Summarizing the ABA Podcast with Dean Polden and Dean Van Zandt

The ABA Journal podcast was a great opportunity for Law School Transparency to explain our mission to a wider audience. One of our goals is to help shape the ongoing discussion about law school costs and benefits, paying particular attention to employment reporting standards. Articles that discuss our transparency initiative are always welcome, but by talking about the need for transparency alongside key players like Dean Van Zandt and Dean Polden we are hopefully setting the stage for a strong reception when we make our official request. LST will have another outreach opportunity next week when Patrick Lynch appears on a panel about the growing number of lawyers in Tennessee.

During the podcast, Dean Polden pointed out that the employment rate of 2009 graduates “is probably an accurate figure, but does not tell readers whether or not those individuals are employed at a law job or at a nonlaw job.” He also noted that it does not tell readers whether graduates are “fully employed or underemployed,” or whether the job obtained is “their highest preferred job.” Dean Van Zandt was more skeptical of the employment rate, but agreed that schools can do a better job presenting the employment picture for incoming students.

This is where LST comes in.

Once schools follow the LST standard, prospectives will be able to see, in a way that is meaningful, where every graduate works. On getting law schools to present a more accurate picture of the job market, Dean Van Zandt said our plan is “one good idea,” though he emphasizes the need for an independent auditor as well. More specifically, he believes that schools “need to publish results for all their programs broken down the way [LST is] suggesting.” For him, the kinds of positions graduates obtain matter. He also wants applicants to be able to know what kind of value the law school investment can add.

Whether or not he means this to be broken down by school – and we think it’s a reasonable inference that he does – LST wants applicants to know what kind of value this law school provides versus that law school. Employment details about specific graduates at multiple schools will allow this comparison so that prospectives can make choices based on fit.

As Dean Polden points out, however, there are costs associated with the complexity that follows from drilling down employment opportunities for a better picture of the legal hiring landscape. For at least some aspects of employment information, Dean Polden agrees that “greater transparency is absolutely necessary.” The question remains whether he agrees with the level our standard will set.

With respect to the ABA standard, he wants to make sure that the level is set to “stay ahead of the scammers and the schemers that are concerned with manipulating rankings.” And as far as improving the standard, he points out that the goal is “to get more meaningful information . . . in a way that is not a big data dump for prospective students—so much information that it becomes meaningless.”

This is a plausible criticism of the LST standard, though he did not directly levy it towards us. If every ABA-approved law school participates in our first year of data collection, prospectives will have over 80,000 rows of information to mine through (two for each graduate, one on each list). Granted, prospectives will not need to compare every school, but the sentiment remains that prospectives could face information overload.

One way we plan to help is to provide all of the data we receive to the public. This permits faculty, prospectives, and others to develop derivative tools to make the data more manageable. By enabling this marketplace, those that are both willing and capable can produce tools that answer many of the questions prospectives ask about employment opportunities at various law schools. LST will also point out holes in the data where they exist and open up dialogue with schools to figure out why they did not comply with our standard. Though different than the auditing process Dean Van Zandt has been calling for, we will also rely on the public to alert us as to any discrepancies they find.

But how do we ensure that people do not create derivative tools that distort or undermine the data? We suggest in our paper that:

Clear guidelines and explanations, along with an accessible and active staff will go a long way to stave such misuse, but the solution must be a community effort. The alternatives – restricted access to data and information or too strong of oversight of how this data and information are used – would go against the purpose of this new standard. It would continue producing information asymmetry in a market that already sees tens of thousands of people each year potentially making uninformed financial decisions. Providing open, uninhibited access to information is the only way to fulfill Justice Brandeis’ mandate that “the disclosure must be real. And it must be a disclosure to the investor.”

As Dean Polden observed, prospectives have become increasingly insistent in pursuing employment information, so much so that his own law school (Santa Clara Law) has changed what they disclose because of what he calls “the greater curiosity and interest and concern that applicants and admitted students have.” We recently reminded prospectives about their ability to encourage even more disclosure from the schools:

Out of all the stakeholders, the greatest information-forcing authority lies with you. As we have mentioned many times on discussion boards like Top Law Schools, you should leverage your acceptances to procure additional information from the law schools. We regret that we will not be making our request until after you have likely made your decision, however many ABA-approved law schools are already on notice that many of you want better information. This initiative began with requests from prospective law students, and its success will depend on your continued support of this initiative. As always, you can send us any information related to post-graduation outcomes you receive. Good hunting.

A summary of the ABA Journal Podcast is now available on the ABA Journal website.

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