Three Critical Features for the ABA’s Collective Solution to Employment Reporting

This is our second post in a series of posts (see the first) where we contemplate the 509 Subcommittee’s proposal and the facts needed to understand how it would advance transparency at ABA-approved law schools. This post provides three criteria for us to use to judge the ABA’s actions. In our next post, we will evaluate the new proposal using these criteria.

Whatever standard the Standards Review Committee and Questionnaire Committee together adopt, it must:

(1) Disaggregate the current information
(2) Demonstrate the economic value of a school’s J.D.
(3) Operate on an accelerated schedule

(1) Disaggregate the current information

 
The most serious handicap of the current reporting standards is that the standards allow outcomes to be hidden in aggregate form. For prospectives seeking to make an informed decision, and law schools seeking to fulfill their educational responsibilities, the new standard must provide an accurate picture of the entry-level job market for each school. To do this, any new standard must characterize the jobs graduates obtain beyond “a job is a job.” This includes the nature of the jobs graduates obtain, with whom the graduates are employed, and the locations of these jobs. Gaps in the information also must be clearly visible to limit prospectives from extrapolating from unrepresentative segments of the graduating class.
 
The best way to achieve this is by requiring graduate-level detail, just like NALP has been collecting for years. This allows prospective students to know the challenges they face for achieving their educational and career objectives, which will help them maximize the value of their time spent in law school. The granularity also respects school regionality and encourages schools to develop their placement niches. Whether this niche is in a particular region or city, a field of law, or a sector, this feature publicizes each school’s unique placement ability. Displaying where all graduates go post-graduation can help match students to the right programs, minimizing the effect of national rankings on student decision-making. The choice then becomes less about what a school ranks each year in U.S. News and more about how each school can help a student achieve her goals. If it is clear where a school fits into the legal hiring market, schools will be encouraged to adapt and innovate, and may even be able to reduce costs.

This does not mean that law schools must share how much each individual graduate makes at her first job, as we have done with the LST Standard. Rather, law schools just need to provide enough graduate-level detail to enable prospectives to make a meaningful connection between the post-graduate outcomes for a given school’s graduates and the regional market rates for those jobs.
 

(2) Demonstrate the economic value of a school’s J.D.

 
While disaggregating the current information into graduate-level detail allows for rough estimates of economic value, the ABA does not currently consider salaries to be basic consumer information. It is time for the ABA to recognize the importance of starting salary as basic consumer information. Some prospectives come to law school straight from undergrad with low opportunity costs, and others change careers or work first, but almost all will eventually pay an enormous amount of money for the privilege to earn a J.D. It is difficult to separate the question of “how much will I make?” from “how much will my monthly loan payments be right after I graduate?” Likewise, it is difficult to think about the salary a graduate earns separate from where that graduate lives and works. New salary information must be presented in a way that allows prospective students to understand how graduates begin earning the income they need to juggle loan payments, living expenses, and everything else a new member of the legal profession must pay for.
 
It is clear that a graduate’s starting salary is only a part of the economic value a graduate can derive from the degree, and that many graduates (notably solo practitioners) may see a sharp upward trend in their earning salary over the first five to ten years. However, entry-level salaries are a good place to start, and the least costly time to assemble a comprehensive picture of a graduating class. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides salary information for lawyers, but lawyers represent only a portion, even if a large one, of law school graduates. The important question is the value of the law degree itself. Between 60% and 70% of all 2009 law school graduates had jobs, as of February 15, 2010, that required a J.D. Of those that did not, some will eventually find work as an attorney. Likewise, some of the graduates who work as lawyers after law school will soon leave the profession. None of this warrants hiding information about post-graduate outcomes. Career trajectories are hard to predict, but they all necessarily include the first job.
 

(3) Operate on an accelerated schedule

 
The data and information reported on the annual questionnaire and on law school websites must be published in a timely manner. The 2009–2010 questionnaire was due October 31, 2010. This included employment information about the class of 2009, which was finalized on February 15, 2010, and will not be published anywhere until after the admissions cycle for the Prospective Class of 2014 has just about concluded. The Class of 2009 information will not appear in the Official Guide until after the Class of 2010 data has been assembled and reported to NALP. The ABA must publish this information sooner, along with other consumer information as it becomes available.

There are no reasons why law schools cannot either submit employment data to the ABA or provide employment information on their websites by the end of March, each year, for the most recent graduating class. According to Jim Leipold, Executive Director of NALP, data straggles into NALP from February 15th through March 15th, but by the end of that period almost every school has reported all of their employment data to NALP. This data is fresh in everyone’s minds and can be readily provided to the consumer at low costs to career services staff.

In the old days, there would be good reason why prospectives needed to wait to see this data, because the submissions to NALP by law schools would be by individual paper forms. Simply put, times have changed. 90% of law schools submit the data in an electronic format, downloaded from whatever system the school uses to survey graduates. And although schools already have the Class of 2010 data accessible, to our knowledge no school has posted any 2010 employment information on their website.

While the problems with the current employment information (see our white paper for more detail) are separate from the terrible job market, the present job market makes the current reporting schedules unquestionably unacceptable. Regardless of whether job placement for a given year was good or bad, prospectives should still be able to see the full picture. But when the available information is so outdated that it differs greatly from current placement trends (as evidenced by the new NLJ 250 statistics), not providing up-to-date information to consumers grossly undermines the obligations law schools have to their students and to the legal profession. This is particularly true when the information has already been collected and can be disclosed to the consumer with relative ease.

These three evaluation criteria were originally communicated to the Questionnaire Committee and Dean David Yellen (Chair of the 509 Subcommittee) at the December 2010 Questionnaire Committee hearing by LST’s Executive Director.