Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Law school puffery and the last minute grab for students

If memory serves, first-year contract law teaches that specific, factual misrepresentations are bad and legally actionable, whereas mere “puffery” (e.g., “We are the world’s best; hurry and come to us before it’s too late!”) is just bad.  I even remember one law school professor wryly telling the class that daytime television ads by personal injury lawyers were “quite unsettling.”  Yet, despite this anti-puffery attitude inside the classroom, law schools are among the biggest puffers when it comes to selling their own services.

This idea struck me when reading about some law schools that are still soliciting students with just a couple of weeks before the start of classes.  With schools scrambling to fill their seats, it’s probably a buyer’s (student’s) market.  But if I were looking to enroll, how would I choose a law school?  To try and answer this question, I peeked at a handful of law school websites to see if any were persuasive.  My little research project focused on schools that the US News placed in the bottom half or even bottom quarter of our nation’s 200-plus law schools. 

With regard to professors, virtually every school’s website claimed that their profs were “excellent” or “top” or “outstanding.”  This seems statistically improbable to me, the prospective student, unless the “excellent,” “top,” and “outstanding” profs are, for some reason, passing on higher paying jobs at elite private schools and flagship state schools.  Fortunately, though, the schools that I checked distinguished their “excellent” faculty from the equally “excellent” faculty at their peer institutions:

School #1: our profs are “easily accessible to students and spend many hours with them.”

School #2: our profs are “eager to engage with you inside and outside of class” and they will be “challenging but supportive.”

School #3: some of our profs “will even give you their cell phone numbers or meet you for coffee, or a round of golf.”  Further, they will be there “to counsel you, to cajole you, to challenge you.”  

Okay, school #3, you had me at “coffee.”  But I’m not so sure about the “cajoling”; it almost sounds inappropriate.  If my decision were based solely on the profs, then, I’d have to go with school #2. 

But legal education is more than just the professors, right?  I mean, there’s the law library that no one uses, the invisible but often touted “energy” that permeates the school’s atmosphere, etc.  So what are schools saying about their overall educational experience?

School #4: students will be the beneficiaries of “academic excellence.”

School #5: students will get an “excellent legal education.”

School #6: our educational experience is “among the nation’s best.”

This is indeed a tough one.  I, as the prospective student, wonder how the bottom-half and especially the bottom-quarter of law schools could offer a legal education that is among “the nation’s best,” or even “excellent.”  But I don’t want to be overly skeptical in what is such an exciting time in my life.  School #6 stands out.  Being among “the nation’s best” seems better than being merely “excellent” – after all, who or what isn’t “excellent” these days?  My new choice is school #6.

But wait, educational quality is an “input” measure, not an “output” measure!  And being convinced (despite social scientists’ warning to the contrary) that correlation does in fact equal causation, I want to pick the school with the most successful graduates.  So what do these low-end US News schools have to say about that?

School #7: we produce “some of the nation’s most distinguished legal professionals.”

School #8: we will “lead you to find your distinct place in the world,” and “allow you to make a difference.”

School #9: our graduates “make a difference in our community and world.”

Now my choice is easy.  I really hate all of that “giving back” and “making a difference” shtick.  Would-be law students who don’t get scholarships could be looking at $150k in debt and up to three years of opportunity cost.  So, like LeBron James, I gotta do what’s best for me and take my talents to the place where I can have the most success.  I want to be among “the nation’s most distinguished legal professionals.”  The winner is school #7.

Now, school #7, I suspect that you only take the cream-of-the-crop students to go with your outstanding faculty, top-flight educational experience, and world-class outcomes.  Are you sure that two weeks is enough time to evaluate my application?

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