The top five law school marketing failures

Eric Owens | Editor

Lawyerin’ ain’t easy these days for a tremendous number of recent law school graduates.

New attorneys are graduating with staggering debt. Last year, graduates of private law schools left school almost $125,000 in debt. For public law school grads, the debt average was over $75,700.

Jobs are hard to find. In 2011, just over half of all newly-minted graduates had found permanent, full-time legal work up to nine months after getting their diplomas.

It’s not a good time to be a law school, either. The message that law school is more likely to lead to massive debt and unemployment than a prestigious six-figure income has not been lost on undergrads and people looking for a career change.

Significantly fewer people have been taking the LSAT the last two years. In 2011, the number of people who took the LSAT fell 16 percent, the largest drop in a decade. Applications are down precipitously — about 16 percent as well.

In recent years, law schools have resorted to some unconventional methods to scare up and otherwise impress potential future law students. Here are of the more interesting ones.

1. Thomas M. Cooley Law School

If you are a bigwig at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., (with four smaller campuses dotting the Michigan landscape as well a new satellite campus in Florida), you’ve got a problem. You have a huge number of students graduating at a time when jobs for lawyers are sparse. Your bar results aren’t historically atrocious, sure, but you perpetually find your school far from the top of the excessively important U.S. News rankings. Also, a lot of people simply don’t seem to like you very much.

What to do?

Well, naturally, you devise your very own ranking scheme that places you second in all the land, alongside the likes of Harvard Law School (#1), and well above Yale (#10) and Stanford (which can’t even crack the top 25). Then, you try to foist this “Judging the Law Schools” ranking onto the public with a serious face. Who knows? Maybe they’ll buy it.

What’s different about Cooley’s rankings? In a nutshell, the school stacks the proverbial deck in its favor. For example, library-related criteria such as seating capacity and the total number of library books constitute fully one quarter of the 40 factors used. While libraries are surely important, of course, any law school with five campuses and a massive enrollment seems likely to have lots of chairs and books, as the blog Third Tier Reality has trenchantly noted.

What’s more, as Above the Law observes, Cooley has managed to climb in its own rankings. In 2009, Cooley ranked Cooley just 12th. Now, Cooley has found that Cooley is #2. While 12th is pretty good, why couldn’t Cooley rank itself higher initially? And what exactly must it do now to convince itself that it’s better than Harvard?

2. Rutgers School of Law — Camden

Faced with flagging applications for fall 2012, Camille Andrews, an associate dean at Rutgers School of Law in Camden (not to be confused with the other Rutgers, in Newark) took action. As the ABA Journal explained, she issued a marketing pitch to lucky students had taken the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) — presumably for business school — that offered to waive the law school application fee if they picked up the phone and applied immediately. Operators were standing by.

Andrews also boasted that the school maintains a 90% employment rate in the legal field and proclaimed that “many top students” command salaries of $130,000 or more straight out of Rutgers-Camden.

The claims about employment rate and wonderfully high salaries were misleading at best, as the website Law School Transparency details. Law School Transparency gives Rutgers-Camden an employment score of 56.6 percent and an under-employment score of 24 percent. Concerning salaries, it would be much more accurate to say “not very many top students” will make $130,000 upon graduation.

Like a fine wine, though, this story only got better with age. A few weeks later, Andrews sent out another letter, according to the website Inside the Law School Scam. That missive reportedly read, in part:

“You have been selected as an individual Rutgers School of Law-Camden would like to admit in the fall of 2012 as an Academic Promise Scholar. We are waiving both the application fee and the $300 deposit fee. Should you be accepted, you will be awarded a $18,000 Academic Promise Scholarship …”

Thus did Rutgers-Camden become, in all probability, the first ABA-approved law school to offer substantial scholarships (80 percent off for Garden State residents) directly to individuals who never applied there and possibly had no desire whatsoever to be attorneys.

3. University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law

Last summer, according to Louisville’s Courier-Journal, the admissions director at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law resigned, almost certainly as a result of a trivial accounting oversight: the school over-promised some $2.4 million in financial aid money over the next three years to incoming students. The school’s annual budget for in-house financial aid was $550,000, it seems, but the admissions office had offered up $1.3 million.

Elie Mystal at Above the Law speculates that the defrocked dean of admissions may have been trying to lure accepted students who hadn’t yet decided to attend Louisville with attractive scholarship offers. The deficit was caused when too many of them accepted the generous aid offers.

To its everlasting credit, Louisville’s law school has pledged to make good on the scholarship commitments for all affected students for three years, though it’s not clear where the money will come from. 

4. (TIE) Villanova University School of Law and University of Illinois College of Law

Law schools by the dozen are getting sued left and right these days for allegedly reporting fraudulent post-graduate employment data to prospective applicants. However, Villanova and the University of Illinois recently admitted to the dishonor of lying about the academic credentials of the incoming students themselves.

The University of Illinois admitted that it had intentionally provided falsely inflated admissions information to both U.S. News and the American Bar Association for students graduating in 2008 and each year from 2010 to 2014, according to Champaign-Urbana’s News-Gazette. The American Bar Association fined the school $250,000 for its malfeasance.

Villanova engaged in the same basic intrigue but somehow managed to get away with it virtually scot-free. In 2011, according to Philly.com, the school confessed to falsifying grade-point averages and LSAT scores for several years to make itself look better. The American Bar Association censured Villanova and delivered a letter to the school, explaining how angry it was.

It’s hard to believe that these two schools are the only ones that have engaged in such admissions-data chicanery in the apparently life-or-death struggle over annual U.S. News rankings. They are, however, two that got caught, which is definitely a marketing failure.

5. New York Law School

New York Law School has a brief video, which can be seen on YouTube, entitled “NYLS Welcome Week 2012.” It seems to have served as part of a larger message for entering students. The production values are reasonably slick. The background music is that intensifying, motivating sort of background music you see in many commercials.

“New York is the perfect place for everything,” promises a woman clutching a bouquet of flowers in front of some grand building, at one point in the video. She then kisses her beau. “Love me some lawyers,” later beams a cute blonde woman in a purple hat. Her friend agrees, saying, “They rock.” “Lawyers are really cute,” proclaims still another woman. Then a man with dreadlocks rolls his eyes and says, “Lawyers are hot.”

You might see the video as pretty innocuous, but the much tougher, much more jaded critics at JD Underground are egregiously offended. “I feel like I need to take a shower after watching that,” one commenter says. “This video doesn’t even pretend to be sophisticated,” asserts another. “It is directed right at the 21-year-old, undeveloped, testosterone-laden mind.”

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