Comments on the NYLS "Expose"

Last Sunday's NYTimes "expose" on law school economics, with a pretty skewed perspective on my alma mater, NYLS, left much to be desired.  The author would be doing a much better service by questioning the validity of the US News rankings (which many inside and outside the academy continue to do), deceptive reporting across the board (likely including NYLS), miniscule response rates to employment surveys, further exploring the rising costs of living and tuition (can't find a school that's lowered it's tuition, correct me if I'm wrong), looking at faculty salaries, or really anything else that provides a fuller picture.  And then there's the assumption that everyone who goes to law school wants to work in Big Law and that no other legal or non-legal career options exist.  The author's previous explorations of the topic touched on many of those things, so it's a bit disappointing to see so much context left out.  You can read the article here, and the Dean's response here.  There's also a summary of responses to the original article in yesterday's Times.  Just want to offer a few points below since many friends have been asking me about it:
  • I had a great educational experience at NYLS although the outcome certainly did not consist of legal employment (like the brochures emphasize..).  Top professors (I could care less if all/most/lots went to Ivy's, that says little about NYLS other than implying that the school doesn't breed educators), tons of great events/conferences/speakers every week, unique and dedicated centers for learning and a very involved student body, among other things.  Were there things to be desired?  Of course.  Is that unique to NYLS?  Of course not.  Do the "top ten" schools guarantee or report placement in six-figure jobs for 100% of their graduating classes?  The article would make you think so.  (Nothing against those schools, I've met many great people and professors, gone to great events, etc. at many of them.  It's about the rankings bubble that skews everything.)  Finally, the schools can only publish (or manipulate) the data that graduates actually report, which isn't much. 
  • Like any educational (or life) experience, it's what you make of it.  Going to a "top tier" might help you, sure, but if you can't make things happen for yourself and use the resources you've got, you're not going to succeed regardless of your profession.  And by the way, it's not just NYLS grads who can't find legal jobs (though I have little to say about the career services office's help..).  In any profession, there's a whole lot of who-you-know, and some of the superstars don't have to hustle as much.  I'd like to know what % of students actually participate in on-campus interviews and the like.  I did well academically, published, won a competition, internships, researched for professors, scholarships, networked like crazy and whatever other proxies for success you want.  That will serve me the rest of my life, but I still couldn't find a legal job after countless inquiries to friends, family friends, firms, companies, previous employers, other professional contacts; you name it, I tried it.  (I'm not the only one in this boat - many performed the same or better.  I mention it to point out that the market, simply, sucks for law grads and you can't expect help or handouts from your school, unfortunately.)  I had both quality and quantity on my side; the jobs just don't exist, and I didn't want to do hourly work or something in a field of law I wasn't interested in.  So, you adapt and change.  Deal with it.  And that's not even accounting for automation and technological efficiencies that are eliminating entry level legal positions, or the fact that my graduating class (2010) and 2011 are/were competing with all the 2008/9 grad's who got laid off during the (mostly continuing) recession.  (related note - check out this article, "9.2% Unemployment? Blame Microsoft.")
  • As the NYLS response points out, the Times article assumes that the only value of a legal education is for the tippity top of the class, in legal employment, for a six figure salary upon graduation.  In interviews and discussions, it's been made clear to me that many non-legal employers prefer a JD over an MBA because of the "thinking like a lawyer" skills of problem analysis.  Or, there's the whole idea of being a citizen and participating in your community... it is a democracy, after all.  The understanding of civics, business and "the system" provided by a legal education goes far beyond the practice of law.  Nothing wrong with making money, but if you're that seriously focused on only cash and can't evaluate your choice of school, you're screwed anyway.  And for friends who did wind up in Big Law, big salary jobs, most were deferred a year or more anyway because the work simply didn't exist.  And anyways, it's not like those students didn't bust their ass like all the rest.  Good for them, not everyone can be in the top 5.  I wanted to practice right out of school and decided against just hanging up a shingle, and couldn't get a firm or in-house role where I wanted (or anywhere else).  So I left those options open while moving on.  How does that Rolling Stones song go...
  • Related to the rambling point above, why is it the academy's responsibility to limit the flow of students?  I'm not saying more is better - by my last year in 2009 when the incoming class ballooned, there was a noticeable difference in the environment.  The school's response is that they had already offered fewer spots in anticipation of higher acceptance, but wound up with much higher acceptance still.  I'm not totally convinced.. but not sure how much it matters.  Academically or otherwise, it didn't for me.  The great new facility which any NYLS student who started before 2009 will tell you was sorely needed definitely got a bit crowded at times.  Simply because there were/are more students doesn't mean the quality of the education automatically lessens.  As noted above, I can't say enough good things about the quality and dedication of the faculty (except for one whose ramblings and semester-long emphasis on certain things didn't show up on the exam, which I could have just memorized and copied out of a commercial outline, but the issue of tenure is another story).
  • Lawyers have a monopoly on legal services, yet the law affects all of us.  As Matt Leichter is quoted in the Times as saying, “demand for lawyers is separate from demand for law degrees, and the American Bar Association’s goal of law as an elite profession contradicts its concurrent goal of law as a democratic profession open to the masses.”  Why is education and the discipline that comes with it a bad thing?  Or, the organizational and analytical skills taught in law school?  I doubt the increase in students had to do with the democratization of learning and open access to the law, but seems like a decent enough halo effect to me. Also would be curious to see how many in that gigantic 2009 entering class dropped out after one or two semesters.  I'd like to see more rigorous acceptance criteria in schools generally but the market seems to be figuring that out, eventually it'll catch up with and challenge the conventional wisdom that law school means security.  In that respect, the Times article couldn't have been better.
  • Yes, it was expensive.  Have you been to New York City though?  Everything is...  Go to a state school or do something else with your (borrowed) money.  Am I happy that I have some student debt?  Of course not.  Is some of the stuff in the NYLS response about a regulated industry driving up costs and whatever else bs?  Maybe, probably.  If you're about to make such a huge financial decision, and life choice, and you can't evaluate it somewhat objectively, you're toast anyway.  I'm glad there are plenty of people who go thinking law school is a golden ticket, or those who are just in it for the money, but that's not unique to law.  Neither is people making poor choices.
  • In my interactions with the Dean, his interest always seemed genuine and responsive to students.  The programs he promoted, the projects he funded, the input given or whatever other measure.  I was always slightly bothered by the fact that he was also chairman of Access Group, the enormous student lender which many/most NYLS students deal with in some capacity.  And most law students across the country.  As far as I can find, however, the board is not compensated.  And if so, I'd rather have our school's Dean at the top reflecting the complaints and needs of our students.  Either way, he and the school definitely should to do a better job of disclosing that, because it looks a bit fishy on its face.  And if there's some sketchy stuff going on behind the scenes or off the balance sheets, then by all means, let the class actions begin.  But because more students didn't graduate and get handed jobs?  Give me a break.
  • And the quotes from one student whose studies focused on an area she wound up getting a job in?  Glad to see someone figured things out on their own without the help of (the inadequate) career services while at the same time looking as bad as everyone/thing the article skewers.  Nothing personal, but it's over.  You win, congratulations.
Alright, enough out of me.  I had some poor experiences at NYLS too, but most of it the same administrative non-sense you'd find in any institution.  I'm sure I could have a great experience at another any-tier school too, sorry for being an occasional optimist or making things work no matter what.  No debt and a six figure job would be cool too, but so would winning the lottery.  One day I will practice.  But for now, back to learning more javascript.  You can complain, or you can change.

Update: The class actions have begun. Tell me where to send my loan bills.

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