In Conversation with a Reporter

GUEST: David Segal
TITLE: In Conversation with a Reporter
VTR: 01/26/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And perhaps it’s because I’ve always regretted not having been smart enough to become one, but surely over the years lawyers have loomed particularly large among Open Mind guests. And nowadays, of course, journalists as well. Talkers AND scribblers.

Which means we may have a ten-strike today, for my guest is The New York Times prolific reporter David Segal. And what made me so determined to invite him here today has been a quite intriguing series of pieces he’s written recently about lawyers and law schools, and about how poorly he believes some of the latter have prepared some of the former…even while presiding over law students’ assumption of huge personal indebtedness.

But neither does my guest spare others in his reporting: not restaurants, airlines, rating agencies and their defenders, movie makers, even the Better Business Bureau and Google…as I’m sure you’ll note when you spot him as The Haggler in the Times.

And so I guess, Mr. Segal, I ought to begin today by going back to the large number of pieces you did on law schools. And ask about this matter of preparation for being a lawyer. How good are the law schools at that? How poor?

SEGAL: Well, the … this is one of the stories that I wrote … was just about the actual curriculum at law schools. Which is strikingly low on any kind of practical training. There is a high bias at law school for the theoretical and the abstract. All of the incentives, when it comes to professorships are to write the most abstract, abstruse scholarship you can come up with.

And, as a result of that, practical training has been given short shrift and there are many, many lawyers who will tell you that they managed to go through law school without learning … by learning the bare minimum of the basics of, of, of, of lawyering.

And that’s a problem now in a way that it hasn’t been in the past because more and more large firms are not hiring law school graduates. It used to be that thousands and thousands of them would go to these large firms and the firms would train them.

It was sort of understood that your apprenticeship began at the law firm. Well, those law firms aren’t hiring the way that they used to and so more and more of these lawyers find that they need to go solo and they have no idea how to do that.

HEFFNER: What happens then?

SEGAL: Well, they struggle. A lot of them have … you know, I got tons and tons of email over the course of this series from newly minted lawyers who were living with their parents. Newly minted lawyers who were working at Radio Shack. Newly minted lawyers who were struggling with ways to open their own practice and not quite sure how to do that.

HEFFNER: But in all fairness … wouldn’t they be in just about the same position except for the fact that the big firms are not hiring the way that they used to?

SEGAL: Yes. I mean in terms of their knowledge base they’d be in, in the exact same position. But again, it was those firms that were doing this. It was understood that when, when clients paid those firms the, the first and second year associates were these newcomers and the clients were basically subsidizing the education of, of these new lawyers.

Well, over the last … since the great recession began you have more and more clients literally sending memos to these firms saying “We don’t want to see the names of first or seconds year associates on our bills anymore. We will not pay for the education of, of these students.” They have to come out of law school knowing at this point.

HEFFNER: So, we’re sticking it … the recession … the great recession, as you call it … is sticking it to the big firms.

SEGAL: Yes, it’s been, it’s been very tough on the big firms. The great recession has caused one of the worst recessions in anyone’s memory when it comes to the legal profession. I mean and the striking thing to me as I sort of stepped back from, from this series of stories was while this revolution was going on at the level of law firms. Almost nothing is going on at the law schools.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you. Are they responding … are they meeting the challenge for these young men and women?

SEGAL: They’re really not. And … I mean law schools are very conservative institutions and maybe that’s not a surprise because much of academia moves very slowly. And it turns out that the … the faculty are in control of law schools.

When you, when you hear that there’s a dean, you think the Dean’s in charge and that the Dean could snap his fingers and say, “We’re going to orientate more towards practical knowledge now because this is what the market demands and this is what’s needed”.

But, in fact, it’s the faculty that control the Dean and the Dean really serves at the behest of the … at the good will of the, of the faculty. And if the faculty don’t like the direction that the Dean is going …the Dean leaves, the Dean is fired.

So, there’s surprisingly little going on at law schools in the last three or four years.

HEFFNER: So you think maybe the Shakespearean notion of “let’s first kill all the lawyers” should be “let’s first kill all the professors of law”.

SEGAL: (Laugh) Well, the, the … that … I believe was a compliment to lawyers. That, that line from Shakespeare has been a little bit misunderstood. The, the … the, the people who say that in that play are basically saying “let’s create chaos” and their, their route to chaos is first by killing the lawyers. So this is a back-handed compliment. But in terms if you’re asking who is really in control at … of academia … it is, indeed, the professors.

And the professors love their jobs. I mean these are people who went to law school and had no interest in becoming lawyers. And they … most of them come from the elite law schools … I mean maybe 85% of them from Harvard or Yale or Columbia, from Stanford. And they are delighted to not be practicing law. And what drew them to academic was research.

I mean they, they like teaching well enough, they don’t object to teaching, but what they really want to do is scholarship. And so an incredible amount of the money that is spent by law school students now is basically subsidizing these incredibly esoteric law review articles. Thousands of them. I mean there’s like 900 of these law reviews in this country now and every year there are tens of thousands of these articles.

And you know, when, when you tally up like how much this is all this costing the law students, it’s something like $20,000-$30,000 per student. It’s an astounding amount of money. When you ask … if you ask a … if you, if you just walk back from the checks that law students are writing … and say “What are you actually getting for that money?”.

They’re getting law review articles, that is a big, big answer to that question.

HEFFNER: Pretty unfair, right? You certainly make it seem that way.

SEGAL: Well, I mean if I’m a law student … I don’t necessarily … those, those law review articles don’t interest me very much. I don’t read them. They’re not written for me. I might very much prefer to get training in say, a clinic, so that I could understand how to practice law once I get out of law school. That might be a better way to spend resources if, if I’m a student.

What the law schools will say … and it’s very interesting. Is they will say, “Look scholarship makes prestige and prestige burnishes the diploma”. So, by spending all this time and money on scholarship, we are enhancing the reputation of, of this diploma and that redounds to the benefits of our students once they get out.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s be practical about it. This question of the, the big law schools, the major law schools … versus the bread and butter law schools. Do you think this is going to push in the direction of students being more accepting of the bread and butter schools?

SEGAL: Well, the, the elite schools are basically impervious. They’re always going to have thousands and thousands of students that are trying to get in.

But there are 200 law schools in this country. And the elites are typically defined by the top 14. Why 14? I, I can’t tell you, but that’s always been the case … it’s always the top 14. And the, the … the rest of the pack has been oddly impervious, as well, but there is some thinking that because applications are down and they are reportedly down something like 16% this year … this was reported like a week ago … that this might have some kind of impact on the way that law schools behave. And, and the way that they set their curriculum. I personally am very skeptical about that because the reality still is that the customers of law schools are students and the students get their money, overwhelmingly from student loans.

And those loans are still widely available. So there are still very, very few … if any empty seats at any law school. And the reason is because that money is there. I mean if you are 21 or 22 and you want to buy a house … you’re going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to convince some banker at, at a bank that you’re … it would be appropriate to loan you $200,000 so you can get a house.

But if you’re a student, and you want a law degree, you will get that in an afternoon. Actually it will take you even less than that. The law schools themselves make it very easy to come in … they have arrangements with different lenders … you sign the paperwork right there and you walk out with a debt that is … unlike the debt of a mortgage … non-dischargeable. That is literally going to stay with you like a, like a virus the rest of your life. There’s no way to get rid of this particular kind of debt.

HEFFNER: What’s the implication then in terms of the kind of professional work that you do with doctors … it means something, certainly. What does it mean to the young lawyers … when they’re out … where do they go once they’re encumbered with this debt? They can’t go to the big firms.

SEGAL: Right. I mean this is a, this is a serious problem. So there are … you know, the elites are still sending some of their students to the big firms, but you’re right … the math is excruciating for thousands and thousands of these graduates. There are about 45,000 law graduates turned out by American law schools every year. And there are tons of them. I mean there are thousands and thousands who are not able to make payments on their loans. And, like I said, they’re moving into their parents homes, they’re taking whatever jobs that they can … and, you know, then there’s also … I mean I ran into a bunch of people who took … you know modest paying jobs because they, you know, had no choice but to begin to try to make payments as quickly as they could.

You know that’s sort of a separate tragedy of, of … not of people who are being crushed by debt and aren’t, aren’t working or aren’t able to make their payment … but there’s also this other group of people who … who are making their payments, but are doing it at jobs they don’t like. You know, these are the people that went into the law because they wanted to be public interest lawyers. They wanted to do something good. They wanted to be prosecutors … very commonly.

Well, if, if the prosecutor’s office pays $32,000 in this country in Florida … and you have a debt that takes way more than that to service, you’ve got to take that $90,000 job at the mid-sized corporate firm and be happy about it.

And the hard part is the happiness. I mean I’ve spoken to a number of, of people who say, “Look, I got the lifeline of this job and I’m one of the fortunate ones. I’m miserable. I’ve had to make a number of, of decisions about my life that are all about finances and my … the working part of my life is not fulfilling at all”.

HEFFNER: You mentioned numbers before … 200 law schools. I almost thought, for a while there, reading you in the Times that you had a “thing” about this business of law schools and … let’s talk about that.

You, you don’t like this idea of, of the lawyers controlling or the bar association, really ….

SEGAL: Well …

HEFFNER: … controlling what, what goes in and what goes out … who becomes … what becomes a law school or not.

SEGAL: Yes. So, first of all I have nothing against lawyers at all … some of my best friends are lawyers …

HEFFNER: Ahh, I’ve heard that before …

SEGAL: Yeah. Many of my family members are lawyers. What I was writing about is law schools and the business of law schools which turned out to be far more intriguing than I would have ever have guessed.

And I started this, by the way, just by meeting a kid who’d come out of law school and said “I have a job … none of my friends have jobs … nobody knows this, but law schools are continuing to crank out students at the same rate, even though there is no … there are no jobs left”.

HEFFNER: And heavily indebted.

SEGAL: And heavily, heavily indebted … in debt, again, that they will not be able to discharge … no matter what.

But you mentioned the ABA … so that was another part of this series was to look at the role of the ABA. And what it does … is it accredits … it has a deal with the Department of Education to accredit law schools. This was started in the fifties.

Now the ABA is a fascinating entity because it is basically the trade group for lawyers. It is also the group that regulates lawyers. And that is in every instance a, a recipe for problems and conflicts of interest.

And, in fact, the ABA got in a serious spot of trouble back in 1995. The Justice Department sued them and said “Look the standards that you’re imposing on these law schools, the hoops that they need to jump through … they appear to be designed to inflate the salaries of law professors. And that is a no-no”. So they sued them and the ABA agreed “Okay, we’ll back off some of these regulations and we’ll change them and they used to literally show up at law schools … the ABA … and say, “How much are these professors getting? How much is the English professor getting?” And if they were the same amounts they would say, “No, no, no. The law professor has to be paid more than the English professor”. It was like a … they were like a gang. I mean there were people … deans who I spoke to said like … it was like the lawyers … we were gang. And, I mean, even the Deans, as part of the gang, thought like we’re bullies … like we’re being bullies … within academia. And they were uncomfortable with that.

So, the ABA did, in fact, back off some of the most obvious ways in which they were trying to prop up the salaries of, of law professors.

But it is still a system that … it, it doesn’t explain why law school tuition at the high end has gone through the roof. It has actually galloped faster than the rate of, of undergraduate tuition.

But it does explain why it’s so hard to start a low end law school. It is hard to start an affordable law school. There’s no Honda Civic of law schools. They all have to be Cadillacs. The architecture is all Cadillac. You know there’s nothing … the, the law school you can get in and out of for, say, five, seven, ten grand … doesn’t … it doesn’t exist unless you’ve got a heavily state sponsored school.

And, so … I looked … for one of these stories I looked at a school in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is serving the Appalachian community there in Tennessee and wanted to serve not just Tennessee, but Kentucky and so ought ABA accreditation because you need that in order to practice law in other states.

And they tried as hard as they could to keep the price of their law school down. And it ended up that tuition there was $28,000 a year. And in the student handbook it said, “With living expenses, expect to spend $50,000 a year”.

Now these are students who are going to be in Appalachia … the, the point is for them to serve Appalachia. This just doesn’t make any kind of economic sense at all.

HEFFNER: And … what’s happened?

SEGAL: Well, what happened immediately after my story ran was that the ABA had a hearing … that was before my story ran … the results of the hearing were announced after my story ran and they turned this school … Duncan … down for accreditation. They said “You have, in fact, not met our standards”. They had a, a list of problems that they presented to Duncan. And Duncan sued. And that is now being litigated.

I frankly think that Duncan has very little chance, because the ABA has power vested in it by the Department of Education to make the decisions that it wants to make and has standards set out. And it basically can apply those standards as it wants.

HEFFNER: So much for the power of the press?

SEGAL: Yes. (Laughter) There’s … believe me … you know … this is all very humbling in a way. I mean … I wrote these stories and … you know, what has been the effect of them? It’s … you know … there, there are people that will say, “Well, the ABA has looked at a number of things that you cited and they’re going to have different disclosures that are required of law schools. That is encouraging”.

And, and I could describe some of those in particular, but, you know, as I step back after having spent, you know, the better part of year writing about law schools … do I see that this is … you know … a wake-up call … is this fundamentally changing institutions? I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s turn to some of the other “haggling” things that you do in The Times.

SEGAL: Okay.

HEFFNER: Are you as successful or as unsuccessful with them?

SEGAL: I’m much more successful, when it comes to the Haggler because I take on smaller foes …

HEFFNER: Aha …

SEGAL: … so … yeah, the idea with The Haggler is that people write in with their particular problem with, say, FedEx and the, the very specific things that FedEx did to them by, by smashing their oven that they were having delivered … the glass top oven that they were having delivered, and it showed up smashed.

I can call FedEx and we can have a discussion about the, the rules and the by-laws of FedEx and whether or not this was something that they should not have done, by charging this guy and not reimbursing him and nine times out of ten I, I will win that. But mostly because I only pick fights that I think I can win. That’s the key to The Haggler.

The … this is the difference between this and law school, obviously. I mean … this is a much bigger set of institutions … 200 law schools as opposed to one customer at FedEx.

HEFFNER: Yeah. But FedEx, after all, is a major … is a giant. And as I’ve reads The Haggler … there have been some times when you’ve been told to go fly a kite.

SEGAL: Yes.

HEFFNER: But I’ve been interested in the number of small victories, but victories … that you’ve had. What is it about this … the companies don’t want the bad publicity that you give them in telling about the letters you’ve received?

SEGAL: Yes. The Haggler is the … the, the leverage here is shame. That’s it. That’s, that’s what the Haggler brings to the table. I mean these are people who have generally made their only phone calls to FedEx or whatever, I don’t want to pick on FedEx which, by the way, was very responsive and, and in fact, did refund this guy’s money.

But, the difference is that they … you know, I print these letters in the, in the newspaper and, you know, generally speaking I’d say more than 90% of the time they are appropriately concerned and they understand that it might be the right thing to take another look at, at whatever situation I present them with.

And, by the way, I also make sure that what I do is present them with a legitimate grievance. I mean what I would not want to do is present them with something that would require them to bend their rules, and make some exception. Because that would feel like bullying.

What I … my … what I … the cases that I take … and by the way they’re very hard to find good cases because of this very feature. They need to be instances where I’m asking the company to honor its own policy.

And it hasn’t done so when the consumer himself or herself has gotten in touch with the company.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve read a number of The Haggler’s … obviously I went back … that’s one good use for the computer.

SEGAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: I could print out a number of them. And the strange thing, as I read them, I began to wonder … well, when, when I meet David, am I going to feel … am I going to see reflected the cynicism …

SEGAL: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … that must grow in him as he gets these complaints about what it is we do to each other … the advantage so many of us take over so many of the rest of us.

SEGAL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So have you become a prime cynic?

SEGAL: I think … that’s a great question. I, I actually … my instinct is to, is to find a happy ending. And, and so while these all start with … like “I made a phone call … this company did this to me … it was completely awful, they’ve taken my money … they’ve done this, they’ve done that and they weren’t … aren’t responsive”.

My, my dream situation and I’ve actually done this many times … is to have a three way phone call … a conference call of reconciliation I like to call it … where the three of us … the three parties get together and we … literally, I’m like Kissinger … I’m just talking in between these two and trying to get them to make peace and also saying to the company, “I think if you do or say the following things, this guy might actually be a customer of yours again”. And then I would say to the customer … is like, is, is that possible … is it even possible you would use FedEx or whatever again if they did x,y,z?”

And often they would say “yes”. And I … although I understand exactly why you would think this would make a person more cynical … I’m constantly striving for the happy ending. It’s not always easy to achieve, but that’s kind of my, my ultimate goal.

HEFFNER: But I repeat the question because I wonder whether you have seen, over the time you’ve done The Haggler …

SEGAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … have you seen this growing? This effort to take advantage in every which way, because I must admit, as I pick up my paper in the morning … I think, “My god, we’re getting worse on every level …

SEGAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … we’re getting worse”. And I wondered whether The Haggler finds that, too?

SEGAL: I think that it would be a mistake for me to draw a lot of conclusions based on my email to The Haggler because this, of course, is a column that invites people to send …

HEFFNER: To complain.

SEGAL: (laugh) to him … to send to me the worst things that have happened to them. You know, I don’t ask them for, like, wonderful, cheerful news … if I did … I might get some nice stories. And, in fact, the reality is that I’d say one out of fifty letters is someone saying “I had a great experience, I know you don’t write about this, but I had this … such a wonderful experience with … you know … United … I just want to tell you about it.”

And I have written a column or two where I just say, “I have collected the following, you know, five emails from people complimenting a company … and just to take a break from, you know, criticizing, I’m going to focus on, on the upside”.

I usually then will get an email from, from a reader saying, “Come on, don’t, don’t do that. The Haggler is all about, you know, making justice … producing justice”.

HEFFNER: Well, aside from accentuating the positive instead of the negative, are there areas … and we have a minute or so left in, in our time today … are there areas of American life where you think things are getting more exploitative, because that’s what we’re talking about?

SEGAL: More exploitative? Hmmm …

HEFFNER: Banks? Airlines? Whatever?

SEGAL: Well, I mean … I … certainly the number of emails that I get about airlines is a, is kind of staggering. And I’ve had a bunch of experiences myself with airlines that are really pretty terrible. I had actually an interesting combination of positive and terrible, recently …

HEFFNER: In 30 seconds.

SEGAL: Okay. So UPS … I’m going to write about this … lost my passport … I was supposed to go to Canada … UPS overnighted by passport and it was gone. Literally they can’t find it. They still haven’t found it. This was days ago.

I (laugh) … so I had to cancel my trip to Canada and so I called Delta and I said “I have to cancel that flight to Vancouver, instead I’ve got to go back to New York because UPS has lost my passport.” The woman said, “Oh my god, I can’t stand UPS … let me tell you my …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEGAL: … UPS story … and she did and then she said “I’m waiving all the change fees. I’m waiving them … this is outrageous. So, don’t, don’t worry about the fees.” So you get the good and the bad at the same time some times.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s on the good note then …

SEGAL: (Laugh) Okay.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.

SEGAL: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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