We have heard from many law school alumni and current students about problems they encountered regarding how their school reports post-graduation outcomes. Many have alleged intentional acts of deception on the part of their law schools, whether it’s regarding the reporting of their own employment information or the employment of their friends. At the same time, some commentators have accused the ABA Section of Legal Education of lax enforcement concerning violations of the accreditation standards. One way to encourage better enforcement (and better compliance) is to file an official complaint with the Section of Legal Education.
NOTE: We have requested more information from the Consultant on Legal Education, the Accreditation Committee Chair, and representatives of the Section of Legal Ed in Chicago. This post will be updated when we receive a response.
How to file a complaint
A complaint should include a clear and concise description of the allegation and any evidence upon which the allegation is based (with any relevant supporting documentation). [Rule 24(d)3(i).] You must allege a violation of one or more of the accreditation standards, which you can read through here. The complaint must state the timeframe of the alleged lack of compliance (limited to one year from filing), a description of any steps taken to exhaust the law school’s grievance process, and any actions taken by the law school in response to the complaint. [Rule 24(d)3(ii) and (iii).] Any other channels being pursued by the complainant should be disclosed, including legal action. The complainant must also provide a release authorizing the Consultant’s Office to send a copy of the complaint to the dean of the law school.
Any person may bring a complaint alleging noncompliance with the standards; no other harm or damages need to be alleged. The filing of a complaint can lead to an investigation by the Consultant on Legal Education and sanctions by the Accreditation Committee or Council of Legal Education. Per Rule 16 of the Rules of Procedure, sanctions can include monetary penalties, refunds for part or all of the tuition and/or fees paid by students, censure (both private and public), publication of a corrective statement, remedial action, and probation. A school on probation is at risk of being removed from the list of approved law schools.
Allegations that a school has violated or is currently violating one or more standards are serious. Separate from official sanctions of the law school, culpable individuals may be asked to resign or terminated for cause by their school. A school’s reputation may be damaged even if sanctions don’t ultimately rise to the most serious levels. For these reasons we ask that you consider whether the evidence you have is strong enough to warrant an investigation by the ABA. A suspicion that your employment status was misreported, for example, may not be enough without supporting documentation.
You should first contact the school to request that they cease violating the standard prior to filing a complaint with the ABA. An exception to pursuing this route is if you wish to file anonymously, in which case see the discussion below about site evaluation comments.
What actions might qualify as non-compliance?
Of the 52 accreditation standards that currently regulate law school behavior, only one (Standard 509, found in Chapter 5) deals with employment reporting. The seven interpretations of Standard 509, as with all interpretations, carry the same force as the standard itself. This consumer protection standard requires schools to publish certain “basic consumer information” in a “fair and accurate manner reflective of actual practice.” While the accompanying Interpretations only list “employment rates and bar placement statistics” as basic, this list is not exhaustive. You can read more on the current employment reporting requirements here.
Complaints grouped under this standard might fall into two camps. The first are allegations that the school misreported the employment rates or bar placement statistics, focusing on the text of the Interpretation 509-1. Schools are required to report the employment status of each graduate as of February 15th for the second-most recent graduating class on the annual questionnaire.
If you have reason to believe that you or members of your class were miscounted as of that date, despite having reported accurate employment data, and if you can support that belief with documentation such as emails or surveys, then you should consider notifying the school and filing a complaint. Depending on the allegation, this could take sophisticated coordination. You likely need to document a sizable percentage of your classmates’ post-graduation outcomes to show that the reported percentages must have been wrong. For example, a sworn statement from 10% of your class stating they were unemployed as of February 15th would be good evidence that your school’s reported 95% employment is incorrect.
Many recent graduates have contacted us claiming that there was no way the school reported the results of their class accurately. However, it is important to first understand the reporting requirements to see whether the school was just following protocol, as the standards themselves make it very easy to legitimately hide individual outcomes. You may not think that a part-time job waiting tables should qualify you as employed, but it is appropriate under current reporting standards. A violation under Standard 509 would be if the school counted you as employed full-time, or in a JD-preferred or bar admission-required job to U.S. News.
The second camp of violations would be allegations that the basic consumer information provided on a law school’s website or in promotional brochures to law school applicants is misleading and therefore not presented in a “fair or accurate manner reflective of actual practice.” Supporting documentation would necessarily include the publications, and you should describe why they are not reflective of actual practice.
Not willing to file yourself?
One of the Section of Legal Education’s requirements is that complaints will be closed if they are made anonymously, unless the Consultant determines that there are extraordinary circumstances for keeping someone’s identity secret from the school. We understand that graduates may be reluctant to allege noncompliance on behalf of their schools, and that there may be other situations (for example, employees of the school) where someone might be discouraged from whistleblowing if their name will be dragged through the process.
[We have contacted the Consultant for more information on what has counted in the past as extraordinary circumstances, and will update this post when we hear back.]
Some of the complaint procedures may discourage you from filing. For one thing, a complainant has no right within the rules to appeal a decision to close the complaint by the Consultant’s office. A complainant also will not be informed about the proceedings or given access to view the school’s response if one is requested by the Consultant. If the complaint is eventually presented to the Accreditation Committee, there is no appeal process if the Committee sides with the school. And regardless of the outcome, a complainant will only be notified about the stage at which the matter was resolved. From what we can tell all proceedings are closed to the public.
If you have evidence that a school has been in noncompliance and you believe your situation is an extraordinary circumstance, you can contact LST. We will work with you to determine whether the complaint is actionable, and, if appropriate, file the complaint ourselves. NOTE: This does not guarantee that we will file a complaint; it only means that we will review the information to decide if we want to file the complaint on your behalf.
As an alternative to filing a complaint, you can also file a comment as part of the accreditation process. Each ABA-approved law school is recertified once every five years through a process that is taken very seriously by the administration. To conduct the accreditation, the Section of Legal Education sends a delegation of volunteers, often professors, administrators, and judges, to the school as a member of a site evaluation team. The team visits the school to collect facts and gather opinions, including thoughts of employees and students, so that the Accreditation Committee and Council of the Section of Legal Education can evaluate whether the school is in compliance with accreditation standards.
Comments must be submitted at least eight weeks prior to the next site visit, which are conducted during the school year. You can find a draft schedule for all visits up through 2014 on the ABA Section of Legal Education’s website.
Written comments related to current compliance with the Standards for the Approval of Law Schools may be submitted to the Consultant’s Office. The comments should be sent no later than eight weeks prior to the site visit’s beginning date. Comments should be sent to the Deputy Consultant on Legal Education to the American Bar Association, 321 N. Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60654.
Seven law schools will be audited next fall: Arizona, Baylor, Chicago-Kent, Idaho, Missouri-Columbia, Ohio, and Temple. Another twenty are scheduled for next spring. These visits are an excellent time to ask the site evaluation teams to fulfill their responsibilities by taking a hard look at how a particular law school is educating and potentially misleading applicants.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us. We plan to begin filing complaints soon.