Helping Future Generations of Lawyers

This post was written by Kyle McEntee and Patrick J. Lynch, and originally published on BeyondHearsay.com. Beyond Hearsay is a website designed by Kaplan PMBR Bar Review to provide a collection of stories written by current and former law school students about their experiences in law school and beyond.

In 2011, nearly 50,000 law students will begin to invest in their legal education, expecting to derive value from both the educational experience and the J.D. itself. For most of these students, the decision to attend law school requires a costly investment of time and money. Unfortunately, most will attend without an accurate idea of how well the school’s graduates tend to fare in the job market. Even for those in the know, accessing quality employment information is a difficult and frustrating process.

Despite oversight from the ABA, schools have enormous leeway in what employment information they share and in how they choose to portray it. Some prospective students will recognize the lack of useful, reliable information from the start and will still choose to attend, but many won’t realize an information asymmetry exists until after school begins. Law schools certainly don’t deserve the blame for the economic collapse or the transformation of the legal market that came with it, but they are responsible for how they portray information about job outcomes when recruiting new students.

Many students and graduates are discouraged and angry about a disclosure process they believe is unfair. Many are wondering whether law schools will ever address concerns about how they share knowledge about the realities of the legal job market. Schools have a duty to be more transparent, while the ABA has a duty to ensure that schools report employment information in a fair and accurate manner. And contrary to how the schools and the ABA currently execute these duties, prospective law students deserve this information at the beginning of the process, before they submit their applications. Convincing the schools and the ABA to educate prospective students earlier, and formulating a solution that is efficient and desirable, requires a lot of work. That’s where we come in.

Law School Transparency

Chances are that you—like us—can empathize with these 50,000 prospective law students, as well as the hundreds of thousands that will follow them in years to come. We founded our non-profit organization, Law School Transparency (LST), because of the difficulty that prospective students have with accessing and interpreting information about law school job prospects.

LST began as a small organization with a dedicated team of current law students. Unlike some of the more vocal critics of legal education, we didn’t start this project because we were upset with our decisions to attend law school or because the job market is terrible. LST was established because we wanted to improve the legal profession, and because we believed that this can be achieved on a number of levels by better informing applicants.

We know that a lot of research goes into justifying the time, debt, and opportunity costs of attending law school. Regardless of whether you applied because you wanted to work in the public sector, in private practice, or in a non-legal field, you were probably concerned about whether a law school’s reputation and placement ability could put you on the right path to achieving your goals. You probably also wanted to know the typical salaries for a school’s graduates and perhaps its niche placement tendencies.

But job opportunities differ (sometimes drastically so) depending on which law school one attends. Understanding these differences requires far more nuanced information than what schools or third parties currently provide. These differences are caused not only by the kinds of employers that hire from certain schools, but also by the tendency in most regions for employers to hire from within their own city or state. For prospective students who strive to take a detailed, holistic look at the diverse employment opportunities at different law schools, the available resources are inadequate and even misleading.

We know from our research that law schools already collect significantly more employment data than they report. Schools frequently overrepresent top graduates without providing information about the rest of the class, or show the starting salaries of a few respondents as if those are indicative of the entire class. To resolve these issues, the easiest solution is to simply disclose more of the data that schools already collect. Schools must do a better job with this if they want to fulfill their obligation to fairly and adequately inform prospective students about the nature of the legal profession and the opportunities within it. Regardless of the economic climate, prospective students should have better information when deciding whether to make the enormous investment in a law degree.

Improving Employment Information

All too often, a lack of useful employment information means that answering the question “what school is right for me?” leads to focusing on a school’s U.S. News ranking, rather than how a school can meet an individual’s educational and career objectives. Not surprisingly, many law school administrators agree with us that their programs should be compared based on the actual value offered rather than its ranking. What’s odd is that the same administrators decline to disclose the very information prospective students need in order to limit their reliance on U.S. News.

In response to this problem, we have aimed to improve employment information by calling for the reform of existing reporting standards. Thus far, administrators have not been willing to voluntarily reveal the true nature of the legal hiring market in response to our concerns (except at one school, which plans to disclose under the LST Standard next month). From the beginning, our strategy has been to raise the profile of this failure to adequately inform applicants. While schools have refused or simply ignored LST’s request, a growing consensus about the necessity of reform has shifted attention to the ABA, which can mandate reform of the reporting standards.

What You Can Do

Potential ABA regulations and LST-compliance aside, schools have to decide for themselves how important it is to give prospective law students a realistic view of the job market. For example, our school has been in the practice of releasing lists that account for nearly the entire graduating class since March 2008. These lists include each employer’s name and location, allowing Vanderbilt applicants to make more informed decisions about how well their career objectives might be met by investing in a J.D. A handful of schools do something similar, but they all have room to improve and should be taking a second look at what they can do.

You are in the position, as a current student or recent graduate, to let your school know whether you support more meaningful disclosure of job outcomes.

If you are a current student:
As part of your law school’s community, your involvement can directly influence what your school does to address these problems. You most likely pay the school a lot of money each semester, probably incurring non-dischargeable debt to do so. Schools depend on these tuition dollars to finance a large portion of the budget. As a current student, you are also involved with student leadership organizations, career services officers, and law school administrators. You likely know (or will come to know) which members of the administration are serious about addressing your concerns. Many of these people care deeply about how legal education operates, and your encouragement may help them enter this particular conversation. Student leadership groups in particular can play an integral role in petitioning the administration and shaping how the school recruits prospective law students. Finally, you will soon earn your J.D. and become an alumnus of the school. Law schools value whether graduates walk away feeling satisfied and willing to one day give back. Rest assured, your school will begin asking you to reinvest through donations soon after you graduate, if not before.

If you are a recent graduate:
Recent graduates have been through all of the above. You have also witnessed the challenges of the current legal market and perhaps experienced the consequences of unrealized expectations, even after accounting for the unpredictable market contraction. Some of you have also become involved in alumni or bar associations, where your role as a new member can be to encourage dialogue between more seasoned members of the profession and the administrators of your alma mater.

How to get involved
Regardless of where you are in your career, your knowledge and leverage mean that you can do something about the problem. Schools have refused to budge, offering up a number of excuses as to why change is not feasible. One approach would be to let your school know that claims about steep compliance costs prohibiting their ability to disclose information are unacceptable and misguided. After all, funding employment-outcome transparency is an appropriate use of school resources, particularly when funding depends heavily on tuition payments that were made in reliance on advertisements about employment outcomes. If a school’s budget cannot account for educating future students about essential information, then the dean is not doing his or her job.

You can also let your school know that failing to act could have a negative impact on its reputation. Organizations like U.S. News has come out in favor of efforts for law school transparency and called upon schools to release more information. At the same time, recent graduates who are upset with their alma maters are gaining ever-widening coverage in both the legal and mainstream media. In such a charged environment where the law schools themselves are the only ones not on board with reform, those schools who take it upon themselves to improve disclosure methods are going to stand out. The schools that do nothing risk being exposed to a range of embarrassing media reports or law suits.

A Way Forward

We are confident that administrators at a number of law schools are starting to see the way forward. But for the rest who still need to be convinced, they need to hear from people like you. As this semester of law school gets underway, or as you look back on your legal education, we hope you will think about these issues and get involved. Even if you do not wish to get involved directly with your school, you can still make a difference by letting us know if you have any ideas or concerns. One of the most rewarding parts of working on this project is the level of support we’ve seen from people across the legal profession. Our hope is that as things progress, more of you will find a way to join in the conversation and help restore some of the values of the profession.

Shocked about Kaplan’s Survey Results? New Information Comes to Light

Many articles have covered Kaplan Test Prep’s recent press release, in which Kaplan declared that “[i]n deciding where to apply, pre-law students consider a law school’s place in the rankings more important than affordability, geographic location, its academic program – and even more important than its job placement statistics.” The same release also reemphasized the results of an earlier survey, which showed more than half of all prospective law students are ‘very confident’ they will get a legal job after graduation, while only 16% were ‘very confident’ about their peers.

Based in part on these two statements, people are questioning whether prospective law students actually deserve better information about job prospects, and whether disclosing more information would even impact their decision-making process. In other words, if prospectives really don’t care about job prospects, why should we care about law school transparency?

The survey results seemed odd to us, so we decided to dig a little deeper by contacting Kaplan Test Prep and taking a closer look at the survey. Kaplan was kind enough to not only answer our questions promptly, but to also send the full survey and results.

After reading the survey, digesting the results, and learning more about Kaplan Test Prep, it turns out that the press release and ensuing coverage did not tell the whole story. Instead, the results reflect an application landscape where important information is scarce and application decisions are complex. LST has been arguing these two things for months now; many others have been doing so for years.

You can check out the survey’s full results and our comments after the jump.

Continue reading Shocked about Kaplan’s Survey Results? New Information Comes to Light

Why Involve Admissions Offices?

This week LST sent out our second request for more transparent employment information to all ABA approved and provisionally approved law schools. As with our first request, recipients included the career services office, admissions office, and dean’s office at each school. From the request:

This email was sent to the career services, admissions, and dean’s offices for every ABA approved and provisionally-approved law school.

Multiple admissions offices have informed us that we submitted the request to them in error, and that they were forwarding our request to career services. While we appreciate that they have taken some action regarding the request, their confusion about who received the request calls for a closer look at our intentions. This post explains why we continue to seek the involvement of admissions offices in bringing about reform.

Admissions offices are the public face of the law school for prospective students, charged with providing information and answering questions about the school. Increasingly, these questions reflect a concern in the market that law schools are not fairly reporting the employment information supplied by their graduates. Beyond being insufficient, the information presented in school-based publications (whether on a website or in pamphlets) can also be misleading. Given this risk, admissions offices need to be involved in our request for data because of their role in packaging information and distributing it to consumers.

As a general matter, the decision to comply with the LST Standard should be a school-wide decision. All three offices we contacted play a role in collecting and reporting employment statistics. The dean’s office oversees the entire law school, including at least some resource allocations. Career services offices are charged with helping students find gainful employment and collecting and reporting employment data. Admissions offices often decide which information to present to prospective students, and how to do it. Each office is obligated to perform tasks concerning employment statistics, and potential changes to their obligations should be of interest.

Informing more departments about LST’s request also lessens the risk that the discussion stalls. We want schools to have an internal debate about the merits of the LST Standard, having already learned that there is at least some internal conflict about the desirability of complying with our standard. As we noted in our report, career services are claiming the costs of reporting data under the LST Standard preclude a commitment, even though the costs are minimal. One department should not be able to stall consideration without giving other departments a chance to weigh in.

Finally, admissions offices care about their ability to recruit the best students each year, and engaging in discussions about the LST Standard can assist them in their efforts. LST’s short-term goal is to create a market premium in the recruiting process that rewards first movers until we can implement a uniform standard across all schools. This market premium favors schools that are more transparent about their employment statistics and disfavors schools that may provide misleading information. (From personal experience, some current Vanderbilt students have given Vanderbilt a bump for their disclosure policies.) If a competitor school chooses to comply with the LST Standard, admissions offices will care to the extent that it impacts their ability to recruit prospectives. Even absent LST compliance, some schools do a much better job at disclosing information than others. As consumers continue to learn about the ways information can be misleading, they are more likely to gauge schools based on their level of transparency.

As LST continues to discuss the merits of the LST Standard with law school administrators, we encourage our readers to contact your respective schools to express your concerns or support. Prospective students have approached a number of schools to ask for their stance on improving disclosure, and more requests will only emphasize the need for schools to develop an official response.

A Big Tent: With LST Compliance, Everyone Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

LST’s Origins

This page was last updated on August 8, 2011.

Since April 2010, Law School Transparency has received substantial coverage from both legal and traditional media. Writing about a new organization is a difficult task, but we’ve welcomed the opportunity to tell our story. Given that not every article linking to our website also discusses how we started out, we think including a post about our origins would be useful for first-time readers.

Law School Transparency is a Tennessee non-profit that was originally founded by two Vanderbilt law students (both of whom has since graduated) in July 2009. However, the co-founders — Patrick Lynch (Class of 2010) and Kyle McEntee (Class of 2011) — began the initiative well before making the decision to incorporate.

On March 14th, 2008, at Vanderbilt University Law School’s Admitted Students Day, Vanderbilt took an important step towards improving transparency by releasing a list of where, and with whom, 196 of the 223 Class of 2007 graduates were employed. The list was well-received by accepted students, which at the time included Kyle. Kyle and another prospective student took Vanderbilt’s list and added public data to create a spreadsheet, which they then published on various online discussion boards. Some prospectives chose to attend Vanderbilt at least partially because of the list, including Kyle. Once Kyle began law school, he and Patrick began discussing the benefits of the list and the possibility of creating a new standard across all law schools. Motivated by Vanderbilt’s more comprehensive disclosure of job outcomes, the two began encouraging prospective students to contact other schools and ask for the same information.

However, individual prospectives on their own were unsuccessful at obtaining this information from schools. Seeing this, Patrick and Kyle began discussing other ways to cause schools to share the employment data they already collected. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt continued to release their own employment lists, which meant that Vanderbilt’s Class of 2012 and 2013 received similar consumer information.

In the summer of 2009, Patrick and Kyle incorporated LST. This was the critical turning point in their efforts to increase law school transparency. It was apparent that law schools would be difficult to sway towards more disclosure, while also clear that law schools failing to meet a reasonable request for employment data would be the best way to achieve system-wide reform.

Patrick and Kyle researched the underlying reasons for why schools weren’t already releasing the data. LST would then derive its own standard, with Vanderbilt’s list as a base, and justify the new standard in an academic paper. After spending 8 months working on a white paper, Kyle and Patrick, through LST, finally began the campaign to drum up support for more law school transparency.

The white paper outlines and explains all of the available employment data and information. It is unique in that it took a position that was quite different than many of the most vocal critics of legal education at the time. In the end, the paper concludes that, even if prospectives possessed and understood all of the available information, they cannot make informed decisions except in rare circumstances. This critical exploration has become the basis for undercutting the criticism that “prospectives should have known better.” Patrick and Kyle’s research showed that they should not have.

Rather than focusing the blame on the law schools for this problem, LST’s research found fault with the current employment reporting standards (primarily ABA Standard 509, the annual ABA Questionnaire, and the U.S. News Survey). As designed, the standards were not enabling (and still do not enable) prospectives to answer meaningful questions about post-graduation outcomes. LST articulated this problem, crafted a solution that cured at least some of the current standards’ deficiencies, and then began exploring how to implement this standard through a number of avenues.

The first strategy was to send an initial request to the law schools. On July 12, 2010, all ABA-approved law schools received a request to comply with LST’s standard. Schools were originally reluctant to even respond to the request, let alone commit voluntarily. Only one law school committed (and later backed out) to reporting Class of 2010 data under the LST Standard, while a few others said they would think about it. The request garnered wide media coverage on the central issues being addressed by LST. Following the initial request, LST issued a report, finalized the Guidelines for complying with the LST Standard, and then issued a second request on November 15, 2010. Predictably, no school committed to the LST Standard and the ABA Section of Legal Education would be forced to act.

It is important to reiterate that LST’s initiatives have never been based on the frustration that recent graduates and current students have expressed due to the retraction of the legal hiring market. Both of LST’s co-founders (and current Directors) are happy with their decisions to attend Vanderbilt, and often hold up Vanderbilt as an example in making the case for reform. Regardless of the economic climate, all prospective students (not just Vanderbilt’s applicants) should have better information when deciding whether to invest in a law degree. LST’s policy proposal are based on the simple notion that schools need to be disclose employment data to fulfill their obligations to fairly and adequately inform prospective students about the nature of the legal profession and opportunities within it.

This post may be reprinted in whole or in part without attribution.

A Way Forward

Update: We have submitted our article to a number of law reviews and posted a working draft to SSRN. The article will hopefully spark some discussion in academia as we move forward to implement our new standard. Please send us your comments.

A Way Forward: Improving Transparency in Employment Reporting at American Law Schools
The decision to attend law school in the 21st century requires an increasingly significant financial investment, yet very little information about the value of a legal education is available for prospective law students. Prospectives use various tools provided by schools and third parties while seeking to make an informed decision about which law school to attend. This Article surveys the available information with respect to one important segment of the value analysis: post-graduation employment outcomes.

One of the most pressing issues with current access to information is the ability to hide outcomes in aggregate statistical forms. Just about every tool enables this behavior, which, while misleading, often complies with the current ABA and U.S. News reporting standards. In this Article, we propose a new standard for employment reporting grounded in compromise. Our hope is that this standard enables prospectives to take a detailed, holistic look at the diverse employment options from different law schools. In time, improved transparency at American law institutions can produce generations of lawyers who were better informed about the range of jobs obtainable with a law degree.