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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.