ABA’s Young Lawyers Division Adopts Transparency Resolution

The ABA Journal is reporting that the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division (YLD) voted to press for greater law school transparency. (View the resolution.) This is a positive development, but it is important to point out just what it really means for consumers.

Before diving into the text of the YLD’s resolution, it is worth revisiting where the law school transparency movement stands with the accrediting authority within the ABA Section of Legal Education, which operates independently from the rest of the ABA in its capacities.

Last year, Dean Donald Polden, Chair of the Standards Review Committee, appointed Dean David Yellen to chair a special subcommittee on Standard 509 (the “basic consumer information” standard). Dean Yellen has been working with his three-member committee to revise Standard 509. The timeline for approval by the Standards Review Committee is not set, but it will meet in both April and July. We expect that much of the work on the new standard will be completed by the second meeting, if not the first. This means that any proposed 509 revisions would be ready for public comment before August 2011.

Meanwhile, Dean Art Gaudio, Chair of the Questionnaire Committee, conducted a very thoughtful hearing this past December “to review and revise where appropriate the reporting of placement data by law schools.” Despite an invitation from Dean Gaudio, no YLD representatives attended the questionnaire hearing. The timeline for improving the annual questionnaire is unsettled, but it was clear from the hearing that the committee intends to resolve the questionnaire’s shortcomings sooner rather than later.

These two committees, along with the Accreditation Committee, are the most important in the Section of Legal Education. One committee sets the standards for accreditation, one collects data from law schools in light of accreditation needs and other considerations, and the third administers the accreditation process. If these three committees are going to regulate law schools successfully, the amount of cooperation among them, along with sound policy, will dictate the level of success.

The best way to understand what the YLD can do, and how useful each of its resolutions can be, is to understand how the YLD fits into the overall picture. The YLD may make recommendations to the ABA House of Delegates, which can adopt policy on behalf of the entire ABA. But because the accreditation arm of the ABA operates independently, a resolution on law school transparency is not binding authority. Any influence that such a resolution could have is a function of its substantive contributions and political prowess.

As we explain more thoroughly below, the YLD resolution does not add much substance to the ongoing discussions on law school transparency. Essentially, the “Truth in Law School Education” resolution is supposed to represent the concerns of young lawyers. The YLD will present the resolution at August’s ABA House of Delegates meeting. If adopted, it will also represent the concerns of the entire ABA.

But many of the recommendations are either too late or too abstract to have much impact on the Section of Legal Education, which is already well underway in the revision process. We can only hope that the ABA’s potential decision to adopt the YLD resolution in August can exact political pressure on the Section of Legal Education to improve disclosure policies at ABA approved law schools.

Last year, little was known about what the YLD intended to do. Now that the YLD has released its resolution, we can more clearly analyze how this will affect the flow of consumer information from schools to prospective students.

Predictably, the YLD has taken a principled stance on law school behavior, suggesting that schools need to change both what they report and how they report it. According to the YLD’s press release (provided in full below), “the proposal . . . is expected to be influential,” so the YLD certainly expects that the resolution will make change more likely. But as we explain below, the substance and timing of the YLD’s recommendations leave much to be desired.

The resolution urges six recommendations to various parties, including ABA-approved law schools and the Section of Legal Education. These recommendations are similar to many comments (Note: The ABA has changed its website and the documents are currently unavailable. This link points to the Google cache.) made at the questionnaire hearing in December.

Additional Employment Rates

BE IT RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges all ABA-Approved Law Schools to report employment data in a manner that accurately reflects whether graduates obtain full- or part-time employment within the legal profession, both in the private and public sector, or employment in alternative professions, as well as whether such employment is permanent or temporary.

To people who have not spoken with career services deans about the difficulties in categorizing employment outcomes, the YLD’s recommendation may sound robust. But it lacks clear definitions and structure. Such a simplistic set of terms provides little guidance. What qualifies as a job within the legal profession? Is it a job that requires bar passage? What about international legal jobs or other jobs that are arguably “legal” but simply prefer a J.D.? What if the job requires a J.D. but not bar passage? What characteristics determine whether a job is temporary or permanent? Are clerkships temporary, seeing as most are year-long appointments? Are contract attorneys temporary, even though their positions are likely with legal temp agencies, which may be considered permanent even though the individual projects are not? Is a job at McDonald’s as a manager temporary? Should a job be considered temporary based on whether a student affirmatively answers that “I intend to find another job within X months (or as soon as possible)?” Should schools use NALP’s definitions and policies?

Many of these questions would be resolved through the adoption of a more rigorous disclosure standard, such as the one we proposed. There are also problems with the structure of aggregate reporting rates, which the YLD does not address. For these rates, what will be the denominator for these employment categories? Will it be all graduates or just employed graduates, or just employed graduates for whom the employer type is known? Should schools count those pursuing graduate degrees towards the denominator? Does it matter for the denominator whether a graduate is unemployed and not seeking employment?

This resolution raises more questions than it answers. Without answering the above definitional and structural questions, this resolution adds little substantive to the discussion. More analytical rigor is needed to push the substantive discussion forward.

Structurally, what they might be getting at is something like the following:

Employment Category % of Class FT PT Legal Non-Legal Temp. Perm.
Law Firms 55% 95% 5% 90% 10% 0% 100%
Business & Industry 10% 75% 25% 40% 60% 65% 35%
Government 10% 100% 0% 65% 35% 0% 100%
Public Interest 5% 60% 40% 90% 10% 20% 80%
Judicial Clerks 2% 100% 0% 100% 0% 100% 0%
Academia 3% 50% 50% 0% 100% 50% 50%
Unemployed 12% - - - - - -
Unknown 1% - - - - - -
Graduate Degree 2% - - - - - -

This suggestion assumes away the above-mentioned ambiguities. It would do a passable job at increasing transparency, but if this is the intended suggestion it is not at all clear from the text of the resolution.

Access to Employment Information

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges all ABA-Approved Law Schools to include this employment information data on their websites, in their catalogues, and in their acceptance notices sent to applicants for admission, or include in each of those locations a conspicuous notice of where such data can be obtained

Access is key, but it is currently of secondary importance. The Questionnaire Committee and Standard 509 Subcommittee are currently considering a central location for employment information (one that is conceptually similar to LSAC’s Official Guide website). This website necessitates that the Standards Review Committee and Questionnaire Committee work together—the former via an accreditation standard and the latter executing that standard via the annual questionnaire. This goes directly to what the YLD wants to do with the resolution: put employment information into the hands of the consumers.

The most important issues are how the information is presented, whether the information is comparable, and whether it conveys something meaningful to those reading it. Without fixing the information, access only propagates low quality information.

Still, it is noteworthy to have yet another voice calling for schools to share the employment information they already have. Too many schools do not provide any information above and beyond what they report to the ABA, and too many others do not even include employment information on their websites.

Salary Information

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges all ABA-Approved Law Schools to increase transparency regarding their graduates’ salaries by displaying data regarding the salaries on their websites when such disclosures would not violate the confidentiality of graduates’ salary information, and to similarly display the national median salary information, by employment type, for all law school graduates, and the median salary information for the schools’ respective states and regions.

Concern for salary confidentiality is a widely acknowledged, important consideration. But currently, the ABA does not consider any salary information to be “basic consumer information” under Standard 509. This will change, as both the Questionnaire Committee and Standard 509 Subcommittee plan to require salary information as part of reform. The focus is therefore on how to share salary information while respecting privacy, in a way that helps prospective students to make an informed judgment about the short-term economic viability of a school’s law degree.

There is already a lively discussion going on about how to provide quality salary information, rather than whether to do it all. As such, this recommendation is an interesting contribution, if a little late. The real discussion at this point is about how to execute a suitable vision in Standard 509 and on the annual questionnaire.

Cost of Attendance

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges all ABA-Approved Law Schools to similarly publicize the actual cost of law school education, on a per-credit basis, and the average cost of living expenditures while attending law school.

As we wrote last week (this suggestion is precisely what Mr. Zack called for), this suggestion puzzles us:

Mr. Zack also emphasizes that the cost of attendance should play an integral role in an applicant’s calculus. However, his examples miss the point. He calls for information about “hourly credit cost” and the “standard of living in [the schools’] given areas . . . over a three year period.” The ABA already collects and distributes this information, and all schools provide it on their websites. School projections might serve some function, but they generally do not have any knowledge of or control over rising tuition. Mandating projections would be a waste of time and money because it’s something applicants can already do within a reasonable degree of specificity.

Mentioning cost transparency is an easy public relations win for Mr. Zack, but it has no substance as presently conveyed. To be fair, he does cite these suggestions as examples for how schools can share “what the real cost of their legal education will be.” But the real problem isn’t with understanding how much the degree costs. The difficulty is trying to comprehend what $200,000 looks like over the life of repayment, including interest. Requiring that debt service schedules accompany every law school application and acceptance letter might help, though this would be information that is already available via an internet search.

While it is good to see that the YLD and Mr. Zack agree, this suggestion diverts attention from far more important cost considerations. Perhaps their desire to say something that sounds meaningful outweighs their desire to contribute meaningfully to pressing for law school transparency.

Standard 509, the Annual Questionnaire, and a Model Questionnaire

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to consider revising the Standards for Approval of Law Schools to require law schools to provide on their websites, and in other reasonable methods of communication, additional data on employment and placement of graduates and collect more information from schools through the Section’s Annual Questionnaires to be published by the Section as part of its consumer-information function.

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to consider using and adopting a model questionnaire created by the American Bar Association which will incorporate the various provisions of this resolution.

The final two resolutions suggest that the Section of Legal Education do what it is already doing, and the YLD is exactly right. The Questionnaire Committee and Standard 509 Subcommittee are so far doing a great job. They take seriously the interests of all stakeholders, and understand why it is so important to get better information into the hands of consumers.

It is difficult to take the YLD seriously when their resolutions do not add anything new to the conversation. Why the YLD has chosen to highlight the contributions of the YLD, without acknowledging the contributions of the committees they are trying to influence, is beyond us. That simply is not an effective strategy.

The YLD is in a great position to advocate for the interests of new members to the legal profession, assuming they choose to become more engaged. Our ultimate hope is that the YLD revise its strategy by talking to those in the Section of Legal Education who are already working on these issues, and then provide useful input on behalf of the YLD’s members. Law schools have plenty of advocates on their side of the argument, ready to explain why reform is too expensive or why it doesn’t matter; the legal profession needs those representing consumer interests to advocate as well.

ABA Young Lawyers Division Press Release

Source: ABA Now.

ATLANTA, Feb. 12, 2011 – The American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division is leading a campaign to ensure aspiring lawyers can better determine what their legal education will cost them and their prospects for employment as a lawyer. Today the division’s Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt a multi-point policy resolution that presses law schools to improve the information they provide prospective students, and ensure it is prominently featured in their communications.

“The Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association is proud to be at the forefront of the law school transparency movement,” said division chair David Wolfe. “It is essential that all prospective law school students have access to accurate and straightforward information regarding the real earning potential and cost of every law school.”

“There will always be a need for good lawyers,” said ABA President Stephen Zack, who had worked closely with the division to encourage development of the new policy. “But—although you wouldn’t know it from watching flashy TV shows about the law—most lawyers are Main Street lawyers, not Wall Street lawyers. It’s important young people planning a legal career consider how much debt they should take on, based on what they are likely to make.”

The proposal cannot mandate change but is expected to be influential. It is expected that the division will bring the resolution to the ABA House of Delegates for a vote in August, making it the official policy of the entire association.

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.

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