Op/Ed in the NLJ: ABA should make law schools provide better job statistics now

Originally published in the National Law Journal.

Critics calling for law school reform are rousing an old discussion about problems with legal education. Recently, their focus has been on the provision of misleading job placement statistics. People are tired of law schools’ dishonest tactics, a sentiment that grows as the number of examples of fraud and corruption increases. Furthermore, they are beginning to understand the negative externalities caused by students unwisely choosing to attend law school, both to the legal profession and elsewhere.

The main problem with the employment information stems from the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which includes any job in its basic employment rate. Law schools truthfully advertise rates above 90% because they report employment data according to the section’s standard. Nevertheless, these advertisements mislead prospective law students when coupled with two popular yet distorted consumer beliefs: that lawyering is a lucrative profession and that the rates reflect legal jobs.

Law schools are aware of these distortions, but they have no pecuniary incentive to tear down the information asymmetry that protects the legal employment rate. Ever the optimists, prospective law students do not discover the realities of a school’s job placement until too late. Until recently, structural problems with employment information have been the profession’s dirty little secret.

The number of affected graduates has grown during the past few years, but the problem is not unique to the post-2009 job market. Since the turn of the century, just two-thirds of all ABA-approved law school graduates obtained jobs requiring bar passage within nine months of graduation. Neither the ABA-Law Schools Admissions Council Official Guide to ABA Approved Law Schools nor the vast majority of law school advertising materials inform consumers about this reality. Meanwhile, tuition and graduate debt are on the rise, salaries are deflating and the legal market is increasingly more saturated. Calls for consumer protection, even if logically independent of these additional facts, are common sense for a profession with high ethical standards.

In response to public pressure, the section asserted that it would pass reforms to reduce the provision of misleading employment information. This would have prevented consumers from being led to believe that the basic employment rate was the legal employment rate. Instead, the section is taking steps that ensure that next year’s applicants will actually have even less information. The section reasons that this is a transition year, more information will be available in the future, and that the short-term loss of information quality is worth the section reasserting its accreditation authority. This reasoning is accompanied by a misplaced concern for whether the definitions used to categorize job data are adequately defined. In finalizing these steps, the section is breaching its responsibilities to the profession.

For years, the section has had the ability to share how many graduates were finding full-time legal positions from individual law schools. The section collects these data in its annual questionnaire, which asks schools to report each graduate’s employment status (employed, unemployed, pursuing another degree), employer type (law firm, government etc.), and other job characteristics such as whether a job requires bar passage or is full time.

One might ask why the section has never published job characteristics data in the Official Guide, or why law schools rarely share this information in their own materials. These are important questions. But the more pressing question is why the section is trying so hard to come up with justifications for not publishing the data for next year’s incoming class.

On Sept. 23, the section’s questionnaire committee will finalize the 2011 questionnaire, which asks about the class of 2010. Additional reforms are slated for 2012. If nothing changes, the section will collect fewer job characteristics data than it has collected in prior years. Apparently, whether a job requires bar passage or only prefers a J.D., or whether a job is full- or part-time, are now too obscure to define without many more meetings. These definitions have been developed by the National Association for Law Placement and have been integrated into the questionnaire for many years. While not perfect, the definitions adequately meet consumer needs. Changes will always be necessary to reflect law school practices and market shifts, but feigning lack of consensus over commonly accepted terms should trouble even the most optimistic observer.

It is odd that, under the auspice of improving information, the section is actively reducing the amount of useful information available this year. This move will have ramifications beyond the questionnaire. Among the schools that report these important statistics on their Web sites and to U.S. News & World Report, some will jump at the chance not to share how well (or how poorly) the class of 2010 fared in finding legal jobs. These schools can hold up the section’s misplaced skepticism as their justification. Prospective law students deserve more from the law schools, but they can’t get it just by asking nicely.

If the section is truly interested in fulfilling its obligations to the legal profession and as an accrediting agency, it needs to consider whether a do-nothing policy is the appropriate course of action given the events of the past two years. The stakes are too high for the section to hide behind imagined concerns and continue to let law schools pull the wool over prospective law students’ eyes.