Apathy For Applicants Continues: Ave Maria Backs Out

Ave Maria has informed Law School Transparency that the school will not be following through with its commitment to disclose employment data according to the LST Standard. Back in September, we received 11 responses to our initial request, including a few ‘maybes,’ but only one unmistakable ‘yes.’ We praised Ave Maria for being a leader among mostly silence.

Ave Maria had its critics at the time, but overall the school benefited from positive coverage in both the legal and popular press. According to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, Ave Maria was “a lone beacon of light [that had] emerged from the darkness.”

We wrote:

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.

The school’s leadership adamantly supported increased transparency because, as an Ave Maria administrator put it, “it is the right thing to do.” There were some concerns about salary privacy, but we were able to assure Ave Maria administrators that, where a firm or individual could be matched with a salary on the separate Salary List, the school could opt-out, provided the circumstances met certain conditions. This assurance sufficed to garner a commitment.

Ave Maria’s About-face

Eugune Milhizer, dean of
Ave Maria School of Law

Ave Maria’s dean, Eugene Milhizer, first decided that the school would not participate back in December. However, we were not informed about the school’s decision until 12 days ago, in response to us asking whether the school needed any help following the LST Standard Guidelines. We attempted to change the school’s decision and invited Dean Milhizer to a conference call. This past Friday, the career services director informed us that Dean Milhizer was not interested in discussing the issue further. We accordingly offered Ave Maria the opportunity to write an official statement for release with this post. Ave Maria declined further comment.

The people making the choices at Ave Maria might still think “the right thing to do” is to better inform prospectives about employment outcomes. However, the school does not want to act before the ABA opines on the issue, seeing as ABA reform is on the way. Part of Ave Maria’s concern is also that, if the school is the only one to comply with the LST Standard, it will not be useful to prospective students because they will not have anything with which to compare Ave Maria’s employment data.

The LST Standard – while important in setting an example for what is both adequately informative and cost-effective – has always been of secondary importance to our mission: encouraging and facilitating the flow of employment information. Quite simply, prospective law students are not adequately informed about job prospects from different law schools, and establishing the flow of timely, quality information will help. Whether prospectives begin making more informed decisions because schools share data with LST, because U.S. News decides to improve its methods, or because the ABA decides to act, we will be happy that prospectives’ law school decisions can be based on realistic views of the entry-level legal market.

As Ave Maria recognizes, part of the need for more granular data stems from prospectives’ difficulty in comparing schools in an effort to find which best meets their individual career objectives. But an equal part is simply understanding the post-graduation outcomes of a class of graduates. Prospectives need to know what happened to the entire class, not just the top performers.

Employment data would not be meaningless without other schools to compare with; it would just be less meaningful. We are certain that enough prospectives would both know what to do with employment data from even one school, and be appreciative of it.

Ave Maria is not alone in claiming this as the reason for not participating with our heightened reporting standard. This past Friday, as a result of a call from the Washington Post, American University also used this line of reasoning to justify its inaction:

Thank you for your message. In light of the ABA’s recent discussions regarding the employment data reported by law schools, and the possible changes that will be implemented in that area, we will continue to provide requested information to the ABA. Therefore, we respectfully decline to provide that data to LST.

But ABA Standard 509 is a minimum standard. Law schools are free to choose to report more employment information than required. Schools have the underlying data to provide adequate information about post-graduation outcomes. Every law school that does not exceed the annual reporting requirements has chosen not to be more transparent.

Every School’s Responsibility

When Ave Maria originally agreed to comply with the LST Standard, it admitted that the school was not in the practice of providing adequate employment information to prospective students. By waiting until the ABA dictates what Ave Maria must disclose, the school now acknowledges that it is willing to keep its prospective students in the dark.

Most law schools want to provide the minimum amount of employment information to prospective students. While all ABA-approved law schools provide employment information to the ABA (regulatory pressure), and almost all furnish U.S. News with additional information (market pressure), not all law schools share employment information on their websites or in their recruiting materials.

Ave Maria appears to want to settle for the new ABA minimum – whatever that will be. But the ABA Standards have failed to do their job for years now. There is no assurance that the new standards will be adequate, and it is all but guaranteed that new, additional, required information will not make it into the hands of consumers until after the next admissions cycle ends. While we remain cautiously optimistic about the ABA’s role in reform, prospectives still need better information in the meantime.

The ABA has a responsibility to provide leadership on this issue, but this does not remove or delay each individual school’s responsibilities. Schools have a professional responsibility, as the gateway to the legal profession, to prepare law students for a future in law. The preparatory obligation includes providing a meaningful education. This means creating an educational environment that prepares students for the successful practice of law, as well as teaching students what they can do to be productive and upstanding members of the profession and society. Beyond teaching the law (or how to think like a lawyer), schools should convey the imperative roles that ethics and trust play in the successful administration of justice. Students develop many habits and many impressions about how the profession regulates itself based on experiences in law school. When a school fails to do everything it realistically can do to provide a meaningful education about the law and profession, its graduates end up entering the legal profession less prepared for ethical practice.

The preparatory obligation also includes creating a meaningful window into the profession for prospectives deciding whether to attend law school. This means informing these consumers about things like program offerings, cost of attendance, and the job outcomes their graduates achieve post-graduation. Doing so would provide every prospective a fair chance to decide whether a particular school is the best match for their educational and career objectives. Unfortunately, many smart and capable students begin a career from which they will draw no real satisfaction, for which they will be poorly suited, and in which they will perform marginally because the practice of law is different from what they expected. The reasons for these problems are largely unsettled, and they likely have many blameworthy causes, but these problems have rightfully caused schools and the ABA to think deeply about what is going wrong.

There is a role for the ABA in reforming school disclosure policies, and it is a crucial role. But this role does not absolve schools of their own responsibilities.

The Consequences

The people who are most affected by Ave Maria’s choice to rescind are Ave Maria’s potential applicants. They are losing out on an opportunity to make an informed decision about attending Ave Maria. Now, they are left to rely on the Class of 2008 (not even 2009) statistics available on the school’s website, in our data clearinghouse, and in the ABA Official Guide.

While too many schools have likewise failed to provide Class of 2009 employment information on their websites, the lack of prompt, transparent Class of 2010 employment information will be particularly troublesome for prospective Ave Maria students.

The Class of 2010 marks the first class to graduate from Ave Maria since its move to Florida. Until May 2009, Ave Maria was located in Michigan. After some controversy, the school moved to Florida and resumed classes in August 2009. Because Ave Maria was a regional law school while in Michigan, it is reasonable to wonder how well the Class of 2010 did in the job market now that the school has moved to a state with little, if any, alumni network.

With yet another school deciding that its best interest is to continue keeping applicants in the dark, where does the profession go from here? The ABA must act on its responsibility to incorporate an effectual disclosure standard into accreditation. Nevertheless, it is always up to prospectives to request more information from the schools they apply to when they have questions. Most schools are hesitant to share quality employment information, but with enough pressure and persistence, prospectives can overcome law schools’ apathy towards their desire to make an informed decision. Schools need to believe that refusing to disclose better information will hamper their ability to recruit and continue operation.

We are starting to see a trend within legal education where people place a premium on disclosure. Transparent schools that take steps to better inform prospectives look good, while the schools choosing to withhold crucial information look bad. Ave Maria’s applicants will, contrary to expectations set by the school a few months ago, have the same limited access to employment data that other schools offer. Many of its applicants will be less than impressed with the school’s step backwards, but the real question is how many applicants at other schools are cluing in to what’s going on at American law schools.

4 thoughts on “Apathy For Applicants Continues: Ave Maria Backs Out”

  1. The arrogance of these schools is amazing. Here they are being accused, unequivocally, of fraud. That’s a very serious charge, and you think they would run to shut their accusers up, but instead they are arrogantly adopting a “what are you going to do about it? GFY” attitude!

  2. Can the ABA be trusted to compel schools to disclose the truth about how crappy the entry level legal job market is? BTW, if anyone is drinking the law school Kool Aid and actually believes employment prospects for law school grads are even 1/10 as good as law schools claim they are, try googling “entry level attorney” and see how many actual jobs come up in the entire country. I’m guessing about 3. Compare that to the 43,000 law graduates each year and you start to realize why no school wants the true numbers exposed.

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