As the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP)—the organization that sets the rules whereby big-law employers and their prospective new hires find each other—James Leipold has a tough job. NALP has at times looked like a victim of regulatory capture, with students’ interests taking a back seat to two constituencies that wield far more economic power, namely, law schools and big law firms.
Such power was one reason NALP initially “back-pedaled” in early 2010, when big firms balked at the organization’s request that they provide detailed information about equity partners’ gender and race. At the time, Leipold acknowledged that some firms had responded to the request by threatening to withhold all information from the annual NALP employer directory, which, he said, “represents an important revenue source for us.”
Another example of the influence that large law firms exert over NALP is the evolution of the rules governing employment offers—including the powerlessness of students when a big firm unilaterally rescinds a previously accepted one.
But NALP’s shortcomings are topics for another day. Today’s commendation goes to Leipold because he recently stood up to law school deans who wanted him to provide prospective law students with a “better message” about the legal job market. That is, they wanted him to lie. Leipold said he was “surprised” at this turn of events, including the request from some deans that he describe the job market as “good.” He refused. But his real act of courage came when he revealed that some deans were applying such pressure. They should be ashamed. And they should be named.
Many deans have been hyping their schools with misleading employment statistics for a long time. The truth—notably in the form of the ABA’s newly required data—is finally catching up to a lot of them. Harsh reality hit with the news that, nine months after graduation, slightly more than half of all 2011 law graduates were able to get full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage. The recent past has been bad and the current picture is ugly. So some deans are trying to shape perceptions about the future.
Leipold rightly resisted this pressure. The employment prospects for law graduates generally are not likely to brighten any time soon. Leipold could have said even more about that: there are still far more law school applicants than jobs to occupy them; most estimates project that over the next decade, schools will produce twice as many law graduates as the number of legal positions available for them. Even at the so-called pinnacle of the profession—big law firms—the total number of attorneys has yet to return to prerecession levels.
The Case for Naming Names
What will stop this insanity? Unfortunately, the problematic deans are responding to institutional pressures. That’s because law schools have become large cash cows for their universities. The impulse to run a school as a business that maximizes short-term profits is irresistible to both deans and their superiors. Every incentive they see encourages them to pump-and-dump: pump up demand for law students and dump debt-ridden graduates on a glutted market. Their unemployed graduates become someone else’s problem.
It turns out that the someone else is not just the victimized students themselves. Eventually, the profession itself suffers. Staggering student debt will haunt some graduates forever because they can’t discharge it via bankruptcy. Income-based repayment programs will help some of them, but as Professor William Henderson observes, taxpayers could wind up paying large portions of those participants’ ultimate obligations when the federal government picks up the tab for residual unpaid debt.
Will anything make these deans stop? The villains are giving all other deans a bad rap. They know who they are. Now, James Leipold does, too. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to learn their names. Where all else has failed to alter unfortunate behavior, maybe public humiliation will help. Nothing else seems to be working.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.