actually fall below that. But that still does not really tell us anything about what median salaries are from the schools because it is median private-sector starting salary. And that only tells you about maybe 30 percent of the class. And so, when this information is not available for students to see, I think it is easier to fill in the gaps in their minds with more positive information. So they can justify doing this thing they want to do.

Van Zandt: Maybe we should publish my graph for the public good.

McEntee: That would be fine with me, I am sure.

ABA Journal: You know, it would not be such a concern if law school was not so expensive. Don Polden, why have the costs of legal education [gone up] so much over the past 15 years? In 1992, the average private law school tuition was about $13,730 dollars. What happened?

Polden: Well, looking back, and this is more anecdotal than it is analytically based, but I think that the two biggest changes in legal education that have occurred over that 20-year period of time have been the increased number of small classes, counseling, and negotiation/mediation clinics. These sorts of things have by their very nature required small student-faculty ratios. I have just seen a tremendous growth in the number of these classes. And of course a lot of the recent literature is suggesting that law schools need to do more to build a dramatically broader array of fundamental or key lawyering skills and abilities. And those have come at a cost.

The other part of this, I think, is the tremendous growth in programs and activities and personnel that support student well-being, if you will. And so, when I look at our school and compare it to the school you know even 10 years ago, I see a tremendous number in IT professionals. I see a tremendous number in career services officers. You look at law schools with growth in student success, or academic success programs, there has been a significant increase in this kind of professional cadre of people that are there to support today’s learners. There is literature as we all know that says that today’s learners, they put labels on them; millennials, or Gen X. Today’s learners require a different kind of support and assistance. Certainly not because they are less intelligent, or less focused. They just expect a certain level of student support and services. And I think David would probably bear this out, this is how law schools will compete with each other with prospective students. If you come to my school, you are going to have five full-time professionals in the career services office. You are going to have seven full-time professionals in our IT department for all of your technology needs.

So those are the two things that I see have been the most dramatic areas of increased cost of legal education over the last 20 years.

Van Zandt: I totally agree with Don, I think he put his finger on it. I would put them into two boxes. One is faculty. We’ve seen an increase in lowering of student-faculty ratios, and we’ve also seen a lot of increase in the salaries to faculty over time. The second are various student support functions, which he so ably and carefully described. I would add one other element, which is there is still low elasticity on price in law schools. What that causes is a lack of incentive for many law schools to reduce or limit their expenses. Law schools feel, as Don says, we have to compete with each other in providing more and more services. We have to have the best faculty, because that affects our reputation, students choose law schools based on reputation. So there’s this component that’s raising the cost all the time, and at the same time there’s actually been very little resistance. Perhaps, maybe going back to the sense of optimism, students think that no matter what I have to pay, I’m going to end up better off than if I don’t get the law degree, so I’m willing to pay for it. Now, that is true, in reality, I think, for a whole range of graduates who end up in jobs that pay $160,000 a year. While it may seem like a lot of tuition, that’s still quite manageable. The real problem is for people who don’t end up in those jobs. But there has been little economic pressure on law schools, unlike the pressure that’s been on law firms or other businesses, there’s been little economic pressure to reduce or limit expenses over time.

ABA Journal: Kyle, could you see students and potential students putting that economic pressure on law schools, to reduce costs?

McEntee: I think they’re in a very difficult position to do that. Eventually they’d be able to, but right now I have a hard time seeing how they could, especially with the strong focus on US News. And that’s kind of the elephant in the room at all times—how do my expenditures affect my US News rank, and should I increase them? It seems that deans are beholden to this, and usually admit it, sometimes they can’t admit it, but, it’s just this thing that’s there, and it seems to be dominating, from the outside looking in, a lot of the decisions being made. Whether that has to do with getting the better students to enroll, based on student services or faculty, or just ranking prestige generally, I’m not sure. But it seems that this is a huge pressure, which until law students have reason to focus away from won’t enable schools to drive down costs.

Van Zandt: One other point, and Don may have a different view on this, I do think law schools have fairly stringent regulation about input from the ABA, which accredits law schools. So there is an element there of it requires lot of different kinds of inputs, a physical plan, faculties, libraries, full-time faculty, which make it very difficult for a new school to come in and compete by offering a lower-cost model. Having said that, Don is leading a great effort in the ABA to change that and focus more on output measures, which I certainly think should be applauded.

ABA Journal: Some people, particularly law school deans and professors, they say that the U.S. News & World Report rankings play a large role in the law school tuition increase. Don, do you agree with that?

Polden: Uh, I would not agree with the term “large.” There was a recent GAO study, for example, in my own personal opinion it’s not deeply analytic in that sense, but they concluded that a significant factor in the increase in law school tuition has been U.S. News & World Report [rankings], and more specifically, I think, how law schools have responded to [the rankings]. Of course I think that that’s a little bit of a mixed bag, in this sense. For example, the greatest infirmity with the U.S. News and World Report is this 40 percent in this kind of shadowy, murky, reputational surveys that they send out. There’s virtually no information about who’s responding, or how many respondents, or the credentials of the people who are asked to respond in this sort of thing, and yet that’s 40 percent of the ranking. The other 60 percent are things that, I think all four of us would very quickly agree, would be pertinent to prospective students and perhaps to prospective employers, in terms of the academic qualifications of the class coming in and how successful they were on the bar exam and these sort of things. But that 40 percent remains a very troubling part of the veracity, if you will, of that ranking. So what schools have done is they have spent an enormous amount of money on publications and marketing of our school. So every fall, David and I get wheelbarrows full of, um, materials that, um, frankly I don’t know if David has time for all of this, but I don’t have time to go through all of this and figure out what, uh, the new law school in Poughkeepsie is doing or what have you. One sage law school professor referred to that material as, what was it, law school porn?

Van Zandt: Yes, he did.

Polden: Yes, that’s the kind of meaningless stuff that’s sent out. But on the other hand, those rankings, I think, have also spurred law schools to spend more money on student scholarships so they can compete for higher LSAT scores, for example, LSAT scores being one of the factors in the ranking. So to the extent that some of this ranking-spurred money is going to students, I’d have to say, and I guess Kyle would probably agree with me as well, that that’s a good thing that we’re trying to use our resources to attract better students to the school. So, you know, the meaningless expenditures for a lot of the marketing publications are not a very healthy aspect of the rankings, but there are some areas that I think are positive ones.

ABA Journal: Another thing that you hear, oftentimes from alums and perhaps disgruntled alums, is that one reason tuition has gone up at law schools is because universities use the law schools to financially support their other schools. David, what do you think about that idea?

Van Zandt: You know, I’ve heard that a lot. In fact, a lot of law school deans feel at least that’s an issue that they deal with. In my own experience, when I look at a university like ours, we certainly do run a small surplus and we contribute that to the center of the university. Why? Because Northwestern is a great name, and we want to be part of Northwestern. We want to do things to make Northwestern better. So I look at that as an investment. But if you actually looked at the total dollar numbers that I send to central administration every year, it’s tiny. It’s a tiny percentage of their resources. They have a gigantic medical school. They’ve got an engineering school, a business school. …Really, the model of the university president saying “Oh I need money, let’s go and get a cash cow and start a law school,” to me is just ridiculous. I think university presidents will start law schools for reputational reasons, but I don’t think it’s a financial savior for universities.

ABA Journal: Don, what do you think?

Polden: Well, I think that that’s right. I do know that at some schools that, uh, particularly under-financed universities will see a prestige factor from starting a law school. It used to be in the so-called old days that given the kind of pedagogy that was going on in schools—virtually all the classes had 80 students for one faculty member—that the reputation for law schools as cash cows got started. I think, given today’s realities, we are not, in fact, cash cows, but we can add to the prestige of a university that’s interested in starting graduate professional programs and what have you. So I know of instances at law schools where the university has hit a rough spot and will grab resources that are available on the table. But I think in many instances, David’s comments are absolutely right.

Law schools have to and they’re expected to contribute to the overhead of running their operations. They need to contribute to the brand identification of the university because that benefits the law school. Where you strike that level or how you go about making that assessment, you know, you would need a team of cost accountants to go in and figure exactly how much it costs to run the law school, as a part of the university, in order to come up with an accurate figure. And in our case, we have figure a formula that was agreed to between the university and the law school back in the early ‘90s. You know, it ain’t rocket science, but it’s worked very well for us and I think for the university. It is something that we could depend on and at the end of the year, the university gets its fund transfer of a certain percentage of our gross tuition, revenues, that go there and that’s to cover the so-called overhead of the university.

ABA Journal: David and Don, can you tell us what are some of the pressures you face as deans, in terms of figuring out and inputting what tuition should be at your law schools?

Van Zandt: I’ll take a first stab at that. I think what restrains—you’ll find this odd for me to say this—what restrains law school tuition is there is a sense that we don’t want to get ahead of our competitors in terms of pricing in degrees. So that’s all in the consideration. Is it something you can look at and say: “You know, can I really know this is a reasonable increase, or a reasonable level of tuition?” Beyond that you’re looking at just your cost structure. I think most law schools today in the last couple of years have been trying to cut back on that cost structure, although there are some elements of it that continue to go up, even in a recession. And one thing that is going up is financial aid. You think of that as a cost. It’s had to go up in part because the economic situation many more applicants find themselves in.

ABA Journal: Don, what do you think?

Polden: Well, I think that’s right. I think at most institutions there are two aspects of it. Usually by mandate of the university, or by some sort of university budget-setting process, you come up with a number. What’s a good number? A 3 percent increase, a 2 percent increase, a 5 percent increase? And that is, in our case and in David’s, very much constrained by competition. And so every year I take a look at what our primary competitors are charging now. I anticipate what that tuition is going to look like, and where we want to be on the spreadsheet that prospective students might look at. The fact that Southern Cal and Stanford have a higher tuition than ours is not important to us because those are different law schools with different capacities to attract students to them. But for schools that we consider to be our peers, in terms of competition for students, we’re very aware of what changes our tuition may mean in relationship to those other schools.

I think an interesting thing that we’re seeing here, and I think nationally, is a sense of movement towards greater, if you will, privatization of some of the state schools. At UC Hastings, a state school, tuition is going to be over $40,000 dollars a year next year. I think at UC Berkeley, another state school, and UCLA, tuition has jumped up $14,000 to $15,000 in just in the last couple of years. And so their tuition is going to be as expensive as most of the many private schools. I think that the state subsidy is starting to dwindle significantly for many state institutions.

Van Zandt: I think Don is absolutely right about what is happening generally in the marketplace. I mean there have been a lot of public schools that have been heavily subsidized by taxpayers over the years, and you know now once those subsidies are removed, you’re seeing the real price of education really converge to where the privates are.

ABA Journal: Kyle, what do you think about that? As someone who’s still in law school, do you feel like you are getting a value for what you’re purchasing?

McEntee: A value, yes. Whether it’s enough value is a separate question. I feel like I’m getting a great education. I feel like I have wonderful opportunities coming out of law school, and even during the summers. But, whether it’s enough, that’s a question that’s kind of unanswerable for me right now.

ABA Journal: I see.

McEntee: I’m just starting my third year in August. And, I would say that I expect it to be, but, of course, how much of that is optimism-biased and how much is realistic, I guess that’s a question for someone else to answer about me. But, it seems that there’s a lot of focus on the economic value. And, with law school being a huge barrier entry to this profession that there’s also some value in just being a lawyer into itself. And, that’s a little harder to measure. For that reason, I think, kind of goes in that gap I was talking about earlier. At least for me. I’m happy with my choice and wouldn’t change my choice right now. Even with the current economic climate.

ABA Journal: OK. Don—to what extent do you see the employment structure improving for new lawyers?

Polden: To be honest with you, I haven’t seen that happening yet. I’ve heard some stories about it, but I haven’t really seen it. I will probably know more this fall, when some of the reports on this year’s graduating class come in. Personally I think that we’re going to be experiencing this for another 18 months, even if the economy starts to turn around in a steady and well-paced way, which it really hasn’t. Over the next 12 months or so I think we’re in for more of the same, maybe two years.

ABA Journal: David, what do you think?

Van Zandt: You know, I’ve seen little shoots—green shoots—with the economy. But I’ve seen that in the law business itself. We’ve had a number of graduates who had their start times deferred, and those start times [have] accelerated for some. We are getting more inquiries from firms about people that may be available to hire. But it’s very minor. You know, I think Don is right; we’ll have a better sense of it in the fall.

One thing I will say on a long-term basis though is that I think we’re not going to go back to the boom years, because what’s happened with the current economic crisis is that law firm employers have really looked at their cost structures and they’re now realizing that they don’t need to pay very high salaries to a large number of people. For one, why do you pay the same salary to everybody coming in the door? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; no other business would do that. So, I think my expectation is that while the jobs will come back to some extent, they won’t come back to the same level. And that, to me, is a worrisome trend … it should be a worrisome trend for a lot of law schools out there.

ABA Journal: And Kyle, what do you think the job market will be like for the class of 2011?

McEntee: Not so great. I think that Dean Polden is exactly right. A few years off, even if the economy turns around, lawyers tend to be more risk-averse and are going to react a little more slowly, I guess. And I think that’s going to have a huge effect on my class. Both because of the future and because the class of 2010 is deferred, the class of 2009 is deferred. It’ll be convenient and logical for the firms to skip over the class of 2011, and then just start fresh with 2012 or 2013.

ABA Journal: Gentlemen, I think that’s everything. Did anyone want to add anything? All right. Thank you all so much for your time, I really appreciate it.

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Last updated June 11 to correct an error in the transcript at the 21-minute mark. McEntee said “53 of the schools” rather than percent.

In This Podcast:



Kyle McEntee is co-founder of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging and facilitating the transparent flow of law school employment information. McEntee is currently a second-year student at Vanderbilt University Law School.



Donald J. Polden is the dean of Santa Clara Law, in Santa Clara, Calif. He also chairs the Standards Review Committee of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar.

<p>Van Zandt</p>

Van Zandt

David E. Van Zandt is the dean of Northwestern University’s law school. His academic work focuses on corporate law, international finance, and legal education.

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