Progress Towards Law School Transparency

We have a few updates on our progress towards greater law school transparency. The first is a rundown of voluntary website improvements made by law schools in advance of the ABA standards reform. The second is to announce that LST has obtained its 40th NALP report from an ABA-approved law school.

Transparency Index: Class of 2010

Back in January, we released the Transparency Index, an index of every ABA-approved law school website. It measures how transparent law schools are on their websites in detailing post-graduation outcomes for the class of 2010 through the lens of 19 criteria.

We said:

Taken together, these and other findings illustrate how law schools have been slow to react to calls for disclosure, with some schools conjuring ways to repackage employment data to maintain their images. Our findings play into a larger dialogue about law schools and their continued secrecy against a backdrop of stories about admissions data fraud, class action lawsuits, and ever-rising education costs. These findings raise a red flag as to whether schools are capable of making needed changes to the current, unsustainable law school model without being compelled to through government oversight or other external forces.

There is good, bad, and disappointing news. The bad news is that secrecy is still the norm, with schools still opting to selectively withhold class of 2010 information to suit their own interests (and to the possible detriment of prospective students). With this year’s admissions cycle well underway, and admitted students closing in on their final decisions, people could really use the critical information schools have at their fingertips. While we can place some responsibility at the feet of those who will knowingly choose to attend schools that are withholding critical information, their poor choices still stem from law schools’ bad acts, especially when it is clear that many prospective students still do not understand the extent of the gaps in information, which law schools have become so adept at hiding.

The good news is that we’ve seen been big improvements to a number of law school websites following the publication of our Winter 2012 Transparency Index Report. Further, these improvements are likely an underestimation: we’ve only updated the Live Index as we’ve come across evidence of improvements or have been directed to updates (usually by the schools themselves). As more and more schools respond positively to criticism, it is also getting easier to identify who the bad actors are.

  • 22% of schools do not provide evaluable class of 2010 information, up from 27%.
  • 64% of schools indicate how many graduates actually responded to their survey, up from 49%. Response rates provide applicants with a way to gauge the usefulness of survey results, a sort of back-of-the-envelope margin of error. Without the rate, schools can advertise employment rates north of 95% without explaining that the true employment rate is unknown, and likely lower.
  • 39% of law schools indicate how many graduates worked in legal jobs, up from 26%. 20% provide the full-time legal rate, up from 11%. We are aware of no additional schools providing the full-time, long-term employment rate. (It is still just two schools, or 1%.)
  • 28% of schools indicate how many graduates were employed in full-time vs. part-time jobs, up from 17%.
  • 16% indicate how many were employed in long-term vs. short-term jobs, up from 10%.
  • 16% of schools report how many graduates were employed in school-funded jobs, up from 10%.
  • 59% of schools provide at least some salary information, up from 49%. But the majority of the 59% of schools (63%) provide the information in ways that mislead the reader, down from 78%.

These are substantial changes. The schools who have made them (list available here) deserve some praise. However, it needs to be restated that every school could meet all 19 of the criteria we used in the Transparency Index, so our praise comes with that caveat.

The disappointing news is that one of the most transparent schools from our original report has decided to be less transparent. The University of Houston Law Center previously met thirteen criteria; it now meets only seven. (Original Disclosure; New Disclosure.)

In particular, Houston no longer shares the percentage of graduates in full-time and part-time jobs, in school-funded jobs, and in full-time legal jobs. It also no longer indicates when the graduates obtained the job (timing), nor how the graduate obtained the job (source). The school now also provides misleading salary information because the school no longer indicates the response rate for each salary figure provided.

When asked why they took such a huge step backwards, the dean of career services cited that Houston was now just doing what other schools were doing. She also claimed it was an improvement overall because it also included 2009 and 2008 employment data, although it is barely more than what’s already available in our data clearinghouse (2008 & 2009).

For the unacquainted, Houston copied the University of Chicago’s presentation standard, and in doing so actually decreased its level of disclosure. We criticized Chicago’s standard back in January for this particular reason:

Last month, the University of Chicago Law School received widespread acclaim for its decision to provide improved consumer information about the class of 2010. We believe Chicago received acclaim because the job outcomes for Chicago’s 2010 graduates appear to be strong relative to other law schools’ outcomes. The positive responses confused the unexpected quality of outcomes, which for Chicago graduates remained strong despite the retraction in attorney hiring, with actual quality of disclosure. Chicago coupled tabular data with language about the need for transparency, leading people to claim that Chicago has set the market. But if every law school disclosed employment data according to Chicago’s incomplete methodology, most would still continue to mislead prospective law students.

The Chicago methodology does not distinguish between full- and part-time jobs, between long- and short-term jobs, or whether positions are funded by the law school. Nor does it indicate the numerator for the salary figures. For Chicago, this is a relatively minor oversight because it collected salary data from 94% of employed graduates. But the further the response rate moves away from 100%, the more important it is that the rate be disclosed for every category that a school provides salary information for. Few, if any, other schools have a response rate above 90%.

Predictably, Chicago’s puffery about its dedication to transparency has done more harm than good.

LST Obtains Its 40th NALP Report

There remains reason to be optimistic, however. LST has obtained NALP reports from six more law schools since our original announcement.

This brings the total to 40 law schools. While such incremental improvements to transparency suggest a long road ahead, we do consider 40 a significant threshold. LST will continue advocating for law schools to share their class of 2010 reports and, when the time comes, officially request the class of 2011 NALP reports too. Accepted students who don’t want to wait until then can start contacting the schools to request the 2011 data, now that we have passed the February 15 reporting deadline. If you are successful in leveraging your acceptances to procure the data please consider sharing it with us and directly with other applicants on popular discussion board sites like TLS.

Support LST in 2012

With the law school crisis gaining more attention from both the legal media and mainstream news outlets, Law School Transparency is increasingly recognized as a champion of substantive reform. But did you know that LST’s founders got their start in early 2008, before the recession took its toll on the legal job market? That’s right, for nearly four years Kyle McEntee and Patrick Lynch have been working to improve the legal education system, for students, for schools, and for the public at large. Not out of bitterness or buyer’s remorse, but because they saw a problem that needed to be fixed.

As you may suspect, such a sustained effort does not come easily, or cheaply. There are organization filing fees, web hosting expenses, the costs of travel, and all the other odds and ends overhead that come with any organization.

Law School Transparency has received some financial support, but most of its expenses are still paid out of the pockets of its staff. Without outside funding, LST’s efforts are hindered, not only by financial limitations, but also by the need to search out other paid work (and then to go do that work, instead of advancing education reform).

You can probably figure out where this is going: Law School Transparency needs your help. And by “help,” we mean money. We’re not trying to raise tens of millions of dollars for a construction project that will benefit the students of just one school. We’re seeking a far smaller sum, $15,000, for basic operation costs to keep us going as we seek grants. With it we hope to improve all law schools for the benefit of an entire generation of young lawyers.

While our most pressing need is for cash donations, there are several ways you can support Law School Transparency. We can accept in-kind donations, such as airline miles or professional services. We also ask that you contact your members of Congress to let them know the importance of LST and law school reform, and while you’re at it, feel free to talk to your professors and deans as well.

Last, but certainly not least, take a moment to think about what your fellow members of the legal profession are going through in this tough economy. Smile at opposing counsel, tell him his tie looks really great, ask him if he’s lost weight. And, when he says “Yes, I have actually lost a few pounds, thanks for noticing,” ask him to donate the money that used to be his potato chip fund to Law School Transparency.

Click to Donate to LST

To make an in-kind donation, or obtain more information about how you can help LST, please email .

Great Suggestions from Charles Cooper

Over at NonTradLaw.net, Charles Cooper has made three suggestions for those of you interested in getting involved in our latest request for employment information.

What can you do to help?

Well, if you’re an applicant with an offer that you haven’t accepted yet, shoot an email over to the admissions office and ask that they either send you the data directly, or they send it to LST so you can see it on the LST web site. You have a valid right to know, since your entire future may depend on it. And if you get it, send it to LST.

If you’ve accepted an offer, send a similar email, but suggest that if the school doesn’t comply and hides this relevant information from you, you’ll rethink your decision to attend.

If you’re a student, march yourself to the dean’s office and ask that they comply. The school’s failure to comply will be embarrassing for the school, and will decrease the positive reputation of the school, directly affecting your job prospects.

And if you’re a law school graduate, write to your alma mater and state in no uncertain terms that the school should comply immediately so it is not added to the list of schools that are being deliberately deceptive (and thus adversely affecting your professional reputation), and let the school know that you will not consider donating a single cent in the future if the school drops the ball on this simple request.

Thanks to Charles for these important suggestions. To those of you who get involved, please let us know how your efforts go.

LST Requests Class of 2010 Employment Information From Law Schools

This morning, we sent a letter to all ABA-approved law schools asking that they provide us class of 2010 employment information so that we may expand our data clearinghouse. Our goal is to provide thorough and comparable employment information to prospective law students. While some law schools are improving the quality of information they share, it is critical that people be able to compare law schools through a standardized presentation standard.

It is true that the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has taken important first steps towards reducing the provision of misleading information by law schools. However, these steps have failed to include critical information about the class of 2010, including the rate of graduates employed in legal jobs and the rate of graduates employed in full-time jobs. The section underestimated how prospective law students, pundits, and elected officials would react, despite mounting evidence of widespread consumer-disoriented behavior at law schools and within the section.

We hope that schools share our sense of urgency and help us put comparable employment information into the hands of consumers.

Continue reading LST Requests Class of 2010 Employment Information From Law Schools

Op/Ed on The Careerist: The Cooley Strategy Exposed

This op/ed is available on The Careerist.

The Cooley Strategy

Last week, Nelson Miller, associate dean of Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, wrote an editorial, “Lawyer Employment Remains Strong,” that appeared in The Careerist. Using employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he argues that lawyer job prospects are strong, that the legal profession has less risk than others, and that any noise questioning the value of obtaining a J.D. is as erroneous as it is inflammatory.

We will not spend much time discrediting Dean Miller’s “data-based” arguments, including Cooley’s Cooley’s Report One, which is the basis of this latest editorial. (That report has been thoroughly and thoughtfully discredited in an article by Matt Leichter.) To make a long story short, the underlying data upon which Report One depends excludes at least one broad segment of law school graduates: People who never became lawyers in the first place because they couldn’t find legal jobs.

So what is Miller’s editorial really about? Is it just an honest attempt by a law school administrator to educate students and allay unfounded fears propagated through the media? We don’t think so.

Law schools like Cooley are facing significant hardship because prospective students are increasingly more informed about the risk of taking on six-figure debt for the chance of entering the legal profession. In addition to numerous anecdotes, we are seeing this play out through fewer LSAT-takers and law school applicants. Unfortunately for these schools, this will translate into fewer people willing to pay $30,000, $40,000, or even $50,000 per year in tuition.

Miller has every incentive to distract consumers and conceal what Cooley graduates face after graduation. The 2009 Cooley graduates had an average law school debt in excess of $106,000, but only 42.2 percent obtained full-time legal work by February 2010. This statistic does not even account for Cooley’s unparalleled attrition rate, and we do not know how 2010 and 2011 graduates fared on these postgraduation metrics because Cooley does not share this information with its applicants.

The truth is that unless Miller and the rest of the Cooley administration can convince almost 2,000 people next year that a Cooley investment is worthwhile, they will be forced to make a series of hard business decisions in the coming years. This includes whether to keep the Michigan-based school’s new Florida campus and other satellite campuses open.

Commissioning reports,in-house rankings, and aggressive public relations are all part of a very smart strategy. The Cooley administration understands how these efforts affect prospective students. If Cooley can confirm to prospective students that law school is a magic ticket to financial security, it can continue to operate without introspection about what’s really wrong with legal education today.

As prospective students become more informed and the ABA exerts greater oversight to protect consumers of legal education, some enterprising deans will find ways to reduce tuition and class sizes, adapting their schools’ models to stay in business. Others will close up shop for lack of demand. And in the interim period, representatives like Miller will attempt to convince anyone who will listen that there is nothing wrong with taking on $106,000 in nondischargeable debt for their Cooley law degree. This continued, shameless promotion is part of the reason his law school has been hauled into court by former graduates amidst allegations of fraud and misrepresentation.

Miller’s advocacy for his law school at others’ expense belies his ethical responsibilities as both a lawyer and an educator. This country needs law school administrators who are capable of ethically recruiting and training the next generation of lawyers, judges, advocates, and educators. We do not need people running law schools who engage in Miller’s level of deception.

Senate Hearing on Law School Transparency Is Being “Strongly Considered”

We can now report that we’ve made great progress towards securing a hearing on law schools’ presentation of employment information in their recruiting materials, in the ABA Official Guide, and in U.S. News. It became apparent that additional involvement was necessary after the ABA Section of Legal Education’s questionnaire committee failed to ask questions pertaining to the legal employment rate on the 2011 questionnaire, despite pleas to the contrary.

For almost a decade, the Section of Legal Education has asked law schools the very basic question of, “how many of your students worked in a full-time legal job after graduation?” Despite having the answers, the section has never published this information. Whether intentional or careless, this is concerning. And with all eyes on the section’s reform efforts, failure to remedy this problem in a timely fashion appears to be worth an investigation.

If and when this hearing happens, we expect the discussion of law school transparency to broaden to questions about the law school cost structure. It is important to ask why and how the average law graduate’s debt (over $100,000) could reach such an extreme. To this end, structural transparency is crucial to understanding and fixing the broken law school model.

Some of the reason for the massive debt is that prospective law students, but not law schools, lack the information they need to make meaningful decisions. Some of it is that law school is an all-but necessary gateway to the legal profession. Additionally, there is a deeply entrenched view in the U.S. about law school being a magic ticket to financial security.

But the increase in law school costs go deeper than the reasons people choose to attend law school. It has much to do with how those who attend choose to finance their educations. Law schools run on essentially limitless student loans. With this constant stream of financing, law school budgets expand, often in the name of better quality. But is law school quality three times better than it was in the 1980s? Four times? While difficult to quantify, few would say it is.

Unfortunately, cost considerations have been absent from reform efforts because there are insufficient checks in place to keep costs down. It is time for the ABA Section of Legal Education, Congress, and law schools to explore how to change the law school model. The damage needs to be undone. The effects of this broken model are felt well beyond the individuals who choose to debt-finance their education. Good economy or bad economy, the issue is not going away.

To read more, check out the Wall Street Journal’s story.

LST’s Statement to the Standards Review Committee

Today, one of LST’s advisory board members will read a statement on behalf of LST at the ABA Section of Legal Education’s Standards Review Committee meeting. The new chair, Dean Lewis from St. Louis University School of Law (Dean Emeritus), provided the following open invitation to those interested in law school accreditation standards.

The Standards Review Committee of the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is holding its first meeting of the academic year on November 11-12, 2011, at the Ritz Carlton Chicago. I am the new chair of the Committee; along with six additional new members, I will be joining seven continuing members of the Committee.

On Friday, November 11, the Committee will hold an open forum from 9:15 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Open Forum will provide the members of the Committee an opportunity to hear personally from those organizations and individuals who have an interest in the work of the Committee as it continues the comprehensive review of the Standards of Accreditation.

The majority of the time allotted for the forum will be assigned to invited organizations. Other interested individuals and entities are invited to speak during the last hour of the forum and will be allotted five minutes during this final hour on a first come basis.

The Committee will listen to interested constituents on Friday, as indicated. On Saturday the Committee will review and discuss the current work product. No action on any substantive matters will be taken at this November meeting.

We thank the committee for the opportunity to lend a consumer-oriented voice to accreditation reform. We hope that the committee takes seriously the need to help reduce the cost of obtaining a legal education.

LST’s Statement

I am here today on behalf of Law School Transparency to emphasize the need for the Section to assert its role in reforming legal education while keeping in mind the two consumers of legal education: students and employers.

Since its founding in 2009, Law School Transparency has lent a consumer-oriented voice to reforming law schools. LST has investigated how law schools portray the job stats of their graduates, how the Section of Legal Education regulates this law school behavior, and why miscues in resolving these problems may indicate that continued, outside pressure for consumer-oriented reforms will be necessary.

Much of LST’s time is spent advocating not just for measures that require schools to stop misleading prospective law students, but for measures that can enable prospectives to make informed decisions about whether and where to attend law school. The proposal by Dean Yellen’s subcommittee is a step in the right direction. It is critical that the committee approve their proposal. And it’s vital that schools post comparable, up-to-date information on their websites. Publishing information in the Official Guide is not enough.

This committee must also recognize that the 509 subcommittee’s work will not be finished if and when the Council finally approves the new Standard 509. While the changes will do much to stop schools from actively misleading prospectives, it will not help them understand which schools best meet their individual career objectives. This committee can and should be doing more than just making information available for public consumption, particularly if it wishes to minimize the impact of third parties like U.S. News. Without helping on this front, prospective students will continue disproportionally relying on the U.S. News rankings as their go-to for sorting different programs. Besides this very useful goal of reducing the impact of the rankings, even if only a little, law schools and the Section have a special obligation as educators. This is not just about doing the bare minimum; it is about improving students’ educational experiences, as well as the experience of those who use their services after law school.

These obligations extend to the committee’s review of all accreditation standards.

Consumers have limited knowledge about what a sound legal education consists of. This is why we need consumer protection in the first place. Relatedly, it’s the educators who do know the ins and outs of legal education. You engage every day with students, and have the opportunity to learn about education in a way that those who simply go through it do not. Those of you who volunteer to work within the Section of Legal Education have an even better understanding of how things work, and an even stronger interest in protecting students.

It has become apparent that legal education has gotten away from legal educators in some respects. There are almost 200 schools vying to be Harvard-like think tanks. Tuition prices are tied to a distorted market rate loosely based on a school’s U.S. News ranking and geographic location. Does anyone expect that this pricing model, which relies on student loans and dwindling credibility, will survive public scrutiny? Congressional scrutiny?

Many member schools have taken advantage of a lenient Standard 509 in maintaining their race to imitate those at the top. It has become imperative for each school’s admissions office to dress up the employment prospects in order to compete in recruiting top students. But is the Harvard deluxe model for everyone? At some point, as more and more graduates question their own ability to practice law upon graduation and more clients refuse to pay for their services, we must question the current model. This means inquiring as to whether the accreditation standards can be changed to allow other models to emerge.

A chief concern must be how to ensure that the cost of obtaining a legal education can be reduced. It is wrong for schools to ask what students are willing to pay when setting prices. Consider the tuition and graduate debt from the school you teach at or graduated from, and how quickly those numbers grew over the last 25 years. It should be clear that for too long, cost considerations have been absent from reform discussions. The cost of a legal education in the United States is obscene, and its effects are felt well beyond the individuals who choose to debt-finance their education.

The law school cost structure will receive continued attention in the coming days, weeks, and months. The buzz among faculty and administrators will be about what subtle changes can be made to reduce costs. Reducing costs to any great extent will seem insurmountable. That’s because subtle changes are not the answer.

The profession needs radical change to the law school cost structure. We must be asking how to get ourselves out of this mess. If the answers do not come quickly from legal educators, the result will be that educators end up forfeiting their right to control the changes. And if the answers have to come from elsewhere, unbreaking the broken law school model will be as painful as it is necessary.

A few specific areas need to be addressed immediately. First, Dean Lewis should create a subcommittee to review regulatory barriers preventing law schools from adapting low-cost models. It is problematic—and there are people here today who agree—that organizations like AALS are fighting so hard, as the cost of educating new lawyers lurches skyward, to require tenure for ABA-approval. Some schools are finding ways to increase value and better prepare graduates by relying on more adjuncts and fewer tenured professors; such adaptive models should be encouraged by the standards, not restricted. Other standards and interpretations also serve to make cost reductions more difficult. When the time comes, LST and I’m sure others will be happy to point out the standards that create the toughest barriers.

Finally, the Section must do a better job at policing its members if it wants to stay relevant in the discussion. This means having standards in place that are tough enough to permit sanctions and embolden the accreditation committee to be more assertive. When ABA-approved law schools start getting sued for alleged fraud and violations of state consumer protection laws, the value of “ABA-approved” has less meaning. If schools are not investigated and properly sanctioned by the Section of Legal Education, then the bad apples will make all member schools look worse by association. As of now only a handful of schools are facing class actions, but many more will come in the coming months. The more often ABA-approved schools get slapped with lawsuits, the less it means anything to actually be ABA-approved. It is a promise of quality, and the Section must be taking greater steps to protect consumers, which necessarily means being tougher on how its members recruit those consumers.

Above all, it is important not to compromise the values of the Section of Legal Education in the name of appeasing stakeholders who argue on behalf of themselves, rather than their consumers. When setting policy and creating new standards, we hope committee members distance themselves as much as possible from the dual roles many of them play as deans, professors, or counsel to institutions of higher education. Part of this means seeking members of the profession who can assist the committee in redefining what a ‘quality legal education’ entails. Ultimately if the current Section committee members are not up for the challenge, the responsibilities of shaping legal education will need to be placed somewhere else.

In closing, we hope you will take LST’s comments to heart, and that you will ask yourselves the questions we have posed before you this afternoon. Thank you.

A Law School Fantasy: Slashing Costs and Improving Preparedness

[this post appears in the National Law Journal forum on legal education]

Dean Chemerinsky’s and Professor Jewel’s contributions both raise very important points about the challenges facing legal education reform. Personally, I’m in the camp of people who believe that the legal education model will change. However, it’s apparent to me that changes must come predominately from outside of schools and the ABA Section of Legal Education. Survival instincts may prohibit even well-respected, well-meaning faculty scholars from adequately assessing the scope of the problems with the current law school model. But the increasing interest from U.S. Senators should signal to the uninitiated that law schools cannot continue to operate in a bubble. Nor can this discussion continue if everyone ignores the crux of the problem: intolerably high costs and an unacceptable number of unprepared graduates.

What would internal reform even look like if the two core goals are slashing tuition and improving preparedness? Part of the reason internal reform may be difficult to imagine, as Dean Chemerinsky pointed out, is because law schools are governed by faculty, and because substantial changes to the legal education model will alter “what [faculty] have to teach and do.” That the Section of Legal Education is captured by similarly consumer-disoriented interests, despite overtures to the contrary, only aggravates the situation and observers. It bears repeating that the Standards Review Committee, Section of Legal Education, and Dean O’Brien in his posting do not once mention how important it is that the cost of obtaining a legal education drastically decline. Reducing costs cannot be the elephant in the room if this discussion is to carry any significance with the public.

Internal reform may also be difficult to imagine because increases in quality are typically tied at the hip to increases in costs. This attitude contributed to the current model and its explosive growth over at least the last 25 years. With little or no downward pressure on the cost of legal education, and a diversity of ideas about what it means to improve the student experience, law schools can introduce new features along with yearly tuition increases, knowing they will be rewarded for it in the U.S. News rankings.

On its face, the idea that costs can decrease while quality increases is fanciful. More to the point, there is substantial denial that there is a problem with the quality of education that law schools provide graduates. Such denial comes out in claims that the “law school crisis” is cyclical, not structural.

Like Dean Chemerinsky, I graduated (albeit this year) without being ready to practice law. Yet, not unlike many law school graduates, I still received a high quality education. This confirms Dean O’Brien’s thoughts on the current state of legal education:

Legal education itself has never been in better shape in terms of the preparation that we provide future lawyers. In recent years, our schools have responded to suggestions by the bar and have substantially upgraded legal writing programs and practical skills opportunities. The process currently in place ensures that graduating lawyers are well trained for a variety of roles.

There are two important disconnects here. First, how can I claim that I received a high quality education and also say that people are wrong to deny there’s a problem with the quality of education? Second, how can Professor Olivas claim that graduates are well trained for a variety of roles, despite the increasing reticence of clients to pay for junior associates? We can reconcile both sets of questions by examining how each claim uses a different metric to evaluate quality. The first claim in each set speaks to doing something well, but not necessarily producing graduates who are/feel ready to practice law.

This brings me back to the potential fantasy of reducing costs while improving quality. In our evolved-definition-of-quality world, we may find that the current pedagogy badly misses the mark. In this case, radical change may mean substantially changing the composition of legal educators, whose salaries and benefits make up a large chunk of law school operating costs. If faculty composition radically shifts to include more practitioners teaching as adjuncts in specific, practice-oriented classes, while tenured faculty must seek grants to continue their scholarly endeavors, we could see the costs of educating aspiring lawyers decline drastically.

Reimagining Legal Education

The National Law Journal is hosting a discussion of the state of law schools, with contributions from the current Chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education, John F. O’Brien, the President of AALS, Michael Olivas, Dean Erwin Chemerinski (UC-Irvine), Bill Henderson (Indiana), Lucille Jewel (John Marshall – Atlanta), and Brian Tamanaha (Washington University in St. Louis). Here is my initial post:

We founded Law School Transparency in 2009 with a pretty basic goal: to spotlight and reform the presentation of law school employment information. In no trivial sense, law schools and the ABA Section of Legal Education were not fulfilling their responsibilities. Law schools were failing to adequately inform their future students. The Section of Legal Education was failing to adequately protect consumers with its accreditation standards, which law schools were more than happy to hide behind as accepted practice.

To a large extent, although strides have been made within the Section of Legal Education to protect consumers, these failings persist. (In a later post, I will explain how.) They signal, along with the fact that there were such significant failures prior to the national attention, much greater problems with law school operations. Law schools are simply not consumer oriented.

With this in mind, we are ready to announce the next phase of Law School Transparency: attempting to reimagine legal education. This has three core parts.

  • Structural Transparency
  • Identifying Opportunities for Improvement
  • Unbreaking the Broken Model

Three common-sense goals color an undeniably difficult process. First, the cost of obtaining a legal education must be substantially reduced. Second, students must have the opportunity to make choices after graduation and must have economic mobility throughout their careers. Third, the education model must meet the needs of students, the legal profession, and clients.

Structural Transparency

This part focuses on understanding the cost structure of providing legal education in the United States. Reducing the cost of obtaining a law degree requires understanding the nuances of the law school model, where the money comes from, and where the money goes. Some of these facts may come from examining public documents like law schools’ Form 990s and recent reports on legal education, but additional transparency is needed. Law schools need to open their books, explain those books, and do so truthfully and in good faith.

Identifying Opportunities for Improvement

Once the facts are on the table, those who are interested in reducing the cost of legal education can identify opportunities for improving the law school model. This introduces a normative inquiry into what it means to provide value.

Like the Section of Legal Education Outcome Measures Committee, we believe that the focus must center on outcomes. Law school should add value in two related ways.

First, law schools should produce graduates who can do things they couldn’t do prior to law school. Learning outcomes must be scrutinized with due consideration to how well graduates serve employers and clients. It is one thing to teach something well, and another to teach something relevant. The report is a great start, though it will be important to generate the discussion among all stakeholders—something the committee admitted it had trouble sparking.

Second, law schools should produce graduates who successfully enter the workforce able to repay law school loans. Based on the report, this was not considered. The committee acknowledges that costs will likely rise after retooling the accreditation standards, but it does not demonstrate any concern for whether education is affordable. I am hopeful that participants in this forum will discuss how this crucial element could possibly have gone unaddressed.

Unbreaking the Broken Model

It’s important to synthesize old and new information about how law schools educate their students. Ultimately, the product of these efforts will help determine the most appropriate, substantive changes to the U.S. legal education model. There is very real pressure to do a better job for students and employers, both of whom can be viewed as consumers of legal education. In making these changes, it will be essential that access and quality are not sacrificed.

How best to achieve the goals outlined above will be a matter of important debate. But regardless of how we manage to eventually unbreak the law school model, it’s clear that change must come. Legal education reform requires a significant commitment by all stakeholders—not just those who currently spend time teaching—to consider why and how we need to reimagine legal education.

Breaking: Coburn, Boxer Call for Department of Education to Examine Questions of Law School Transparency

A third United States Senator has formally recognized the importance of law school transparency.

In a letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Education, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have asked the IG to examine American law schools. The Senators will use the IG’s resulting report to inform Congress as it considers whether and how to reform the Higher Education Act.

One goal of this investigation is to better understand certain trends related to law schools over the past ten years. In particular, the Senators are concerned with the growth of enrollments and costs, budgets, graduate debt, bar passage rates, and employment rates. Notably, the Senators emphasize the importance of the legal employment rate.

These questions will point to unsettling answers. While we expect some of the trends to be relatively flat, including the percentage of people employed in legal jobs and bar passage rates, others will show a relatively steep incline.

In particular, enrollment growth at ABA-approved law schools is roughly 14.6% since 2001, while the total number of schools has grown by 8.7%. Meanwhile, over the same period, the total number of law degrees awarded has increased by 16%.

The amount of debt is perhaps most concerning. Over this same period, public ABA-approved law school attendee debt has increased 48% to roughly $69,000. The amount borrowed for those attending private ABA-approved schools increased 51.5% to roughly $106,000. Without much needed reform, these numbers will continue to rise.

Law School Transparency cares about much more than law schools providing adequate consumer information. Continued pressure from Congress, lawsuits, and other reform advocates will push law schools to honestly evaluate the American legal education model. However, reimagining a broken model will take a lot more than letters and getting people their day in court. We hope to see additional congressional inquiries. Legal educators need to answer hard questions about the current, expensive model in order to determine how to reduce costs. We look forward to working with all interested stakeholders as these issues continue to progress.

Senator Coburn and Senator Boxer Letter

October 13, 2011

Ms. Kathleen Tighe
Inspector General
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20202-1500

To help better inform Congress as it prepares to reform the Higher Education Act, we write to request an examination of American law schools that focuses on the confluence of growing enrollments, steadily increasing tuition rates and allegedly sluggish job placement.

Recent media stories reveal concerning challenges for students and graduates of such schools. For example, The New York Times reported on a law school that “increased the size of the class arriving in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded.” The New York Times found the same school is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country and has tuition and fees set at $47,800 a year but reported to prospective students median starting salaries rivaling graduates of the best schools in the nation “even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.”

Other reports question whether or not law schools are properly disclosing their graduation rates to prospective students. Inside Higher Ed recently highlighted several pending lawsuits which “argue that students were essentially robbed of the ability to make good decisions about whether to pay tuition (and to take out student loans) by being forced to rely on incomplete and inaccurate job placement information. Specifically, the suits charge the law schools in question (and many of their peers) mix together different kinds of employment (including jobs for which a J.D. is not needed) to inflate employment rates.”

Media exposes also reveal possible concerns about whether tuition and fees charged by law schools are used directly for legal education, or for purposes unrelated to legal education. For example, The New York Times reports “law schools toss off so much cash they are sometimes required to hand over as much as 30 percent of their revenue to universities, to subsidize less profitable fields.” The Baltimore Sun recently reported on the resignation of the Dean of the University of Baltimore (UB) Law School, who said he resigned, in part, over his frustration that the law school’s revenue was not being retained to serve students at the school. In his resignation letter, UB’s Dean noted: “The financial data [of the school] demonstrates that the amount and percentage of the law school revenue retained by the university has increased, particularly over the last two years. For the most recent academic year (AY 10-11), our tuition increase generated $1,455,650 in additional revenue. Of that amount, the School of Law budget increased by only $80,744.”

To better understand trends related to law schools over the most recent ten-year window, we request your office provide the following information:

1. The current enrollments, as well as the historical growth of enrollments, at American law schools – in the aggregate, and also by sector (i.e., private, public, for-profit).

2. Current tuition and fee rates, as well as the historical growth of tuition and fees, at American law schools – in the aggregate, and also by sector (i.e., private, public, for-profit).

3. The percentage of law school revenue generated that is retained to administer legal education, operate law school facilities, and the percentage and dollar amount used for other, non-legal educational purposes by the broader university system. If possible, please provide specific examples of what activities and expenses law school revenues are being used to support if such revenue does not support legal education directly.

4. The amount of federal and private educational loan debt legal students carried upon graduation, again in the aggregate and across sectors.

5. The current bar passage rates and graduation rates of students at American law schools, again in the aggregate and across sectors.

6. The job placement rates of American law school graduates; indicating whether such jobs are full- or part-time positions, whether they require a law degree, and whether they were maintained a year after employment.

In your final analysis, please include a description of the methodology the IG employed to acquire and analyze information for the report. Please also note any obstacles to acquiring pertinent information the agency may encounter.

We thank you in advance for your time and attention to this matter. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions concerning this request.

Sincerely,

Tom A. Coburn,
M.D. United States Senator

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator