Potential Regulatory Reforms on the Horizon

I was excited to read ABA President Steve Zack’s comments in last week’s Law.com article from The National Law Journal’s Karen Sloan discussing the ABA’s renewed attention to law schools’ disclosure of employment data. The ABA Young Lawyers Division’s (YLD) “Truth in Law School Education” initiative might require law schools to provide accepted students with “cost and employment statistics” in a letter to their accepted students. This initiative, like the efforts of the ABA Questionnaire Committee and ABA Standard 509 Subcommittee, demonstrates that the ABA is willing to take steps to better help inform and protect prospective law students. (We plan to explain more of what we know about all three actions in an upcoming post.) Most of these efforts remain in the planning stages, however, and changes seem unlikely to materialize until 2011.

Mr. Zack’s statements were exciting because they signaled to me the spread of the sort of discussion LST has been working to develop regarding the nature of the employment data reporting problem and the steps necessary to resolve it. While LST is working towards a solution on multiple fronts, including encouraging schools to comply with our Standard, the furtherance of a discourse of transparency serves to advance our cause.

I found Mr. Zack’s comments heartening because they showed his recognition of the more nuanced aspects of this conversation. When it comes to prospective students, he said that “there’s a total lack of awareness” about earning potential and career options. He suggested that law schools have an incentive to present their employment data in the best possible light to attract applicants. (ABA Standard 509 is the reporting baseline that the ABA’s Standard 509 Subcommittee aims to fix.)

While YLD chair David Wolfe said he “want[s] people to go to law school with their eyes open” when it comes to “employment and cost information,” he and Mr. Zack appreciate the present reality that disclosing the information the ABA already collects in acceptance letters would fail to address the underlying issue that prospectives have an incomplete picture of law school job prospects. Contributing to this problem, Mr. Zack “think[s] some of the numbers are cooked. To play the U.S. News & World Report game, law schools are creating jobs for graduates so they can say they are employed when they really aren’t.”

As we have acknowledged from the beginning (see the LST White Paper at 9-45), it is difficult, under current reporting conditions, for prospective students to make informed law school choices. This difficulty may be part of the reason why many prospective students don’t do as much as they could to talk to law schools about post-graduation outcomes. Motivating prospectives’ participation is a necessary component of our mission, which is why I think it is so important that major ABA players are joining this discussion and recognizing some of its key conceptual features. LST’s primary, concrete efforts are happening in the short term, but in working towards broad, long-term success, we hope many people, including the main stakeholders, will continue to engage in this discourse.

A Big Tent: With LST Compliance, Everyone Wins

LST recognizes that there is much more to the placement discussion than employment in the nation’s largest law firms and federal Article III clerkships. In fact, only 15-18% of 2009 graduates were employed by these firms or as Article III clerks. While many prospective law students want these jobs, other students want to attend law school because they want to work in a particular community or region, or because they want to pursue a particular career in a district attorney’s office or an environmental advocacy position for example. (An earlier post provided a more detailed discussion of niche placement.) Prospective students are interested in comparing these employment opportunities. It should be surprising, then, that the current reporting standards do not emphasize placement with the government, regional and local law firms, and state and local clerkships.

Every school—small or large, regional or national, new or old—has much to gain from engaging with LST. Prospective students want placement transparency and will be looking for it during the application process. Current and prospective students are paying attention. The media is paying attention. Other law schools are paying attention. Our white paper acknowledges typical “first-mover” problems, but any law school (and perhaps especially a regional school) has much to gain in the way of public notoriety and goodwill from prospective students. Ave Maria’s decision to be the first school to comply with our standard is a good example of this. After we announced this decision, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog called Ave Maria a “beacon of light [that] has emerged from the darkness.” In some quarters, law schools are taking it on the chin right now, and LST compliance is a good way to shift discourse into a more positive light.

Complying with the LST Standard allows law schools to be responsible and combat confusion and misinformation, and it provides them with the opportunity to speak openly about the available job information, prospectives’ career-related goals, and how the law school can specially serve these nuanced goals. The LST Standard is open and objective: it does not prioritize placement in one area over another, and it allows prospective students to interpret the placement information in light of their own interests and objectives. As such, both national and regional law schools have something to gain by complying with the LST Standard because prospectives’ career ambitions are nuanced and so are schools’ offerings.

Many prospective law students determine which school to attend by referring to the U.S. News rankings. Many prospectives use a school’s U.S. News rank as a rough proxy for its placement ability. Unfortunately, this rough proxy works best only for the top national law schools—the law schools that place best in the largest law firms and Article III courts. The problem with ordering schools on a national scale is that it deemphasizes the ability many schools have to place regionally (the very mission of many law schools). When prospectives make their decision to attend law school based on miniscule ranking differences that don’t reflect meaningful differences, they do a disservice to themselves, the school they attend, and the school that could have better served their career ambitions.

We have largely focused on the law schools and their role in our efforts to secure compliance commitments, but consideration of the relationship between schools and prospective students serves as a reminder that schools care about the composition of their entering class. Schools do not want to fill their classes with just anybody; schools would not otherwise offer scholarships, read applications, or spend money recruiting. In seeking to admit a particular caliber of students, schools invest in those students, hoping to train and graduate a successful group of alumni. Students and schools have an interest in finding a good match, and LST will be an independent data source for those prospective students, helping them to do a better job of identifying the schools most likely to prepare them to reach their individual career goals. After all, graduates who were informed about career prospects when they chose their law school are more likely to be happy, supportive alumni. They will be more inclined to donate time, money, and other resources like assisting other students in finding mentorships, internships, and post-graduation jobs.

Compliance with the LST Standard is a practical way for law schools to be open and honest with would-be attendees. Most of the eleven schools that responded to our initial request contended that compliance would not be easy. We have (here and here) and will continue to address these technical and practical concerns. Still, we think law schools owe employment-outcome transparency to prospective students, if not as a matter of law, then at least as a matter of fair dealing in accordance with professional and educational responsibility. Whether a school is interested in highlighting its ability to place graduates in niche markets, upholding values of openness and honesty in their relations with prospective students, spurring positive publicity, or attracting students who will be a good match and develop into supportive alumni, all law schools have something to gain by complying with the LST Standard. We have done the work to craft a uniform, comprehensive standard that meets the appropriate needs of prospective students and allows schools to be responsible and transparent when they hold themselves out to those students. It is our hope that all law schools will take the necessary action to bring themselves into compliance with the LST Standard.

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Visibility is an important component of our drive to further our transparency mission. In addition to the growing amount of information available in our Data Clearinghouse, this blog allows us to communicate openly and directly with all of our stakeholders, including law schools, current, past, and future law students, and the general public. We have and will continue to use this space to create an open conversation about transparency in law school employment data reporting.

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