ABA Journal Podcast on Transparency

Anna Stolley Persky from the ABA Journal leads the discussion entitled, “Are Scambloggers Right About Law School?” The panel features Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean David Yellen (chair of the ABA Standard 509 Subcommittee), Shilling Me Softly‘s Kimber A. Russell, and LST’s Co-Founder and Executive Director Kyle McEntee. You can listen to the full podcast here.

Peruse the Internet these days and you can’t help coming across web sites from disgruntled law students and new lawyers. From sites like First Tier Toilet and Third Tier Reality, bloggers are complaining angrily about the weak job market. Some go so far as to call law school a scam. At the same time members of the legal community—from the American Bar Association to law school deans to current students—are investigating the issues and working to make some changes.

We will post a short summary soon.

DBLawcast, Post-Mortem of the ABA Questionnaire Committee Meeting
DBLawcast, Reaching the Scambloggers
ABA Journal Podcast, How Law Schools Can Help Next Gen Lawyers Take Gamble Out of Hefty Tuition.

January ABA Standards Review Committee Meeting

This weekend, January 8-9, the ABA Standards Review Committee (“SRC”) will hold their quarterly meeting in San Francisco, CA. The meeting comes at the end of the annual AALS conference this week, during which law faculty meet in groups to discuss various facets of legal education. It is also the second SRC meeting at which a newly-established subcommittee will report on Standard 509.

During this meeting, the SRC will not focus exclusively on reforming schools’ employment reporting, in contrast with the Questionnaire Committee in December (recap here). Instead, the SRC will hear from all of its subcommittees in turn. You can view most of their reports here.

Of particular importance for our readers will be tomorrow afternoon’s report by Dean David Yellen of Loyola-Chicago, chair of the Subcommittee on Standard 509. This subcommittee was established last summer to look more closely at what changes the SRC should make to Standard 509, otherwise known as the consumer protection provision of the Accreditation Standards.

As with the rest of the Standards, if a school does not comply with both the standard and its accompanying interpretations, the school can be sanctioned and potentially stripped of their accreditation by the ABA. Because of this, the SRC is expected to take slow, careful steps with any of the subcommittee’s proposed changes. There will be a comment window after the SRC puts together its draft changes, during which the ABA will encourage public participation (and may potentially hold hearings, similar to the Questionnaire Committee last month). LST will be involved in this process.

Reform may still be in its early stages, but it’s important to monitor this initial progress before the ABA solicits comments so that the public is fully informed. Dean Yellen and his 509 team only made their first report a few months ago, at the SRC’s November meeting. Per a response we received from an ABA representative, the minutes from that meeting should be available for public viewing as soon as the SRC approves them. We are also hoping to listen in tomorrow via conference call, since the meeting is public and we are unable to make it to San Francisco (help LST travel to these events).

For now, below are the relevant portions of 509 and the interpretations as they currently apply to ABA approved law schools. If you have suggestions for how the subcommittee might improve the standards to ensure better reporting on employment outcomes, please do not hesitate to contact them. Additionally, if you believe your law school has violated the existing Standard 509—particularly 509(a)’s fair and accurate requirement, which is emphasized in Interpretations 509-2 and 509-4—you should check out the ABA’s complaint procedures here.

(a) A law school shall publish basic consumer information. The information shall be
published in a fair and accurate manner reflective of actual practice.

. . .

Interpretation 509-1
The following categories of consumer information are considered basic:
(1) admission data;
(2) tuition, fees, living costs, financial aid, and refunds;
(3) enrollment data and graduation rates;
(4) composition and number of faculty and administrators;
(5) curricular offerings;
(6) library resources;
(7) physical facilities; and
(8) placement rates and bar passage data.

Interpretation 509-2
To comply with its obligation to publish basic consumer information under the first sentence of this Standard, a law school may either provide the information to a publication designated by the Council or publish the information in its own publication. If the school chooses to meet this obligation through its own publication, the basic consumer information shall be published in a manner comparable to that used in the Council-designated publication, and the school shall provide the publication to all of its applicants.

. . .

Interpretation 509-4
Standard 509 requires a law school fairly and accurately to report basic consumer information whenever and wherever that information is reported or published. A law school’s participation in the Council-designated publication referred to in Interpretation 509-2 and its provision of fair and accurate information for that book does not excuse a school from the obligation to report fairly and accurately all basic consumer information published in other places or for other purposes.

[emphasis added throughout]

Questionnaire Committee Hearing Recap

I had the great fortune of attending last week’s ABA Questionnaire Committee hearing in Florida. It’s tough to boil down seven hours of presentations and discussion about employment outcome transparency to a single, readable post. However, a few themes emerged that I think are worth highlighting. Additionally, some great ideas were tossed around at the end of the hearing that may have established a foundation for a new proposal.

Basic Themes

First, the committee members appear to understand the problem. Prospective law students have an extremely frustrating time determining what sorts of employment opportunities different schools give law school graduates, causing the prospectives difficulty in making informed decisions. As many of the speakers pointed out, this is a consumer protection issue in part because significant investments should be made on an informed basis.

One crucial aspect of the J.D. investment, which commenters throughout the day emphasized and reemphasized, is the opportunity to get a job that allows loan servicing 6 months after graduation. Nearly everyone in attendance–from career services deans to committee members to advocates for prospective and current law students–acknowledged that prospectives are generally uninformed about the nature of the entry-level job market. Beyond the financial consequences, this means students embark on a career they know little about.

Second, the committee members appear to understand the implications of ignoring the problem. As the gateway to the legal profession, schools are dangerously close to damaging the public’s view of the profession. The trust relationship between schools and their students is under pressure, and with it the trust relationship between schools and their prospective students.

As Indiana professor Bill Henderson exclaimed during his presentation, “We have a potential scandal on our hands.” He stressed that it’s only a matter of time before a lawsuit filed by disgruntled graduates gives the profession “a black eye,” even if the lawsuit can’t survive a motion to dismiss. Kimber Russell then shared with the committee that she has twice been approached to be the lead plaintiff in a class action suit. As such, it might be too late in some respects, but the risks escalate each year nothing is done.

Third, the committee members appear to be committed to helping to resolve these problems. It’s important to remember that ABA committee members serve on a voluntary basis; they have chosen to take time away from their jobs to be involved with the ABA because they have an interest in upholding the values of the profession. When they realize those values are being compromised, they will do what they can to restore them. I think everyone in attendance, including people advocating against increased transparency, was interested in maintaining maximum credibility for the profession. Fortunately, most attendees recognized that honest disclosure of graduate employment outcomes by schools is a crucial step in limiting the appearance of impropriety, while simultaneously obliging schools to fulfill their responsibilities to applicants as consumers, investors, and students.

I’ve qualified these three themes with “appear” because the commitee members didn’t give attendees any assurances that they will make the kinds of changes people called for at the hearing. It is one thing to pay lip service to the problem, its implications, and plausible solutions, but another to actually help solve the problem and stay the consequences. This committee is in its early stages. They are gathering facts about the issue and listening to interested parties’ concerns about whether, and how, to solve the problem. So far, the committee is headed in the right direction. The committee Chair, Dean Art Gaudio, sought significant input from both consumer organizations like LST and from the schools, which were well represented at this first hearing. Committee members were also attentive, engaged, and asking the right questions to distinguish the legitimate concerns from the illegitimate.

It’s worth reiterating that the Questionnaire Committee has very limited, though extremely important, jurisdiction. The committee gets to determine which questions to ask schools on the annual ABA questionnaire. The answers then become the source for the ABA employment information available in the Official Guide. Despite this limited purview, the conversation often extended beyond the committee’s regulatory authority and looked at what the ABA as a whole might be able to do. This discussion was useful because members from other ABA committees were in attendance, notably representatives from the Accreditation Committee and the Standards Review Committee. Moreover, the extended discussion demonstrated an air of excitement for solving an important problem that requires dedicated collaboration. All three committees can, and must, work together towards a common solution.

A foundation for a new proposal

Finally, perhaps the best and most productive part of the hearing happened at the end of the day. Participants discussed a real solution about how best to demonstrate some of the economic value of a J.D, ignoring a few outlier concerns raised throughout the day. (These outliers included claims that “the ABA is seduced by data,” that current and suggested reporting standards wrongly focus on the first job, and that there is no need to share more information because prospectives have a so-called inability to understand it anyways.) Instead, we focused on a very specific solution: leveraging NALP’s considerable salary data to create a centralized website that will help prospectives make accurate estimates of how much entry-level legal jobs pay.

Jerry Organ, professor at University of St. Thomas School of Law and Vanderbilt Law alumnus, suggested early in the day an alternative to LST’s salary list for demonstrating the short-term economic value of degrees. He recommended using aggregated salary data along with narrow categories instead of salaries on a graduate-by-graduate basis. Immediately, I agreed that it would be better if done correctly. After NALP’s Executive Director Jim Leipold spoke at the end of the day, the appropriate partner for the ABA became apparent. If the ABA can effectively couple their reform efforts with NALP’s mass of salary data from across the United States, we will have a tenable solution. LST will build a mock webpage over the next few weeks based on our discussion with fellow attendees, which we will share as soon as we have a workable solution.

Prior to the NALP presentation, the room was not without friction. Law school administrators were particularly concerned about the new costs they would incur in complying with a heightened disclosure standard, particularly those representing under-staffed career services offices. Many were also concerned about other costs to their programs, such as a detrimental impact on recruiting because new methods of reporting might disproportionately impact the perception of the true, unique value of their schools’ degrees. Ironically, schools were quick to point the finger at how other schools inflate their true value under the current methods.

One of the reasons that the ABA-NALP partnership solution is so attractive is that it can meet prospectives’ needs without increasing costs for schools too much (as always, reform will cost money) and without risking privacy norm violations. But even beyond a partnership, Mr. Leipold pointed out that the committee should not look beyond the NALP survey for the questions they ask. We’ve been saying this for a long time. The NALP survey data are very high quality because NALP has done a great job figuring out the right questions to ask and schools have done a great job responding. But schools can’t pretend they don’t have these data anymore. They do and the committee members know it.

The committee listened to these concerns (which are not new to us) and asked difficult questions. Despite the fact that some schools tried to absolve themselves of any responsibility to do things differently, the committee members held their ground and seemed intent on mandating change. Their line of questioning pretty quickly moved on from figuring out the problems to focusing on which solutions were tenable and accordingly worth further examination.

What remains to be seen is whether the ABA Questionnaire Committee continues showing that willingness to engage in the issues as time goes on. Knowing that most attendees appear to be on the same page is important as we move the discussion forward. It focuses future discussions on arriving at a solution that balances the interests of both the schools and prospectives, keeping in mind the legitimate interest prospectives have in understanding the short-term job opportunities that tend to await graduates of particular programs. There is a long way to go, but we are getting there. The ABA, for its part, only needs to flex its muscle and not cede to the demands of those who wish to maintain the status quo.

U.S. News Expresses Support for Greater Employment Transparency

We recently broke the news about U.S. News’ decision to reform its disclosure of surveyed employment information. This was important in three significant ways. First, while only a small victory for those of us calling for more transparency, it’s a meaningful step towards reducing the number of prospectives who make uninformed decisions. These additional data will shed light on the meaning of the employment figures reported on U.S. News’ widely-used website, even though the ABA already publishes answers to some (but not all) of the same questions.

Second, once U.S. News begins publishing all of the important employment data it collects from schools, it will show the tendency schools have to revise their employment outcomes over time due to what NALP has termed the “data drift.” Third, and perhaps most promising, Bob Morse (the U.S. News guru) went on the record in favor of the transparency efforts, making an official pledge on behalf of his organization to publish more employment data.

From Morse Code, Mr. Morse’s U.S. News blog:

Law school students need as much information as possible to help them realistically understand the employment prospects from their school and the economic value of their degree in terms of their ability to pay back loans and earning power. U.S. News believes the information we will be publishing will help current students in those efforts. However, disclosure of employment data by law schools is still woefully lacking given the cost of attendance and poor job market. U.S. News strongly backs all ongoing efforts to require law schools to report even more detailed data on the how recent grads have fared in the job market. We would collect and publish those statistics if they were available.

Improving Visibility and Revealing the Data Drift

U.S. News was very receptive to our suggested changes in all communications, and Mr. Morse’s public comments are a clear sign that the organization behind the notorious rankings is aware of the problems that prospective law students face. It is worth noting once again that U.S. News actually collects more information about employment outcomes (thanks to its market power) than the ABA does using its regulatory power.

Some commenters have rightfully pointed out that a lot of our suggestions to U.S. News do not include data that aren’t already available from the ABA’s Official Guide to Law Schools. We only asked U.S. News to disclose data it already has, rather than lobbying for U.S. News to expand or refine its survey. But as it turns out, schools are providing different answers to the same questions over time.

According to Jim Leipold, Executive Director of NALP, schools are actually revising the data they submit over time for the same graduating class. At last week’s Questionnaire Committee hearing, Mr. Leipold spoke of the “data drift” among school-reported employment information, which make datasets submitted to the ABA and to U.S. News incompatible. For a given year, schools report data to NALP in February, U.S. News in March, and the ABA in October. For some schools, these figures are all different, even though they all reflect the same graduates’ post-graduation outcomes as of February 15 in the relevant year.

This is not because schools should answer questions differently when reporting to these three organizations, as each organization uses the same definitions and denominators. Rather, schools refine their answers over time as more information comes available. For example, a career services dean may learn in June that one of the students she could not track down was actually (un)employed in February, thus report one more (un)employed graduate to the ABA as compared to NALP. This phenomenon means that using the ABA data to better understand the U.S. News information is unreliable because the data sets are incompatible. As such, the new data U.S. News has pledged to share only appears to be redundant.

What’s Next?

It is important to recognize that U.S. News plays a significant role in how prospectives choose where to go, and that they share responsibility with the law schools and the ABA for making sure prospectives have the information they need. The U.S. News rankings are particularly important in decisionmaking, for better or worse. Many have argued, including Law School Transparency, that prospectives put too much weight on a school’s rank. These arguments stem largely from the belief that the rankings suffer from a number of methodological flaws (law review citations at the end of this post), especially the attempt to rank local and regional schools on a national scale, the reliance on incongruent components, and the lack of a meaningful answer to “what do these rankings measure?”

We know that many prospectives use U.S. News rankings as a proxy for employment opportunities, given the lack of meaningful information from the schools or the ABA. But is that what these rankings actually show? If we look at placement in the largest national law firms, based on the 2005 NLJ 250 chart (2007, 2008), the rankings do a pretty good job at sorting the most national law schools. But even then, they only have meaning on a national scale that misses the importance that regionality plays in legal hiring. For the tens of thousands of prospectives who will end up attending a different law school that doesn’t place into the NLJ250 or who aren’t interested in working for large law firms, the rankings do not effectively distinguish schools by placement ability.

All of this is beside the point. Regardless of the many concerns about how the rankings distort the application process, there is no doubt that U.S. News’ data collection fills part of the gap that the ABA has historically left wide open. U.S. News’ commitment to disclosing more information suggests that the organization is not only paying attention to this debate but siding with those of us who are arguing for improved disclosure.

U.S. News is also showing a willingness to listen as it considers what steps to take next. Mr. Morse and his staff acknowledged that they could provide more assistance by actively seeking input on how they can help more effectively. In all of this their dedication to helping prospective students is especially important, particularly as the ABA considers making changes to what schools must report to maintain accreditation. One of the biggest differences between what the ABA requires and what U.S. News asks for (and usually gets) is salary information, which the ABA has not yet deemed to be basic consumer information. A call by U.S. News for the ABA to collect better consumer information has the potential to make a significant impact, and we will be keeping an eye on any changes over at the ABA. The Standards Review Committee is having its next meeting in a few weeks, when we look forward to continuing the discussion about the need for better regulation.

Some U.S. News rankings criticisms:
Brian Leiter, How to Rank Law Schools, 81 IND. L.J. 47–50 (2006); Andrew P. Morriss & William D. Henderson, Measuring Outcomes: Post-graduation Measures of Success in the U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings, 83 IND. L.J. 791 (2008); Richard A. Posner, Law School Rankings, 81 IND. L.J. 13, 13 (2006); David A. Thomas, The Law School Rankings Are Harmful Deceptions: A Response to Those Who Praise the Rankings and Suggestions for a Better Approach to Evaluating Law Schools, 40 HOUS. L. REV. 419 (2003). But cf., e.g., Paul D. Carrington, On Ranking: A Response to Mitchell Berger, 53 J. LEGAL EDUC. 301 (2003); Russell Korobkin, In Praise of Law School Rankings: Solutions to Coordination and Collective Action Problems, 77 TEX. L. REV. 403 (1998).

Post-Mortem of the ABA Questionnaire Committee Meeting

This past Monday (December 17), I had the opportunity to present to the Questionnaire Committee in Florida about employment reporting problems and solutions. It was a nice break from exams, and I am extremely pleased with how it all went.

Patrick was unable to attend, but did listen in along with Kimber and Mark from the Down by Lawcast. On Thursday, we four discussed the meeting for Episode 10 of the Down by Lawcast. The Committee is on the right track, but has a long way to go in their process. We’ll have a more extensive post about the meeting in a few days.

Episode 10

DBLawcast, Reaching the Scambloggers
ABA Journal Podcast, How Law Schools Can Help Next Gen Lawyers Take Gamble Out of Hefty Tuition.

A Note from Our Co-Founders

Dear Readers,

Thank you to everyone who has continued expressing support for increased transparency at ABA-approved law schools. This past week LST announced some important improvements that U.S. News will make regarding information disclosure. Building on the U.S. News lobbying efforts (which we began back in August), we then presented at the ABA Questionnaire Committee meeting down in Ft. Lauderdale, which was very productive. We will recap what happened at the meeting later this week. By continuing to focus the discussion on the need to repair the trust relationship between law schools and students, we are hopeful that meaningful improvements will eventually come about through the regulatory process.

LST plans to play an active role in participating in the reforms, but to do this we need to reexamine our organization’s resources. We are a small staff made up entirely of volunteers. This is a good thing. Unlike representatives from individual law schools, we don’t face the bureaucratic problems that exist within many institutions of higher education. As new members of the legal profession, we have worked hard to prove our dedication to solving these issues in a way that benefits both prospective law students and the legal profession in general. Thankfully, the legal media has largely spared us of the same criticism often levied against the ABA or individual law schools. We suspect that one of the reasons for this has been because we don’t really have a horse in the race, other than a serious dedication to following through with our goals.

That said, this week’s success at the ABA hearing has led us to realize that continued involvement with the ABA is necessary if we are to make sure that they continue in the right direction. Regulatory reform is slow, and there will be a number of opportunities for interested parties to sidetrack the ABA’s efforts. For our purposes, this means that we need to secure enough funds so that when we are invited to the table, we can afford to attend.

So far we have relied on the generosity of anonymous donors, but we are now considering additional methods of fundraising. We will continue to operate as a volunteer organization, relying on our dedicated staff members, advisory board, and the hundreds of people who have reached out to us with ideas over the last two years.

We are currently soliciting ideas about how we can raise the funds necessary to carry out LST’s mission. If you have a good one, let us know. One suggestion has been to ask for an “alternate class pledge” similar to what graduating students are asked to give by their law schools, where graduates who do not approve of how their own school presents employment information can make a pledge to LST instead. While this could increase some of the animosity between law schools and LST, it could also serve as a barometer for how many graduates are willing to pay to see something change, while simultaneously providing another incentive (though small) for schools to reevaluate their methods aside from any potential ABA reforms. We are by no means committed to this idea, so if you have an opinion on the matter please do not hesitate to express your concern or support.

We will be considering any and all fundraising suggestions over the next several weeks. Please send us your thoughts, or let us know if you (or someone you know) would be interested in making a donation.

All the Best,

Patrick J. Lynch, J.D.
Co-Founder and Policy Director
Law School Transparency

Kyle P. McEntee
Co-Founder and Executive Director
Law School Transparency

Call for Comments

The ABA Questionnaire Committee hearing is on Monday and we’re very excited that we’re able to send a representative to voice our concerns and our solution. The Committee has posted the comments and submissions for the hearing on its webpage. These comments and submissions come mostly from law school administrators, but also from NALP and the Pre-law Advisors National Council (PLANC).

If you have any comments or concerns, please either email us or post a response to this post.

You can read our submission here.

List of Commenters

Dean Allan Vestal, Drake University
Dean Brad Toben, Baylor University
Brian D. Lewis, Assistant Dean Career Services, University of North Carolina
Dean Hanna R. Arterian, Syracuse University
Kyle P. McEntee, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Law School Transparency
Dean Larry Dessem, University of Missouri-Columbia
Linda S. Jones, Senior Director Career Services, Ohio State University
Dean Emily A. Spieler, Northeastern University
Dean Kevin Cole, San Diego University
Kathy Urbach, Assistant Dean for Career Services and Public Service, University of Louisville
Rachel Littman, Asst. Dean for Career Development and External Relations, Pace Law School
Susan T Meyer, Student Academic Success Center, University of California-Davis
Dean Robert M. Ackerman, Wayne State University
Dean David A. Brennan, University of Kentucky
Dean Allen K. Easley, University of La Verne
Suzanne B. Patrick, Director of Career Services, St. Mary’s University
Dean Leroy Pernell, Florida A & M University
Barbara C. Weinzierl, Director, Career Planning Office, Akron University
Comments from the Pre-law Advisors National Council (PLANC)
NALP NCBE Bar Admissions Conference “Who’s Going to Law School”

List of Attendees and Presenters

List of attendees and presenters

Introduction to the ABA’s Initiatives on Law School Transparency

The American Bar Association (“ABA”) is a very large professional organization, with over 400,000 members (predominately practicing lawyers and law students). Among other services, the ABA provides law school accreditation and continuing legal education (CLE’s), educates its members and others about the law, assists lawyers and judges in their work, and actively seeks to improve the legal system and legal profession. Among the ABA’s goals, servings its members and improving the profession rub right against the responsibility law schools have to their prospective and current students as a gatekeeper to the profession.

Recently, the ABA reentered the ongoing discussion about law school transparency, particularly with respect to historical post-graduation employment outcomes. This reentry is highly appropriate because the ABA exerts considerable regulatory power over law schools. The ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (“Section of Legal Education”) has official certification as a law school accrediting agency from the Department of Education. While most of the news coverage regarding the ABA and law school transparency has only come about fairly recently, the ABA has from time to time initiated various reforms.

Prior ABA Initiatives

The MacCrate Report

Robert MacCrate

In 1992, the MacCrate Report—the product of an ABA-commissioned task force for improving legal education—underscored “the need for informed choice.” The MacCrate Report discusses “the perceived lack of adequate information” and that “prospective law students generally are not knowledgeable about the profession, [including] . . . different paths for entry into the profession.” It prescribes responsibility to the ABA and individual law schools. As a result of the MacCrate Report, the ABA set forth disclosure requirements (Standard 509) in an attempt to cure the information asymmetry between law schools and prospective law students.

Standard 509

In 1996, ABA Standard 509 was born:

A law school shall publish basic consumer information. The information shall be published in a fair and accurate manner reflective of actual practice.

Through ABA Standard 509, the ABA recognizes law schools’ obligation to provide “basic consumer information” to prospective law students. It does not matter to whom the law schools report this information; any reported information must be both “fair and accurate.” The Interpretations which follow Standard 509 contain a list of what consumer information the ABA considers “basic.” From the list, two components (bar passage rate and percent employed after graduation) are the only ones that describe post-graduation outcomes. While neither Standard 509 nor the Interpretations define the term “consumer,” it is reasonable and important to assume “consumer” refers to prospective law students and not just accepted or current law students. The MacCrate Report nicely captured why it’s important to recognize prospective law students as consumers (emphasis added):

The decision to pursue a career in the law should be a considered choice reached with a full awareness of its implications. . . .There are three critical stages of decision-making en route to becoming a lawyer: 1) Perhaps the most significant, whether to enter the legal profession at all: 2) which law school to choose; and 3) what career path to enter after law school. Each occasion should be a time for careful reflection and self-assessment based upon sufficient information to make an informed choice . . . .Timely and accurate information about the legal profession and the function of law schools as the gateway to the profession helps prepare prospective applicants for a future in law and may help prevent some from becoming locked into a career from which they draw no real satisfaction, for which they are poorly suited and in which they perform marginally. Such individuals need access to comprehensive and objective information;. . . Prospective law students generally are not knowledgeable about the profession: what certain jobs entail; what different paths for entry into the profession may be; how students should prepare for their careers; and how law schools may differ in the preparation they offer. Law students tend to be passive consumers of legal education: they simply assume that the law school experience adequately prepares them for practice.

Nearly twenty years later, the ABA has chosen to revisit the issue of consumer rights, taking a closer look at the need for reform and proposing a number of initiatives. We examine each of these in turn.

New ABA Initiatives

What are they?

David Wolfe

(1) Young Lawyers Division (YLD), “Truth in Law School Education”

YLD is chaired by David Wolfe, a New Jersey attorney. Little is known currently about the YLD’s initiative because it is reportedly still in the planning stages. Early considerations according to the National Law Journal include “requiring law schools to disclose cost and employment statistics to all accepted law school applicants.” ABA President Steve Zack told a gathering of law school deans and faculty that he hopes the YLD will consider the “Truth in Law School Education” resolution in February.

(2) The ABA Questionnaire Committee

The Questionnaire Committee is chaired by Art Gaudio, dean of Western New England College School of Law. Dean Gaudio appears to have a clear understanding of the problem prospective law students face, and we are optimistic about the proposals his Committee may suggest. From a letter LST received from Dean Gaudio in his role as committee chair:

As you know, the situation for law school graduates who are seeking gainful employment in law firms or otherwise in the legal profession is problematic (to understate the matter). Furthermore, law school applicants are [sic] have difficulty understanding or are simply unable to obtain the information they need to make informed decisions when applying to law schools. As I’m sure you are aware, many assertions have been made about reported placement data – that it’s incomplete, that it’s difficult to understand, that it’s not uniformly reported, that it’s inaccurate, and even that it’s misleading. There have been requests that placement data supplied by law schools about their graduates be more complete, be more informative, be more uniformly reported, and perhaps even be audited. In response, concerns have been raised regarding the confidentiality of graduates and their data, the inability of getting all graduates to respond to requests for data, and that other law schools are not reporting their data as requested. This is not a complete list of the issues, and that is also part of the problem.

The Questionnaire Committee is doing something about the problem and actively seeking input from interested parties like LST (see more below).

Art Gaudio, dean of Western
New England College School of Law

This year we have before us a special task – to review and revise where appropriate the reporting of placement data by law schools. . . . Our task is no small one and we are seeking your input and help.

The committee’s hearing reflects only early-stage activity. It is not clear what modifications will eventually make it through the entire Questionnaire Committee’s process. But LST will follow the progress closely and encourage readers to get involved.

(3) The ABA Standards Review Committee

Donald Polden, dean of
Santa Clara Law

The Standards Review Committee is chaired by Donald Polden, dean of Santa Clara Law. Dean Polden has established a subcommittee to review the ABA’s employment reporting standard (Standard 509). He has appointed David Yellen, dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, to chair the Standard 509 Subcommittee. Dean Polden has asked Dean Yellen to prepare a recommendation for modifying Standard 509 to better serve prospective law students as consumers.

Like the Questionnaire Committee, this subcommittee is in its early stages. Back in June, Dean Polden requested that Dean Yellen and his fellow subcommittee members read our white paper to serve as a baseline for why the present level of information fails prospective law students.

In addition to this show of good faith by the Standards Review Committee, Dean Yellen is already leading by example when it comes to meaningful disclosure of employment information. His law school is among the best when it comes to disclosing post-graduation employment outcomes. Loyola University Chicago School of Law (“LUC”) not only exceeds the current employment reporting standards, but does so meaningfully.

David Yellen, dean of
Loyala University Chicago
School of Law

LUC meaningfully exceeds the current reporting standards in a few ways. First, LUC currently provides the state-by-state breakdowns of where 276 graduates in the Class of 2009 work. Until data on the Class of 2010 is collected next February, this is the most recent available data on post-graduation employment. Second, LUC provides a more nuanced breakdown of the employer types of employed graduates. Third, LUC provides salary ranges for multiple categories, and tells the reader the number of graduates included in these ranges.

Additionally, LUC provides a list of 2009 graduates’ employers, similar to the lists that inspired LST. But LUC’s list is not without fault. For instance, LUC provides no law firm locations and does not list whether more than one graduate worked for a particular employer. We suspect that this accounts for at least a few of the graduates missing from this list. It includes 185 employers, thus at least 185 graduates, out of 307 graduates (Source: LUC’s Assistant Dean Marianne Deagle). Nevertheless, accounting for the actual employer for about 60% of the entire class is a big step in the right direction. Reporting information in this manner gives a much more robust picture of the job prospects coming from a particular school. It also gives prospective law students the means to research employers in the entry-level market to help inform them about what the MacCrate Report called “the nature of the legal job market.” Dean Yellen’s school will serve as a good baseline for the 509 Subcommittee to start.

What should you make of these initiatives?

Let us be clear: The ABA is headed in the right direction, and the media is doing its job of paying attention so that these initiatives don’t fall by the wayside. LST will continue our work to make the process as transparent as possible given its importance to the legal profession. We will also make sure that the proposals do not fall short of their goals as time goes on.

There is a need for people to pay attention and get involved in these discussions. Some have voiced concerns (to us and to the media) that the ABA is a captured organization incapable of producing adequate reform on their own. To quiet these doubts, we hope that the ABA appointees continue to encourage involvement from across the profession. LST is also weighing in on one of the initiatives: we have been asked to present at the ABA Questionnaire Committee’s hearing on December 13, 2010 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. We will also be involved with the Standard 509 Subcommittee as its initiatives continue developing throughout next year. Visit the Section of Legal Education’s calender to see when the ABA Questionnaire Committee and Standards Review Committee plan to meet.

One thing to look out for is what enforcement mechanism the Young Lawyers Division plans to use to “require” disclosure. Only the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has accreditation authority; other ABA divisions such as the YLD instead provide suggestions and best practices, which schools do not necessarily have to follow. One option is for the YLD to work out a proposal for the Standards Review Committee to consider, either for creating a new standard in Chapter 5 or a new interpretation of Standard 509 (perhaps a modification of Interpretation 509-2.) The YLD could also unofficially lobby the Standards Review Committee by making a recommendation for a change like the two mentioned above. Finally, the YLD could make recommendations directly to the ABA-approved law schools and allow public pressure to enforce the resolution.

Any of the possible routes have the potential to be transformative if implemented, but that depends on the level of information being requested. As ABA President Stephen Zack alludes to in the National Law Journal piece, the real question is one about the quality of the information, not the manner in which it is delivered to the consumer. As we detailed in our white paper, the most diligent prospective law students in all but a few cases cannot find enough meaningful information to make an informed decision. Simply putting the currently-available information in such a conspicuous place will not solve this problem.

Nonetheless, the YLD’s actions are essential. First, it demonstrates that young lawyers care about how law schools present employment information and are searching for constructive solutions. Second, it reveals another method for informing prospective law students (in this case, accepted applicants) about the outcomes they can expect and the positive costs they can expect to incur by attending law school. Third, it reflects the broader attitude that it is time for regulatory reform for America’s law schools.

However, the YLD has been criticized for looking at a solution that only releases information to accepted students. This criticism is misplaced. The YLD’s efforts would not replace the Official Guide as a source for employment information reported to the ABA by ABA law schools, nor would they be inaccessible to non-accepted students given the ability to post and share information online. As presently described, the YLD’s proposal looks to close the gap between accepted students who look at the available employment information and those who do not. If for some reason schools include new information in the acceptance letter (and only in acceptance letters), LST will ensure that this information reaches prospective students by publishing the letters and employment information for all to see.

These initiatives show that change is afoot, even if it will take years to implement some of those changes. During the process LST will help ensure that these groups operate in a manner that makes them accessible to public involvement. The likelihood of meaningful change will only increase as more prospectives (or consumers, or investors) get involved. Please send us your ideas or how you plan to participate in the process.

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.

Summarizing the ABA Podcast with Dean Polden and Dean Van Zandt

The ABA Journal podcast was a great opportunity for Law School Transparency to explain our mission to a wider audience. One of our goals is to help shape the ongoing discussion about law school costs and benefits, paying particular attention to employment reporting standards. Articles that discuss our transparency initiative are always welcome, but by talking about the need for transparency alongside key players like Dean Van Zandt and Dean Polden we are hopefully setting the stage for a strong reception when we make our official request. LST will have another outreach opportunity next week when Patrick Lynch appears on a panel about the growing number of lawyers in Tennessee.

During the podcast, Dean Polden pointed out that the employment rate of 2009 graduates “is probably an accurate figure, but does not tell readers whether or not those individuals are employed at a law job or at a nonlaw job.” He also noted that it does not tell readers whether graduates are “fully employed or underemployed,” or whether the job obtained is “their highest preferred job.” Dean Van Zandt was more skeptical of the employment rate, but agreed that schools can do a better job presenting the employment picture for incoming students.

This is where LST comes in.

Once schools follow the LST standard, prospectives will be able to see, in a way that is meaningful, where every graduate works. On getting law schools to present a more accurate picture of the job market, Dean Van Zandt said our plan is “one good idea,” though he emphasizes the need for an independent auditor as well. More specifically, he believes that schools “need to publish results for all their programs broken down the way [LST is] suggesting.” For him, the kinds of positions graduates obtain matter. He also wants applicants to be able to know what kind of value the law school investment can add.

Whether or not he means this to be broken down by school – and we think it’s a reasonable inference that he does – LST wants applicants to know what kind of value this law school provides versus that law school. Employment details about specific graduates at multiple schools will allow this comparison so that prospectives can make choices based on fit.

As Dean Polden points out, however, there are costs associated with the complexity that follows from drilling down employment opportunities for a better picture of the legal hiring landscape. For at least some aspects of employment information, Dean Polden agrees that “greater transparency is absolutely necessary.” The question remains whether he agrees with the level our standard will set.

With respect to the ABA standard, he wants to make sure that the level is set to “stay ahead of the scammers and the schemers that are concerned with manipulating rankings.” And as far as improving the standard, he points out that the goal is “to get more meaningful information . . . in a way that is not a big data dump for prospective students—so much information that it becomes meaningless.”

This is a plausible criticism of the LST standard, though he did not directly levy it towards us. If every ABA-approved law school participates in our first year of data collection, prospectives will have over 80,000 rows of information to mine through (two for each graduate, one on each list). Granted, prospectives will not need to compare every school, but the sentiment remains that prospectives could face information overload.

One way we plan to help is to provide all of the data we receive to the public. This permits faculty, prospectives, and others to develop derivative tools to make the data more manageable. By enabling this marketplace, those that are both willing and capable can produce tools that answer many of the questions prospectives ask about employment opportunities at various law schools. LST will also point out holes in the data where they exist and open up dialogue with schools to figure out why they did not comply with our standard. Though different than the auditing process Dean Van Zandt has been calling for, we will also rely on the public to alert us as to any discrepancies they find.

But how do we ensure that people do not create derivative tools that distort or undermine the data? We suggest in our paper that:

Clear guidelines and explanations, along with an accessible and active staff will go a long way to stave such misuse, but the solution must be a community effort. The alternatives – restricted access to data and information or too strong of oversight of how this data and information are used – would go against the purpose of this new standard. It would continue producing information asymmetry in a market that already sees tens of thousands of people each year potentially making uninformed financial decisions. Providing open, uninhibited access to information is the only way to fulfill Justice Brandeis’ mandate that “the disclosure must be real. And it must be a disclosure to the investor.”

As Dean Polden observed, prospectives have become increasingly insistent in pursuing employment information, so much so that his own law school (Santa Clara Law) has changed what they disclose because of what he calls “the greater curiosity and interest and concern that applicants and admitted students have.” We recently reminded prospectives about their ability to encourage even more disclosure from the schools:

Out of all the stakeholders, the greatest information-forcing authority lies with you. As we have mentioned many times on discussion boards like Top Law Schools, you should leverage your acceptances to procure additional information from the law schools. We regret that we will not be making our request until after you have likely made your decision, however many ABA-approved law schools are already on notice that many of you want better information. This initiative began with requests from prospective law students, and its success will depend on your continued support of this initiative. As always, you can send us any information related to post-graduation outcomes you receive. Good hunting.

A summary of the ABA Journal Podcast is now available on the ABA Journal website.