Law School Transparency Reports: The Initial Request

Law School Transparency is pleased to announce a report on our initial request to law schools for detailed employment data. The report documents the initial request, surveys the ensuing media coverage, and analyzes schools’ reasons for declining. We have attached an electronic version of the report to this post. Hard copies of this report will also be mailed to the prelaw advisors at 100 U.S. undergraduate institutions, who together assist roughly 40,000 law school applicants in choosing where to go each year.

Executive Summary

Background

The purpose of this report is to analyze the current interest among U.S. law schools in reforming how they disclose employment information. Reform is necessary because current reporting standards leave prospective law students in the dark about the significant risks involved in pursuing a legal education in the U.S. This report is part of an effort by Law School Transparency (“LST”) to bring together all relevant stakeholders into a focused discussion about the need to establish a new reporting standard. LST sent its initial request (Appendix A) in July 2010 to the administrators of all 199 ABA approved and provisionally-approved law schools, asking them to commit to disclosing post-graduation employment information under a new reporting standard (the “LST Standard”).

This report summarizes the results of LST’s initial request. The report includes a critical examination of the substantive responses from the law schools that responded before the deadline. It also explores reasons why the other law schools may have declined to respond to the initial request. Additionally, the report summarizes the media attention that followed the request. The media has continued to look critically at how law schools are responding (or not responding) to requests for reasonable information.

Findings

Of the 199 schools that LST contacted, 11 schools submitted a response. The rest did not respond to LST’s initial request, though LST did learn that schools were communicating with each other during the response period. The chart below lists the eleven respondent schools, along with the stances they took regarding the Standard. This report contains a closer look at each reason. The full text of the responses can be found in Appendix B.

Law School Stance Primary reason for declining
American University Maybe Waiting for finalized Guidelines to decide
Ave Maria Yes
Creighton University No Compliance costs are too great
Northwestern University No LST is not well-established
Santa Clara University No Compliance costs are too great
University of Colorado No Compliance costs are too great
University of Florida No Prefer other means of improving information
University of Michigan Maybe Should make open records request instead
University of Tennessee No Violates privacy of students and employers
Vanderbilt University Maybe Waiting to examine impact on privacy
William Mitchell No No reason provided

As of the publication of this report, Ave Maria School of Law is the only ABA approved law school to commit to disclosing under the LST Standard. Ave Maria (along with other schools that choose to do so) will disclose employment data for the Class of 2010. According to LST’s request, Ave Maria will release the data soon after the February 15, 2011 deadline. Other law schools can commit officially at any time.

Much of the media commentary regarding the low response rate was speculative but highly critical, often assuming malicious intent on the part of law school administrators. Many people believed that the publicized concerns were exaggerated or designed to cloak schools’ actual concerns. As many people pointed out, law schools already collect the data required by the LST Standard. Media exposure played a critical role in advancing public awareness, but may have upset some of the schools that took the time to respond on the record

Ave Maria’s decision to comply with the LST Standard has the potential to be a catalyst. Their decision to elevate the importance of their future students’ welfare raises the ethical bar. As the discussion moves forward and LST seeks commitments from more schools, Ave Maria’s position draws a line in the sand and allows the public (and particularly the media) to ask why other schools refuse to do the same thing. While more commitments out of the gate would have certainly accelerated progress, LST can now frame the debate in terms of which schools are transparent and which are not.

The other respondent schools did provide a number of concerns that are worth examining more closely. Of these, concerns about compliance costs and privacy norms were the most common. Another concern were the potential chilling effects of moving to a more detailed reporting standard, where the disclosure of more information may result in more graduates preferring not to report to their schools. Other concerns indicate that some schools may not have understood the terms of the request, and that the finalized Guidelines may clear up the confusion.

LST responds that the LST Standard and accompanying Guidelines were designed to benefit both schools and individual students, and that a closer inspection will show that this is true. The structure and content of the LST Standard do not require additional costs to administer a new survey because the NALP survey already covers nearly all of the Standard’s components. The components that schools do not already collect in existing surveys are either easily derived from existing information or a matter of public record. Furthermore, some cost concerns appear to reflect inter-office conflicts with how a law school allocates resources. The concerns may reflect an insistence that career services offices will not participate without additional funding from their administrations, even if the Standard does not add much of a burden. Overworked career services staff may therefore be stalling commitments until deans allocate more funds to their office, making it more difficult for law school administrators to agree to reform.

Privacy norms require taking a closer look at how the Standard operates in actual practice; fortunately the exemption discussed in the Guidelines allows schools to be LST Compliant even if some graduates request that schools do not include their particular job outcome. Schools may also be hiding behind privacy claims to avoid having to disclose employment data about graduates who are discouraged but nevertheless intent on publicizing their outcomes. In reality, many individuals have contacted LST to vent about their own employment outcome, alleging that their school mischaracterized the outcome. While LST has not yet investigated these accusations, which sometimes only reflects a misunderstanding about the ABA reporting standard, it demonstrates that schools need to at least ask whether their graduates would have privacy concerns prior to rejecting the LST Standard on these grounds.

Next Steps

Challenges for LST include garnering more responses from law school administrators, addressing their concerns, and convincing them that compliance with LST’s Standard is an appropriate course of action. The number of respondents to LST’s initial request was too small to conduct a comprehensive review of how law schools currently view the problem of uninformed prospectives. Thus there is a pressing need to engage more law school administrators in discussion about the benefits of additional disclosure, and whether concerns about compliance costs and privacy norms can be or are already resolved. Where necessary, LST should consider investigating claims that law schools have intentionally mischaracterized the employment outcomes of their graduates. Revealing these mischaracterizations could help emphasize the benefits of a standardized disclosure method where a school could point to their LST Certification as an indication that they disclosed graduate information in good faith.

Schools owe a responsibility to publish basic consumer information about their programs in a manner that does not mislead prospective students. LST has asked schools to do a little more work to fulfill this responsibility because the current disclosure standards greatly limit the ability of prospectives to become adequately informed. This problem has repercussions for individual students and schools and the legal profession as a whole. When new attorneys without prior knowledge of the actual hiring market enter the profession with unsustainable debt loads, they are likely to become disenfranchised with the practice of law and less likely to contribute in meaningful ways to the profession.

People are taking notice of the many disgruntled graduates voicing their disapproval of how U.S. legal education operates. Without a sincere effort on the part of law school administrators to improve disclosure methods, it is likely that these dissenting voices will continue gaining public approval and further damage how lawyers and the legal profession in general are perceived. These voices deserve to be heard, at least so long as reporting standards overemphasize top performers while cloaking access to actual employment outcomes for the majority of graduates. LST should consider encouraging discussions between these graduates and their alma maters to help create new disclosure practices that adequately inform prospective law students about the risks involved in financing a law degree.

LST is optimistic that by increasing collaboration with stakeholders, improving dialogue with law school administrators, and continued exposure through the media, U.S. law schools will choose to improve their disclosure of post-graduation employment outcomes.

2 thoughts on “Law School Transparency Reports: The Initial Request”

  1. I’m just visiting your site for the first time and not totally up to speed with all your approaches. However, what about turning this into a user-generated site similar to lawschoolnumber where recent grads present their own salary, job, industry, employment date, firm, etc.?

    This will at least give you a complementary data source to start with. There may be some verification issues but it could be another way to circumvent the fact that law schools probably will no reform themselves unless the federal government gets involved akin to what is going on in the for profit industry.

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