Senator Boxer Calls for Auditing, Better Access to Information

Scrutiny of the ABA continues today as Senator Barbara Boxer increases her pressure on the ABA Section of Legal Education’s regulatory failings. Moments ago, she issued her second letter to the ABA on the need for law school transparency (first letter). This letter to ABA President Stephen Zack addresses why Senator Boxer remains concerned despite the ABA’s current efforts, and asks the ABA to explain their plans regarding a few key concerns (full text below).

Senator Boxer would like to see the ABA address:

  • the auditing of law school data (noting that current proposals continue to allow self-reporting without auditing procedures);
  • better regulation of how prospective students can access information, focusing primarily on how law schools advertise employment outcomes on their websites; and
  • the need for more scholarship transparency.

The letter is in response to Mr. Zack and the Section’s assurances that they are addressing what has become a widely-reported call for law school transparency. Over the past year, the Section has had two committees, the Standards Review Committee and the Questionnaire Committee, both tackling the issue of better informing prospective law students. The Questionnaire Committee will recommend changes to the annual questionnaire to the Section’s Council in June. The Standards Review Committee will recommend its changes to the Section’s Council as early as August.

Senator Boxer and her staff are well-informed on the lack of law school transparency and understand the impact it has on our profession. With this understanding, Senator Boxer is in a position to acknowledge that these committees are off to a good start. Committee members have prioritized these issues and have taken input from all sides in formulating their proposals. However, as Senator Boxer’s letter indicates and as we have outlined before, the proposals currently on the table still need work.

Section Committee members need to continue exploring how best to adequately inform prospective students about the significant investment of earning a law degree. There also needs to be substantial pressure on the Council to approve the committee proposals in June and in August. Finally, Council members will also have to determine whether the proposals go far enough in terms of content, access, and auditing. And as we wrote earlier this week, additional Congressional involvement may be appropriate if the ABA doesn’t do its job.

For these reasons we are renewing our call for the Section of Legal Education to establish a new disclosure standard that meets LST’s criteria, while at the same time improving access to (and understanding of) employment and cost information. Continued congressional scrutiny is making it ever more obvious that the public is demanding accountability. We look forward to hearing the ABA’s response.

Senator Boxer’s Letter

May 20, 2011

Dear Mr. Zack:

Thank you for your response to my letter regarding the transparency and accuracy of post-graduation employment and salary information reported by law schools.

I was encouraged to learn that in June the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar will be considering recommendations on how the ABA can improve access to accurate and transparent information for prospective law school students. I view this as a positive step toward improved standards, but before completing its work on these important recommendations, I urge the Section to address some other important issues.

1. Independent Oversight

It is troubling that the recommendations do not address the need for independent oversight of the data law school deans submit to the ABA and publications like U.S. News and World Report. The Section’s recommendations would allow law schools to continue to submit unaudited data, despite the fact that a lack of oversight has been identified by many observers as a major problem.

The editor of U.S. News and World Report wrote a letter to all law school deans, noting a “crisis of confidence in the law school sector” and asked deans to be more vigilant in their data reporting. This letter and the recent news that a well-known law school admitted to knowingly reporting inaccurate data to the ABA for years indicates that independent oversight must surely be a part of any reform proposal.

2. Easy Access for Students to Information

The ABA should undertake efforts to ensure that students have easy access to post-graduation employment and salary information. Prospective students should not have to search far and wide for information so critical to determining their futures. To achieve this goal the ABA should make it standard practice for law schools to post links to this information on website homepages, and to include these documents in acceptance notices.

I would be remiss not to mention a very troubling New York Times article on law school merit scholarships. The article detailed the recent increase in the number of merit scholarships offered by law schools and demonstrated how scholarships are being used to convince students with high LSAT scores to attend lower-ranked law schools.

While the opportunity to earn a very expensive law degree at a fraction of the cost can be an attractive option for many students, the Times exposed a major problem with scholarship transparency. Many law schools not only fail to make it clear that prospective students must meet minimum GPA requirements, they also do not disclose how the law school’s grading curve can prohibit all students offered scholarships from maintaining the benefit every year.

It was reported that at one school, 57 percent of first-year students in one class year received a merit scholarship, but only one-third of the students in that entire class received a GPA high enough to maintain a scholarship. In the Times article, an ABA official admitted he was unaware of any problems with merit scholarships, and noted that the ABA does not ask schools to report how many students lose their scholarships each year and does not publish any information for prospective students on this subject.

I look forward to reviewing the results of the Section’s June meeting, as well as your response to the merit scholarship issue.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator