Doubling down on a losing hand is rarely a good move, yet that is precisely what Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence E. Mitchell is doing.
Mitchell generated a flurry of criticism—including in my own earlier post, “The Lawyer Bubble”—with his November 28, 2012 op-ed in The New York Times. On January 4 he took to the airwaves for a Bloomberg Law interview that makes me wonder whether he hears his own words as he speaks them.
With his latest media blitz, Mitchell has made himself the poster child for deans in denial—the law school story of 2012. This story emerged in a big way last June when, for the first time, the ABA released meaningful jobs data. It showed that nine months after graduation, only about 50 percent of the law school class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree. Deans everywhere began dissembling immediately, as The Wall Street Journal reported.
Sometimes Offense Isn’t the Best Defense
Meanwhile, as the growing lawyer bubble made headlines, a handful of wise deans followed the lead of University of California Hastings School of Law dean Frank Wu, who had previously acknowledged, “The critics of legal education are right. There are too many law schools and too many law students and we need to do something about that.”
Mitchell, on the other hand, went on offense, most recently in his 15-minute interview with Bloomberg’s Lee Pacchia. To his tenuous op-ed points, Mitchell added a few more.
For example, Mitchell said, “It’s not clear to me that there’s an oversupply problem at all.” As support, he cited low-income people who go without legal services. Pacchia asked him how debt-ridden graduates paying Case more than $40,000 in annual tuition could take on such work full-time.
His response was less than persuasive. It’s a mistake, Mitchell said, to “measure the worth of higher education by the dollar return on the investment.” Perhaps he has a point, but it’s not really an answer to Pacchia’s question. Earlier in the interview, Mitchell said this about high tuition cost: “Ninety percent of my class receives financial aid. The mean offer is $25,000 a year.” Critics focus on the sticker price, he said, “but law schools discount fairly heavily.”
What proportion of those financial aid packages is made up of grants, rather than loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy? Mitchell didn’t say, but here are two clues.
In his op-ed, Mitchell reported accurately that overall average private law school student debt is $125,000. Separately, in an April 3, 2012, blog post, he boasted that Case graduates have “almost 22 percent less debt than graduates of other private law schools.” The resulting arithmetic implies that Case’s financial aid packages result in average student loan debt of about $100,000 per graduate.
In another defense of soaring tuition, Mitchell argued that in 1985, medical school was four times more expensive than law school. So what? In the intervening 25 years, law school tuition has caught up and, in some cases, law school tuition has surpassed that of medical school. Does that make sense to anyone other than Mitchell?
He also said that schools must pay top dollar for law professors because their opportunity costs are high: They could be making big bucks at big firms. The only relevant question is, do they want to?
Mitchell’s own experience may provide a partial answer. His CV [PDF] lists six years as an associate at three different New York law firms from 1981 to 1987. Sometime during that period, he said during the interview, it became “hard to get out of bed in the morning, and I didn’t like going to work.” So he “took a two-thirds pay cut and went into teaching.”
How About Decent Jobs?
Throughout the year, Mitchell told Pacchia, he travels the country, “like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman,” meeting with hiring partners of big law firms. He interviews his students and writes personal letters of recommendation to help them get jobs. Doesn’t the need for such efforts tell him something?
Yet for all of Mitchell’s laudable sales pitches, Pacchia noted, Law School Transparency reports that 38 percent of 2011 Case Western graduates were still unemployed or underemployed nine months later.
“I haven’t myself taken a snapshot a year out,” Mitchell said, “but I’ve talked to my admissions staff about this a lot, and I suspect if you looked a year out, things would change dramatically. I’m really confident if you looked a year and a half out, they would.” He offered no supporting data, but he “suspects” and is “really confident” that, eventually, things will turn out just fine.
Optimism Untethered to Reality
Why is Mitchell convinced that things are better than the available facts suggest? Because, for example, most of his 1981 Columbia Law School class took jobs in big law firms. Ten years later, his class reunion book revealed that “almost nobody was at a law firm.”
It’s hard to know where to begin dissecting Mitchell’s anecdote, but start with the fact that his students aren’t graduating from Columbia Law School.
Just Another Business
Finally, Mitchell observed to Pacchia, “Of course, we’re running a business at the end of the day.” Without acknowledging the destructive impact of short-term business-type metrics, such as the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, he argued that “using business sense in managing law schools is going to help us get some of these problems under control.”
Until Mitchell and many other deans with similar attitudes get past denial over what is happening to the profession, they’ll never reach, much less overcome, the subsequent stages of grief—anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Perhaps another reading of Death of a Salesman will help.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of the forthcoming book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2, 2013). 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.