Podcast: The Past & Future of Legal Education, with Reuters Legal Reporter Karen Sloan

In this episode, Mike speaks with long-time legal education reporter Karen Sloan about her experiences and stories and the future of the legal field.

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Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, a lot of law school admissions, a little bit of everything. And today we are going to cover a little bit of everything with a bit of a different kind of guest, Karen Sloan, who works for Reuters Legal and has covered for her career legal education and law firms. This is a fascinating conversation because Karen knows a lot about how law schools have changed and how law students have changed. And we are going to talk about what – if you’re applying to law school or if you are going to school — what’s ahead of you, what are the next three years going to look like. What are some of the changes that have been progressive and inspiring for law students, what are some of the issues that law schools are working on, what do they need to work on, so what is the future to come?

And then even beyond that Karen talks with a lot of expertise about law firms, how they hire, what they do and I think it’s just going to be something that – again, this is not necessarily going to get you into the law school of your dreams, it’s going to impact you for three, four, five, six years down the road including one year down the road when you start law school. So this is a value-added podcast, fascinating discussion with someone who’s seen it all, has some really interesting stories. Without further delay, here is Karen.

Hey Karen, it’s great to see you.

Karen: Thanks so much for having me, Mike. I’m excited to be on the podcast.

Mike: I feel like this turnabout is fair play, like you’ve interviewed me and asked some tricky questions that I stumbled over, so now I get to do it to you.  

Karen: Yeah, I’ve bugged you enough over the years that it’s only fair that you get a chance to throw some hard balls at me.

Mike: It’s never a bother. The first thing I’m interested in hopefully won’t be hardball. It’s really about you. How you got started in journalism, like what fired and was it at an early age, what made you interested in this and then how you got put or put yourself into covering legal education law firms?

Karen: I think I might be a little unusual in the world of journalism because I knew when I was maybe like 15 or 16 that this was something that I wanted to do. I started writing for my high school newspaper and something just clicked. I loved writing; I loved talking to people. And I said I think it’s unusual because I know so many journalists who are career switchers, who started doing something else and then said, “Hey, journalism looks fun I think I want to do that.” And I feel kind of lucky that I had sort of an indication early on that this is what I wanted to do.

I actually went to school for journalism, did my undergrad there, worked at a small paper on the coast of Georgia covering cops and courts, which was like insanely fun and also really hard. And then I went to grad school at Columbia for a year at their journalism school, and then went out and worked at the newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska where I covered city hall government affairs there. And then I came to New York, and that’s when I got started in legal journalism. I started working at the National Law Journal in I think 2008. And I remember exactly the time that I started doing that because it was literally like the month of the big financial crash. Yeah, and they hired me to cover mid-size law firms, but at the time every story was just like, “This firm is laying off this many people,” and it was just so depressing. It was a really weird time to get into legal journalism. But over the next couple of years, I was primarily writing about mid-size law firms, but on the side I wrote about law schools just because I thought it was interesting. Okay, I’m one of those people that had toyed with the idea at one point of going to law school and I never did it, I went to journalism school instead because journalism school was like a year and law school was three.

Mike: Right, good call. Law school might be two years in the coming future by the way.

Karen: Yeah, we never know, there’s been talk about that for a while. But it was an interesting time to start writing about law schools because, you will know this and some of your listeners will know this, but 2010-2011 was really when we began to see the “crisis in legal education” start. The fortunes of law schools started to decline around that time when fewer and fewer people were applying. It just so happened that I was in the right place at the right time. I don’t know that anybody was full time writing about legal education in any of the legal press, and because the story was so dynamic at that time, we recognized that this should be my primary focus. Nobody was reading – I shouldn’t say nobody — far fewer people were reading my stories about mid-sized law firms, and a lot more people were reading the law school stuff. There was clearly an appetite for that, and I have a theory if you want me to share.

Mike: I do. I’m curious.  

Karen: Well, what I think that’s happening is in law school, taking the LSAT, going to law school, taking the bar exam — Those are the three universal experiences that every lawyer had, right? Maybe if I’m writing about IP or something specialized, the people who work in that space are interested. But when I write about law schools, that’s something that every lawyer can relate to because they all were like freaked out when they were getting cold called, or hunkered down studying for the bar exam. It’s such a universal experience, and people stay interested in it. A lot of people continue to follow those issues, and I think it’s just because they themselves went through that. And obviously, they are interested in what’s happening with their own law schools, they maintain that connection. So I just think there is this sort of universal interest in legal education because everybody has a personal experience with that. Every lawyer.

Mike: Have you ever written an article on undergraduate education? Higher ed in general?

Karen: Only in so far as it’s the pipeline into legal education. There are trends that happen at the undergraduate level that obviously impact the applicant pool or who might consider going to law school. But I don’t have a good sense of how different it is, covering specifically legal education as opposed to higher education circles.

Mike: And that’s why I asked that question. I would suspect that interest would even be greater in undergrad education because when you think – I don’t know about you with your experience, but when I think about my doctoral program, the business school I went to and then the undergrad experience, I would say 95% of the time my random brain is going to fire neural connections about oh, that time undergrad. Which is why it’s so much easier for undergraduate institutions to raise money, why they have these huge endowments and law schools in general don’t really have big endowments. When you ask someone for money, they’re primarily going to give it to where they went to undergrad. Those are their fond memories, like "drank beer in this dorm room with my buddies" not "I was in the library crunching for three years."

Karen: Yeah, I don’t know, that’s interesting. I do think law school is pretty formative for lawyers as well, but you have a good point. I don’t know that a lot of people think of law school as the time that they really came of age and found themselves. I don’t know, it’s interesting.

Mike: There is a good deal of research — I can’t remember; there's a professor who researches this — about how much people have changed going into law school. Here is the scary outcome of this research. Most people versus the baseline go into law school kind, less dependent on substances, you know where this is going.

Karen: Oh, yes I’ve seen this.

Mike: Yeah, and they leave law school not maybe quite as empathetic to other people, a higher percentage dependent on substances or behavioral issues. So law school itself has a transformative impact on obviously not everyone, but it can have a negative deleterious transformative impact on some people. It’s something that I think we all, all of us in this space should at least talk about somewhat because I think knowledge and awareness is helpful for people.

Karen: Yeah, I do think legal education as a whole is finally starting to have some of these difficult conversations about the negative impacts like you mentioned, heightened depression, anxiety, substance abuse. I think now that there’s solid data and research out there, people are starting to question whether the format and the focus on competition, and the way that your entire grade rests on a single exam at the end of the semester, whether those are really healthy ways to educate new lawyers. I think there is a lot more to be said about that, and we’re only in the early stages. But I’m hopeful that there may be a more comprehensive rethinking of the format and ways that law school is structured, that are I think very clearly contributing to some of these negative impacts.  

Mike: It’s interesting because law school is in some sense is zero-sum, the way it’s graded and the way people are hired is a zero-sum game. But the practice of law, which I know very little about —I just happen to know thousands of lawyers but I haven’t done it myself — the practice of law strikes me a zero-sum, there are winners in negotiations there are losers. There are winners in trial; there are losers. So one argument would be, "Well, if we’re teaching zero-sum or if our culture is zero-sum, we are actually preparing people." But yeah, I think you’re right, I think the trend hopefully is in a little bit of a kinder process. It will be interesting to see — you’ll be covering it so we can revisit this.

Karen: Yeah, I mean but you’re right. When your job prospects boil down to a ranking of your grades in school, that can’t help but ratchet up the anxiety that students are feeling. So I think it’s not just law school that needs to change, but also, I would like to see some changes in how biglaw hires and if it’s really going to alleviate some of these pressures.

Mike: What would be a change you would want to see on how biglaw hires?

Karen: I would like to see them step back from this idea that we’re only going to look at people in the top X percent of the class, if it’s 5, if it’s 10. I understand why they do it because they get a lot of people who want to come, but it’s also arbitrary. I am hard-pressed to believe that somebody who’s ranked in the top 5% at Harvard or NYU or the schools where they hire a lot from, is really any more qualified than somebody who’s ranked in the 20th percentile or whatnot. And I think by just having these what I think are kind arbitrary cut-offs, they’re missing out on good people. I also think they need to look further than the five, 10, 15 elite schools that they traditionally recruit at. I think there are really great students at schools that are outside of the T14, and I’d like to see firms make more of an effort to reach students at those schools.

Mike: Yeah, the hilarious part of all that to me is — so I was interviewed two days ago on a podcast called EdUp, and that will be published at some point — but what I said on that I’ll repeat because it bears mentioning. People get consumed with rankings, we love as human beings for things to be orderly, sequentially ranked, but if I were to put 20 hiring partners on this Zoom with us, if I were to ask all of them "name the top 20 law schools," not a single one would be able to do it. I am convinced of that; I talk to hiring partners all the time. Maybe some could come close, but they couldn’t – there is no possible way they could just bat – like I’ve lived in this world so much I could, but they couldn’t just bat off the top 20 like an applicant might even be able to do. So then why is 20 your arbitrary cut-off? Is 20 any better than 21? The 21st school of Florida. Florida might be a much better school to hire out of if you are in Atlanta or Miami versus the 20th rank school.

So I would agree with you 100%, I think there’s flaws in the system. We had a lawyer on our podcast two ones ago, Clint Schumacher, who was the former hiring partner for Locke Lord, and he did talk about how he looks for growth mindset versus GPA growth.

Karen: Right.

Mike: Yeah. We’ll get away from the stressful stuff. You’ve had an interesting career, what are one or two of your favorite stories, either heartwarming or just interesting that you’ve covered in your career?

Karen: I don’t know whether this is like a specific story, but one thing that’s been enjoyable for me to write about is – and at least it’s my perception that — the law students of today are really finding their voice, and they’re really getting active on social issues. And that’s not to say that law students as a whole have ever been shrinking violets or afraid to say anything, but I do think that this current generation of law students is more willing to stick their neck out and make noise over the things that they believe in. I’m thinking about the People’s Parity Project that started out of Harvard that went after law firms that use mandatory arbitration for associates and employees. The similar group that's sort of raising the issue of law firms representing fossil fuel clients and trying to convince classmates to not go recruit at those law firms. And I think the biggest single example is student groups going to their own administrations and raising concerns about diversity issues on campus. There has been a lot more of that lately advocating for greater diversity on the faculty, more diversity within the student body. I think it’s been kind of cool to see law students really step up. And this is something that I’ve heard from people like Kellye Testy at the Law School Admission Council and others. Just this idea that law students today are perhaps even more socially and civic minded than some of their predecessor classes. That’s a pretty cool phenomenon I think.

And then some of the other stories that have been interesting to cover, like we mentioned before, the ebbing and flowing nature of law schools’ fortunes. I don’t remember, you might remember better than me if it was a quarter decline, I think it might actually have been like the one-third decrease in law school applicants that we saw about a decade ago. That was a really interesting story to cover because there were so many aspects to it, right. We saw schools closing.

Mike: Yeah, for the first time in a long time.

Karen: Yeah, that had not happened in a very long time. I think going off memory again; we may be up to six or seven now. Five, six, or seven campuses that have since closed. That would have been unheard of like 20 years ago; I think that would have been unheard of. It’s also very interesting to see how schools responded and how they kept the lights on when they had fewer students. So maybe not a super fun story to follow, but that was really interesting to see.

Mike: I could go on at length about this, Karen, because this is going to be our future too. There's going to be two levers that are pulled really hard. One is student loan reform, where students will no longer be able to just put their entire tuition essentially on a credit card called the federal government. And that’s going to cause schools to have to figure out their operating expenses. About 75% to 80% go to salary right now, so how do you take a tenured faculty member and say, "I’m sorry but to stay in business we’ve got to lower your salary." That’s coming.

Karen: That tends not to go over very well with them by the way. Go figure; they don’t like that.

Mike: Yeah, I’m afraid to even speak about it on this podcast.

Karen: (laughs) They’ll come after you with pitchforks.

Mike: Well, I’ll be more disclosive. When the rankings came out, I think it was Columbia, some faculty member from Columbia said, "it’s great we are ranked number four or whatever, but it’s not acceptable that our tuition is $76,000 or whatever." I add these "or whatevers" incase I’m not exactly right. Of course, that’s a very popular thing to tweet, and I didn’t get involved because I hate social media drama, but what I wanted to say was, “Where do you think that $76,000 is going towards? 80% of it is going towards your salary, or 75% is going towards your salary.” And if I had said that I wouldn’t have made it out of that thread alive, but that’s the future. There is only really two areas to trim, which are merit aid to students — and the only way that’s going to get trimmed down is if schools get off this rankings carousel that they’re on — or salaries, which is primarily faculty and tenured track faculty.

And the other lever that’s going to get pulled on so hard, what you and I will probably be talking about four years from now if I haven’t just fled to the mountains to live in a cave, is the demographic cliff which is going to hit. So you mentioned a third, about a third of applicants to undergraduate schools are going to disappear in 2026, because people stopped having children during the great recession. It’s amazing how old we are, like in 2026. That 2008 thing you referenced, the 2010 thing is going to come back and then in 2029-2030 that’s going to hit law schools. So the future of legal education, you and I will be discussing this for years, it’s going to change dramatically. I’m sure you’ve had thoughts.

Karen: I agree, and it’s going to happen, I think we are going to see a number of things, right? I think there has been a lot of attention to the surge in applicants this year, unclear whether that is going to continue. But as you and I both know, when this larger class graduates we are going to have to see how they do on the employment market. I think that was one of the things that really hurt law schools during the last crisis was the low employment rates, right? Nobody was willing to pay 70 – what did you say, 73,000 dollars to go to Columbia, and if their employment rates weren’t looking so good. So I think one of the things we are going to have to see is, this class that just started this month, in three, four years, were there enough jobs? Like did they find enough jobs, what was their employment rates, we’ll see that. And then as you mentioned, everything undergraduate education is the pipeline, right. So we do have to closely track what’s happening on that end. And if there are fewer undergrads coming up, potential applicants, law schools are really going to figure out how to make the case that legal education is worth the investment.

Mike: Yeah, as of yesterday enrollment to the law schools we know about was up 8%. That doesn’t sound like a large number, but if that if were to hold steady, and you look at maybe 50,000 people going to law school and your enrollment is up 8000 students, that 8000 extra people that have to find jobs when they graduate from law school, and I don’t know if the legal market can bear that or not. A lot’s going to depend on the economy, which you and I have no idea because no economist has any idea what’s going to happen three years from now with the economy, but 8000 will be a lot to place. And I think what you are alluding to is exactly what happened in the great recession. You saw the spike in applications year one and year two, and then that precipitous cliff where applications just fell off.

Any other interesting topics that come to mind, maybe even on the law firm — I know you’ve covered law firms.

Karen: Yeah, I think one of the big issues, the hot topics right now is just like the fight for associate talent. It’s getting mean out there. There is this appetite, right, for young associate talent, and lateral hiring for associates is hot. I think we’ll see more summer associate recruiting, and I think we’ll see an increase in the number of summer associates coming in for next year ,obviously the hiring is kind of wrapped up for that. But firms are busy, and I think when they rolled back on summer associate hiring last summer during the pandemic, they’re now realizing hey, things are looking pretty good, we need associates to staff all these deals and all this litigation. Where are they going to come from?

Mike: Right.

Karen: I think we’re seeing a lot of money being thrown around. When you tell somebody who doesn’t follow the legal industry that these biglaw firms are paying $200,000, $205,000 to these people fresh out of law school who don’t really know anything, I think their eyes bug out. But to a firm, that’s now just the cost of doing business because they need those bodies in the door. So I think the demand and the money that is flowing to associates right now is one of the things that people are really watching closely.

Mike: It’s so glamorous to hinge on that $200,000 starting, but when they listen to that they don’t listen to the second half of that conversation, which is, if you look at the bimodal distribution, most graduates are starting off in the $55, the $75,000 range.

Karen: Bill Henderson would be very proud of you —

Mike: (laughs) Yeah.

Karen: — for referencing the bimodal distribution. I mean yeah, right; it totally obscures the reality for the vast majority of new law school graduates. And I will tell you, we in the legal press are guilty of this too, we pay a lot of attention to what happens to biglaw, and biglaw is a relatively small slice of the legal profession overall. So yes, the coverage of biglaw is outsized, but that’s also what the readership is interested in.

Mike: Yeah, of course.

Karen: And we don’t spend as much time talking about what’s happening with solos, firms of ten or fewer lawyers, public defenders, public interest attorneys. There are so many out there who will never make $200,000. after 30 years in practice they will never make that kind of money. But that’s also a harder nut to crack, right? Biglaw is in a way easy to cover because they all follow each other. They just do the same things. Most of them just do the same things, so there is a really clear narrative, and it’s a lot harder to look at solos because some of them are doing gang busters and some of them are really struggling and have been struggling for years. And it’s more difficult to identify trends when you move outside of the biglaw space.

Mike: But you mentioned doing the same things, by your estimations are law schools by and large doing the same things or there’s –?

Karen: I don’t think they are as bad as biglaw, I will put it that way. I don’t know that there is the equivalent of lockstep compensation on the legal education front. I mean, right, to a certain extent because of ABA regulations and standards, they do have to do a lot of the same things. But some schools I give credit for experimenting and trying new things. And as you know, schools are known for different things, they have different niches, different niches of students who they serve or different areas of specialty. I guess you could say the same thing for big law firms as well in terms of specialty, but I do think legal education is not quite as monolithic I guess as I consider "biglaw” to be.  

Mike: Okay, that’s interesting. I’m going to put you on the spot, a question just occurred to me. If you could go to law school — and you mentioned that you thought about it, —and if you were to magically waive a wand and you were admitted with a full ride to any law school out there, which one would you go to? And why?

Karen: I’m taking the fifth on that one Mike.

Mike: You’re smart (laughs) and why did I think you’d answer that?

Karen: There was no way I was ever going to answer that question.

Mike: You do this to people for a living.

Karen: I will tell you this, I get people who will send emails to me — and honestly it’s very rarely the applicants themselves; it’s usually the nervous parent who is like — "my son or daughter got into this or that, what should they do?" And I just say, you know what, I’m a lowly reporter, I can send them to some resources like ABA statistics and whatnot, but I also don’t weigh in on those. Not my problem.

Mike: That’s hilarious, as you could guess I get that every day of my life.

Karen: That is your life, but for me it’s a little weird because it’s not my job to advise these people on what their children should do.

Mike: Please don’t send them my way. I get about 300 of those messages in a day.

Karen: That’s a good idea, from now on I’m just going to say, "This is Mike Spivey, he knows what he’s talking about, here is his email address."

Mike: Not that either, right. My final question — I know we are both busy. You’re a professional, I’m an amateur, what can I do better for going forward for podcasts, and if you could say one person you find fascinating that we should have on our podcast who would it be? So how could I have done this better and who should we have on the Status Check with Spivey podcast?

Karen: Well, oh gosh, how can you do it better? I think I’m going to turn the question around, because I actually think you have a really good conversational approach on podcasting. I used to co-host a podcast and did some interviews too, and I will say lawyers can be tough on podcasts because sometimes they want to be overly formal. Sometimes I get people who want all of the questions in our exact order laid out so they can prepare their answers, and then always sound stilted. But I think you have a good conversational approach to the podcast, which I like. Okay, in terms of who you should have on, gosh that’s a tough one. Because I saw as you tweeted earlier that you are going to have Dean Z on, who is one of my favorite people in legal education. Because she tells it like it is.

Mike: Yeah, I’ve known her for 20 years, I think. She’s going to be great.

Karen: I’m glad to see that you’re going to have her on.

Mike: You mentioned Bill Henderson that could someone who has lots of interesting analytic data minded thoughts on this whole process.

Karen: Yeah, and Bill has some really interesting insight I think into law firm hiring and how that can be improved, which I hope you will have him on the podcast and that a bunch of law firm hiring partners will listen. Because as we mentioned, I think there is plenty of room for improvement on that front.

Mike: Law school hiring partners don’t care much about Status Check with Spivey podcast, but maybe if we had Bill on they would. The one thing I would say is, we have made a conscious decision — and we are going to continue to do so — to have people talk about self-care and mental health, mental wellbeing, because I think it’s so important. And I could do a podcast on the future of admissions and all of our listeners would flock to it. I wish more of our listeners would also equally flock to the ones on substance abuse, behavior abuse, how to handle being rejected, how to handle the stress of law school, and I think those are things... the things I say are helpful for one year. The things these experts say are helpful for a lifetime.

Karen: Okay, so then I do have my person. Have you spoken with Patrick Krill?

Mike: I have not. I do know the name.

Karen: Yeah, he has done research in conjunction with, I believe it was the ABA or the ABA Foundation, on substance abuse and other issues amongst law students. And he now consults and helps firms figure out how to address those issues within their own attorney ranks, and I think he would excellent. He’s got a lot of good insights on the issues specific to attorneys. He really understands how practicing law and law school are pretty different and have different pressures than a lot of other lines of work. I think he’d be excellent.

Mike: So, you were excellent too. I appreciate your time; I know you have all these deadlines. Thank you, and please don’t send any inquisitive parents my way.

Karen: It’s too late, I’ve already sent five.

Mike: Well five I can handle, 500 maybe not. It’s good to catch up, and I’m sure we’ll talk again probably pretty soon.

Karen: Yeah, thank you for having me, Mike.

Mike: Good to see you, Karen.