Helping Future Generations of Lawyers

This post was written by Kyle McEntee and Patrick J. Lynch, and originally published on BeyondHearsay.com. Beyond Hearsay is a website designed by Kaplan PMBR Bar Review to provide a collection of stories written by current and former law school students about their experiences in law school and beyond.

In 2011, nearly 50,000 law students will begin to invest in their legal education, expecting to derive value from both the educational experience and the J.D. itself. For most of these students, the decision to attend law school requires a costly investment of time and money. Unfortunately, most will attend without an accurate idea of how well the school’s graduates tend to fare in the job market. Even for those in the know, accessing quality employment information is a difficult and frustrating process.

Despite oversight from the ABA, schools have enormous leeway in what employment information they share and in how they choose to portray it. Some prospective students will recognize the lack of useful, reliable information from the start and will still choose to attend, but many won’t realize an information asymmetry exists until after school begins. Law schools certainly don’t deserve the blame for the economic collapse or the transformation of the legal market that came with it, but they are responsible for how they portray information about job outcomes when recruiting new students.

Many students and graduates are discouraged and angry about a disclosure process they believe is unfair. Many are wondering whether law schools will ever address concerns about how they share knowledge about the realities of the legal job market. Schools have a duty to be more transparent, while the ABA has a duty to ensure that schools report employment information in a fair and accurate manner. And contrary to how the schools and the ABA currently execute these duties, prospective law students deserve this information at the beginning of the process, before they submit their applications. Convincing the schools and the ABA to educate prospective students earlier, and formulating a solution that is efficient and desirable, requires a lot of work. That’s where we come in.

Law School Transparency

Chances are that you—like us—can empathize with these 50,000 prospective law students, as well as the hundreds of thousands that will follow them in years to come. We founded our non-profit organization, Law School Transparency (LST), because of the difficulty that prospective students have with accessing and interpreting information about law school job prospects.

LST began as a small organization with a dedicated team of current law students. Unlike some of the more vocal critics of legal education, we didn’t start this project because we were upset with our decisions to attend law school or because the job market is terrible. LST was established because we wanted to improve the legal profession, and because we believed that this can be achieved on a number of levels by better informing applicants.

We know that a lot of research goes into justifying the time, debt, and opportunity costs of attending law school. Regardless of whether you applied because you wanted to work in the public sector, in private practice, or in a non-legal field, you were probably concerned about whether a law school’s reputation and placement ability could put you on the right path to achieving your goals. You probably also wanted to know the typical salaries for a school’s graduates and perhaps its niche placement tendencies.

But job opportunities differ (sometimes drastically so) depending on which law school one attends. Understanding these differences requires far more nuanced information than what schools or third parties currently provide. These differences are caused not only by the kinds of employers that hire from certain schools, but also by the tendency in most regions for employers to hire from within their own city or state. For prospective students who strive to take a detailed, holistic look at the diverse employment opportunities at different law schools, the available resources are inadequate and even misleading.

We know from our research that law schools already collect significantly more employment data than they report. Schools frequently overrepresent top graduates without providing information about the rest of the class, or show the starting salaries of a few respondents as if those are indicative of the entire class. To resolve these issues, the easiest solution is to simply disclose more of the data that schools already collect. Schools must do a better job with this if they want to fulfill their obligation to fairly and adequately inform prospective students about the nature of the legal profession and the opportunities within it. Regardless of the economic climate, prospective students should have better information when deciding whether to make the enormous investment in a law degree.

Improving Employment Information

All too often, a lack of useful employment information means that answering the question “what school is right for me?” leads to focusing on a school’s U.S. News ranking, rather than how a school can meet an individual’s educational and career objectives. Not surprisingly, many law school administrators agree with us that their programs should be compared based on the actual value offered rather than its ranking. What’s odd is that the same administrators decline to disclose the very information prospective students need in order to limit their reliance on U.S. News.

In response to this problem, we have aimed to improve employment information by calling for the reform of existing reporting standards. Thus far, administrators have not been willing to voluntarily reveal the true nature of the legal hiring market in response to our concerns (except at one school, which plans to disclose under the LST Standard next month). From the beginning, our strategy has been to raise the profile of this failure to adequately inform applicants. While schools have refused or simply ignored LST’s request, a growing consensus about the necessity of reform has shifted attention to the ABA, which can mandate reform of the reporting standards.

What You Can Do

Potential ABA regulations and LST-compliance aside, schools have to decide for themselves how important it is to give prospective law students a realistic view of the job market. For example, our school has been in the practice of releasing lists that account for nearly the entire graduating class since March 2008. These lists include each employer’s name and location, allowing Vanderbilt applicants to make more informed decisions about how well their career objectives might be met by investing in a J.D. A handful of schools do something similar, but they all have room to improve and should be taking a second look at what they can do.

You are in the position, as a current student or recent graduate, to let your school know whether you support more meaningful disclosure of job outcomes.

If you are a current student:
As part of your law school’s community, your involvement can directly influence what your school does to address these problems. You most likely pay the school a lot of money each semester, probably incurring non-dischargeable debt to do so. Schools depend on these tuition dollars to finance a large portion of the budget. As a current student, you are also involved with student leadership organizations, career services officers, and law school administrators. You likely know (or will come to know) which members of the administration are serious about addressing your concerns. Many of these people care deeply about how legal education operates, and your encouragement may help them enter this particular conversation. Student leadership groups in particular can play an integral role in petitioning the administration and shaping how the school recruits prospective law students. Finally, you will soon earn your J.D. and become an alumnus of the school. Law schools value whether graduates walk away feeling satisfied and willing to one day give back. Rest assured, your school will begin asking you to reinvest through donations soon after you graduate, if not before.

If you are a recent graduate:
Recent graduates have been through all of the above. You have also witnessed the challenges of the current legal market and perhaps experienced the consequences of unrealized expectations, even after accounting for the unpredictable market contraction. Some of you have also become involved in alumni or bar associations, where your role as a new member can be to encourage dialogue between more seasoned members of the profession and the administrators of your alma mater.

How to get involved
Regardless of where you are in your career, your knowledge and leverage mean that you can do something about the problem. Schools have refused to budge, offering up a number of excuses as to why change is not feasible. One approach would be to let your school know that claims about steep compliance costs prohibiting their ability to disclose information are unacceptable and misguided. After all, funding employment-outcome transparency is an appropriate use of school resources, particularly when funding depends heavily on tuition payments that were made in reliance on advertisements about employment outcomes. If a school’s budget cannot account for educating future students about essential information, then the dean is not doing his or her job.

You can also let your school know that failing to act could have a negative impact on its reputation. Organizations like U.S. News has come out in favor of efforts for law school transparency and called upon schools to release more information. At the same time, recent graduates who are upset with their alma maters are gaining ever-widening coverage in both the legal and mainstream media. In such a charged environment where the law schools themselves are the only ones not on board with reform, those schools who take it upon themselves to improve disclosure methods are going to stand out. The schools that do nothing risk being exposed to a range of embarrassing media reports or law suits.

A Way Forward

We are confident that administrators at a number of law schools are starting to see the way forward. But for the rest who still need to be convinced, they need to hear from people like you. As this semester of law school gets underway, or as you look back on your legal education, we hope you will think about these issues and get involved. Even if you do not wish to get involved directly with your school, you can still make a difference by letting us know if you have any ideas or concerns. One of the most rewarding parts of working on this project is the level of support we’ve seen from people across the legal profession. Our hope is that as things progress, more of you will find a way to join in the conversation and help restore some of the values of the profession.