Senators Take On Law Schools for Failing Students

Law schools just made some new enemies. This week, lawmakers from both parties sharply criticized U.S. law schools for leaving students with overwhelming debt and degrees that may not get them jobs.

“We need to move away from a system that results in too many law school graduates twisting in the wind,” said Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in an e-mailed statement. Putting law graduates in a position from which they might default on federal loans “isn’t good for the graduates, and it isn’t good for the taxpayers,” he added.

Grassley said he was “troubled” by problems illustrated in a new report by Law School Transparency, an advocacy group. The report highlighted the large numbers of under-prepared students being accepted into law schools. Test scores have declined for the lowest-achieving students since 2010 at the majority of law schools. Padding classes with underqualified students, the report said, is “leaving thousands deep in debt with few prospects for employment that will enable them to pay off their debt.”

Bar exam pass rates have fallen precipitously for the second year in a row. During the summer, scores on the standardized portion of the bar exam hit their lowest point since 1988.

On Monday, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) blamed the government’s generous loan programs for encouraging troubled law schools to hike prices. In 2006, Congress made new federal loans available to graduate students, allowing them to take out as much debt as they want in order to finance their education.

“Now that we’ve taken the cap off what you can borrow for graduate courses, they have decided they are going to just charge to the heavens in terms of tuition for worthless, worthless law school degrees” said Durbin, at a Congressional meeting on student debt this week, referring to for-profit law schools.

By 2013, the sticker price at private law schools had shot up to nearly $42,000, from $25,600 in 2003. The typical law graduate held $118,600 in debt, according to Law School Transparency.

“When I ask the presidents of universities ‘Why do you charge so much to go to law school?’ they say ‘Because we can; the students are applying and they’ll pay whatever we tell them,’” Durbin said.

The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, has a rule aimed at preventing institutions from enrolling people who don’t have a shot at eventually becoming lawyers. The organization needs to start enforcing it, said Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency.

“Schools aren’t supposed to be admitting people who aren’t capable of passing the bar. The ABA has never enforced this standard, and they need to start.”

Posted in ABA, bankruptcy, Debt, Politics, Student Loans

The Debt Burden of Law School Graduates

To the Editor:

Re “The Law School Debt Crisis” (editorial, Oct. 25):

The New York Times fails to make its case on law school debt. Law students borrow more than undergrads, but most are able to repay, and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.

Many law schools are downsizing to maintain standards. Since 2010, first-year enrollment has dropped from 52,500 to 37,900, a level last seen in 1973 — much smaller and the rule of law may begin to fray. Our country needs lawyers, prosecutors, defenders and judges, not only lawyers in big cities and big law firms.

Capping graduate federal loans as the editors suggest would fall hardest on students from modest circumstances who will not be able to attend law school or will need to resort to private loans, which are typically more expensive, and repayment is not income-contingent.

Finally, the editorial recommends that law student loan money be redirected to legal services. More money is certainly needed for legal services, but taking loan money from law students is both bad economics and bad policy.





The writers are, respectively, president, president-elect and executive director of the Association of American Law Schools. Mr. Morant is dean of George Washington University Law School, and Ms. Testy is dean of the University of Washington School of Law.

To the Editor:

Your editorial referring to Florida Coastal School of Law paints a picture that is not supported by the facts.

The majority of our students pass the bar, and the vast majority of our alumni have successful careers in law. In February 2015 we had a 75 percent first-time bar pass rate, third best out of 11 law schools in the state, and an institutional ultimate pass rate of 87 percent.

You are right that Florida Coastal is a for-profit law school. But you are wrong to imply that for-profit is inherently bad. Sometimes it takes a for-profit entity to right a wrong — in this case the lack of diversity in law schools. At Florida Coastal 44.8 percent of the student body are members of minority groups.

You are also right that our students have a higher debt load than we would like. That is an area we take very seriously. But if you want to diversify the profession, then you will have to admit students who do not have the same resources as students at “elite” law schools.

In such a context, it is improper to judge schools on the size of student debt rather than on how well students repay their debt. Our alumni repay their loans at a higher rate than many “elite” universities; only about 1.1 percent of alumni at Florida Coastal are in default.


Jacksonville, Fla.

The writer is dean of Florida Coastal School of Law.

To the Editor:

“The Law School Debt Crisis” raises an important social justice issue — the burden of great debt for many law school graduates.

But another social justice issue relates to law school debt. For many students, high debt drives legal employment preferences and decisions — in exactly the wrong direction. Being deeply in debt at graduation drives young lawyers away from crucial but less highly compensated public interest practice, which leaves low-income and moderate-income communities chronically underrepresented.

Law schools have a responsibility to provide an excellent education at an affordable price. High debt cannot be allowed to coerce young attorneys toward only the most remunerative legal practice.

As we have seen with so many graduates of CUNY School of Law, serving low- and moderate-income individuals can form the basis of a deeply rewarding career and a meaningful life.


New York

The writer is dean at CUNY School of Law.

To the Editor:

Your editorial correctly notes the astronomical debt and diminishing job prospects facing most law school graduates today. While that is a problem requiring multifaceted solutions, there is a relatively simple step that could modestly increase law students’ income while giving them opportunities to obtain valuable training for a future job.

The American Bar Association, which has exclusive authority to accredit the nation’s law schools, prohibits academic credit for law students working for a law firm or other private legal employer if they are paid for that work. The problem is that courts have interpreted the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit employers from offering unpaid internships if the intern’s work benefits the employer.

The result is that a third-year law student can work for a government or nonprofit law office (to which the wage law does not apply) and receive academic credit, but the law student cannot receive credit for the same work for a private legal employer, since the student must be paid in order for the employer to avoid the high risk of costly litigation. The A.B.A. should lift this outmoded prohibition.


New York

The writer is president of the New York City Bar Association.

To the Editor:

“The Law School Debt Crisis” suggests that a “majority” of America’s more than 200 A.B.A.-approved law schools are behaving unscrupulously by charging high tuition and saddling graduates with unmanageable debt. In fact, data shows that law school graduates have lower default rates than other professional degree holders — and a law degree continues to be a sound investment over the course of a career.

Since 2010, law schools have responded to the changed legal job market by dramatically cutting first-year enrollment by 28 percent, which will bring supply more into line with demand. Schools, including Fordham Law, where I am dean, also have expanded scholarship aid and sharpened academic programs to provide the training employers seek.

Talented students are drawn to the legal profession because lawyers play a vital role serving individuals and institutions in our society. While The Times rightly emphasizes the need for lawyers for the indigent, cutting federal loans will only narrow the pool of people who can pursue a legal career and decrease the availability of lawyers to serve this need.


New York

To the Editor:

I disagree with your editorial, which characterizes law schools as overcharging students and taking advantage of federal loans. Yes, law schools (like medical schools) are too expensive and the model under which they are constructed is being rethought, but the editorial overlooks a few important points.

In recent years, many law schools have been overhauling their programs to provide more hands-on skills training. Clinics cost more than big lectures, but they prepare lawyers for practice and teach them about their professional responsibility to serve people unable to pay for services.

Second, while the editorial accurately depicts the scarcity of lawyers to represent low-income clients, it fails to acknowledge that debt-burdened law graduates can’t afford to take low-paying public service jobs unless there is a Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. This federal program benefits public service lawyers and others, including police officers, firefighters and teachers, by allowing them to earn forgiveness after 10 years of service and on-time payments.

Unfortunately, there are proposals in Congress to cap or eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness. It is critical to preserve this program to ensure that people can perform a vital public service without being blocked by their debt.


Executive Director

Equal Justice Works


Posted in ABA, Opinion, Politics, Student Loans

The Contingent Quandary

By Andrew R. McIlvaine

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Eric Castro has never even seen, let alone met, the overwhelming majority of the people who work for his company.

An army of approximately 2,300 technicians who work as independent contractors make up the bulk of Atlanta-based Ammacore’s workforce. Their work includes installing cabling and rack servers, and performing other electronic-maintenance and troubleshooting work at the firm’s clients around the country.

The company uses a crowdsourcing platform to find these workers and assign them to clients. Once a job is finished, Ammacore rates the technicians on the quality of their work and their reliability — and, likewise, the techs rate the company on its reliability, support and the timeliness of its payments.

“We’ve always used this model,” says Castro, Ammacore’s chief operating officer, who oversees its HR function.

The arrangement is beneficial to both Ammacore and the technicians, he says. In fact, Castro thinks it’s a model for the employment relationship of the future.

“People enjoy being their own boss and having the ability to turn down work they don’t want, and crowdsourcing gives them visibility into the companies that want to hire them,” he says.

Castro is far from alone. Proponents of the “gig economy” — also referred to as the sharing economy, the 1099 economy, etc. — say it gives workers more freedom to choose who they work for, and when and how they work. Smartphone apps have enabled companies such as Uber, Lyft and Taskrabbit to assemble virtual workforces that can be summoned by customers with a few taps — while giving the workers themselves the freedom to accept or decline assignments.

“I’m seeing a gradual movement to people being able to realize a bit more entrepreneurial freedom,” says Steve Cadigan, the former chief human resource officer of LinkedIn who’s now started his own consulting firm, Cadigan Talent Ventures. Cadigan, whose recruiting staff at LinkedIn consisted of 40 percent contingents, cites the Affordable Care Act as one of the enablers of the “1099 workforce,” as it makes it easier for people to obtain health insurance that isn’t tied to a full-time job.

Statistics on the size of the gig workforce are hard to come by. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ last attempt to measure the number of freelance workers was in 2005, when it found that 31 percent of the U.S. population worked as freelancers.

Much more recent studies — one from MBO Partners, the other from the Freelancers Union and Upwork — suggest the current number of freelancers accounts for 19 percent and 34 percent of the U.S. workforce, respectively. Both sources have skin in the game, it should be noted — MBO Partners sells products and services to freelancers and the Freelancers Union/Upwork offers job listings for these workers — and their surveys were not scientifically conducted.

However, the number for the category of jobs performed mostly by part-time freelancers or part-time independent contractors grew from 20 million to 32 million between 2001 and 2014, rising to almost 18 percent of all jobs, according to Economic Modeling Specialists International, a labor market and analytics firm based in Moscow, Idaho.

The gig economy is also controversial — a lawsuit filed against ride-sharing service Uber in California asserting the company’s drivers are misclassified as independent contractors is just one of a number of cases being filed against these sharing-economy companies. Although the Uber case is specific to California law, “what happens in California doesn’t necessarily stay in California,” warns employment attorney Robert Whitman, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in New York (see sidebar).

The use of contingent labor draws scrutiny from states as well as the federal government due to the potential for missed tax revenue (companies don’t pay federal or state payroll taxes when they use contingents), experts warn.

Even so, proponents say the gig economy — in its various forms — brings with it too many benefits for it to be considered just a trend. And HR leaders, they say, need to understand it and determine whether and how it fits in with their organization’s talent-management strategy.

“HR [leaders have] not done a great job of acknowledging the gig-economy concept and committing themselves to go[ing] through all the different channels to find the right person,” says Jason Averbook, CEO of Los Angeles-based The Marcus Buckingham Cos. “Most of the time, they just open a requisition and try to recruit a full-timer.”

Connecting with Talent 

Castro oversaw a major shift to contract workers at his previous employer, computer retailer CompUSA. Under his direction, the firm changed its computer-repair and services arm from a traditional employment model to one comprised almost entirely of independent contractors.

Under the old model, uneven customer demand meant full-time technicians and their vans were often idle while waiting for calls.

“We let go of 80 percent of the technicians we had and switched to a 100-percent outsourced model,” says Castro. “We ended up having no backlogs, we were no longer constricted by the skill sets we had on hand and we were thus able to take on a greater variety of jobs.”

Castro says companies and independent contractors benefit from the crowdsourcing model, in which both parties rate each other on their reliability, dependability and results. To find its technicians, Ammacore uses Work Market, a New York-based “freelance-management system” designed to connect clients with independent contractors. Work Market offers screening and credentialing services designed to help companies find qualified workers in a given geographic area. Other vendors that offer similar services include Upwork (formed by the merger of Elance and oDesk); MBO Connect, from MBO Partners; and

Ammacore employs a community manager who communicates with the techs before, during and after a project to ensure they have all the information they need. The company rates the techs via Work Market on their promptness, performance and reliability. Meanwhile, the techs rate Ammacore on factors such as the timeliness of their payments, reliability and communication during projects.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, says Castro.

Techs who perform poorly are warned they risk being grouped into “the bottom 10 percent,” he says. Those who perform well — including individuals who receive compliments from customers — receive small bonuses. At the same time, Ammacore depends on the good ratings it receives to attract talented workers.

“1099s live paycheck to paycheck, so pay timeliness is very important to them,” says Castro. “If they weren’t paid on time, it would affect our ratings and make it harder for us to attract the best people.” He’s proud of the company’s 98.4 percent rating from techs on Work Market.

“You can’t push people in this model — they can choose whether to do business with you or not and, if you don’t treat people well, you could find yourself out of business,” he says.

The “Human Cloud”

Organizations that would rather not deal with the hassle of finding contingent workers themselves also have options other than relying on full-time employees.

Tammy Browning, senior vice president for field operations at Philadelphia-based Yoh Staffing, says a growing number of companies are contracting out major chunks of work — such as building new software or creating new video games — to outside staffing firms.

“We’re seeing changes in terms of managed-services business, in which companies outsource a particular line of business for another company to manage — that way, there are no blurred lines in terms of who’s managing whom,” she says. “It’s a growing sector of our business.”

Another option is to “crowdsource” a job by breaking it down into components and having outsiders do it. Amazon’s Mechanical Turks, People Per Hour, Archability and Topcoder, which was acquired by San Francisco-based Appirio in 2013, are examples of these so-called “human cloud” services.

“I describe it as our clients using us to find results, not talent,” says Harry West, Appirio’s vice president of services product management.

On Topcoder, companies create a challenge — solve this problem, build an app that does this, etc. — and offer prize money for whoever comes up with the best solution. One of the firm’s clients, Honeywell, used Topcoder to create a mobile app that can tap into Internet-connected sensors embedded in a building’s HVAC systems to make it easier for customers to monitor their facilities via a tablet.

“They’d tried building it themselves for several months but lacked the skills to take all those requirements and turn them into a compelling mobile customer experience,” says West.

So who are these people on Topcoder who can do this sort of work?

Many are scientists, while others are software engineers who work at places such as Google, and some are talented coders from overseas, in countries where a cash prize of $6,000 can be equivalent to several months’ salary, says West.

“A lot of them have full-time jobs elsewhere, but view working on Topcoder as a development opportunity,” he says. “These tend to be people who like to learn.”

Similar to other crowdsourcing platforms, Topcoder has a ranking system for its members: Red is the top rating, while gold is second best.

Although crowdsourcing eliminates the need to screen and hire people, HR still has an important role to play, says West.

“It makes sense for HR to learn about which areas of work lend themselves to the crowd so they can intervene when a department can’t find a qualified person [and ask], ‘Is there a crowd equivalent that would get us a better result, rather than trying to add headcount to our organization?’ ” he says.

“How much sense does it make to fight a talent war you’re never going to win?” says West. “You don’t need to own the talent to have the capability.”

Like other aspects of the gig economy, crowdsourcing platforms haven’t been immune to legal problems. CrowdFlower, a “micro-tasking” crowd service, recently paid a $600,000 settlement to plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit claiming their compensation for assignments via CrowdFlower amounted to far less than minimum wage.

Nevertheless, crowdsourcing’s proponents say it’s an intriguing option that HR needs to pay attention to, especially in an era when the pressure some companies are under from upstarts in their industry can make hiring for the long-term costlier and riskier.

“Crowdsourcing is a very creative approach, and I would like to see the HR community get more aggressive in this regard,” says Averbook.

Training Still Matters 

Regardless of whether gig workers do their work in your office or in a far-off country, manager training is crucial.

For on-site workers, “If HR doesn’t do a good job of blending these workers together, there’s a high probability that some of these workers could get bullied and those companies will have a harder time leveraging the gig economy than those that are prepared for it,” says Averbook, whose company counts at least 50 gig workers among its total workforce of about 100.

Companies that successfully manage freelancers do several things, says Donna Wells, CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based online training firm Mindflash: They take the time to orient the freelancers on the “big picture” of what they’re working on to help give them context, and they work to make themselves “clients of choice” among freelancers, the same way companies strive to be employers of choice for full-time talent.

“You also need to think seriously about your headquarters managers — very few people are great managers, but it’s an order of magnitude easier to manage people who are co-located compared to remote freelancers and independent contractors,” says Wells.

HR needs to train managers in how to interview effectively over the phone, how to onboard freelancers remotely and how to know when the work is getting done — and done based on a quality standard — when you’re not seeing them every day, she says.

Interestingly, freelancers have the opportunity to serve as “reverse mentors,” considering the opportunities they’ve had to observe firsthand what works and what doesn’t work at other companies in the field, she says.

“I think there’s a reverse-training opportunity, where the freelancer — who’s seen the best and worst practices in a given industry — can put together a presentation on it,” says Wells. “I’ve always found freelancers to be delighted to be asked to be the teacher and not the student.”

When it comes to freelance talent, one of the biggest challenges is maintaining an “alumni base” of such talent and, of course, knowing which ones to choose, says Averbook. “It’s really understanding who’s worked with us before and who we call on again before we start searching for new gig talent,” he says.

Many core HR systems, including those from Workday, SuccessFactors and Oracle, have the ability to store data on contingent workers.

“Most HR people don’t use their systems for that, which is a tragedy and a travesty — instead, they end up storing this information with accounts payable,” says Averbook.

By doing this, HR is missing an opportunity to track freelance talent — how successful they were, work histories, security clearances and their performance.

“Teams these days are almost always made up of full-timers and freelancers, so in order to truly understand a team’s performance, you can’t just look at the employees — you also have to look at the freelancers and contractors,” he says.

Instead, many business leaders go out and hire freelancers on their own without involving HR, he says.

Human resource professionals should also — to the extent that is legally possible — try and help contingent workers stay engaged, says Averbook.

“We often communicate to employees, but because we don’t want to share confidential information with contractors, we don’t include them in communications and don’t include them in employee meetings,” he says. “That ends up driving down engagement among these workers.”

At TMBC, Averbook now includes gig workers in all employee meetings, and addresses confidentiality concerns by having them sign strict nondisclosure agreements as part of their contract.

“When you have all these rules around how you deal with gig workers, at a certain point they start asking, ‘Why do I want to get treated like this?’ Treat them as close to employees as humanly possible.”

Read also:

Scrutiny Over Independent Contractors

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Posted in crowdsourcing, Economy, Freelancer, HR, Law

How Law Schools Will Pull Out Of ‘Death Spiral’

Deterred by the rising cost of law school and horror stories about graduates with six-figure loan debt who are unable to land a job, Americans are losing interest in becoming lawyers.

Declining Applications

Since hitting an all-time high of 171,514 in 2009-2010, the number of students taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) has declined for five years in a row. Only 101,689 students took the LSAT last year — levels not seen since the late 1990s.

The number of people applying for law school has declined in nine out of the last 10 years, falling from 100,600 in 2004 to 55,700 last year, according to the Law School Admission Council.

Law School Debt

While some who view the entire legal profession with disdain might see the decline in law school enrollment as a welcome trend, the big picture is nothing to cheer about.

The New America Foundation estimates that law school students graduated with an average of $88,634 in student debt in 2004. By 2012, the debt burden carried by newly-minted law school graduates had soared to $140,616, requiring payments of $1,187 a month.

The Illinois State Bar Association has warned that rising debt levels mean fewer lawyers can afford to take modest-paying public interest jobs with legal aid services or the government, or with law firms that primarily provide services to middle class and poor households.

The good news is that law school graduates who pass the bar exam have a good shot at landing a job, and can often refinance their law school debt with private lenders at lower rates.

The bad news is that the scramble for applicants is forcing some law schools to lower their standards, and unqualified students are failing the bar exam in “alarmingly high numbers,” The New York Times recently warned in an editorial describing the “law school death spiral.”

LSAT scores are a good predictor of whether a student will pass the bar exam, and a recent analysis by the advocacy group Law School Transparency shows a steady decline in scores.

Last year, LSAT scores at 37 law schools were so low that half of incoming students were considered to be at high risk of failing the bar. In 2010, the same could be said for only nine schools.

“We are not aware of a time when so many law schools had something like an open enrollment policy,” the study’s authors said, noting that four out of five applicants were accepted by at least one school. Relaxed admission standards make it inevitable that the percentage of graduates who pass the bar “will drop significantly over the next three years, leaving thousands deep in debt with few prospects for employment that will enable them to pay off their debt.”


The Times and others blame the rising cost of law school on the 2006 extension of federal Direct PLUS Loans to cover the full tuition and living expenses of graduate or professional school.

The solution? The Times’ Editorial Board suggests diverting some of the money now going to law schools to make more lawyers, and instead channeling it to legal services organizations who will actually hire them to represent the poor.

“Even as law schools are churning out unqualified graduates stuck under hopeless mountains of debt, millions of poor and lower-income Americans remain desperate for quality legal representation,” The Times laments.

Government regulators have already imposed tougher standards on private, for-profit law schools. A new “gainful employment” rule inspired by problems at Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit schools requires that career-focused schools serving students receiving federal student aid demonstrate that their graduates receive skills and training that helps them land jobs.

The six for-profit law schools that will be affected by the rule could already be doomed. Crunching the numbers for The American Lawyer, Matt Leichter concludes that those schools will have to “slash tuition or dissuade students from relying on Grad PLUS loans to finance their living expenses, even if it costs them students.”

But the gainful employment rule does not apply to 200 public and private nonprofit law schools, “even though many of them arguably serve their students no better than the for-profits the gainful employment rule means to target,” Leichter notes.

Law School Transparency’s analysis demonstrates that many of those schools have admissions policies that are just as lax — or more lax — than for-profit schools. There were 74 schools in 2014 where 25 percent of students were considered at high risk of failing the bar, and 68 of them were public or private nonprofits.

The American Bar Association, which only accredits law schools that meet its standards, has been keeping close tabs on the issues facing law school graduates. While the ABA has stepped in when it thinks schools aren’t maintaining high standards for quality, Law School Transparency and other critics say it should also crack down on schools that admit students they know have a slim chance of passing the bar.

Specifically, Section 501 of the “ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools” states:

“A law school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”

But slamming the door in the face of bright students who want to attend law school despite lackluster LSAT scores would unfairly deny them a shot at a career in law. While many of those low-performing students will fail the bar, others ultimately pass. Shutting down schools that serve students with marginal LSAT scores could undermine goals of increasing diversity of the legal profession.

A task force assembled by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association has recommended a gainful employment rule for law schools that’s carefully tailored to avoid penalizing schools that serve a greater proportion of disadvantaged and minority students, or whose graduates are more inclined to work in legal aid or government jobs.

Policymakers need to tread carefully, because market forces have already begun to slow the “law school death spiral.”

In a report issued this summer, the ABA’s Task Force on Financing Legal Education noted that while employment rates for graduates of the lowest performing law schools remain in decline, employment rates for middle and top-tier schools have been climbing in recent years.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, there may be more new jobs for lawyers next year than there are law school graduates.

So the ABA argues that it’s a little late in the game to be talking about capping law student loans, requiring law schools to have “skin in the game,” or even scrapping the current federal student loan program altogether, as some critics have urged.

“In reality, there seems to be little need to impose the kind of tough love some want because the market is already doing it — in some instances brutally,” the report said. “Enrollments are declining and not just marginally.”

Law School Transparency and other groups have blamed the ABA for the proliferation of marginal law schools, saying the association has been lax about accreditation.

In its report this summer, the ABA recognized that it can help shine a spotlight on school performance by making public all of the information it collects in the accreditation process, and to start collecting more detailed information on expenditures like salaries, information technology and libraries.

More Immediate Fix

Like all students making decisions about their higher education path, prospective law students need access to information and tools that can help them choose a school that minimizes their debt burden and maximizes their job prospects.

Gainful employment rules tailored for law schools would serve as a good first line of defense, by weeding out consistently low performing schools.

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Posted in Uncategorized

Universities fail to keep pace with industry

Law schools continue to promote traditional roles that create narrow-minded students, but graduates are increasingly seeking New Law and other industry opportunities.

New research from online legal job board Beyond Law has revealed law graduates are looking beyond the traditional legal roles as job prospects remain at all-time lows.

Beyond Law managing director Anthony Lieu (pictured) said law students often only hear about commercial law positions at university and remain uninformed of the various opportunities that exist.

“That can create a narrow mindset, which continues throughout law school and then finally they figure out towards the end that maybe there are other opportunities out there,” Mr Lieu said.

Mr Lieu believes that while the academic side of law school is suitable for teaching legal theory and black letter law, universities need to continue to offer more support services and help in developing practical skills.

“In the past few years a lot of law schools now offer elective courses with a stronger practical component. By letting law students work in a practical environment, they are able to find a bit more outside the traditional sphere where they can use their law degree.”

New Law demands a different skillset that isn’t taught in law schools, according to Mr Lieu, which is problematic in that universities aren’t preparing their students for the current state of the legal industry.

“The legal sector is undergoing significant structural change: the globalisation of the legal profession, cost-cutting by legal firms, offshoring and outsourcing of legal work, commoditization of legal services and competition of non-legal or online providers.”

He added: “As the industry’s changing, I definitely think universities need to keep up and at the same time promote the opportunities as they emerge.”

Mr Lieu said while universities are “slowly coming around to providing more resources for students to understand where they can use their degree”, there are multiple stakeholders that have to come together to implement change.

The responsibility falls not only on law schools, according to Mr Lieu, but on law student societies and law societies as well.

Law student societies need to be aware that the traditional law firms have a larger marketing spend, and so a conscious effort needs to be made to promote other opportunities that exist in New Law and other industries.

“A law degree is very powerful in the graduate marketplace and it’s more about knowing where you can use your law degree. Traditional law firms are an excellent route, but there’s definitely a lot more out there that students should be aware of as well.”

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Posted in Uncategorized

Temp workers take case to Supreme Court

Temporary warehouse workers for Amazon (AMZN) who had taken their case seeking back pay all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court faced some skeptical questioning Wednesday.

In oral arguments, some justices seemed “disinclined to find that employers must pay workers for time spent waiting to go through anti-theft security checks,” according to The Associated Press. The workers had brought suit against Integrity Staffing Solutions, a contractor for Amazon, claiming that they should be paid for time they spend after their shifts waiting to undergo mandatory security checks the e-commerce company conducts to cut down on employee theft.

The case is being closely watched in the retail industry, which could be on the hook for billions of dollars should the court decide that security screenings are time that should be compensated. Many retail companies require security checks because employee theft is common in the industry. Amazon, along with companies such such as CVS (CVS) and Apple (APPL), have been sued over the practice. Those suits are temporarily on hold pending the outcome of this case.

Virtual staffing companies open up new employment opportunities

The two lead plaintiffs, former Integrity Staffing employees Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, claimed that they often had to wait as long as 25 minutes in line at Amazon warehouses while workers emptied their pockets and walked through metal detectors. A federal district court in Nevada ruled that the wait was not part of their duties and so did not require payment. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, leading Integrity Staffing to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the warehouse workers were technically  employees of Integrity Staffing Solutions and not directly employed by Amazon, all their work occurred at Amazon facilities. They claim that the security checks were ordered by Amazon and only benefited the retailer.

Integrity Staffing argues that waiting to go through a security check was like waiting to punch a time clock, activities that weren’t part of their specific duties. A 1947 law states that employees only have to be compensated for activities that directly benefit the employer.

Various groups have filed briefs in support of one side or the other. The Obama administration surprised some observers by filing an amicus brief siding with Integrity, arguing that the security checks were not “integral and indispensable” to the jobs the workers performed.

Temporary workers hired through contracting firms have become an important source of labor for companies, especially those trying to cut costs. Corporations have outsourced jobs for years when not considered central to a company’s expertise. The thought was that having another company perform duties like bookkeeping, manufacturing or computer programming would allow executives to focus on core operations.

According to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group focused on economic rights for workers,  contract workers puts downward pressure on wages and working conditions. A report by the organization says that temp staffing results in lower pay, effectively keeps workers from unionizing and has “serious impacts on workers’ health.”

High-tech companies including Amazon and Google ( GOOG) routinely used contracting firms to provide workers in a variety of areas, including physical security, food service, warehouse, and maintenance and janitorial operations. Microsoft (MSFT) went so far as to hire large numbers of programmers on a contract basis but without offering benefits. Coders filed multiple class action suits against the company in the 1990s.

Google recently made a move in the opposite direction, with plans to bring temp security guards back into the company as employees with benefits.

Using contract firms became popular for a number of reasons. Companies could insulate themselves from many labor regulations and worker complaints, pointing to the contracting firm as the “real” employer. Employing people on contract also meant that the company might effectively lower total wage and benefit costs and insulate themselves from potential lawsuits.

But such work arrangements have recently come under scrutiny from courts and regulators. The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency tasked with protecting employee rights and guarding against unfair labor practices, instructed the agency’s regional offices to  treat McDonald’s as a co-employer of the workers at its franchised operations. The implications could be large in a series of class actions by employees targeting McDonald’s and franchise owners for allegedly not paying workers for the full amount of time they are required to be on duty.

FedEx Ground also recently lost a recent court case in which drivers for the service claimed they had been improperly classified as contractors rather than employees. A new Kansas Supreme Court ruling that FedEx drivers had been employees allowed similar suits to proceed in the Seventh Circuit.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Freelancer, Law, Supreme Court

Law School Deans Whine About The New York Times Calling Out Their Debt Scam

Last week, the New York Times editorial board took a bold stance against the “Law School Debt Crisis” because of their ongoing commitment to report “all the news that’s fit to print… about six years after the fact.” Still, despite the delay, it was nice to see the august publication join the chorus calling for significant reforms in legal education. And as expected, the parade of butthurt deans immediately took to the pages of the Gray Lady for damage control — and in the case of Florida Coastal, to spout some questionable “facts” in their defense.

The Times focused on the government’s Grad PLUS loan program for contributing to the debt crisis by yanking the ceiling off the amount a student can borrow to cover tuition and living expenses and giving law schools every incentive to jack tuition into the stratosphere. It’s been over two years since Georgetown was caught on video counseling students on methods of gaming the system so the school could collect hefty tuition payments and the students could find forgiveness down the road, leaving the taxpayers holding the bag. But don’t let that promise of forgiveness fool you, the students are still getting a raw deal when the school makes its cash grab.

As one might expect, law school deans weren’t going to take this lying down and fired off a bevy of scurrilous letters to the editor protesting this eminently factual critique. But the best response comes from Florida Coastal School of Law Dean Scott DeVito, whose program was ripe for specific scorn with its $45,000 a year in tuition and floundering employment scores, and DeVito wanted to “set the record straight”:

Your editorial referring to Florida Coastal School of Law paints a picture that is not supported by the facts.

Intriguing. Remember Dean DeVito got this job after another candidate suggested at an internal meeting that the school needed to improve its standing and was ejected from the premises and a federal judge has called out Florida Coastal for playing fast and loose with its facts. So this scolding is going to be good.

In February 2015 we had a 75 percent first-time bar pass rate, third best out of 11 law schools in the state, and an institutional ultimate pass rate of 87 percent.

Fascinating but irrelevant. The New York Times did say that Florida Coastal’s focus on recruiting students with weak test scores and abysmal undergraduate grades (per LST, the Fall 2014 class averaged a 143 LSAT and a 2.9 undergrad GPA) rendered the student body unlikely to pass the bar exam — which is untrue. But this isn’t really the point as much as the fact that Florida Coastal grads labor under tremendous debt and are highly unlikely to net a full-time, long-term job in the law (with a 33.5 percent employment score and a 41.5 percent underemployment score).

In such a context, it is improper to judge schools on the size of student debt rather than on how well students repay their debt. Our alumni repay their loans at a higher rate than many “elite” universities; only about 1.1 percent of alumni at Florida Coastal are in default.

How is this possibly true with 29.5 percent of last year’s graduates unemployed? There must be some fancy accounting at work here. Dean DeVito isn’t going to tackle the unemployment numbers, obviously, but he is quick to change the subject!

You are right that Florida Coastal is a for-profit law school. But you are wrong to imply that for-profit is inherently bad. Sometimes it takes a for-profit entity to right a wrong — in this case the lack of diversity in law schools. At Florida Coastal 44.8 percent of the student body are members of minority groups.

You are also right that our students have a higher debt load than we would like. That is an area we take very seriously. But if you want to diversify the profession, then you will have to admit students who do not have the same resources as students at “elite” law schools.

Wow. The argument is that the school deserves a pat on the back for helping minority groups (who impliedly lack resources) earn a law school education before failing to become working lawyers. One might say that a diverse law school class means very little if the profession itself isn’t getting more diverse, but that’s not the sort of nuance we’d expect the Florida Coastal propaganda ministry to understand.

But more serious voices also complained about the article in decidedly non-serious ways. Like Blake MorantKellye Testy, and Judith Areen, “respectively, president, president-elect and executive director of the Association of American Law Schools.” Morant is the dean of George Washington, Testy is dean of the University of Washington, and Areen is a Georgetown professor — the very school that first demonstrated the pitfalls of the Grad PLUS program:

The New York Times fails to make its case on law school debt. Law students borrow more than undergrads, but most are able to repay, and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.

Many law schools are downsizing to maintain standards. Since 2010, first-year enrollment has dropped from 52,500 to 37,900, a level last seen in 1973 — much smaller and the rule of law may begin to fray. Our country needs lawyers, prosecutors, defenders and judges, not only lawyers in big cities and big law firms.

Most of them pay it back at tremendous financial cost to themselves and their families so rising tuition isn’t a problem. Moreover, as the Times editorial makes perfectly clear, many law graduates forego the sectors of the industry most in need of talent because they need higher paying jobs to avoid default, a point deftly made by CUNY Dean Michelle Anderson:

But another social justice issue relates to law school debt. For many students, high debt drives legal employment preferences and decisions — in exactly the wrong direction. Being deeply in debt at graduation drives young lawyers away from crucial but less highly compensated public interest practice, which leaves low-income and moderate-income communities chronically underrepresented.

To this end, the lower default rate Morant and crew cite (which is for all graduate students, not just law graduates) is not exculpatory, but proof of the ongoing crisis. The crocodile tears that the country needs “MOAR LAWYERS” is cynicism at its finest as the leadership of the Association of American Law Schools blames the students and the media — but never their members’ onerous tuition hikes — for the shortage of new lawyers and the “downsizing to maintain standards” that law schools are experiencing. Yes, we see that commitment to high standards everywhere we look…

Capping graduate federal loans as the editors suggest would fall hardest on students from modest circumstances who will not be able to attend law school or will need to resort to private loans, which are typically more expensive, and repayment is not income-contingent.

Well, it would if the school chooses to keep its tuition artificially inflated. Rolling back tuition to levels seen before the Grad PLUS extension might help those “students from modest circumstances” they care so much about when trying to defuse a PR nightmare. But that’s implicitly a non-starter in these letters. Whether law schools really need all this tuition money to provide a solid education is largely ignored (except for one comment by David Stern of Equal Justice Works, who posits that “practice ready” education costs more, begging the question whether “practice ready” education is worth the investment).

But that’s the cycle of the law school reform discussion — warranted criticism meets disingenuous scare-mongering about hurting low-income students.

Here’s a follow-up question that we dare these complaining deans to answer: If you were forced to cut your tuition 15 percent, how would you adjust your budget? No one would volunteer a response to that question because getting into the nuts and bolts of bloated administrative budgets and useless classes would expose this lie right quick.

Instead, the deans will keep this discussion at the 30,000-foot level. There wasn’t a single specific reform offered to address the debt load facing law students other than “don’t take away our free money,” which is disgraceful when the legal profession faces the crises of declining enrollment, lower standards, and a widening justice gap.

Keep aiming for that iceberg, law schools — this thing is unsinkable!

The Law School Debt Crisis [New York Times]
The Debt Burden of Law School Graduates [New York Times]
Letter to the Editors [Florida Coastal School of Law]

Earlier: Law Schools Devise Trick To Game Taxpayers
Who Is To Blame For The Dumbing Of The Legal Profession?
School Threatens To Call Security When Dean Candidate Suggests It’s A Crappy Law School
Judge Says Never Trust Anything A For-Profit Law School Tells You

Posted in ABA, bankruptcy, Debt, Department of Education, Student Loans

Study Cites Lower Standards in Law School Admissions

As law schools across the country try to keep their classrooms full, many are admitting students with lesser qualifications, including those with a lower admissions test score — considered an important predictor of whether a graduate will earn the credentials to practice law.

About a third of the 204 accredited law schools had entering classes last year with at least 25 percent of the class consisting of “at risk” students, or those with law school admissions test scores of below 150, according to a new study by Law School Transparency, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Law school admissions scores closely mirror the final results of the state bar exams, which graduates must pass to qualify as licensed lawyers. Many in legal education consider a score of 150 as a telling dividing line between future success or failure.

“Too many law schools are filling their entering classes with people who face serious risk of not passing the bar exam,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, which he helped to found six years ago to promote more open law school practices. He said that last year 45 schools, up from eight in 2010, admitted seriously at-risk students.

Most law schools maintain that test scores are only one indicator, albeit an important one, of the ability to pass the bar. They also say they need flexibility in selecting students to assure a diverse population of lawyers.

Yet many schools are also facing pressure from plummeting enrollments — the lowest in decades. Law school enrollment reached a peak in 2010, as many students fled a troubled economy to the schools’ safe harbor. With a swelling crop of students, bar passage rates soared, but it all began to come apart quickly when jobs in law seemed to melt away overnight as the industry adjusted to a changed economy.

Threatening to further weaken laws schools’ position, initial reports from states show that bar passage rates this year are again slumping.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, a Madison, Wis., organization that oversees the 200-question multiple choice portion of the exam given in most states, found that overall results slipped again, to the lowest point since 1988.

Most states have yet to report the complete results of their July 2015 bar exam, but early numbers paint a dismal picture.

In Oklahoma and New Mexico, for example, the bar passage rates fell by double digits. Oklahoma’s rate tumbled 11 percent, to 68 percent, and New Mexico’s fell 12 percent, to 72 percent, according to Derek T. Muller, a Pepperdine Law School professor who collects the results and posts them on his blog, Excess of Democracy. Arizona was even lower, with an overall passage rate of 65.7 percent this year.

Law graduates typically can take the test over, and repeaters nudge up the pass rate. But the tumbling outcomes for first-time test takers are spurring debate over whether law schools should be admitting students who score poorly on the entry test. The top scores on the multiple-choice exam are between 156 and 180. Scores below 150 are viewed by many as warnings that test takers lack the skills necessary to practice law.

At least two studies, including one this year that examined admissions exam scores from 2000 to 2011, have concluded that scores on the test, administered by the Law School Admission Council, closely track later bar passage rates.

Mr. McEntee of Law School Transparency, a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, said his group’s recent study showed that many schools were admitting students whose lack of legal aptitude made them vulnerable to failing the bar. And, at the same time, they are incurring six-figure student debt that will weigh them down in the future.

The steady erosion in admissions scores between 2010 and 2014, Mr. McEntee, said in his study, is “directly linked to the falling bar exam passage rates in many states.”

One school the study deems as having too many students at high risk is Southern Illinois University School of Law, in Carbondale, Ill. The school, which largely draws its students from Kentucky and Missouri, as well as Illinois, slimmed down its class size to 121 students, from 144 students in 2010. In the last five years, its median law school admissions test score also dropped — to 149 from 153, according to figures it provided to accreditors.

“Our experience has been that someone with a 147 score could pass the bar and someone else with 160 could fail, so we don’t think that there is necessarily a relationship between the test and people’s ability to pass the bar,” said Christopher Behan, the school’s associate dean.

Since 2010, Southern Illinois’s bar passage rate also fell 5 percentage points, to 85.54 percent, according to the school’s figures. To help students pass the bar, the school offers a free summer bar preparation course as well as a separate course in the spring. It also added another bar preparation course during the current fall semester.

Mr. Behan insisted that law school remained a winning proposition, noting that 64.8 percent of its 2014 graduates had full-time jobs requiring a juris doctor degree and bar passage — outpacing the 59.9 percent national placement figure.

Other schools, such as the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, chose to shrink class sizes instead. In the face of low bar passage rates, the school lopped off its lowest 25 percent of students and recruited those with strong grade point averages and admissions test scores.

“We had to deal with a dreadful problem with bar passage. The passage rate was 57 percent, so we were 18 percent below the state’s average pass rate,” said Martin J. Katz, the school’s dean.

“We had egg on our faces and our graduates were up in arms,” Mr. Katz recalled. And since most of its graduates remain in the Denver area, those were sentiments the school could not ignore, he added.

“Despite 100 different theories, only a few things correlated: admissions scores and grade point averages,” he said. “We used any combination of them that gave the student a pass rate.”

For students, the current landscape of fewer legal jobs and higher debt means they want more information when considering law school.

Aaron P. Sohaski, who will graduate next year from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan, said law schools “need to be more transparent about what the outcomes can be.”

Such information “needs to be proactive because people don’t always notice all the details,” said Mr. Sohaski, who was chairman of the American Bar Associationstudent law division in 2014-15.

While most law schools say no drastic changes are needed, Rebecca W. Berch, retired chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, who is currently chairwoman of the A.B.A.’s national accrediting body for legal education, said: “I’d like law schools to be up-front, telling students that your indicators say you may not have what it takes to pass the bar.”

Justice Berch said that there has been debate over instituting a “mini bar” to test students after their first year of law school, but noted that it would be difficult and expensive to administer to about 40,000 students yearly. California demands what is called a baby bar for first-year students at for-profit schools in the state, but that affects a smaller number of students.

Such warnings are not sufficient, said Mr. McEntee, who is urging the A.B.A. to tighten standards now because student debt is rising, with an average of $118,670 in 2014, plus interest.

That rising debt, most of it from federal loans, has raised concerns among federal lawmakers like Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who says that the A.B.A. “accreditation is like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, so consumers look to the accrediting body for answers, when some law schools fall short.”

At-risk law students, Mr. McEntee said, “have little chance of gainful employment in order to pay off the debt they are accumulating.”

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Posted in gainful employment

LinkedIn Releases ProFinder Pilot, Quietly Enters Freelance/Independent Workforce Market

We learned that earlier this week, LinkedIn, the online professional network and recruiting platform, quietly launched a pilot of an new offering that connects businesses and local freelancers. The new offering, called ProFinder, represents LinkedIn’s first foray into the contingent workforce space — something many in the staffing industry have discussed, for some time, as a possibility. Now it has become a reality, or at least potentially. Services procurement practitioners should see this development as further validation that sourcing contingent workers through online platforms is becoming more mainstream.

How About Some Context?

Up to this point, online marketplace and matching platforms (what Spend Matters covers as work intermediation platforms or WIPs) have been spawned by companies that have started from scratch (with the exception of Amazon’s experimental crowdsourcing microtask platform Mechanical Turk). Now we have a large, established company sticking its toe into the space, occupied by platform companies like UpWorkfreelancer.comHourlyNerdGigwalk and hundreds more around the world. If LinkedIn’s pilot eventually evolves into a product roll-out, it’s hard to predict its influence on the space.

At this point, LinkedIn is well-rooted in the workforce space. The company’s largest revenue segment is its online offering for recruiters. In addition, its online social network of 380 million professionals is not only the target of recruitment searches and job postings, it also functions to allow professionals to network — a major way in which people find new jobs. LinkedIn’s platform has largely been focused to professionals and full-time positions and career development. It’s not surprising therefore that LinkedIn is now zeroing in on the professional freelance/independent workforce — a very large and reputedly fast-growing segment of the labor force.

What We Think We Know About ProFinder

What we’ve learned so far this week — as we have not been able to connect with LinkedIn directly (a bit of an irony) — comes from a short San Francisco Chronicle article and the ProFinder website, which is live, as shown here:

ProFinder LinkedIn

That said, here is a list of what we think we know about ProFinder currently:

  • The pilot is now restricted to the greater Bay Area (the website lists 40 Bay Area municipalities as far south as Aptos and as far north as Fort Bragg).
  • According to The Chronicle, the pilot will start with three work categories: accounting, graphic design and writing and editing. However, the website — perhaps in anticipation of expansion — lists a total of 15, with subcategories. Among the 15 are business-oriented professional categories and a few that could bleed over into consumer-oriented (e.g. home improvement/interior design, real estate).
  • ProFinder, nonetheless, appears to be focused on white-collar professionals who choose the freelancing path (full-time or part-time). This makes sense given the nature of the LinkedIn membership.
  • Unlike many online work platforms that are geared to freelancers who will generally be working remotely, it appears that ProFinder will be geared to matching local freelancers with local hirers. We should note, however, that some platforms like Work Market, Gigwalk, Wonola, et. al., are locational, and platforms like Upwork apparently do allow businesses to engage local, onsite freelancers, and has launched a kind of Australian Task Rabbit.
  • While a large proportion of the other platforms are fully integrated with payments systems, it does not appear that ProFinder has such integration (but one wonders what the future might bring).
  • In some ways, ProFinder functions like an online marketplace, but not in the way other online freelance marketplaces allow hirers and workers to directly find one another and consummate an engagement using only the online platform mechanisms. ProFinder seems to be based on another model that not only leverages LinkedIn’s powerful search capabilities, but also has an integral part of the process in which real people vet the short list of candidates who are presented back to the hirer.
  • The ProFinder workflow appears to be as follows: 1) a hirer posts a description of the gig/freelancer needed; 2) through combined algorithmic search and human vetting, a short list of candidates if determined (with 24 hours); 3) the candidates then make proposals to the hirers; finally the hirer selects a candidate, and they both go off happily into the sunset (most likely to return to ProFinder on another day).
  • It appears that, if successful, the pilot will be expanded, Uber-like, to more and more cities.
  • At this time, Profinder is free, for both hirers and freelancers. You read it right. For the time being, LinkedIn is not monetizing this offering.

What Do We Think?

We think that if LinkedIn continues to roll in this direction, this is a development that could make big waves in the online freelancer platform space and could significantly alter the growing freelancer/independent workforce market.

LinkedIn has both an online network of over 300 million profiles members worldwide; and through its recruitment and network offerings, it is already wired into and a known quantity across an enormous number of large enterprises (something which the from-scratch online platform businesses do not).

Other features to round out the platform could be added (and probably are already on the road map); this could include integrated payments, which could be done in partnership with companies like Stripe. When you think about it (our wild speculation only), a partnership with another giant like Intuit would be awesome (in the literal sense of the word) — Intuit released its QuickBooks Self-Employed solution earlier this year.

Freemium pricing, at least early on, could be a killer, scorched-earth go-to-market strategy, which only a giant like LinkedIn could afford. And let us not forget that LinkedIn started with its professional network being a freemium offering; and it still is, but with layers of monetized offerings built on top of it.

One issue could be scaling the human part of the platform offering, but I can think of two possible ways of getting around this: 1) kind of brute force, by engaging increasingly less-employed recruiters to perform the function, perhaps with some kind of online crowdsourcing approach; 2) kind of Kurzweil-singularity-like, increasingly through machine learning where gradually humans are replaced with algorithms and artificial intelligence (and IBM Watson may be waiting in the wings…).

I can think of some online platforms that do human vetting of workers today (Toptal is a good example). But I can think of only one platform — besides some of the field services and a few others mentioned above — that seems to be to be taking a similar human vetting and locational approach with professional freelancers. That would be LocalSolo, a Vancouver-based startup founded in 2014, which has since rolled out to over 50 cities in several countries, including US, Canada, UK, Australia, South Africa.

So in the locational, multi-category online intermediation platforms for the professional freelancer space, with only one truly competitive peer that has gotten, the door still seems quite open for a strong company like LinkedIn to at least capture its slice of this market.

In summary, a new entrant like LinkedIn in the freelancer online WIP space must be watched carefully. It has both financial resources and extraordinary intangible assets (its professional network, its relationships with enterprises, its connections into the human capital and recruiting area) that would make it a formidable player. For services procurement professionals, if nothing else, this development should be viewed as a validation that WIPs are increasingly becoming mainstream, and they should increasingly become a part of their contingent workforce sourcing strategies.

Want to learn more about the opportunities present in engaging freelance and independent workers without the compliance risk? Read our recent complimentary research brief: Businesses Can Engage Independent and Freelance Workers and Mitigate Compliance Risk – Here’s How

Please follow Andrew Karpie on Twitter @andrewkarpie

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Posted in Uncategorized

A Med School Teaches Science And Data Mining

October 30, 2015

Medicine, meet Big Data.

For generations, physicians have been trained in basic science and human anatomy to diagnose and treat the individual patient.

But now, massive stores of data about what works for which patients are literally changing the way medicine is practiced. “That’s how we make decisions; we make them based on the truth and the evidence that are present in those data,” says Marc Triola, an associate dean at New York University School of Medicine.

Figuring out how to access and interpret all that data is not a skill that most physicians learned in medical school. In fact, it’s not even been taught in medical school, but that’s changing.

“If you don’t have these skills, you could really be at a disadvantage,” says Triola, “in terms of the way you understand the quality and the efficiency of the care you’re delivering.”

That’s why every first and second year student at NYU Medical School is required to do what’s called a “health care by the numbers” project. Students are given access to a database with more than 5 million anonymous records — information on every hospital patient in the state for the past two years. “Their age, their race and ethnicity, what zip code they came from,” Triola lists, as well as their diagnosis, procedures and the bills paid on their behalf.

The project, funded in part by an effort of the American Medical Association to update what and how medical students are taught, also includes a companion database for roughly 50,000 outpatients. It’s called the Lacidem Care Group. (Lacidem? That’s “medical,” backwards). It contains data from NYU’s own faculty practices — scrubbed to ensure that neither the patients nor the doctors can be identified. Students can use tools provided by the project to “look at quality measures for things like heart failure, diabetes, smoking, and high blood pressure,” says Triola. “And drill down and look at the performance of the practice as a whole and individual doctors.”

(Left to right) Christine Schindler, Mary Quien and Micah Timen hold a study session. Timen worked as an accountant before medical school; his database project tracked the relative costs of a hip replacement throughout New York compared to the relative costs of a fast-food hamburger.(Photo by Cindy Carpien for KHN/NPR)(Left to right) Christine Schindler, Mary Quien and Micah Timen hold a study session. Timen worked as an accountant before medical school; his database project tracked the relative costs of a hip replacement throughout New York compared to the relative costs of a fast-food hamburger. (Photo by Cindy Carpien for KHN/NPR)

Some students have taken to the assignment with relish. Second-year student Micah Timen is one. Timen likes numbers. A lot. A former accountant before applying to med school, he keeps a spreadsheet to track his study hours before a test. An upcoming test is on the digestive system. “So I know I have 18 hours and 40 minutes left to make sure I feel comfortable walking into my exam,” he says.

For his project, Timen wanted to know if the cost to patients of hip replacement surgery around the state vary as much as the cost of a fast-food hamburger. Timen says they tried comparing hip replacement costs using The Economist magazine’s famous Big Mac Index, which measures purchasing power between currencies. “But when you call McDonald’s, they don’t give you prices over the phone,” he said. So he tried Plan B: “Burger King gave it to me.”

Using his “Whopper Index” instead, Timen found, not surprisingly, that the price of a giant burger sandwich is higher in New York City than, say, Albany. So, too was the amount patients paid for their hip replacements. But the margin was much wider for health care than for hamburgers, meaning patients are paying more in some places than simple geography would suggest. Timen says he’d like to explore why that might be, “but unfortunately med school is a little bit time-consuming,” so that may have to wait.

Still, it turns out the classes appeal not just to data “junkies,” like Timen, but also to those who were not already steeped in crunching data.

“I really have no statistical background,” says Justin Feit, also a second year student. “I don’t even know how to use Excel well.”

So Feit was partnered with Jennifer Lynch, who already has a PhD — in physics. She says that if medicine wasn’t moving in the direction of more data interpretation, “I don’t know if I would have gone into medicine.”

Together Feit and Lynch looked at the rates of cesarean births around the state – and, like the cost of hip replacements, found that C-section rates varied widely. But their project will get more than just a grade. A faculty member at NYU is using it as part of a bigger research project headed for publication.

Triola says he hopes that will happen more and more.

“With literally millions of records, these in-class student projects often involved more patients than the published literature. It’s incredible,” he said.

And the concept of having students learn to use health data is catching on quickly. Triola says NYU is offering its database and program to other medical schools; seven are already incorporating it into their curriculum.

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Posted in Big Data, Medical Education, Medicine, Technology

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