Dumbing Down

What does it tell you when the scores American students are achieving on multiple-choice tests are declining, and hitting the lowest levels in more than 30 years?  For once, we’re not talking about primary or even secondary school education, and lamenting how Americans are lagging behind students from other countries.

25bar1No, I’m talking about how would-be American lawyers are doing on the multistate bar exam, a 200-question multiple choice test given in Ohio and most other states as part of the bar examination tests that law school graduates must pass to become licensed to practice law.  The scores of bar exam takers on the multistate are falling.  In 2015, the mean scaled score was 135, which is the lowest average result since 1983.  When the average score of more than 20,000 test-takers involves answering less than 70 percent of the 200 questions correctly, that’s pretty sad.

So, to put the question again:  what does it tell you when scores on a multiple-choice test are falling?  It tells you that either the quality of students taking the test is declining, or those students are less prepared, or the test itself is getting harder.  Although it’s possible the exam itself has unintentionally gotten tougher, most people are pointing at the first two choices as the likely suspects.  They note that the standardized test scores of students being admitted to law schools is declining, which they think indicates that the intellectual caliber of the students themselves is lower than it once was.  And there is an ongoing debate about how well law school is preparing students these days, and whether law school students are more focusing on tackling an academically rigorous curriculum or on other social justice type issues that aren’t going to prepare them to pass the bar exam.

I also think the declining trend in bar exam performance speaks to the quality of the students and the quality of the legal education they’re receiving.  It’s not that people are getting dumber, it’s that smart people who might have gone to law school years ago are self-selecting out of law school these days.  That’s why law school enrollment figures have been declining for years.  Forgoing law school is a wise decision for many people, because while the costs of going to law school continue to increase — at many schools, it’s more than $50,000 a year — the employment statistics for recent grads are horrendous.  If you were an intelligent, reasonably motivated young person, would you want to commit to a three-year course of study where you’re likely going to graduate with a six-figure student loan debt and crappy job prospects?

And law schools themselves seem to have changed and morphed from tough, intellectually demanding centers of higher learning into more politicized venues.  With professors seemingly more focused on their own political agendas than on challenging students to learn and excel at traditional forms of legal analysis, it’s no wonder that recent graduates are struggling on multiple-choice tests.

Don’t be surprised if you start to see more reports in the news about some law schools closing their doors.

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GULC Storm

I graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center — known to students as GULC — in 1985.  In those days, it was a law school that taught traditional courses, like Contracts, and Property, and Civil Procedure, through the traditional Socratic method, where professors posed questions to specific students who were expected to be able to explain and analyze the rules of law set forth in particular cases.  Our professors were of different political persuasions, no doubt, and one professor advocated Critical Legal Studies, but the school was not politicized, or politically divided, in any meaningful sense.

Things apparently have changed over 30 years.  Now GULC is home to an internal political storm provoked by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

scalia702a_1Justice Scalia was a regular visitor to the campus, most recently in November when he came to speak to first-year law students.  When he died, GULC issued a public statement describing Scalia as “a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law.”  The current dean, William Treanor, added that “I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement with our community, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November,” and concluded:  “We will all miss him.”

Some GULC professors objected to the release.  One professor wrote to the entire campus community, and said: “I am not suggesting that J. Scalia should have been criticized on the day of his death, nor that the ‘community’  should not be thankful for his willingness to meet with our students. But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the ‘culture wars’ he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a giant in any good sense.”  That professor also said:  “I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic.”

These comments provoked a response from the two “conservative” professors at the law school, who said the comments of the other professors said “in effect, your hero was a stupid bigot and we are not sad that he is dead.”  The professors added:  “The problem is that the center of gravity of legal academia is so far to the left edge of the political spectrum that some have lost the ability to tell the difference.  Only on a faculty with just two identifiably right-of-center professors out of 125, could a professor harbor such vitriol for a conservative Justice that even Justice Ginsburg adored.  Only on a faculty this unbalanced could a professor willfully or knowingly choose to “hurt … those with affection for J. Scalia,” including countless students, just days after the Justice’s death.”

The dispute has been covered by the Washington Post, in the story linked above,  by the Above the Law website — which refers to the dust-up as “Scaliagate” — and by other media outlets.  It’s probably the most news coverage GULC has received in years.  It’s not exactly what I would call favorable publicity.

It’s sad, for me, on several levels.  First, I am sad that notions of civility and simple decency appear to be leaching out of our society, to the point where people feel the need to blast out their own negative views about a public servant who has died, rather than doing the proper thing and holding their tongue so that others may mourn.  Surely the professor who depicted Justice Scalia as a defender of “oppression and bigotry” whose intellectual positions were “simplistic and formalistic” knew that others would disagree with those statements and be hurt by them.  So, why say them in the first place, so soon after Justice Scalia’s death — rather than, say, writing a law review article critiquing Justice Scalia’s opinions on their merits, which is what law professors used to do?

And second, I am sad that law schools seemingly have become political hotbeds, where “liberals” and “conservatives” joust in an apparently lopsided battle.  When I went to GULC, it and other respected law schools were viewed as scholarly intellectual bastions, where cases were reviewed with analytical rigor and rules of law divined, in order to help students develop judgment and prepare them for a career in the law.  Sharp political exchanges and name-calling are antithetical to intellectual rigor — but perhaps intellectual rigor is not what law schools are looking for in their professors these days.

As I said, things apparently have changed a lot in 30 years, and not for the better.

Get Some Sleep!

It’s hard to imagine that we need scientific studies to encourage us to sleep, but the evidence is mounting that getting enough shut-eye at night has crucial, lasting benefits for human beings.

The latest study examines the role of sleep in improving memory and learning.  The study found that sleep promotes the creation of brain synapses — the connections between the brain’s neurons — that are essential to learning.  That study follows countless others that demonstrate the physical and mental benefits of sleep — a state that allows the brain to discard toxins formed by daily activity, helps us recharge and reduce the risk of many different diseases, and restores the body to the ancient circadian rhythms that human beings have followed since the dawn of the species.

I’ve always tried to make sure that I get enough sleep.  In law school, on the day before our final exams when some of my classmates would stay up until all hours cramming, I  put my books aside and went to bed early so I could be fresh and ready for the big test tomorrow.  I always felt like my rested state gave me an advantage in terms of energy and mental focus, and I’ve tried to carry through that practice in my career, too.

Many of us — in our zeal to be SuperMom, or our focus on our jobs, or our desire to cram every conceivable bit of activity into the waking hours — have cut significantly into our sleep time.  Obviously, it’s a mistake.  If you want to help your kids do better in school or on the job, make sure they get a good night’s sleep.  And instead of staying up to watch a late night talk show or another Seinfeld rerun, why not hit the sack yourself?

On Applying, And Getting Rejected

Richard has begun the second year of grad school, and Russell starts his first year of grad school next week.  It got me to thinking about my law school days, and specifically about the application process.

I was working on Capitol Hill for U.S. Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie when I decided to take the LSAT and look at going to law school.  I had a solid undergraduate record, I got a good LSAT score, I had that Capitol Hill job on my resume, and I had a nice recommendation from Mr. Wylie in my application packet, so I aimed high, for Harvard and Yale among other schools.  I was a confident, and foolish, young man.

I was taken down a peg when, very shortly — embarrassingly shortly — after I sent in my Harvard application, I got the standard form rejection letter.  It hadn’t taken them long to figure out that I wasn’t Harvard material.  My rejection from Yale came a few days later.

I soon realized it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was accepted into other good schools, went to Georgetown University Law Center, got a good legal education and met some great people, and have moved on.  I now think that those once-embarrassing rejections were a good thing, because they helped to motivate me to work hard in law school and because everyone needs to experience a little humility in their lives.  And, I’ve also come to believe that it’s not where you go to school, but what you do with the education you receive that counts.

Rejection isn’t the end of the world.  Often, it’s something you can build on and learn from.

Fewer Law Students, Fewer Lawyers

The number of people applying to American law schools is dropping sharply.  A recent report of the Law School Admission Council states that applications to law schools fell almost 18 percent from 2012 to 2013.  That drop-off continues a trend; the report says approximately 20,000 fewer people applied to law schools in 2013 than submitted applications only two years earlier, in 2011.

Why the drop-off?  The economy has changed, and there is less need for lawyers.  Would-be law school applicants recognize that many recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed.  The employment statistics compiled by the American Bar Association show a significant number of graduates struggle to find any kind of law-related job.  In the meantime — because law school is incredibly expensive — many recent graduates are saddled with tremendous student loan burdens.  Working at a waitressing or bartending job in a desperate effort to pay your debts while looking fruitlessly for work in the field for which you’ve received costly but narrow training is not an attractive future.

I think this change is permanent — which means we’re going to see some of the less well-regarded law schools close their doors and we’re going to see a change in the power equation between the shrinking pool of applicants and law schools that want to fill out their classes with well-qualified students.  The latter result apparently is already occurring, as students are negotiating more lucrative financial aid packages with law schools competing for their acceptance.

Optimists might foresee other, positive long-term effects from this trend.  Lawyer jokes aside, lawyers tend to be intelligent, well-educated, highly motivated people who could contribute to the American economy in many different ways.  I’m hoping that people who might have gone to law school in the past now apply those traits and abilities in opening and managing their own businesses, devising new approaches to products and services, and letting their creativity and passions guide them to other productive roles.  The fact that the door to a career as a lawyer may be closing just means that other doors should be opened.

When Law Schools Lie

Recently the University of Illinois College of Law announced that Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) and grade point average (GPA) statistics provided on the school’s website were inflated.  The school posted the correct numbers, said it was conducting a thorough review of how the error happened, and placed the dean of admissions on leave as part of the investigation process.

The incident is part of a broader trend of concern about the credibility of law school admissions statistics at the beginning of the law school experience (the LSAT scores and GPAs of the incoming classes) and the placement statistics at the end of the process (how many graduates get law-related jobs).  The LSAT and GPA statistics are significant to the law schools’ ranking by the U.S. News and World Report, which uses those numbers to measure “selectivity.”  Every college and graduate school student, parent, professor, and administrator knows that the U.S. News and World Report ranking carries a huge amount of weight.  With law school admissions dropping — and they fell by 10 percent in 2011 — schools competing for the reduced pool of applicants may be sorely tempted to cook their  admissions and job placement figures.  Interestingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers have noted the issue and are pondering whether inaccurate reporting should be met by a class action lawsuit on behalf of students.

Institutions of higher learning used to presume to occupy the moral high ground.  More and more, however, those institutions behave like businesses and are facing the same kinds of scandals we see in the business world.  What do such scandals mean for a school’s ability to achieve its educational mission?  How is a law school that admits to falsifying data supposed to enforce an honor code, or credibly instruct students about legal ethics?

The Bar Exam

Later this week hundreds of would-be lawyers will take the Ohio bar exam at the Veterans Memorial building in Columbus.  Our nephew Matt will be among them.

In Ohio, you cannot become a licensed lawyer unless you pass the bar exam (among other requirements).  Twice a year, in February and July, applicants sit in a large common room and take a three-day test that addresses various areas of the law.

Because the bar exam is an all-or-nothing proposition — you either pass, or you are unable to practice law despite the three years of law school you’ve just completed — stress levels are absurdly high.  For many people, the bar exam is the single most stressful thing they’ve ever done.  Those who have passed always remember what it was like to take the exam, to sit in that big room with hundreds of other people, all charged with adrenalin and worry and regret that they didn’t study harder, and then to read the initial questions and hope you knew how to answer them.  At breaks between testing sessions, law school friends frantically discuss how they answered the questions in the prior session, becoming more agitated in the process.  Although my bar exam memories are more than 25 years old, these scenes remain fresh and distinct — and painful.

If anyone taking the exam this week happens to be reading this, my advice is simple:  by now, you’re either prepared or you aren’t.  Knock off your studies the afternoon before the first day of the exam, have a good dinner, go see a movie, and get a good’s night sleep.  Being well-rested is a lot more important than obsessive last-second cramming.  Take a book to read during the breaks; revisiting questions with others isn’t going to do anything except increase your stress level.  And get to Vets Memorial early!  Don’t take a chance on a mechanical breakdown or traffic jam.

Good luck, Matt!  I know you’ll do well.