Law school ruin porn hits USA Today

I actually laughed out loud when I started reading this “yearlong investigation” by four USA Today journalists on the state of legal education. I call the genre, “law school ruin porn.”

“Ruin porn” has long been a genre of photojournalism to display the decay of urban centers or Olympic sites. And I think the genre works for “law school ruins,” or exploiting details about the most marginal law schools and the most at-risk students, then treating them as typical of the profession.

Here’s how the piece opens:

Sam Goldstein graduated from law school in 2013, eager to embark on a legal career.

Five years later, he is still waiting. After eight attempts, Goldstein has not passed the bar exam, a requirement to become a practicing attorney in most states.

"I did not feel I was really prepared at all" to pass the bar, Goldstein  said of his three years in law school. "Even the best of test preps can't really help you unless you've had that solid foundation in law school."

In the meantime, many take lower-paying jobs, as Goldstein did, working  as a law clerk. What he earned didn't put a dent in his $285,000  in student-loan debt, most of which was accrued in law school.   

The piece is reminiscent of a genre of journalism that peaked in 2011 in a series of pieces by David Segal in the New York Times. Here’s how one of them opened:

If there is ever a class in how to remain calm while trapped beneath $250,000 in loans, Michael Wallerstein ought to teach it.

Here  he is, sitting one afternoon at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a tall, sandy-haired, 27-year-old radiating a kind of surfer-dude serenity. His secret, if that’s the right word, is to pretty  much ignore all the calls and letters that he receives every day from  the dozen or so creditors now hounding him for cash.

“And I don’t open the e-mail alerts with my credit score,” he adds. “I can’t look at my credit score any more.”

Mr.  Wallerstein, who can’t afford to pay down interest and thus watches the outstanding loan balance grow, is in roughly the same financial hell as  people who bought more home than they could afford during the real estate boom. But creditors can’t foreclose on him because he didn’t spend the money on a house.

He spent it on a law degree. And from every angle, this now looks like a catastrophic investment.

Well, every angle except one: the view from law schools.

The fundamental problem with a piece like this one in USA Today is how it treats the outlier as the norm. The vast majority of law students do pass the bar exam on the first attempt. The vast majority of law schools are at no risk of failing to meet the ABA’s standards. But the piece is framed in quite a different fashion.

A student like the one USA Today found is nearly impossible to find. For instance, I blogged earlier about a look at how 2293 first-time test-takers did on the Texas bar exam. Only 10 failed the bar exam even four times. Granted, that includes about another 150 who failed one, two, or three attempts and stopped attempting (at least, stopped attempting in Texas). But it’s nearly impossible to find graduates who have had such poor performance, bad luck, or some combination for such an extended period of time.

USA Today also profiled a graduate of Arizona Summit Law School, the outlier for-profit law school—I’ve blogged about how before 1995, the ABA would never accredit for-profit law schools, until the Department of Justice compelled law schools to do so. (More on Arizona Summit in a bit.)

The ostensible focus of the piece is the ABA’s renewed proposal to require law schools to demonstrate an “ultimate” bar passage rate of 75% within two years of graduation. The result appears dire: “At 18 U.S. law schools, more than a quarter of students did not pass the bar exam within two years,” according to Class of 2015 data.

Of course, George W. Bush would have lost the 2000 presidential election if the National Popular Vote plan were in place. Or, less snarkily, if the rules change, we should expect schools—and perhaps state bars—to change how they behave. If 75% were the cut off, we would expect not just changes in admissions standards, but changes in bar exam cut scores, changes in where students are encouraged to take the bar exam, increased academic dismissal rates, and so on—in short, the 18 from the Class of 2015 doesn’t tell us much.

That said, there are two other reasons the 18 figure doesn’t tell us much. First, and this makes me more “doom and gloom,” it’s too conservative a figure to show the schools that may face a problem in the near future. Any school near an 80% ultimate pass rate, I think, would feel the heat of this proposal—a bad year, a few frustrated students who stop repeating, a weak incoming class, and so on could move a school’s figures a few percentage points and put them in danger. Another 12-15 law schools are within a zone of danger of the new ABA proposal.

Second, the 18 is not nearly as dire as the USA Today piece makes it seem. Two of them are schools in Puerto Rico, which are so different in kind from the rest of the ABA-accredited law schools in the United States that they are essentially two entirely different markets.

At the very end of the piece, it finally conceded something about Arizona Summit: “Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix, Whittier Law School in Southern California and Valparaiso Law School in northern Indiana are not  accepting new students and will shut once students finish their degrees.” Even without the ABA proposal, 3 of the 18 schools are shutting down—including Arizona Summit, the foil of the opening of the piece. So now the student is not simply an outlier, an 8-time bar test taker from a for-profit school, but from a for-profit school that is no longer in operation. An outlier of an outlier of an outlier—given treatment as something typical. Talk about burying the lede.

And while the data comes from the ABA, I have to wonder whether, because this is the first data disclosure from law schools, some of it is not entirely helpful. (Again, one would think a year-long investigation would clear up these points.) Take Syracuse, listed as an ultimate pass rate of 71%. Its first-time July 2015 bar pass rate was 79%. (Its subsequent July 2016 flew to 89%.) Its combined February & July 2015 pass rates were 86%, along with 75% in New Jersey. (Its California rate for those two tests was 1-for-13.) Now, perhaps it has an unusually high number of individuals failing out of state; or who didn’t take the July 2015 bar the first time and ultimately failed—I have no idea. But it’s the kind of outlier statistic that, to me, merits an inquiry rather than simply a report of figures.

The piece also unhelpfully quotes, without critique, some conclusions from “Law School Transparency.” (You may recall that several years ago LST tried to shake down law schools by charging them at least $2750 a year to “certify” that those schools met LST’s disclosure standards.) For instance, “The number of law schools admitting at least 25% of students considered ‘at risk’ of failing the bar jumped from 30 schools to 74 schools from 2010 to 2014, according to a report in 2015 by Law School Transparency.” Of course, if one cares about ultimate pass rates, which this article purports to care about, then how is it that just 18 schools missed the “ultimate” pass rate compared to LST’s projected 74 (for 2014, but things weren’t exactly better by 2015). In part because LST’s “at risk” is an overly broad definition—because it doesn’t include academic dismissals (despite mentioning it in the report), because it doesn’t account for variances in state bars (despite mentioning it in the report, but not included in identifying “at risk”), because it’s not clear whether LST is primarily concerned with first-time or ultimate passage (the report jumps around), because LST adds a level of risk (which USA Today mistakenly reports) to “at risk” of not graduating in addition to “at risk” of not passing the bar (which, I think, is an entirely valid thing to include), and so on.

A lengthy investigative piece should, in theory, provide greater opportunity for subtlety and fine-tuning points, rather than list a bunch of at-risk schools and serially identify problems with as many of them as possible. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some existential problems at a handful of law schools in the United States, or that the ABA’s proposal isn’t worthy of some serious consideration. It’s simply that this form of journalism is a relic of 2011, and I hope we see the return of more nuanced and complicated analyses to come.