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MY LAW SCHOOL IS LYING (Part II): Why is Northeastern Law’s Administration Lying to Itself

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NORTHEASTERN ADMINISTRATORS ARE DELUDING THEMSELVES INTO A DANGEROUS COMPLACENCY

This is the second post in a two-part series. It focuses on NUSL’s administration, which is lying to itself about the troubles of the legal industry. Part I focuses on the Northeastern University School of Law’s manipulation of job data to promote its co-op program.

“In spite of the numbers, things aren’t really that bad.” — Northeastern University School of Law Associate Dean Luke Bierman assessing the job market for new lawyers, February 4, 2013

“The job market for prospective lawyers is even bleaker than the law school employment outcome data … would appear to suggest,” American Bar Association Journal, April 1, 2013

“Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” — The Honorable Judge Judy

As applications to NUSL’s JD program have dropped considerably this year (reflective of a national trend), Northeastern’s credibility is likewise diminishing. Consider that the program recently drew two red flags from the watchdogs at Law School Transparency for failure to comply with ABA job-data reporting standards. Meanwhile, as its placement rate plummets, the school’s relatively new Dean, Jeremy Paul, is bizarrely increasing its class size. In short, this will make it more difficult to raise the placement rate, increasing the likelihood that Northeastern will drop in the U.S. News & World Report rankings (again) and the quality of its candidates will almost certainly suffer as a result.

Paul’s decision to increase class size (effectively a short-sighted cash grab), seems bound to plunge the school into a downward cycle of decreasing placement rate, decreasing rankings and less interest from top-notch applicants. While it’s rare for someone to choose NUSL over Harvard, it’s not unheard of. If Paul manages his remaining time at Northeastern as he has his first year, that rarity will become myth.

What’s sad is that I believe NUSL is a good law school that has developed a corrosive truth problem. Northeastern law students are probably the happiest in Boston. The practical education experience is still far ahead of the field at a time when this type of curricula is vital to the future of the legal industry. I haven’t spoken to one unemployed NUSL grad who regrets their decision to attend the program. So, why can’t NUSL promote itself without lying?

I believe the problem starts with the powers that be. In my personal experiences with NUSL administrators, I have come away with the impression that they are hiding the truth from themselves and lack the urgency to address this problem. Here’s a great example: During a meeting at NUSL on February 4 to discuss potential solutions to the job-market problem, I heard the aforementioned NUSL Associate Dean Luke Bierman say this in front of students, faculty and alumni: “In spite of the numbers, things aren’t really that bad.”

From my perspective this statement seemed conspicuously out of touch, on par with John McCain’s campaign-killing pronouncement in the Fall of 2008 that the fundamentals of the American economy were strong. What followed in this meeting was a heated discussion between myself and Associate Dean Bierman in which I asserted to him that things are actually worse than the numbers indicate. Not better. When I admitted that yes, in fact, there are more than zero students from the Class of 2012 who had found jobs, Bierman seemed more than content that he, the co-op program and NUSL were doing their jobs to the utmost satisfaction.

Not long after that exchange, on March 29, the ABA released its employment data for the class of 2012, showing that NUSL’s placement rate had dropped more than 10 points and is now nearly 12 percent below the national average. On April 1, the watchdog group Law School Transparency backed up my position that the market is worse than the the data indicates. “The job market for prospective lawyers is even bleaker than the law school employment outcome data … would appear to suggest,” ABA Journal wrote in its summary of LST’s analysis.

To his credit, before departing the meeting, Bierman apologized, saying he was sorry if any of his remarks were “insensitive.” To his discredit, it was not a lack of sensitivity that bothered me. Luke Bierman was not insensitive. He was out of touch with reality. If Bierman and Paul think that a one-in-five shot of landing a job with a co-op employer is “working” or that the market is somehow better than the numbers indicate, then they are woefully misguided and possibly delusional. The more NUSL lies to itself and others about the reality of the situation, the less incentive the institution will have to correct these problems. With no sense of reality and no sense of urgency, I would venture to say that this head-in-the-sand/optimistic spin strategy — at a time when applications have dropped by nearly 25 percent — is a threat to the long-term health of NUSL. And that’s a shame.

Worse is that NUSL has irons in the fire, but is doing everything it can to snuff out that fire. The school has, for example, publicly touted its in-development Justice Bridge program, an incubator for new attorneys launching solo and small practices that would aim to serve clients of modest means. This is a program that Boston Bar Association President J.D. Smeallie recently praised and other groups have endorsed. It is also a program for which Paul and Bierman — behind closed doors and out of the public eye — demonstrate no genuine support.

While it is publicly preferable to be in favor of a novel program that would help disadvantaged and working-class clients while addressing this job program, NUSL’s administration is privately euthanizing it. As much as I would hope I am wrong about this (and all apologies to Mr. Paul and Mr. Bierman if that is the case), the school has taken no action that would indicate otherwise. I have personally witnessed Associate Dean Bierman’s Justice Bridge tap dance over the course of the last nine months. He gleefully takes credit for the initiative whenever possible in public. Behind closed doors, however, he downplays the viability of the program to students and faculty doing all he can to smother enthusiasm and keep himself from binding NUSL to some kind of expectation that this this will get done and that it will be a success.

All that stands between Justice Bridge and open doors is seed money. And not a lot of seed money. Nonetheless, where is Dean Paul when it comes to raising this money? Where is Associate Dean Bierman? Based on what I know and after sifting through a series of misinformation and outright lies stemming from the Northeastern University School of Law, I can only assign credibility to one thing that I’ve heard Mr. Bierman say. I genuinely believe that he is unaware of how bad things are in this job market.

Otherwise, I would have to conclude that he does not care.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP. He would encourage anyone who disagrees with Luke Bierman’s assessment of the job market for new lawyers to e-mail Mr. Bierman at l.bierman@neu.edu. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for you to educate Mr. Bierman on the state of the job market by sharing your personal story about searching for employment.

MY LAW SCHOOL IS LYING (Part I): Why is Northeastern Lying to Us About Its Co-Op Program?

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NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY IS MANIPULATING THE FACTS ABOUT ITS CO-OP PROGRAM

This is the first post in a two-part series. Part I focuses on the Northeastern University School of Law’s manipulation of job data to promote its co-op program. Part II focuses on NUSL’s administration, which is lying to itself.

And verily I was taught by my law school: Thou Shalt Not Lie.

The Northeastern University School of Law first introduced me to the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Although I do not remember all of those rules verbatim, ABA Model Rule 8.4(c) is one that tends to stick in the old hippocampus: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to: … engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” Simple. Clear cut. Don’t lie. Don’t deceive. Not even a little. Ever.

Disclaimer: The rules of professional conduct are not applicable to law-school marketing.

NUSL — a school that excels in practical education — has provided us with an excellent practical demonstration of the credibility gap law schools have slumped into. On its career services web site, NUSL proudly boasts of its co-operative education program: “Co-op is working: 48% of our graduates with full-time legal jobs accepted a position with a former co-op employer.” This claim falls under the heading, “Class of 2012 Highlights,” as if Northeastern’s placement record for the Class of 2012 somehow warrants highlights. In fact, Northeastern’s Class of 2012 fared far worse on the job market than graduates from many other schools. According to stats released by the American Bar Association, 56.2 percent of 2012 grads had acquired full-time, long-term jobs that required bar passage within nine months of graduation. Only 43 percent of NUSL grads had jobs in that category.

Brief note for those uninitiated with NUSL’s co-operative education program: Northeastern students are required to complete four externships — or “co-ops” — in the legal field as part of the school’s JD program. This is a unique program in legal education, and in my opinion an exceptional educational experience. Northeastern, however, is misleading prospective students to believe that its co-op program gives them a better chance of landing post-graduate employment. The numbers show that this is simply not true.

Until recently, the claim on Northeastern’s career services page was an outright lie. It has since been edited into a merely deceptive white lie. A fellow 2012 grad told me that career services originally boasted, “Co-op is working: 48% of graduates accepted a full-time position with a former co-op employer.” This claim did not add up. Remember, ABA job data says that only 43 percent of 2012 Northeastern grads found full-time work in the legal field. If only 43 percent have full-time jobs, how could 48 percent have been hired by former co-op employers?

This fellow grad reported to me that he e-mailed NUSL’s Luke Bierman, the Associate Dean of Experiential Education, to point out the mathematical impossibility of the claim. The site was promptly edited to reflect the current version of the statement. In other words, NUSL softened its lie.

With the help of two qualifiers, we are now told that 48 percent of grads who found full-time, legal jobs were hired by former co-op employers, which is technically true. But the number is nonetheless presented as part of a statistical slight of hand to support the fundamentally false claim that “co-op is working,” when it comes to placing graduates in legal jobs. 

I would posit that most prospective law students are not informed enough on the minutia of ABA job-reporting statistics to parse this statement properly. It’s more likely that many of the would-be applicants reading it perceive that because “48 percent of graduates who found full-time legal jobs,” did so with former co-op employers that they too will have a 50-50 shot at landing a post-grad job as a result of co-op alone. Of course, it was not remotely close to 48 percent who found full-time legal jobs. In fact, it’s only 48 percent of 43 percent. Working backwards from these percentages, roughly 44 grads from a class of 215 found full-time jobs with their co-op employers (about 20.4 percent). Yet Northeastern is sending prospective students this message: If you come to Northeastern, the co-op program by itself will give you a 50-50 chance at a job (implicitly suggesting your job prospects are better at NUSL than they are elsewhere). Or as the law school asserts, “Co-op is working.”

False. Co-op is not working. At least not for the purpose of improving job placement.

As I move through the NUSL web site, I continue to stumble on other numbers that do not hold up under scrutiny. On its “Careers” page, NUSL makes another dubious claim about co-op employment success: “In fact, co-op experiences do more than prepare you for the job market — they often lead directly to a job offer. On average, almost 40 percent of Northeastern law students accept post-graduate employment offers with a former co-op employer.”

Right now, about one in five grads lands a job with a former co-op employer. Does that really qualify as “often?” And what does that 40 percent stat mean? An average of what? The last five years? All-time? Without further qualification this is a purposely vague number and it’s meaningless.

Let’s look at the data another way. Consider that EVERY Northeastern grad is required to do four co-ops. That means the Class of 2012 performed an estimated 860 co-ops. Only 44 of those led to full-time jobs. That means 0.05 percent of co-ops actually led to a full-time job. To be fair, the 44 grads who accepted full-time jobs could only take ONE job. So, let’s not consider the other three co-ops those 44 grads performed, (so, remove 132 co-ops from our analysis for the sake of fairness). If we throw those out, we get an adjusted success rate of 0.06 percent (44 jobs out of 728 opportunities). As I see it, if the program were just 25 percent successful at connecting students with jobs, NUSL would have a 100 percent employment rate.

Co-op is not working. Northeastern knows these numbers better than anybody and cannot with good conscience promote this claim that the co-op program is a panacea for the job crisis plaguing new lawyers.

A NOTE ABOUT THE NUSL CO-OP PROGRAM

Given my statements on the success of the co-op program as a job provider, I feel compelled to explain that I do in fact hold the program in high regard. As much as I believe in, support and herald the co-op program as an innovative and fundamentally necessary endeavor in legal education, I recognize that it cannot help Northeastern students land jobs that do not exist. Is co-op “working?” Yes, but not in the way NUSL is trying to tell us it’s working.

I’ll use my wife, Mimi Brown, as an example. Mimi, who graduated with me in 2012, has a passion for food policy, which is a hyperniche area of law. It’s genuinely difficult to find lawyers and legal organizations (outside of the FDA) who are working on the issues Mimi cares about. Nonetheless, Mimi’s co-op experience reveals the breadth and strength of NUSL’s co-op network. Among her four co-ops, she worked for a government public-health organization, a non-profit food policy lobbyist and a think tank monitoring the corporate advertising practices of major food corporations (she also spent a term working for a state appeals court judge).

What’s better is that her experience was valuable experience. She drafted a petition to the FDA. She worked on a project that led McDonald’s to shut down a web campaign targeting children. When I discussed this with a partner in a well-known Boston firm, he was blown away. This partner, a BC grad who was only nominally familiar with the co-op program, was impressed that NUSL could accommodate the career aspirations of someone with such unique ambitions. So, if you ask me whether the co-op program is working, I would affirm that it absolutely is when it comes to educating students in the law.

This is why I’m genuinely aggravated that my school would play this shell game with the truth. The co-op program is not, as NUSL is trying to suggest on its web site, immune to the crumbling job market. But it is an exemplary program that’s building better lawyers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a Boston Business Lawyer and a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP. He would advise Northeastern to promote its strengths rather than lie about its weaknesses.