SBA President Coalition Endorses Ideas Behind New Bill

The last two months have seen two notable actions concerning oversight of the ABA Section of Legal Education, which accredits law schools and regulates their behavior. At the end of March, California Senator Barbara Boxer put some pressure on the ABA President, Stephen Zack, to ensure that the ABA Section of Legal Education appropriately addresses the lack of quality employment information. The underlying idea: put the ABA on notice that a Senator is watching and that the Section of Legal Education needs to produce results.

Adding to the discussion, the outgoing president of the student bar association at BC Law School, Nate Burris, made public yesterday the creation of a coalition of 55 law school student bar association presidents. The coalition seeks congressional relief for the lack of law school transparency. (The full text of the press release is below. h/t Above the Law.)

Mr. Burris began contacting SBA presidents en masse about a month ago. (The full text of one of these emails, which we received from a tipster, is also below.) In this email, Burris made the following key points:

  • Mr. Burris aims to use the support of law school SBA presidents for momentum
  • The SBA president coalition planned to present the bill, for introduction, to four U.S. Senators (from Massachusetts and Vermont)
  • The bill would require that law schools submit an annual report of employment information to the Department of Education
  • The bill would empower the Department of Education to audit these reports

The initial draft of the bill would create a new reporting standard for employment data, with the Department of Education as the collecting body instead of the Section of Legal Education. This standard is the same as the LST Standard, except that it does not indicate who pays the salary, which is now an important distinction given the development of school-funded bridge programs. Perhaps more importantly, it does not protect graduate and employer privacy by separating employers from the salaries they pay.

LST and the SBA president coalition

We’ve spoken at length with Mr. Burris about our thoughts on the bill’s content and timing. Notwithstanding our concerns, which we discuss below, Mr. Burris is committed to improving law school transparency and we look forward to the conversation the proposal will generate. It will add to the collective understanding of the issues and encourage others holding leadership positions to express their comments publicly.

However, as we communicated to Mr. Burris, LST believes the decision to bypass the ABA Section of Legal Education (“Section”) is jumping the gun. While it is both understandable (and correct) to think that the Section has been too slow and too reticent to change, institutional sluggishness is not enough to justify seeking legislation just yet.

These actions are not yet warranted

Passing this legislation would essentially require a congressional determination that both the Section and the Department of Education are incapable of executing the job that Congress previously delegated. Accreditation authority was assigned to the Section by the Department of Education, to which Congress delegated the authority to appropriate accrediting power.

To alter this relationship, Congress would require enough evidence that the Department of Education has failed to adequately oversee the Section and that the Section has failed to adequately regulate law schools. The situation must be such that Congress feels compelled to do more than simply ask the ABA what the status is on increasing transparency. As Senator Boxer’s press release indicated, the political viability of more involvement is presently low.

This is not to say that attempts to get members of Congress involved aren’t a good idea. Certainly, they can exert substantial public pressure; Senator Boxer’s letter of inquiry may be just the beginning of congressional scrutiny. Presenting a bill to the four Senators may result in more investigation and present another opportunity to influence the ongoing conversation, perhaps ensuring that the Section fully addresses the lack of law school transparency sooner rather than later.

But the SBA president coalition is up against a very strong presumption that the Department of Education and the Section are capable of solving the problem once identified, and that they are willing to take the steps that are necessary to fix it. This presumption is derived from the decision to delegate regulatory authority in the first place. Now that the Section has prioritized employment reporting shortcomings, rebutting this presumption before they take final action (or before it becomes clear they are delaying taking final action) is unlikely. It is far too easy for the Section to reiterate what it told Senator Boxer: ‘rest assured, we are on it.’

Still, we are hopeful that the coalition’s proposal will result in further recognition from political leaders, along the lines of what Senator Boxer has already contributed. We also look forward to seeing more from SBA coalition leaders as they explore ways to improve law school transparency.

Shifting the focus

The most productive action at this time will be ensuring that the Council of the Section of Legal Education, which will eventually vote on any Standard 509 reforms proposed by the Standards Review Committee, considers and accepts a standard that adequately improves the quality of employment information. To this end, the coalition leaders should focus their energy on lobbying the Section to solve the issues that the coalition was formed to address. We hope to continue engaging with Mr. Burris and other coalition leaders to rally support for proposals that can do the job, such as the LST Supplemental Proposal.

This is not to say that engaging the Department of Education and Congress for direct action will never be appropriate and more politically viable. Continuous, national attention has unambiguously put the Section of Legal Education on notice that it has inadequately regulated law schools. But the pressure is first on the Section’s Standards Review Committee and next on the Section’s Council to accept the Committee’s new Standard 509 this year.

The Section must adequately remedy the lack of law school transparency if it wants to fulfill its responsibilities, both to the legal profession and under its delegated authority. If the Section falls short of fulfilling these obligations, it will be time to seek governmental reform. The political viability of getting Congress to reconfigure the current regulatory framework will be highest after the Section of Legal Education fails, not while it is in the process of establishing and voting on reforms.

Press Release

Student Body Presidents of 55 Law Schools Call for Reform in the Reporting of Data Pertaining to Legal Education

NEWTON, MA – The student body presidents of 55 law schools across the country joined together today in a call for enhanced accuracy, accountability and transparency in the reporting of data pertaining to legal education. The presidents, from 27 states, proposed legislation to reform the current system of reporting in order to ensure the receipt of sufficient information – necessary for prospective law students to make informed decisions as to where, or whether, to attend law school – that is both clear and accurate.

The proposed legislation would require law schools to submit annual reports to the Department of Education, and would further require the Dean of each law school to endorse such reports. Federal funding provided to schools would be contingent on both the submission and accuracy of the reports, which would include an array of post-graduation employment data. The legislation does not take the role of accreditor from the hands of the American Bar Association. Rather, it aims to strengthen oversight by giving authority to the Department of Education to ensure that current and prospective students receive sufficient, accurate information. The proposed legislation parallels the body of law governing corporations, where annual reports are submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Between 1985 and 2009, tuition rates have increased over 800% at private law schools, and over 500% at public law schools. As a result, the average graduate of a private law school in 2009 incurred over $100,000 of debt, while the debt of public law school graduates was over $70,000 – not including debt incurred from an undergraduate education. As of 2008 – prior to the recent recession affecting the legal job market – the American Bar Association reported that 42% of graduates would by employed at salaries below the level necessary for a positive return on the investment in a legal education. However, many schools report employment rates approaching 100% and average salaries as high as $160,000.

“Tuition rates are rising, debt levels are historic, while job prospects for many are slim,” said Nate Burris, President of the Law Students Association at Boston College Law School and author of the proposed legislation. “This isn’t a bailout, nor is anyone asking for a ‘refund’ – more modestly, we are proposing the reform of a broken system that jeopardizes the future for many bright minds. We are proud of the education we have received, and it is our zeal for the legal profession, which we will soon enter, that drives this effort.”

The legislation builds on previous calls for increased transparency by such organizations as the Law School Transparency Project, and will be sent to congressional leaders later this week. “Since the federal government is providing the bulk of these loans,” said Burris, “the question is: does the federal government want to be the underwriter of this financial distress and discontent?”

Letter to SBA Presidents

Hello [redacted],

My name is Nate Burris and I am the President of the Law Students Association (essentially the same thing as the Student Bar Association at most law schools) here at BC Law. My understanding is that you are the President of the student body at [redacted], is that correct?

I am working on a project for which I am hoping to get the support of as many SBA Presidents as possible – in short, I was hoping you might be willing to add your signature, as President of the student body, to this bill.

Here are the details:

I’ve attached a draft bill which will be presented to Senators Kerry and Scott (who both graduated from BC Law) as well as the Senators from my home state of Vermont (Leahy and Sanders, who happens to be on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee). My hope is to expand from there – in this climate, I think the bill has a chance at serious attention. I that spirit, I am hoping to get as many student body Presidents – such as yourself – to co-sign the bill. If you’re interested in doing so, I am hoping to have all “signatures” by Friday (if you just email me an ok, along with your official title, that will do).

In essence, the bill aims to do a few things: first, it would require that law schools submit an annual report to the Department of Education, similar to the reports submitted to the ABA and NALP (though more comprehensive) – this is a fundamental change, but will hopefully improve accountability. Second, it would require that the information in the report be true (this seems like a no-brainer, but here is some background on why this is necessary: http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/02/08/is-the-sec-the-answer-to-the-villanova-syndrome/). And third, given the pressures imposed by rankings, etc, the bill would require that the Dean of each law school and the university President sign off on the report – the aim here is to counteract these institutional pressures and enhance incentive for accurate reporting. Lastly, to ensure all of this is happening, the Department of Education would be given the ability to audit the reports.

My belief is that all law students should be entitled to accurate information when they are making their decisions as to where (or whether) to attend law school (this information would be publicly available and free of charge). Anyone purchasing stock is given certain guarantees – given that law school is undoubtedly an investment, the question I think this bill poses is, shouldn’t law students be entitled to similar guarantees on their investment?

BC Law and [redacted] are similarly situated in the sense that the student bodies at both schools would undoubtedly benefit from – and I think be in support of – a bill like this. I’m happy to discuss this further if you’d like – if you’re willing to add your signature, please let me know, and hopefully we can make some headway on this issue.

Best,

Nate Burris
President, Law Students Association
Boston College Law School