Changing markets for lawyers and law schools

The economics of practicing law of law school are in the news again.  In an article this week, Jeffrey Toobin writes – part quoting an article by Gunderman and Mutz from The Atlantic  “’More than 180 of the 200 US law schools are unable to find jobs for more than 80% of their graduates.’ Median starting salaries for those who do find work are down by seventeen per cent, and more than a third of graduates cannot find full-time employment.”

Toobin links the circumstances of the legal profession to broader changes in the global economy, but then shifts the article into a commentary on legal education.  Speaking of lesser law schools, he observes, “for many that remain are only offering their students false hopes of employment in exchange for big debt. These students are getting the legal-education equivalent of the subprime loans that helped sink the national economy.”

That’s incredibly strong language that many would-be law students need to drink-in: Not only students who might select a lesser school but also students in better schools who will face a competitive market place populated by starving lawyers.

Gunderman and Mutz, write about the importance of rankings in bringing about the current state of affairs.  While beginning with a discussion of law school rankings, they turn to consider the significance of law firm rankings – and in particular – the profit per partner ranking published by The American Lawyer.

Treating lawyers as unit of production, demoting them “from professionals to mere service providers,” and measuring the work of lawyers by profit and dollars is, they report, demoralizing.   They write, “Noble aspirations that may have drawn young people to the law in the first place—serving their fellow citizens, making the community a more just place, and securing democracy—evaporate thanks to this constant attention to money.”

Again, pretty strong language.  If nothing else, these two articles suggest that going to law school should be a well-considered choice and not a default.  In other postings, I’ve commented on the economics of going to law school, but the Gunderson Mutz article makes a larger point about happiness and quality of life.  Far too many students head to law school or other post-graduate opportunities because they don’t know what else to do.  That’s not a good place to be.

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Disaggregation of the Professional School Experience

A recently released paper, “Will Video Kill the Classroom Star? The Threat and Opportunity of Massively Open Online Courses for Full-Time MBA Programs,” by Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has awakened my thinking about advising students about graduate school.  The now outdated but otherwise excellent book by Robert Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D. as well as other works on applying to graduate or professional school and helpfully titled and subtitled articles in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, e.g., “Just Don’t Go,” and elsewhere all highlight the importance of thinking carefully about graduate school.

The Terwiesch-Ulrich article examines how MOOCs will change business school.   In that examination, they disaggregate the activities of MBA students into three components: career management, teaching and testing and co-curricular activities. (p. 5) Their focus is a bit different from mine.  Terwiesch and Ulrich see the use of “SuperText,” a teaching style or technology that bundles expert-created content into short videos as part of separate modules that are in turn bundled together to make up a course (p. 12), as the disruptive and potentially transformational elements of MOOCs.  The technology “shifts the efficient frontier in education” because it “combines the adaptive nature of office hours, the charisma of the best educators, the convenience of ‘anywhere anytime,’ and the economies of scale in production.” (p. 14)  With this technology, they assert, “business education has the potential to move to mini-courses that are delivered to the learner as needed, on demand.”  More boldly, they suggest a reorganization of the curriculum and education.

I’ll leave reflection on how technology will or will not change education for another day, but Terwiesch and Ulrich’s disaggregation or unbundling of professional education into segments – I don’t know how novel an idea that concept is – is helpful for thinking through certain kinds of advising issues about post-graduate education.  For advising, I would disaggregate graduate school a bit differently.  How would I disaggregate a graduate experience? Into four parts: instruction, certification, network-development and institutional support.

By instruction, I mean teaching and learning in their usual sense.  This idea, of course, can be further sub-divided into: intellectual orientation (telling students what they need to learn as by a syllabus or even in lecture); enforced self-learning (where students pretty much learn the material themselves by reading or otherwise with expectation of a test or the like) and feedback, correction and integration (helping student understand what they have learned or not and offering suggestions to correct misunderstanding and helping students to integrate what they have learned with other things they know).   The bulk of time in graduate school is spent doing assigned reading and studying – the enforced self-learning.  Disciplined students, in theory, can read books and study many things by themselves.  Intellectual orientation can come from texts, writings on “the state of the discipline” or elsewhere.  Feedback, correction and integration is the hardest to imagine outside graduate school – although for a person with strong network skills, that too might be possible.

Certification is the institutional assurance of learning provided by an accredited institution.  Schools offer assurance – to outsiders – that students have learned material by providing grades for courses and degrees for accumulations of courses.  The certification matters – and it matters more as students (or former students) mature.  Accountants, actuaries and attorneys as part of their certification processes – which include extensive examinations – require certification of learning at an institution of higher learning.  <note>

Network-development is the association and acquaintance of a student with other students at the school as well as alumni, faculty and others that they meet at a school.  Networks are multi-purpose.  They can provide educational, social or business and professional benefits, but these are benefits – in some sense – unplanned and apart from the benefits of formal instruction at a graduate or professional school.  In some sense, because, now, graduate and professional schools sometimes cultivate these network connections.

By institutional support, I mean everything else.  The assistance with housing, mental health, recreation, visas and immigration, and myriad other services that institutions of higher education now offer.   Mostly, this assistance is of a kind and on matters that individuals arrange for themselves throughout the rest of their lives, but it may include items related to core academic mission, e.g., libraries, statistical consulting, laboratory access and so on.

Let me offer an example to put the point on unbundling: Students can piece together much of a graduate education without going to graduate school.  For example, Business Insider ran an article: “How To Get Half Of A Wharton Education For Free.” The point of the article is that much of a first-year MBA program from the Wharton School of Business is available in the form of video presentations and interactive exercises on-line for free.  Other courses in whole or parts are available from Harvard, Sloan and elsewhere.  In broad terms, these courses only offer what I have identified as “instruction,” and, probably, not very much in the way of feedback. But the price is right, and the information is available. A student not away at school may not need the institutional supports that the school offers, and, now with Linked-In and other resources, there are other ways of networks besides meeting other students or alumni. And, this approach does not allow for certification of learning in the same way that a traditional graduate degree does. Still, this approach to graduate education is strikingly different from a traditional degree program.

I haven’t seen a huge demand for this sort of instruction.  The context with the most student self-study – outside of degree granting institutions that I’ve seen college student undertake – is standardized test preparation.  While many students do take test preparation courses, many just buy study manuals and prepare themselves.  What’s interesting in this regard is that when I’ve suggested the self-study approach to some students, I’ve heard more than once, “No, I need a class to make me study.”  And, a few students who’ve used the self-study strategy made a point of meeting with friends or study partners regularly to discuss their progress and talk about problems. I don’t know the extent to which this mutual support comes from on-line, and I haven’t heard about groups structuring their learning to take full advantage of these on-line offerings.  All-in-all, these developments are interesting, and I think advisors might well raise them with students in an appropriate case.

DOE Report: Jobs and Life After College for Class of 2007

The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed both reported on a U.S. Department of Education Report, Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B:08/12). This survey of college graduates from AY 2007-2008 looks at their lives four years after they leave school. Of course, the focus employment and post-secondary education is important, but before even considering those aspects of alumni lives, some less newsworthy items deserve some attention.

  • About two-fifths of graduates in this cohort are married; about a quarter have kids.
  • About one-fifth of graduates in this cohort are in graduate school; about three quarters work; and about one-fifth does not work or go to school. (Yes, some both go to school and work at a job.)
  • Of folks with jobs, 84% hold one, full-time job; the others who work and don’t go school hold just one part time job or piece together a living from multiple jobs.
  • In this cohort, the average number of jobs held was 2.1 with 30.5% of this group having had three or more jobs.
  • And this is most surprising – to me – in the four years since graduation, measured in months, social science graduates spend about one-fifth of their time either unemployed or out-of-the-workforce.

The experts invited to comment on the study by the trades offer differing interpretations on the new study. Anthony Carnevale, principal investigator of the Georgetown Salary Studies, was reported to have observed that the study shows that major field of study DOES matter. Richard Vedder, of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity was reported to have raised the overall softness in the economy as an issue. Phil Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute of Michigan State reportedly indicated that the 07-08 graduates were in better shape than those from the next two years (08-09 and 09-10). My sense is that these are top people – well versed in the field. They don’t see any surprises in the study here. Probably, I need to get a better understanding of their work.

Carnevale, Vedder and Gardner are labor economists, and their interests are no doubt somewhat different from my own. I take the point about the contemporary employment market: it’s fluidity, softness and so on. Jobs do matter. Still, I wish that I knew more about how recent graduates filled those times without jobs; whether the educational programs in which students are now enrolled offered real value – and what students are learning that they might not have learned as undergraduates; and how well or poorly these recent graduate are finding meaning and thriving in their lives after college.