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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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‘Tis the Season: Law School Rankings Looming

For better or worse, my very own University of Houston Law Center, apparently still the poster child for rankings schadenfreude, features prominently in the ABA Journal’s article The Rankings Czar. Read the backstory here, here and here. The cover story begins and ends with Houston.

Tropical Storm Allison blasted through Houston killing 22 people, flattening homes and drenching the University of Houston Law Center in mud and floods. That was 2001, closing out Nancy Rapo­port’s first year as law school dean.

“Our computers survived only because our IT director risked his life to move classroom PCs to higher floors through the night of the storm,” Rapoport says.

The faculty and staff—some of whom lost their own homes—removed debris from buildings, scrounged supplies and aided students displaced by the storm. Despite the stress, Rapoport was exhilarated by the camaraderie. She never shed one tear of frustration.

Maybe that’s why her tears at a meet­ing with students and faculty six years later became a law school legend. The school had learned, just a week earlier, that it had fallen five spots (to 70th) in U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school rankings.

Distraught faculty and students wrote scathing critiques of her performance on blogs and computer bulletin boards, noting the school had plummeted nearly 20 spots during her six-year tenure.

Rapoport resigned.

Now a law professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Rapoport is still amazed to see that her tears that day seem always near the top of any story that mentions her. The Rice University and Stanford Law alum is a nationally respected bankruptcy expert. She co-edited a book about corporate fiascoes and was interviewed onscreen in the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. There are many facets to Rapoport’s career beyond those tears. Still …

“Am I the poster child for why the U.S. News & World Report rankings are bad?” Rapoport wondered last year in her blog.

It’s perhaps more accurate to say Rapoport’s Houston ordeal scares the bejesus out of deans. Her tears are emblematic of the nerve-shredding power U.S. News rankings hold over deans, faculty and students.

The story then concludes…

Nancy Rapoport says she is much happier with her job and life in Las Vegas. She and her husband love the city’s blend of lavish color and pioneer spirit, and the beauty of the desert landscape. She confides she already had a job offer from the University of Nevada when she resigned as dean in Houston.

“Truthfully, the Houston job just wasn’t the right fit for my personality, and office politics had made my relationship with the faculty strained,” she says. “The rankings exacerbated tension that already existed.”

Her successor, acting dean Raymond Nimmer, is now using technology to reach prospective students and publicize his law school’s accomplishments. The school is developing an online social network similar to MySpace or Facebook for alumni. The site will be a window into the school’s culture for potential applicants.

Nimmer also hopes to find ways to use text messaging and satellite radio to raise the school’s profile.

In the past year, Nimmer says, the school has “reduced faculty-student ratio with some outstanding new hires.” The school’s Center for Children, Law & Policy; Criminal Justice Institute; Institute for Intellectual Property & Information Law and other centers are hosting topical conference events.

And when asked what the school’s U.S. News ranking was last year, he can’t remember and asks his assistant. The University of Houston had jumped 10 slots to 60th place.

“I guess I’ve been so busy with work,” Nimmer says, “the number just slipped my mind.”

I’ve found the rankings to have very little value in my own selection on where to go to school – not because I didn’t look at them, but because the rational-seeming basis on which I made my decision turned out to have very little to do with what I value about my law school. Caveat emptor rankings buyers.

Two Americas, the two-sided Job Market for Newly Minted Law Grads

The Wall Street Journal’s Amir Efrati has an interesting article yesterday on the job prospects for recent law grads as a whole Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers

For graduates of elite law schools, prospects have never been better. Big law firms this year boosted their starting salaries to as high as $160,000. But the majority of law-school graduates are suffering from a supply-and-demand imbalance that’s suppressing pay and job growth. The result: Graduates who don’t score at the top of their class are struggling to find well-paying jobs to make payments on law-school debts that can exceed $100,000. Some are taking temporary contract work, reviewing documents for as little as $20 an hour, without benefits. And many are blaming their law schools for failing to warn them about the dark side of the job market.

I’ve blogged about this issue before in Avoiding the Debt Trap, Starting Salaries for Law Grads Not What You’ve Been Led to Believe. I think the obvious question from most non-lawyers would be this – so you’re not making $160,000 a year in your first year out of school? and this is shocking to you? this is somehow unfair? Only in bizarro-world law-school-land does not making six figures your first year at a new job qualify as newsworthy. So why does this make the front page of the Wall Street Journal?

Unrealistic Salary Expectations, Falling into Debt Trap

The U.S. World and News Reports (cue Darth Vader music) publishes an annual law school rankings issue with an unfortunately disproportionate influence on the perception of the legal market. One of the metrics they publish for each of the schools is the “average starting salary and bonus” for each of the schools it purports to evaluate. You have to subscribe to the service in order to view this precious little nugget of information, but it generally breaks down into something like “Private-Sector $135,000, Public-Sector, $50,000.” (I’m not about to fund USWNR’s by paying the subscription fee to find out what the number actually is for places like UHLC, but the numbers are suspiciously uniform across a range of institutions from what I’ve seen in the past) This of course provokes endless debate about the validity or application of these salary numbers. No matter how many qualifiers they hear, no matter how many guys they pass on the street corner with signs saying ‘will document review for food,’ that $135,000 number is burned into law students minds as a light at the end of the tunnel for 3 years of misery and sacrifice.

In the meantime, law school has become increasingly expensive. According to the ABA’s numbers on law school tuition, tuition increases at public law schools are increasing by leaps and bounds. In the last ten years average tuition and fees for a state school has more than doubled from $6,521 to $14,245. The annual increases don’t appear to be leveling off. Of course the real cost, in economic terms, is more than that. Factoring in opportunity costs means that for the three years law students are in school they are foregoing gainful employment in other areas. Since law students tend to be smart, capable, high-achieving folks in general, that opportunity cost is substantial. Even if the salary foregone is modest, say $35,000 a year, it increases the overall price-tag of law school substantially. Over three years that’s $105,000 (less taxes, etc.) that you would have made but didn’t because you were in law school. According to the ABA (.pdf), the average level of indebtedness for a public school law grad is $54,509, and for private school law grad is $83,181. Efrati’s article profiles several recent law grads with an excess of $100,000 in student loan debt, one clipping $200,000. A quick loan payment calculation would estimate repaying $100,000 in student loans over 30 years would at 6.8% interest would mean a monthly payment of $651.93 and accrued interest of over $134,000.

There are easier ways to make a living…

This notion that law school is a prestigious and lucrative default option for bright young people with no idea what they want to do with their lives is a dangerous misconception – dangerous to the law students making career decisions and taking out hefty loans, dangerous to the employers that hire them, and dangerous to the clients that will come to rely on their representation and advice. The bizarre plight of law students stems from their willing suspension of disbelief that the laws of economics somehow don’t apply to the practice of law, the legal market supporting premium salaries for endless stream of grads into a career that most won’t even like much less become good at.

Competitive Advantage, Performance v. Elite-ness

The only contention I have with the article is that it seems to indicate that the difference in employment prospects is based solely on the prestige of the law school rather than a students performance in that law school. This is only part of the ‘two-americas’ story. Employers look not only at institutions but at the comparative performance of those students in those institutions. I would much rather be in the top 5% at a regional school than anywhere below 50% at an elite school, any elite school. The reality of forced curves makes even non-elite law schools are inherently competitive places, full of talented people who have done well where ever they come from. Emerging at the top of this heap indicates to hiring firms not only that you’re smart but that you’re able and willing to compete.

The Wall Street Journal article ends with this quote, which has been making the rounds at UHLC -

Some new lawyers try to hang their own shingle. Matthew Fox Curl graduated in 2004 from second-tier University of Houston in the bottom quarter of his class. After months of job hunting, he took his first job working for a sole practitioner focused on personal injury in the Houston area and made $32,000 in his first year. He quickly found that tort-reform legislation has been “brutal” to Texas plaintiffs’ lawyers and last year left the firm to open up his own criminal-defense private practice.

He’s making less money than at his last job and has thought about moving back to his parents’ house. “I didn’t think three years out I’d be uninsured, thinking it’s a great day when a crackhead brings me $500.”

The problem with law school is that it’s a lottery. I also attend the University of Houston Law School and happen know Fox Curl (aka ‘the crackhead’s lawyer’) as well. We both know plenty of folks from our alma mater who make big money in the Biglaw meatgrinder, for better or for worse. It’s not so much a matter of where you go, but how well you do once you get there.

Salary Debate Masking Bigger Problems

There is a lot of legal work out there and it’s the people who can’t afford it who need it the most. No lawyer with $100,000 plus in student loans can afford to serve those people. As the costs of legal education rise the gap is only getting wider. Our system of legal education is exacerbating the problem by perpetuating the salary myth (explicitly or implicitly) and by failing to equip its students to practice in any other area than a big firm environment. While we may have “too many lawyers” in the minds of some, we don’t have nearly enough to provide quality legal representation and advice to anyone but the wealthy. That’s a far bigger problem in my mind than law students making less than they thought they would.

Law School Rankings Discover Blogs, or vice versa

Amir Efrati’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal – Law Schools Also Ranked By Blogs Now – highlights what I think is the only solution to the quandary faced by law schools on how to deal with an skewed rankings formula that’s allowing arbitrary metrics to drive the educational strategy of the institution – “mo’ betta information”.

It’s unsurprising that students are jumping into the gap. In my experience the black market for information among law students parallels the secret service organizations of most of the world’s nations. The collective neurosis of a highly motivated and deeply insecure community racking up monumental amounts of debt to compete for scarce but highly paying positions equals a ravenous market for information.

The article profiles student run blogs such as and that aggregate bits of information collected from other students and disseminate the numbers to the community at large. While somewhat anecdotal and skewed to the communities that are aware and participating (primarily east coast white shoe firms it seems) the information is far more relevant to student aspirations than the general rankings and frequently more specific and up to date.

While the law school deans can sign all the petitions they want to complain about the unreasonable attention paid to a system of rankings with little relevance to legal education (while simultaneously doing everything in their power to improve their performance in those irrelevant rankings), the only thing that beats nothing is something. Nancy Rapoport, Houston’s former Dean, has written in detail about the rankings from a Dean’s perspective. William Henderson and Andrew Morriss recently highlight this state of affairs in The American Lawyer
Rank Economics, noting the following -

U.S. News is influential among prospective students at least in part because the magazine does what the law schools don’t: give law students easy-to-compare information that sheds light on their long-term employment prospects. Law schools could easily supply that information themselves, but they choose not to. In fact, as the collective head shaking about the rankings has increased, the growth of the large law firm sector—which pay salaries that justify the rapidly escalating cost of legal education—has made the rankings more important.

While criticism of the rankings is becoming a favorite past time, proposals for viable alternatives are few and far between. It’s clear that the idea of ranking the law schools is not going away. It serves a need of students to make a cost-benefit analysis of their choices that’s growing increasingly vital in proportion to the debt load they’re taking on. It’s also clear that the current system of rankings is far from adequate. A change is a comin’ in other words. The most likely source of the imminent revolution in evaluating law schools is the collective power of students themselves, harnessed by the internet. A multiplicity of methodological approaches and data sets is increasing the competitiveness of ranking systems and will force both U.S. News and the ABA to adapt to an increasingly demanding market.

Reasons to Go to Law School (How not to Succeed in Law School)

As I mentioned earlier, I recently came across James D. Gordon’s highly entertaining How not to Succeed in Law School (.pdf) (thanks to Nancy Rapoport for the link) and thought it worth unpacking in case a few of you had a phobia of pdf files.

It is true that some lawyers are dishonest, arrogant, greedy, venal, amoral, ruthless buckets of toxic slime. On the other hand, it is unfair to judge the entire profession by a few hundred thousand apples. In fact, there are many perfectly legitimate reasons for going to law school. For example, ask yourself the following questions:
Do I want to go to medical school but can’t stand the sight of blood?
Are my inlaws pestering me to death to do something meaningful (i.e. lucrative) with my life? Have I considered circulating petitions to ban inlaws, but realized that it would only spawn stupid bumper stickers saying, “WHEN INLAWS ARE OUTLAWED, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE INLAWS”?
Did I major in English and have absolutely nowhere else to turn?

Whoa… hey now, I had plenty of options with my degree that testified to my ability to read and write English…. doors were flying open…. flying open I tell ya…

Gordon, How Not to Succeed in Law School (Funniest Law Review Article Ever)

Via Shannon Quatros at the Brown Boy Blog and Nancy Rapoport whose list of favorites has proven to be a very fertile ground of procrastinatory materials.

James Gordon III, How not to Succeed in Law School (.pdf)

This settles it – Twain was right, there is no humor in heaven. I’ll be unpacking some of the highlights in the days to come.

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