Problems (and some solutions) with student debt

his week the New York Times has run a series of articles on the increasing costs of a college education. In an article Sunday entitled “How Much Student Debt is Too Much?”, several student loan experts weighed in on the issues and costs of mounting student debt. One of those people was Robert Applebaum, a lawyer who advocates canceling student debts as a method for stimulating the economy. I thought his last two paragraphs were particularly good:

Until higher education becomes a safe investment again, prospective borrowers should give greater thought to the financial consequences of seeking an advanced degree. Community colleges and state schools are probably better places to “find oneself,” than expensive private institutions, particularly if the student doesn’t really know what he or she wants to do for a living. Associates degrees and trade schools are other avenues to consider.

None of this is to suggest that a liberal arts education isn’t good for the mind and spirit — but whether it’s as wise a financial investment as it once was requires serious consideration. 

I would be the last person to discourage a prospective law school student from pursuing that course. But given the uncertainty in the market and the changing face of the legal profession, any future lawyer should think long and hard about the costs associated with a legal education. This is particularly difficult for law students because the education costs are higher than almost any other discipline, and because school rank is such a large factor in finding employment.

There is a lot of frustration building with respect to student debt, especially since many colleges are raising tuition and slashing financial aid at the same time students and their parents feel the pinch from the economy. Some of the comments from the first NY Times article I mentioned were published yesterday in a collection entitled “Student Debt, Fool’s Gold?”

It isn’t all bad news, however. Beginning on July 1 of this year a new Income-Based Repayment program will go into effect for federal student loans. This will cap payments for borrowers based on income and family size. Previously, federal loans didn’t take into account a borrower’s number of dependents, which was especially hard on borrowers with larger families. There is also a new Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for borrowers of federal loans who work in the public sector or qualifying non-profits. Of course, these programs only apply to federal loans, which currently have a $18,500 per year cap. That isn’t enough to cover tuition at many law schools, which often exceeds $40,000. But if you have a family, a public interest job, and six figures of student debt, every little bit helps.

Photo credit: AMSA.

Professors Say the Darndest Things…

Yesterday one of my professors said “dot your j’s…ahhh lower case j’s that is “. This reminded me of some of my favorite things professors have said during class; “Using this statute is like wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time”, “if you’re going to sue someone under this tort you better go after them whole hog”, “sack of snakes”– I never did understand what my professor was trying to say when she used this phrase, but she said it all the time and it would make me giggle each time she did. I look forward to adding more phrases to this list over the next year! Let us hear of the funny things you’ve heard professors say.

Disciplinary councils as alternative legal structures

Last week Steven Danderson of FAIR Blog linked to a paper on the LDS Church’s disciplinary council system as an alternative legal structure. Danderson initially attributed the paper to Santa Clara University law professor David D. Friedman, and the paper was hosted at Friedman’s site. I thought the paper was interesting, but it didn’t take me long to conclude that it wasn’t written by Friedman. The piece is more expository than analytical, it seemed more probable to me that the paper was written in the perspective of someone within the Mormon Church.

Fortunately, we have a little inside information from another Bloggernacle denizen, Keri Brooks, who is actually at SCU Law right now. She revealed that the paper was actually written by an anonymous student in Professor Friedman’s seminar “Legal Systems Very Different From Ours,” and a little digging in Friedman’s website bears that out.

The immediate lesson to learn from this is to watch how you attribute material online. (Danderson still hasn’t updated or amended his post to clarify the paper’s authorship.) But I still appreciate his calling attention to the paper because Mormon disciplinary councils are an interesting topic, and I haven’t seen much written on the topic. I know William & Mary Law professor Nate Oman has written on Mormon Church courts before and after the Utah territory became a state, but his article is more of a historical perspective than a current analysis. Mormon disciplinary councils are interesting for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are derived in part (though not entirely) from Anglo-American legal traditions, and yet they operate in a wide variety of countries that have legal traditions far different from Anglo-American jurisprudence.

The paper on Professor Friedman’s site is not long, so give it a look-see, especially sections IX – XI.

Update: Danderson amended his post to clarify the paper’s authorship.

Where to Find Free Law School Outlines

Before I entered law school I’d never heard of an “outline” but since the moment I stepped into law school on the first day I heard everyone talking about outlines–study guide to the class. Different law school groups have “secret” outlines that they pass down from year to year. I’ve been given some very good outlines from some recent grads and other students which have definitely helped out. In my quest to find smarter (and faster) ways of studying I found the law school outline jackpot at They have almost 29,000 outlines from every law school in the country. The outlines are keyed to each law school, professor, class, and text making them very helpful. The outlines are completely free; the only thing that they ask from you is that you give them one outline for each outline that you download. I’ve added a few outlines to the website and in some ways its nice to know that all the hard work I put into some of those outlines with benefit someone else.

Building a Better Legal Profession Seeks to Help Law Students Find the Right Law Firm

“Building a Better Legal Profession” is a national grassroots organization made up of law students from all over the country seeking market based reform in large private law firms. By publicizing firms’ self reported data on billable hours, pro bono participation, and demographic diversity they draw attention to the law firms that poorly perform in these areas. Their website allows you to view particular law firms in different metro areas and search by different criteria and how they perform in that area.

They hope to bring reform to these law firms by showing what’s really going on in the law firm. This transperancy will put pressure on law firms to give their associates a better chance for promotion within the firm and the chance to work for a law firm that truly cares about their associates and their health and happiness. I enjoy seeing what law firms are dedicated to providing their attorneys with a great lifestyle. Such transparency will be very important to me when I decide where to work. Below is a detailed look at how “Building a better legal community” compiled their data.

How did “Building a Better Legal Profession” Compile their Data?

Our process is simple: cut, paste, and rank. The National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) maintains a public, online directory of law firm employment statistics, including demographic information, to facilitate “legal career counseling and planning.” For every law firm office employing 100 or more attorneys in the six major legal markets (New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Southern California, Northern California, and Boston) as well as five subsidiary markets (Atlanta, Miami, Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia, and Texas,) we collected data from the NALP directory and then sorted the firms from best to worst. We included an office within a geographic market if 90% or more of the office’s lawyers are located within that market. The NALP data collected for each office is based on the most recent firm self reports, which was current as of February 1, 2008.

Some firms decline to report office-specific information and report only firmwide data to NALP. We included firms filing a multi-office NALP form where 90% or more of the firms’ attorneys were located in one office within one of the relevant ranked geographic markets. There were 16 firms included pursuant to this rule, as follows:

Arnold & Porter Washington DC

Bingham McCutcheon Southern California

Cahill, Gordon & Reindel New York

Cravath, Swaine & Moore New York

Farella, Braun & Martel San Francisco

Foley Hoag Boston

Herrick Feinstein New York

Kaye Scholer New York

Linklaters New York

Nutter, McClennon & Fish Boston

Pryor Cashman New York

Schulte, Roth & Zabel New York

Seward & Kissel New York

Sonnenschein, Nath &

Rosenthal New York

Sughrue Mion Washington DC

Wiley Rein Washington DC

Types of Tables

The website allows users to dynamically generate three types of tables. First, our “Diversity Rankings” cover five groups underrepresented in the legal profession: women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and openly gay, bisexual, or transgendered individuals (LGBT). This function allows users to rank the offices by the percentage of attorneys they employ from that group, with separate lists for partners and associates. These rankings include the absolute number of attorneys in that minority group (broken down by gender) immediately to the right of the percentage). We then divide this ranking into quintiles and assign letter grades (A, B, C, D, and F) to each of these quintiles. The grade received by the office is displayed on the right hand side of the table. Offices displayed in boldfaced type are those that are Vault-ranked “most prestigious” in that particular regional market.

Users should observe a note of caution regarding the rankings. There is tremendous variability and not a little dissembling by firms in the definition of “partner.” Some firms, such as Wachtell Lipton, have only one tier of partner – that of full equity partner. Far more commonly, firms use multiple and shifting definitions of partnership and include many tiers of “income,” or “nonequity” partners as well as real, full equity partners. Women and minority lawyers are disproportionately represented in these lesser categories of partners, which often do not carry full voting and management rights, while the equity partnership is predominantly white and male. NALP currently permits firms to aggregate their tiers and categories of partnership. This is misleading to students and leads to unfair comparisons between firms such as Wachtell, with its single equity tier reporting a low 9.9% (F) for female partners and firms such as San Francisco’s Orrick which received an A for its 20.8% female partnership without revealing the distribution of women between its real equity partnership and its nonequity “partners.” These comparisons between firms with one tier and those with multiple tiers are, obviously, comparing apples and oranges. While our website reflects the best and most accurate information currently available, we are currently collecting and analyzing data on the important topic of partnership structure and diversity and hope to display it on the website in the near term.

The second type of table users can generate on our website is a Diversity Report Card. This table aggregates the information from the five “Diversity Rankings” for each geographic market and presents them in a single table. The firm’s letter grade in each of the 10 diversity categories (e.g, female partners) is assigned a letter grade and then all 10 letter grades are averaged to suggest the firm’s overall diversity. These overall grades are calculated much like a law student’s GPA: an A is worth 4.0, a D is worth 1.0 and C’s are 2.0 each. We rank firms by their overall grade point average. If multiple firms have the same GPA then they are listed in alphabetical order.

This report card provides students with a quick reference guide when trying to determine how well represented certain minority groups are at a particular office. Offices with higher grade point averages are more likely to be hospitable to underrepresented groups.

Grading Scale:

4.0-3.8 A

3.7-3.5 A-

3.4-3.2 B+

3.1-2.8 B

2.7-2.5 B-

2.4-2.2 C+

2.1-1.8 C

1.7-1.5 C-

1.4-1.2 D+

1.1-0.8 D

0.7-0.5 D-

0.4-0 F

Finally, we present an additional ranking entitled “Female Opportunity Gap.” This measures the difference between the proportion of female associates and female partners at a given office. An office with a small gap, such as New York’s Jones Day with 44.1% female associates and 23.7% female partners sits at the top of the rankings. However, this measure is susceptible to false positive rankings generated by low female associate numbers. For example, the New York office of Kenyon and Kenyon is highly ranked on this measure but that is because only 28.3% of its associates are female, a dismal performance that earned it an “F” for female associates compared to its peer firms (only one office, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, employed a lower proportion of female associates in the New York market). For this reason, the opportunity gap measure is not graded and not included in an office’s overall GPA or report card. Nevertheless, these tables are available to users because they are a useful data point for students who want to evaluate at a glance the proportion of women in a particular office’s partnership as compared with associates.