Senator Boxer Calls for Auditing, Better Access to Information

Scrutiny of the ABA continues today as Senator Barbara Boxer increases her pressure on the ABA Section of Legal Education’s regulatory failings. Moments ago, she issued her second letter to the ABA on the need for law school transparency (first letter). This letter to ABA President Stephen Zack addresses why Senator Boxer remains concerned despite the ABA’s current efforts, and asks the ABA to explain their plans regarding a few key concerns (full text below).

Senator Boxer would like to see the ABA address:

  • the auditing of law school data (noting that current proposals continue to allow self-reporting without auditing procedures);
  • better regulation of how prospective students can access information, focusing primarily on how law schools advertise employment outcomes on their websites; and
  • the need for more scholarship transparency.

The letter is in response to Mr. Zack and the Section’s assurances that they are addressing what has become a widely-reported call for law school transparency. Over the past year, the Section has had two committees, the Standards Review Committee and the Questionnaire Committee, both tackling the issue of better informing prospective law students. The Questionnaire Committee will recommend changes to the annual questionnaire to the Section’s Council in June. The Standards Review Committee will recommend its changes to the Section’s Council as early as August.

Senator Boxer and her staff are well-informed on the lack of law school transparency and understand the impact it has on our profession. With this understanding, Senator Boxer is in a position to acknowledge that these committees are off to a good start. Committee members have prioritized these issues and have taken input from all sides in formulating their proposals. However, as Senator Boxer’s letter indicates and as we have outlined before, the proposals currently on the table still need work.

Section Committee members need to continue exploring how best to adequately inform prospective students about the significant investment of earning a law degree. There also needs to be substantial pressure on the Council to approve the committee proposals in June and in August. Finally, Council members will also have to determine whether the proposals go far enough in terms of content, access, and auditing. And as we wrote earlier this week, additional Congressional involvement may be appropriate if the ABA doesn’t do its job.

For these reasons we are renewing our call for the Section of Legal Education to establish a new disclosure standard that meets LST’s criteria, while at the same time improving access to (and understanding of) employment and cost information. Continued congressional scrutiny is making it ever more obvious that the public is demanding accountability. We look forward to hearing the ABA’s response.

Senator Boxer’s Letter

May 20, 2011

Dear Mr. Zack:

Thank you for your response to my letter regarding the transparency and accuracy of post-graduation employment and salary information reported by law schools.

I was encouraged to learn that in June the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar will be considering recommendations on how the ABA can improve access to accurate and transparent information for prospective law school students. I view this as a positive step toward improved standards, but before completing its work on these important recommendations, I urge the Section to address some other important issues.

1. Independent Oversight

It is troubling that the recommendations do not address the need for independent oversight of the data law school deans submit to the ABA and publications like U.S. News and World Report. The Section’s recommendations would allow law schools to continue to submit unaudited data, despite the fact that a lack of oversight has been identified by many observers as a major problem.

The editor of U.S. News and World Report wrote a letter to all law school deans, noting a “crisis of confidence in the law school sector” and asked deans to be more vigilant in their data reporting. This letter and the recent news that a well-known law school admitted to knowingly reporting inaccurate data to the ABA for years indicates that independent oversight must surely be a part of any reform proposal.

2. Easy Access for Students to Information

The ABA should undertake efforts to ensure that students have easy access to post-graduation employment and salary information. Prospective students should not have to search far and wide for information so critical to determining their futures. To achieve this goal the ABA should make it standard practice for law schools to post links to this information on website homepages, and to include these documents in acceptance notices.

I would be remiss not to mention a very troubling New York Times article on law school merit scholarships. The article detailed the recent increase in the number of merit scholarships offered by law schools and demonstrated how scholarships are being used to convince students with high LSAT scores to attend lower-ranked law schools.

While the opportunity to earn a very expensive law degree at a fraction of the cost can be an attractive option for many students, the Times exposed a major problem with scholarship transparency. Many law schools not only fail to make it clear that prospective students must meet minimum GPA requirements, they also do not disclose how the law school’s grading curve can prohibit all students offered scholarships from maintaining the benefit every year.

It was reported that at one school, 57 percent of first-year students in one class year received a merit scholarship, but only one-third of the students in that entire class received a GPA high enough to maintain a scholarship. In the Times article, an ABA official admitted he was unaware of any problems with merit scholarships, and noted that the ABA does not ask schools to report how many students lose their scholarships each year and does not publish any information for prospective students on this subject.

I look forward to reviewing the results of the Section’s June meeting, as well as your response to the merit scholarship issue.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

SBA President Coalition Endorses Ideas Behind New Bill

The last two months have seen two notable actions concerning oversight of the ABA Section of Legal Education, which accredits law schools and regulates their behavior. At the end of March, California Senator Barbara Boxer put some pressure on the ABA President, Stephen Zack, to ensure that the ABA Section of Legal Education appropriately addresses the lack of quality employment information. The underlying idea: put the ABA on notice that a Senator is watching and that the Section of Legal Education needs to produce results.

Adding to the discussion, the outgoing president of the student bar association at BC Law School, Nate Burris, made public yesterday the creation of a coalition of 55 law school student bar association presidents. The coalition seeks congressional relief for the lack of law school transparency. (The full text of the press release is below. h/t Above the Law.)

Mr. Burris began contacting SBA presidents en masse about a month ago. (The full text of one of these emails, which we received from a tipster, is also below.) In this email, Burris made the following key points:

  • Mr. Burris aims to use the support of law school SBA presidents for momentum
  • The SBA president coalition planned to present the bill, for introduction, to four U.S. Senators (from Massachusetts and Vermont)
  • The bill would require that law schools submit an annual report of employment information to the Department of Education
  • The bill would empower the Department of Education to audit these reports

The initial draft of the bill would create a new reporting standard for employment data, with the Department of Education as the collecting body instead of the Section of Legal Education. This standard is the same as the LST Standard, except that it does not indicate who pays the salary, which is now an important distinction given the development of school-funded bridge programs. Perhaps more importantly, it does not protect graduate and employer privacy by separating employers from the salaries they pay.

LST and the SBA president coalition

We’ve spoken at length with Mr. Burris about our thoughts on the bill’s content and timing. Notwithstanding our concerns, which we discuss below, Mr. Burris is committed to improving law school transparency and we look forward to the conversation the proposal will generate. It will add to the collective understanding of the issues and encourage others holding leadership positions to express their comments publicly.

However, as we communicated to Mr. Burris, LST believes the decision to bypass the ABA Section of Legal Education (“Section”) is jumping the gun. While it is both understandable (and correct) to think that the Section has been too slow and too reticent to change, institutional sluggishness is not enough to justify seeking legislation just yet.

These actions are not yet warranted

Passing this legislation would essentially require a congressional determination that both the Section and the Department of Education are incapable of executing the job that Congress previously delegated. Accreditation authority was assigned to the Section by the Department of Education, to which Congress delegated the authority to appropriate accrediting power.

To alter this relationship, Congress would require enough evidence that the Department of Education has failed to adequately oversee the Section and that the Section has failed to adequately regulate law schools. The situation must be such that Congress feels compelled to do more than simply ask the ABA what the status is on increasing transparency. As Senator Boxer’s press release indicated, the political viability of more involvement is presently low.

This is not to say that attempts to get members of Congress involved aren’t a good idea. Certainly, they can exert substantial public pressure; Senator Boxer’s letter of inquiry may be just the beginning of congressional scrutiny. Presenting a bill to the four Senators may result in more investigation and present another opportunity to influence the ongoing conversation, perhaps ensuring that the Section fully addresses the lack of law school transparency sooner rather than later.

But the SBA president coalition is up against a very strong presumption that the Department of Education and the Section are capable of solving the problem once identified, and that they are willing to take the steps that are necessary to fix it. This presumption is derived from the decision to delegate regulatory authority in the first place. Now that the Section has prioritized employment reporting shortcomings, rebutting this presumption before they take final action (or before it becomes clear they are delaying taking final action) is unlikely. It is far too easy for the Section to reiterate what it told Senator Boxer: ‘rest assured, we are on it.’

Still, we are hopeful that the coalition’s proposal will result in further recognition from political leaders, along the lines of what Senator Boxer has already contributed. We also look forward to seeing more from SBA coalition leaders as they explore ways to improve law school transparency.

Shifting the focus

The most productive action at this time will be ensuring that the Council of the Section of Legal Education, which will eventually vote on any Standard 509 reforms proposed by the Standards Review Committee, considers and accepts a standard that adequately improves the quality of employment information. To this end, the coalition leaders should focus their energy on lobbying the Section to solve the issues that the coalition was formed to address. We hope to continue engaging with Mr. Burris and other coalition leaders to rally support for proposals that can do the job, such as the LST Supplemental Proposal.

This is not to say that engaging the Department of Education and Congress for direct action will never be appropriate and more politically viable. Continuous, national attention has unambiguously put the Section of Legal Education on notice that it has inadequately regulated law schools. But the pressure is first on the Section’s Standards Review Committee and next on the Section’s Council to accept the Committee’s new Standard 509 this year.

The Section must adequately remedy the lack of law school transparency if it wants to fulfill its responsibilities, both to the legal profession and under its delegated authority. If the Section falls short of fulfilling these obligations, it will be time to seek governmental reform. The political viability of getting Congress to reconfigure the current regulatory framework will be highest after the Section of Legal Education fails, not while it is in the process of establishing and voting on reforms.

Press Release

Student Body Presidents of 55 Law Schools Call for Reform in the Reporting of Data Pertaining to Legal Education

NEWTON, MA – The student body presidents of 55 law schools across the country joined together today in a call for enhanced accuracy, accountability and transparency in the reporting of data pertaining to legal education. The presidents, from 27 states, proposed legislation to reform the current system of reporting in order to ensure the receipt of sufficient information – necessary for prospective law students to make informed decisions as to where, or whether, to attend law school – that is both clear and accurate.

The proposed legislation would require law schools to submit annual reports to the Department of Education, and would further require the Dean of each law school to endorse such reports. Federal funding provided to schools would be contingent on both the submission and accuracy of the reports, which would include an array of post-graduation employment data. The legislation does not take the role of accreditor from the hands of the American Bar Association. Rather, it aims to strengthen oversight by giving authority to the Department of Education to ensure that current and prospective students receive sufficient, accurate information. The proposed legislation parallels the body of law governing corporations, where annual reports are submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Between 1985 and 2009, tuition rates have increased over 800% at private law schools, and over 500% at public law schools. As a result, the average graduate of a private law school in 2009 incurred over $100,000 of debt, while the debt of public law school graduates was over $70,000 – not including debt incurred from an undergraduate education. As of 2008 – prior to the recent recession affecting the legal job market – the American Bar Association reported that 42% of graduates would by employed at salaries below the level necessary for a positive return on the investment in a legal education. However, many schools report employment rates approaching 100% and average salaries as high as $160,000.

“Tuition rates are rising, debt levels are historic, while job prospects for many are slim,” said Nate Burris, President of the Law Students Association at Boston College Law School and author of the proposed legislation. “This isn’t a bailout, nor is anyone asking for a ‘refund’ – more modestly, we are proposing the reform of a broken system that jeopardizes the future for many bright minds. We are proud of the education we have received, and it is our zeal for the legal profession, which we will soon enter, that drives this effort.”

The legislation builds on previous calls for increased transparency by such organizations as the Law School Transparency Project, and will be sent to congressional leaders later this week. “Since the federal government is providing the bulk of these loans,” said Burris, “the question is: does the federal government want to be the underwriter of this financial distress and discontent?”

Letter to SBA Presidents

Hello [redacted],

My name is Nate Burris and I am the President of the Law Students Association (essentially the same thing as the Student Bar Association at most law schools) here at BC Law. My understanding is that you are the President of the student body at [redacted], is that correct?

I am working on a project for which I am hoping to get the support of as many SBA Presidents as possible – in short, I was hoping you might be willing to add your signature, as President of the student body, to this bill.

Here are the details:

I’ve attached a draft bill which will be presented to Senators Kerry and Scott (who both graduated from BC Law) as well as the Senators from my home state of Vermont (Leahy and Sanders, who happens to be on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee). My hope is to expand from there – in this climate, I think the bill has a chance at serious attention. I that spirit, I am hoping to get as many student body Presidents – such as yourself – to co-sign the bill. If you’re interested in doing so, I am hoping to have all “signatures” by Friday (if you just email me an ok, along with your official title, that will do).

In essence, the bill aims to do a few things: first, it would require that law schools submit an annual report to the Department of Education, similar to the reports submitted to the ABA and NALP (though more comprehensive) – this is a fundamental change, but will hopefully improve accountability. Second, it would require that the information in the report be true (this seems like a no-brainer, but here is some background on why this is necessary: http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/02/08/is-the-sec-the-answer-to-the-villanova-syndrome/). And third, given the pressures imposed by rankings, etc, the bill would require that the Dean of each law school and the university President sign off on the report – the aim here is to counteract these institutional pressures and enhance incentive for accurate reporting. Lastly, to ensure all of this is happening, the Department of Education would be given the ability to audit the reports.

My belief is that all law students should be entitled to accurate information when they are making their decisions as to where (or whether) to attend law school (this information would be publicly available and free of charge). Anyone purchasing stock is given certain guarantees – given that law school is undoubtedly an investment, the question I think this bill poses is, shouldn’t law students be entitled to similar guarantees on their investment?

BC Law and [redacted] are similarly situated in the sense that the student bodies at both schools would undoubtedly benefit from – and I think be in support of – a bill like this. I’m happy to discuss this further if you’d like – if you’re willing to add your signature, please let me know, and hopefully we can make some headway on this issue.

Best,

Nate Burris
President, Law Students Association
Boston College Law School

Proposing a New Standard to Require Scholarship Retention Information

For prospectives seeking to make an informed decision about attending law school, the need for consumer information extends beyond disclosing post-graduation employment information. They also need to understand how much the degree will cost. Scholarships, grants, fellowships, and stipends (referred to generally as “scholarships”) are increasingly being used to attract stronger students who might otherwise be unwilling to attend a particular program at full cost. Unfortunately, getting honest information about the value of these scholarships can be almost as difficult as figuring out what graduates do after graduation.

The reason for this is that many scholarships are contingent upon achieving a certain level of academic success in law school, either on a semester or yearly basis. And while law schools are quick to point out the number of scholarship recipients or offers made to applicants each year, they are generally silent on how many students retain those scholarships once they’re in school and competing for grades on a curve. For this reason we have submitted a new proposal to the ABA Section of Legal Education. The proposal includes a new Standard [509(d)] and a chart [view here (.xls)].

Merit scholarships with strings attached are nothing new. They’re also not conceptually problematic when a student knows (or should know) what is required to retain the scholarship. Issues arise, however, when the combination of opaque grading curves and conditions bound to that curve obfuscate the meaning of the terms and limit a prospective’s ability to understand the expected value of the scholarship. Even if a scholarship recipient knows what the curve is, the GPA required to retain the scholarship, and that there are others in the class with a similar scholarship, they are still not able to know the real value of the scholarship because they cannot fully appreciate how those facts interrelate. This information is central to computing the price of law school, and the price of a law school is essential to evaluating law schools.

The lack of transparent scholarship retention information is starting to receive more attention: in fact, in addition to our latest proposal (below), it’s also the subject of an article in tomorrow’s New York Times. [Update: online version. The article also links to Professor Jerry Organ’s new paper on the topic. Professor Organ is a member of the Questionnaire Committee; we’ve previously mentioned his important contributions on that front.]

LST’s Proposed Standard 509(d)

(d) A law school must publicly disclose scholarship retention data for all of its students by preparing and posting on its website the attached chart.
 (1) Scholarship retention information shall reflect the scholarship retention data for each student who:
  (a) matriculated in a JD or equivalent degree program at the law school during any of the three previous academic years for full-time students or four previous academic years for part-time students; and
  (b) received a scholarship for all or part of the student’s first year.
 (2) The scholarship retention data must be gathered and disclosed in accordance with the instructions and definitions issued by the Section’s Questionnaire Committee.
 (3) The scholarship retention information about the previous academic year must be posted on the school’s website by October 31 of the following academic year.
 (4) The scholarship retention information posted must remain on the school’s website for at least three years.
 (5) Any scholarship information pertaining to the potential scholarship recipient’s ability to retain the offered scholarship throughout law school must be disclosed to the potential scholarship recipient in any scholarship offer made.
  (a) The terms of the scholarship offer that are relevant to the potential scholarship recipient retaining the scholarship must be disclosed in plain English to the potential scholarship recipient.
  (b) These terms must be accompanied by scholarship retention information about scholarships with the same material retention terms.
 (6) Any scholarship information the law school discloses must be fair, accurate, and not misleading.
 (7) The term scholarship shall mean any scholarship or grant from internal sources (law school or university).

This proposal lays a foundation for putting better information into the hands of prospective law students. Additional definitions and instructions, either as part of an Interpretation to Standard 509(d) or as part of the Questionnaire Committee’s annual questionnaire, will help prevent schools from gaming the requirements and misrepresenting the underlying data.

The Supplemental Chart

The chart referenced in 509(d) [view here (.xls)] aims to show what happens to scholarship recipients during their time in law school. Understanding the chart begins with understanding that, for each anticipated graduation year, the “entering class” is the denominator for the percentage who “began law school with a scholarship or grant.” Every other percentage uses the number of students who “began law school with a scholarship or grant” for an anticipated class year as the denominator. After each academic year passes, a school will then report how many of its original scholarship recipients from the entering class lost their scholarships.

A few other notes:

  • The “entering class” covers all students who matriculated at the school during the previous three (FT) or four (PT) years. Students who matriculate at the start of law school do not, however, necessarily all graduate on time or from the same school. Some students drop out, transfer, take a leave of absence, or are otherwise unable to continue their legal education.
  • The “entering class” figure will never change, regardless of the number of graduates that leave the school. Likewise, students who transfer to the school will never be included in the “entering class.” It will also not include those who, for example, earned a scholarship due to high 1L grades or a commitment to public service. Even if a student changes her anticipated graduation year, the original “entering class” number will not change. This rule caters to the need to find a manageable way to collect and present complex scholarship retention data.

This restrictive definition carries consequences, of course. First, schools might look worse simply because people leave their school. But because the goal is to help prospectives determine the expected value of their scholarships, those who “lost their scholarship” should include students who actually lost their scholarship, as well as those who could have lost it but for the fact that they transferred, dropped out, or took a leave of absence. Someone “could have lost” their scholarship when the school could have exercised its option to not provide the scholarship.

In other words, if the scholarship recipient would have had too low of a GPA to retain the scholarship, the school cannot claim that it would have exempted the student from the scholarship requirements had the student not decided to drop out of school. We assume the school would have exercised its option if they could have because a school could have provided a scholarship without strings in the first place.

509(d)(5) Disclosures

In addition to disclosure to all prospectives through the Standard 509(d) chart, schools will have to disclose certain information to the prospective students it has offered a scholarship. This includes scholarship retention information about scholarships with the same material terms offered to the prospective. For example, the school would need to disclose the retention rate for previous scholarships with a 3.0 cumulative first-year GPA requirement.

The 509(d)(5) disclosure requirement recognizes that the statistics in the Standard 509(d) chart aggregate different classes of scholarships, and that a scholarship recipient should be especially concerned with how easily previous recipients retained the same class of scholarship.

Going Forward

We have submitted this proposal to the two committees in the ABA Section of Legal Education: the Standards Review Committee and the Questionnaire Committee. In the near future, we will try to convince the Section to adopt a final version of LST’s proposed Standard 509(d).

Please do not hesitate to let us know if you see any unresolved problems with either LST’s proposed Standard 509(d) or the accompanying chart.

Have a Complaint about Your School? How to File with the ABA

We have heard from many law school alumni and current students about problems they encountered regarding how their school reports post-graduation outcomes. Many have alleged intentional acts of deception on the part of their law schools, whether it’s regarding the reporting of their own employment information or the employment of their friends. At the same time, some commentators have accused the ABA Section of Legal Education of lax enforcement concerning violations of the accreditation standards. One way to encourage better enforcement (and better compliance) is to file an official complaint with the Section of Legal Education.

NOTE: We have requested more information from the Consultant on Legal Education, the Accreditation Committee Chair, and representatives of the Section of Legal Ed in Chicago. This post will be updated when we receive a response.

How to file a complaint

For starters, complaints are governed by Rules of Procedure. The complaint form (.doc) is available on this page, which also explains the complaint requirements and process.

A complaint should include a clear and concise description of the allegation and any evidence upon which the allegation is based (with any relevant supporting documentation). [Rule 24(d)3(i).] You must allege a violation of one or more of the accreditation standards, which you can read through here. The complaint must state the timeframe of the alleged lack of compliance (limited to one year from filing), a description of any steps taken to exhaust the law school’s grievance process, and any actions taken by the law school in response to the complaint. [Rule 24(d)3(ii) and (iii).] Any other channels being pursued by the complainant should be disclosed, including legal action. The complainant must also provide a release authorizing the Consultant’s Office to send a copy of the complaint to the dean of the law school.

Any person may bring a complaint alleging noncompliance with the standards; no other harm or damages need to be alleged. The filing of a complaint can lead to an investigation by the Consultant on Legal Education and sanctions by the Accreditation Committee or Council of Legal Education. Per Rule 16 of the Rules of Procedure, sanctions can include monetary penalties, refunds for part or all of the tuition and/or fees paid by students, censure (both private and public), publication of a corrective statement, remedial action, and probation. A school on probation is at risk of being removed from the list of approved law schools.

Allegations that a school has violated or is currently violating one or more standards are serious. Separate from official sanctions of the law school, culpable individuals may be asked to resign or terminated for cause by their school. A school’s reputation may be damaged even if sanctions don’t ultimately rise to the most serious levels. For these reasons we ask that you consider whether the evidence you have is strong enough to warrant an investigation by the ABA. A suspicion that your employment status was misreported, for example, may not be enough without supporting documentation.

You should first contact the school to request that they cease violating the standard prior to filing a complaint with the ABA. An exception to pursuing this route is if you wish to file anonymously, in which case see the discussion below about site evaluation comments.

What actions might qualify as non-compliance?

Of the 52 accreditation standards that currently regulate law school behavior, only one (Standard 509, found in Chapter 5) deals with employment reporting. The seven interpretations of Standard 509, as with all interpretations, carry the same force as the standard itself. This consumer protection standard requires schools to publish certain “basic consumer information” in a “fair and accurate manner reflective of actual practice.” While the accompanying Interpretations only list “employment rates and bar placement statistics” as basic, this list is not exhaustive. You can read more on the current employment reporting requirements here.

Complaints grouped under this standard might fall into two camps. The first are allegations that the school misreported the employment rates or bar placement statistics, focusing on the text of the Interpretation 509-1. Schools are required to report the employment status of each graduate as of February 15th for the second-most recent graduating class on the annual questionnaire.

If you have reason to believe that you or members of your class were miscounted as of that date, despite having reported accurate employment data, and if you can support that belief with documentation such as emails or surveys, then you should consider notifying the school and filing a complaint. Depending on the allegation, this could take sophisticated coordination. You likely need to document a sizable percentage of your classmates’ post-graduation outcomes to show that the reported percentages must have been wrong. For example, a sworn statement from 10% of your class stating they were unemployed as of February 15th would be good evidence that your school’s reported 95% employment is incorrect.

Many recent graduates have contacted us claiming that there was no way the school reported the results of their class accurately. However, it is important to first understand the reporting requirements to see whether the school was just following protocol, as the standards themselves make it very easy to legitimately hide individual outcomes. You may not think that a part-time job waiting tables should qualify you as employed, but it is appropriate under current reporting standards. A violation under Standard 509 would be if the school counted you as employed full-time, or in a JD-preferred or bar admission-required job to U.S. News.

The second camp of violations would be allegations that the basic consumer information provided on a law school’s website or in promotional brochures to law school applicants is misleading and therefore not presented in a “fair or accurate manner reflective of actual practice.” Supporting documentation would necessarily include the publications, and you should describe why they are not reflective of actual practice.

Not willing to file yourself?

One of the Section of Legal Education’s requirements is that complaints will be closed if they are made anonymously, unless the Consultant determines that there are extraordinary circumstances for keeping someone’s identity secret from the school. We understand that graduates may be reluctant to allege noncompliance on behalf of their schools, and that there may be other situations (for example, employees of the school) where someone might be discouraged from whistleblowing if their name will be dragged through the process.

[We have contacted the Consultant for more information on what has counted in the past as extraordinary circumstances, and will update this post when we hear back.]

Some of the complaint procedures may discourage you from filing. For one thing, a complainant has no right within the rules to appeal a decision to close the complaint by the Consultant’s office. A complainant also will not be informed about the proceedings or given access to view the school’s response if one is requested by the Consultant. If the complaint is eventually presented to the Accreditation Committee, there is no appeal process if the Committee sides with the school. And regardless of the outcome, a complainant will only be notified about the stage at which the matter was resolved. From what we can tell all proceedings are closed to the public.

If you have evidence that a school has been in noncompliance and you believe your situation is an extraordinary circumstance, you can contact LST. We will work with you to determine whether the complaint is actionable, and, if appropriate, file the complaint ourselves. NOTE: This does not guarantee that we will file a complaint; it only means that we will review the information to decide if we want to file the complaint on your behalf.

Complaint alternatives

As an alternative to filing a complaint, you can also file a comment as part of the accreditation process. Each ABA-approved law school is recertified once every five years through a process that is taken very seriously by the administration. To conduct the accreditation, the Section of Legal Education sends a delegation of volunteers, often professors, administrators, and judges, to the school as a member of a site evaluation team. The team visits the school to collect facts and gather opinions, including thoughts of employees and students, so that the Accreditation Committee and Council of the Section of Legal Education can evaluate whether the school is in compliance with accreditation standards.

Comments must be submitted at least eight weeks prior to the next site visit, which are conducted during the school year. You can find a draft schedule for all visits up through 2014 on the ABA Section of Legal Education’s website.

Written comments related to current compliance with the Standards for the Approval of Law Schools may be submitted to the Consultant’s Office. The comments should be sent no later than eight weeks prior to the site visit’s beginning date. Comments should be sent to the Deputy Consultant on Legal Education to the American Bar Association, 321 N. Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60654.

Seven law schools will be audited next fall: Arizona, Baylor, Chicago-Kent, Idaho, Missouri-Columbia, Ohio, and Temple. Another twenty are scheduled for next spring. These visits are an excellent time to ask the site evaluation teams to fulfill their responsibilities by taking a hard look at how a particular law school is educating and potentially misleading applicants.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us. We plan to begin filing complaints soon.

Breaking: Senator Boxer Calls on ABA to Ensure Accurate and Transparent Reporting by Law Schools

Senator Boxer has sent LST a statement on the need for law school transparency.

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) today called on the American Bar Association (ABA) to improve its oversight of admissions and post-graduation information reported by law schools across the country.

Boxer’s letter follows news reports that have highlighted several law schools allegedly using misleading data to enhance a school’s position in the competitive and influential U.S. News and World Report annual rankings. Such inaccurate post-graduation employment and salary data can mislead prospective students into believing they will easily be able to find work as an attorney and pay off their loans despite a sharp decline in post-graduation full-time employment.

The full text of the Senator’s letter is below:

March 31, 2011

Stephen N. Zack
President
American Bar Association
740 15th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005-1019

Dear Mr. Zack:

As you know, recent news articles have raised concerns about the reporting of admissions and post-graduation information by the American Bar Association and law schools across the country. It is essential that students deciding if and where to attend law school have access to information that is accurate and transparent. The ABA, as the accrediting body charged with oversight of the nation’s law schools, must ensure standards and accountability.

As the economy continues to recover from the recession, many new law school graduates are struggling to find jobs as attorneys. According to Northwestern University, at least 15,000 legal jobs with large firms have disappeared since 2008. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the number of people employed in legal services has decreased from a high of 1.2 million in 2007, to less than 1 million in 2009. Experts predict that fewer than 30,000 new attorney positions per year will be available to the more than 44,000 law school graduates entering the marketplace each year.

This very serious problem takes on greater significance when viewed in the context of news articles highlighting law schools that allegedly falsify post-graduation and salary information in attempts to increase their position in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Most students reasonably expect to obtain post-graduation employment that will allow them to pay off their student loan debts, and rely on this information – which may be false at worst and misleading at best – to inform their decision.

As reported in the New York Times and other publications, the ABA allows law schools to report salary information of the highest earning graduates as if it were representative of the entire class. Also, when reporting critical post-graduation employment information, law schools are not distinguishing between graduates practicing law full-time from those working part-time or in non-legal fields.

I understand that some ABA members have been pressing for reform, that the ABA has appointed committees to review ways to increase oversight and transparency, and that U.S. News and World Report has requested greater transparency from law school deans. These are good first steps, but more must be done to ensure potential students have a full understanding of the costs and benefits of a legal education.

I am requesting that you provide me with a detailed summary of the ABA’s plans to implement reforms to its current procedures to ensure access to accurate and transparent information for prospective law school students.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

[also available on her website]

LST’s Proposal: The Job Outcome List and a National Salary Database

The 509 Subcommittee’s first draft proposal for a revised Standard 509 is a good start. But as we described in our analysis, the proposed revisions are only the first step towards greater transparency. The proposal does not go far enough to disaggregate the current employment information, resulting in a reporting standard that will still struggle to help match prospectives to the law schools that best meet their career objectives.

We have been working on our own proposal, separate from the LST Standard, for a few months now. We have discussed it with key people in the Section of Legal Education, law school administrators, and briefly with NALP’s Executive Director, Jim Leipold. It was born out of discussion at December’s Questionnaire Committee hearing. These conversations have helped shape The LST Proposal into a solution that meets the needs of all interested parties.

The LST Proposal

Our proposal can and should co-exist with the chart proposed by the 509 Subcommittee. Together, the proposals provide prospective students a quick overview of the employment opportunities at various schools while also allowing a more detailed, holistic view for those students who wish to delve deeper. We are hopeful that implementing the two proposals would result in more informed decisions and a more efficient allocation of students to the schools that best meet their career and educational objectives.

The LST Proposal has two core elements. First, each school would report graduate-level data about post-graduation employment outcomes on a “Job Outcome List.” For each graduate, schools would report, as applicable:

  • Employment status
  • Employer type
  • Full-time or part-time
  • Required credentials
  • Location
  • Whether the graduate received special funding
  • Job Source

[View the detailed categories on this chart]

These data are already reported to NALP by all but six ABA-approved law schools (St. Louis University, University of Kentucky, Columbia University, and the three law schools in Puerto Rico). The Job Outcome List would be publicly available.

Second, schools would report known salary data for each graduate. Schools also already report these data to NALP. However, unlike the data on the Job Outcome List, the salary data would not be publicly available. Instead, the Section of Legal Education would create a national database of salary data just like the database NALP already has and reports about in Jobs & J.D.s. The database would include all employment data contributed by law schools each year.

The result would be a public, national database of job outcomes and salaries that respects individual and employer privacy desires. Prospective students would use this database for a general idea of lawyer pay in certain locations for certain jobs, as well as an indicator of the short-term economic value recent graduates are attaining with each school’s J.D.

Mechanics of the National Database

Pairing a national salary database with school-by-school, disaggregated employment information would allow prospectives to understand entry-level salaries without identifying the compensation of any individual graduate. To do this, the database would provide salaries for small, though statistically significant, cross-sections of law school graduates. The cross-sections would be created by using the factors that many prospectives consider to be part of their career objectives: employer type, location, and key job characteristics.

For example, for the Class of 2009 graduates, the average starting salary of full-time bar-required jobs in Los Angeles at law firms with 51-100 attorneys was $97,287. The 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, 90th salary percentiles are, respectively, $75,000, $80,000, $90,000, $95,000, and $145,000. In Atlanta, the average starting salary for the same category is $107,619, and the salaries percentiles are, respectively, $80,000, $90,000, $90,000, $130,000, and $145,000.

Under The LST Proposal, prospectives would be able to match these salaries to a school’s actual placement track record in different places in different jobs. Under the 509 Subcommittee’s current draft, if a school collects fewer than five salary data points for a particular category, schools report no salary information at all. Prospectives remain unaware of how graduates fared because the only information available is that Y graduates obtained jobs with 51-100 attorney law firms, with no indication of location or required job credentials.

In order to understand what these salary percentiles mean to a prospective student considering X school, each school must provide enough disaggregated information to allow prospectives to match outcomes to the national salary database. This connectivity is crucial to an operational national salary database. This is one function that the Job Outcome List would serve.

There are a few ways to design the database, and we are hopeful that the ABA, NALP, LST, and other interested parties can have open discussions about how to best execute this vision. Initially, it is our view that between one and five years of salary data, back-provided by NALP, can be aggregated to create a richer salary dataset. The number of years used would depend on the type of job and location, as salaries have shifted more or less for different cross-categories of employment outcomes. (E.g. New York City 501+ attorney firm salaries have remained relatively stable within at least the last three years.)

Additionally, it is our view that the narrowest salary picture should be provided whenever possible. If enough data exist for 51-100 attorney law firms in Atlanta, city-level figures should be available. If not, the database would provide the next narrowest regional dataset. These higher-level datasets might be Fulton County, Metro Atlanta, Georgia, the South Atlantic (DE, DC, FL, GA, MD, NC, SC, VA, WV), and the United States. The categories could also carve certain locations out of a larger geographical area. For example, one category might be 2-10 attorney law firms in Georgia minus Metro Atlanta. The possibilities hinge only on having large enough datasets. Regardless of whether the narrowest set is available, each higher-level dataset should be associable with each listed job outcome.

Other Advantages of the Employment Lists

The benefits of this proposal do not end with the addition of elaborate, privacy-respecting salary information to the marketplace. After all, the jobs graduates take are often based on more than salaries, so a proposal that aims to help match prospectives to their best fit cannot end with only salary information. To this end, the Job Outcome List will help prospectives understand the various kinds of jobs graduates take at particular law schools. Its components offer various insights into the entry-level market and how each school fits into that market.

Long-term Help

Focusing on a single year of data is dangerous, but an improved standard must start somewhere. The concern is certain to be more pronounced when there is more disaggregated information available for public consumption. The fear that prospectives will pay too much attention to the first year of new data, while grounded in reality, is but a consequence of improved transparency at law schools. The LST Proposal will be best after three or five years. At that point, prospectives would be more able to discern which schools can best meet their individual objectives. And that should be everybody’s goal.

The 509 Subcommittee’s Draft Proposal: An Explanation and Evaluation

This is our third post in a series of posts (see the first and the second) where we contemplate the 509 Subcommittee’s draft proposal and the facts needed to understand how it would advance transparency at ABA-approved law schools. This post will explain the new proposal and evaluate it using the three criteria we set out in the second post.

The Subcommittee’s Proposal

On March 14th, the Subcommittee released its first draft proposal for a revised standard for the reporting of employment data. David Yellen, dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law and chair of the Standard 509 Subcommittee, will present this proposal to the Standards Review Committee on Saturday, April 2, 2011 in Chicago. We will provide updates on any changes that come out of the meeting.

The draft proposal has three parts: a memorandum explaining the subcommittee’s operating assumptions and goals, a new Standard 509(b), and a chart that each law school would be required to fill out and post on its website each year.

The Memorandum

In the memorandum, the Subcommittee states that the goal is to “provide more meaningful and consistent employment information to prospective law students . . . [that will] greatly assist prospective students in making informed decisions about whether to go to law school or which law school to attend.” Right away the Subcommittee recognizes that schools already gather a great deal of data, and that it follows that sharing more information with prospective students will require only a small (and, implicitly, justified) burden.

The Subcommittee describes the consumer protection standard, Standard 509, as “a vague standard” that enables schools to provide limited and hard-to-compare information. The fact that reporting practices vary so widely among schools makes it very difficult for prospectives to understand the employment outcomes of a particular set of graduates. What’s more, the Subcommittee continues to recognize that the presentation of information is occasionally misleading. This reflects previous comments made by Dean Yellen.

The memorandum then cabins the problems with the current information into two categories: employment rates and salary information. The Subcommittee establishes two principles regarding the the first category. First, “the percentages disclosed should be based on the entire graduating class, with only those known to be employed being counted as such.” The second principle regards the variety of jobs graduates take, and the problem of providing misleading impressions about the true successes of a school’s graduates. “[T]he best approach is to require schools to disclose more disaggregated data about . . . categories of jobs.” These categories include nonprofessional jobs, part-times jobs, temporary jobs, and jobs funded in part by the school.

Regarding the second category, the Subcommittee recognizes the limited utility of salary medians and the likelihood that readers will misunderstand what the medians refer to and how they are calculated. The Subcommittee proposes that “all salary information clearly indicate the number of respondents and percentage of all graduates included.” This is an important revision that will change the manner in which many schools currently portray salary statistics. For examples of how problematic this can be, check out LST’s data clearinghouse. (The linked example shows a school that reported a median salary of $160,000, despite it being the median for only about 16% of the entire class.)

Proposed Standard 509(b)

The first proposal made by the Subcommittee is as follows:

Standard 509. BASIC CONSUMER INFORMATION
(b) A law school must publicly disclose the employment outcomes of its graduates by preparing and posting on its website the attached chart.
(1) The employment information must be accurate as of February 15th for persons who graduated with a JD or equivalent degree between September 1 two calendar years prior and August 31 one calendar year prior.
(2) The information must be posted on the school’s website by March 31 each year.
(3) The information posted must remain on the school’s website for at least three years, so that at any time, at least three graduating classes’ data is posted.
(4) The information must be gathered and disclosed in accordance with the instructions and definitions issued by the Section’s Questionnaire Committee.
(5) Any additional employment information the law school discloses must be fair, accurate and not misleading.
(A) Any publicly disclosed statistics regarding graduates’ salaries must clearly identify the number of salaries and the percentage of graduating students included.

The proposed Standard 509(b) requires that schools publicly disclose the employment outcomes of the most recent graduating class as true on the first February 15th following graduation. Schools must disclose these outcomes, at minimum, on the “attached chart” by the first March 31st following graduation. It also requires schools to keep the chart on their websites for at least three years. Finally, it adds a catch-all in 509(b)(5) to protect against predatory, opportunistic practices. This specifically includes a solution to misleading median salary practices that some law schools currently use.

The Chart

[View the chart]

The proposed Standard 509(b) “attached chart” aims to exhibit the outcomes of the entire graduating class as of the first February 15th following graduation. The chart disaggregates the current information into smaller categories to illuminate the outcomes graduates achieve at a particular school. The chart is also the first official recognition by an arm of the Section of Legal Education that salary information is in fact “basic consumer information.”

There are two classes of categories on this chart: employment status and employment type. For each category and subcategory, schools must report the percentage of all graduates, rather than of only employed graduates, as well as the raw number of graduates included in the calculation. This decision aims to limit the impact of creative accounting and less than forthright attempts at collecting employment data from graduates.

The employment status class places all graduates into four exhaustive categories: employed, pursuing a graduate degree full-time, unemployed, and employment status unknown.

The chart breaks “employed graduates” into two subcategories. First, this category breaks all employed graduates into four exhaustive kinds of employment: full-time long-term, full-time short-term, part-time long-term, and part-time short-term.

Second, it breaks all employed graduates into exhaustive categories based on the credentials required (or preferred) to do the job: bar passage required, J.D. preferred, other professional, or non-professional. It then further breaks each of those categories into (the same) four exhaustive kinds of employment: full-time long-term, full-time short-term, part-time long-term, and part-time short-term.

The employment type class breaks all employed graduates into six exhaustive categories based on the type of employer: law firms, business & industry, government, public interest, judicial clerkships, and academic. Of those categories, the law firm and judicial clerkships categories are further broken down by type. The law firms are disaggregated by size and the clerkships are disaggregated by level of government (state or federal).

Finally, full time salaries will accompany each category (except solo practitioners) of full-time, employed graduates whenever there are at least five salaries reported in a given category. These salaries will be reported with a 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile, as well as the number of salaries used to create these salary quartiles. There is also a space for schools to report the total number of jobs they funded.

A Good Start, But More To Be Done

The 509 Subcommittee is off to a really strong start in reforming how schools report employment information. It was made clear to us that this is only a preliminary draft, and that the Subcommittee expects more changes will be made. We hope this is the case.

The principles guiding the Subcommittee are sound. It is true that the information must be meaningful, consistent, and help prospectives make informed decisions about whether to, and where to, attend law school. But the execution of these principles still leaves something to be desired. If approved as a new accreditation standard in its current form, the proposal would certainly help prospective students and drastically cut down on misleading statistics. At the same time, it runs the risk of only providing superficial comfort, because it would not help match students to the schools that best meet their career objectives as efficiently as legal education needs.

As we previously outlined, we will use three criteria to assess the draft proposal.

(1) Does it disaggregate the current information?
(2) Does it demonstrate the economic value of a school’s J.D.?
(3) Does disclosure operate on an accelerated schedule?

Does it disaggregate the current information?

This proposal does disaggregate the current information. It helps show the nature of the jobs graduates obtained and with whom the graduates were employed. But as evidenced by comparing this draft proposal to the LST Standard, the vague “employed at 9 months” standard, where “a job is a job,” can be disaggregated to varying degrees. We’ve concluded that this draft does not disaggregate the current information to an adequate degree.

The more disaggregated employment information is, and the more data provided at that degree, the more likely it is that there will be privacy norm concerns. With these norms in mind, there is a legitimate interest in not disclosing all of the employment data that law schools already collect. On the other hand, law schools already collect all of the data needed to help prospectives make informed decisions, so cost concerns are greatly overblown (as the Subcommittee recognizes). As such, the appropriate level of disaggregation must balance privacy norms against the usefulness of additional disaggregation to anybody trying to understand the entry-level market for a school’s graduates.

It is the job of the Section of Legal Education to use its regulatory power to enforce the right balance. The Section must force schools to share the appropriate level of disaggregated information and must not opt to require less useful information because law schools have competitive concerns. The important question thus becomes how much weight the Section of Legal Education should give to schools that believe that more disaggregated information could (i) hurt their recruiting efforts, (ii) cause prospectives to focus too much on the first job in making their law school decision (as opposed to something else the schools think prospectives should focus on), and (iii) cause confusion through information overload.

Among the opportunities for improvement is how well the proposal connects job outcome features together. It does not disaggregate the locations of these jobs and does not show how the job, employer, and location connect for individual graduates. For example, we might be able to tell that 60% of a school’s graduates are working at jobs that require bar passage, but we do not know what percentage of those are working in business & industry. Likewise, we might know that 15% of a school’s graduates work in 2-10 attorney law firms, but we cannot tell what percentage of those graduates are working there as attorneys. This is not merely a theoretical concern– a sizeable percentage of law school graduates work in non-attorney positions in law firms. The decision to disaggregate further directly contravenes the Subcommittee’s principle against providing misleading impressions about the true successes of a school’s graduates.

Part of the reason additional disaggregation is so important is that it would minimize the effect of national rankings on student decision-making by offering a window directly into what graduates shortly after graduating. With this proposal, a prospective’s choice might still hinge on what a school ranks each year in U.S. News rather than on how well a school can help a student achieve her goals. Prospectives need clarity about how a school fits into the legal hiring market.

After all, the Subcommittee’s stated goal is to help prospectives make “informed decisions about whether to go to law school or which law school to attend.” The proposed solution is only satisfactory insofar that the goal is to differentiate between schools using percentage differences in broad, albeit more disaggregated, categories. It will still be too difficult to know the challenges graduates face for achieving their career objectives, which usually include a combination of location, employer type, and required credentials. Without sufficient granularity, neither will prospectives as easily understand a school’s placement niches. All together, prospectives will still struggle to understand schools’ unique placement abilities.

Another issue with the Subcommittee’s method of disaggregation is that it actually creates new gaps in the information (though not to a debilitating extent) and thus an incentive for creative accounting. One of the purposes of disaggregating the nine-month employment rate is to limit how much schools hide employment outcomes. Unnecessary gaps undermine this purpose.

The total number of graduates in each subcategory, taken together, should equal the total number in the parent category. For example, the total number of graduates who are employed, unemployed, pursuing a graduate degree, or whose employment statues are unknown should equal the total number of graduates in the graduating class because the categories are exhaustive.

The unknown status category is very important for identifying gaps in the employment status data. However, an unknown category is missing from all other exhaustive groups except the group for type of law firms. The employment type category, required credentials subcategory, judicial clerkships subcategory, and the full time and part time (and corresponding long and short term) subcategories all need an unknown field so that the numbers in the subcategories all equal the parent category’s total number.

Helping prospectives understand where data gaps exist encourages them to ask the right questions and serves to limit false impressions due to extrapolating outcomes from unrepresentative segments of the graduating class. Unfortunately, allowing schools to report graduates as “unknown” in any category incentivizes schools to avoid learning or researching employment outcomes. However, it is more important that the gaps created by non-reporting graduates are readily identifiable. As such, all exhaustive categories and subcategories need to account for each graduate.

Does it demonstrate the economic value of a school’s J.D.?

It is a huge step forward for the Subcommittee to recognize salary information as “basic consumer information.” As of right now, the only standardized, school-specific salary information is courtesy of U.S. News. Until this year, even U.S. News salary information was too opaque.

The Subcommittee’s proposal does a decent job with highlighting what new graduates make and, accordingly, demonstrates some of the economic value of each school’s J.D. This new salary information would allow prospective students to roughly understand how well graduates can service their debts immediately after law school. For the Class of 2009, the average graduate had $98,055 of law school debt, which translates to about a $1200/month loan payment.

While the Subcommittee’s approach is useful and likely the best way for schools to report school-specific salary outcomes without using job-specific salary data, it is not the approach we think the Subcommittee should take. A better way would be to leverage the reported salary data of all law schools together the way NALP does in its annual Job’s and J.D.’s. Certainly, if prospectives knew about this publication, which costs non-members $90, they could use it to have a better understanding of entry-level salaries for law school graduates. But there is currently no way to bridge the gap between this salary information and an individual school’s graduates, and the Subcommittee’s proposal does not help on that front, so it is limitedly useful for those trying to decide which law school to attend.

The aforementioned lack of connectivity between employers, job credentials, and job location makes understanding how the new salary information impacts them – particularly for loan payments – very difficult. For example, a $160,000 starting salary for a new associate grows differently in New York City compared to Houston due to salary compression in years two through seven. Additionally, $70,000 in New York City does not go as far as $70,000 in Philadelphia, Raleigh, or Nashville. The geographic impact on the ease of loan repayment cannot be understated. Even if a prospective has the Job’s and J.D.’s book, that information can only take them so far because its salary breakdowns are very specific (e.g., attorneys in 2-10 person law firms in X city). Nothing in the new standard or chart helps answer these important questions.

There is a separate concern about whether each category would have meaningful salary information associated with it. For example, 10 may work at small firms, with only four reporting. In this case, the four salaries do not get reported and thus do not serve any use. They are simply swept away. However, if these four salaries were added to a national salary database, those four become 40 or even 400, and the result is meaningful salary information about jobs that wouldn’t otherwise have salary information. Unfortunately, this resource cannot be utilized on a school-by-school basis without more disaggregation. In our next post we will explain our proposal for doing this in depth.

Does disclosure operate on an accelerated schedule?

Yes. In striking this balance between cost concerns and the need for timely information about the most recent graduating class, the Subcommittee has paved the way for significant improvements beginning as early as next year. At the Questionnaire Committee hearing in December, law school administrators expressed concern that requiring schools to report information too soon would be too high of a burden given cost constraints. But by limiting the Standard 509 requirements to only data that schools submit to NALP in February/March, the Subcommittee erases these concerns. Even small career services staff will be able to comply with the standard provided they already report to NALP, which nearly every ABA-approved law school does. Given that collection methods are now mostly electronic (through Symplicity or other user-entry databases), assembling and posting the data according to the proposed Standard 509(b) would take very few work hours and limited financial resources beyond what schools already allocate voluntarily.

Concluding Thoughts

The goal of a revised Standard 509(b) must be to help students make informed decisions about which (if any) school best meets their career objectives. While a good start, we think that, as currently conceived, the Subcommittee’s proposal will fail to adequately achieve this basic goal.

We ask that each member of the Committee imagine herself as a prospective student trying to choose a school to invest thousands of hours and dollars into. Each member must then think about how soundly she can act after analyzing employment information reported according to the new standard, and consider how well she actually understands the school’s ability to help her achieve her career objectives. We suspect that this thought experiment would leave each member uncomfortably uncertain. This uncertainty, at a minimum, should be addressed through a non-theoretical exploration of the standard’s implications. Before accepting a new standard, the Standards Review Committee should compare a few schools using real employment information presented as it would be under the proposed revisions.

An improved Standard 509 has the ability to wage an important battle against the influence of U.S. News on the decision-making of prospective law students. But without sufficient disaggregation of the current employment information, the effects can only be minimal. Under the current proposal, it is still too easy to imagine a prospective student choosing the #55 ranked school located on the east coast over the #81 ranked school on the west coast because she does not know, for example, what to make of the schools’ minute differences in percentage employed in mid-sized firms as it pertains to her goals of working out west in a mid-sized firm. Without adequate information to dissuade her, she might come to the head-scratching conclusion that #55 must be better because it is ranked higher. This is bound to worsen now that there are 45 more schools ranked on a national scale.

Each year, the Section of Legal Education makes an effort to minimize the effect of national rankings. We are sure that almost every law school administrator would agree with the Section’s sentiments, and revising Standard 509 is the chance to show that these are not empty words. We look forward to working with the Subcommittee to improve this first draft.

Three Critical Features for the ABA’s Collective Solution to Employment Reporting

This is our second post in a series of posts (see the first) where we contemplate the 509 Subcommittee’s proposal and the facts needed to understand how it would advance transparency at ABA-approved law schools. This post provides three criteria for us to use to judge the ABA’s actions. In our next post, we will evaluate the new proposal using these criteria.

Whatever standard the Standards Review Committee and Questionnaire Committee together adopt, it must:

(1) Disaggregate the current information
(2) Demonstrate the economic value of a school’s J.D.
(3) Operate on an accelerated schedule

(1) Disaggregate the current information

 
The most serious handicap of the current reporting standards is that the standards allow outcomes to be hidden in aggregate form. For prospectives seeking to make an informed decision, and law schools seeking to fulfill their educational responsibilities, the new standard must provide an accurate picture of the entry-level job market for each school. To do this, any new standard must characterize the jobs graduates obtain beyond “a job is a job.” This includes the nature of the jobs graduates obtain, with whom the graduates are employed, and the locations of these jobs. Gaps in the information also must be clearly visible to limit prospectives from extrapolating from unrepresentative segments of the graduating class.
 
The best way to achieve this is by requiring graduate-level detail, just like NALP has been collecting for years. This allows prospective students to know the challenges they face for achieving their educational and career objectives, which will help them maximize the value of their time spent in law school. The granularity also respects school regionality and encourages schools to develop their placement niches. Whether this niche is in a particular region or city, a field of law, or a sector, this feature publicizes each school’s unique placement ability. Displaying where all graduates go post-graduation can help match students to the right programs, minimizing the effect of national rankings on student decision-making. The choice then becomes less about what a school ranks each year in U.S. News and more about how each school can help a student achieve her goals. If it is clear where a school fits into the legal hiring market, schools will be encouraged to adapt and innovate, and may even be able to reduce costs.

This does not mean that law schools must share how much each individual graduate makes at her first job, as we have done with the LST Standard. Rather, law schools just need to provide enough graduate-level detail to enable prospectives to make a meaningful connection between the post-graduate outcomes for a given school’s graduates and the regional market rates for those jobs.
 

(2) Demonstrate the economic value of a school’s J.D.

 
While disaggregating the current information into graduate-level detail allows for rough estimates of economic value, the ABA does not currently consider salaries to be basic consumer information. It is time for the ABA to recognize the importance of starting salary as basic consumer information. Some prospectives come to law school straight from undergrad with low opportunity costs, and others change careers or work first, but almost all will eventually pay an enormous amount of money for the privilege to earn a J.D. It is difficult to separate the question of “how much will I make?” from “how much will my monthly loan payments be right after I graduate?” Likewise, it is difficult to think about the salary a graduate earns separate from where that graduate lives and works. New salary information must be presented in a way that allows prospective students to understand how graduates begin earning the income they need to juggle loan payments, living expenses, and everything else a new member of the legal profession must pay for.
 
It is clear that a graduate’s starting salary is only a part of the economic value a graduate can derive from the degree, and that many graduates (notably solo practitioners) may see a sharp upward trend in their earning salary over the first five to ten years. However, entry-level salaries are a good place to start, and the least costly time to assemble a comprehensive picture of a graduating class. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides salary information for lawyers, but lawyers represent only a portion, even if a large one, of law school graduates. The important question is the value of the law degree itself. Between 60% and 70% of all 2009 law school graduates had jobs, as of February 15, 2010, that required a J.D. Of those that did not, some will eventually find work as an attorney. Likewise, some of the graduates who work as lawyers after law school will soon leave the profession. None of this warrants hiding information about post-graduate outcomes. Career trajectories are hard to predict, but they all necessarily include the first job.
 

(3) Operate on an accelerated schedule

 
The data and information reported on the annual questionnaire and on law school websites must be published in a timely manner. The 2009–2010 questionnaire was due October 31, 2010. This included employment information about the class of 2009, which was finalized on February 15, 2010, and will not be published anywhere until after the admissions cycle for the Prospective Class of 2014 has just about concluded. The Class of 2009 information will not appear in the Official Guide until after the Class of 2010 data has been assembled and reported to NALP. The ABA must publish this information sooner, along with other consumer information as it becomes available.

There are no reasons why law schools cannot either submit employment data to the ABA or provide employment information on their websites by the end of March, each year, for the most recent graduating class. According to Jim Leipold, Executive Director of NALP, data straggles into NALP from February 15th through March 15th, but by the end of that period almost every school has reported all of their employment data to NALP. This data is fresh in everyone’s minds and can be readily provided to the consumer at low costs to career services staff.

In the old days, there would be good reason why prospectives needed to wait to see this data, because the submissions to NALP by law schools would be by individual paper forms. Simply put, times have changed. 90% of law schools submit the data in an electronic format, downloaded from whatever system the school uses to survey graduates. And although schools already have the Class of 2010 data accessible, to our knowledge no school has posted any 2010 employment information on their website.

While the problems with the current employment information (see our white paper for more detail) are separate from the terrible job market, the present job market makes the current reporting schedules unquestionably unacceptable. Regardless of whether job placement for a given year was good or bad, prospectives should still be able to see the full picture. But when the available information is so outdated that it differs greatly from current placement trends (as evidenced by the new NLJ 250 statistics), not providing up-to-date information to consumers grossly undermines the obligations law schools have to their students and to the legal profession. This is particularly true when the information has already been collected and can be disclosed to the consumer with relative ease.

These three evaluation criteria were originally communicated to the Questionnaire Committee and Dean David Yellen (Chair of the 509 Subcommittee) at the December 2010 Questionnaire Committee hearing by LST’s Executive Director.

The Current Employment Information Reported to the ABA

This is the first of a series of posts where we contemplate the 509 Subcommittee’s proposal and the facts needed to understand how it would advance transparency at ABA-approved law schools. This post begins this process by describing the current employment information that schools report to the ABA according to Standard 509 and the annual questionnaire. Later we provide three criteria to judge the ABA’s actions and then will evaluate the new proposal with those criteria in mind.
  
Law schools must report “basic consumer information” about their programs to the ABA, including information about the employment outcomes of their graduates. Currently, the ABA requires that schools report employment rates nine months after graduation, as well as basic bar passage statistics. The annual questionnaire requires that schools report these placement rates for the second-most-recent class, roughly 16 months after most of the graduates earned their degree. It takes about 2 years from graduation for the ABA to publish the information for public consumption.
 
These employment rates include the employment status of all graduates, as well as the type of employer, type of job, and geographic location of all employed graduates. For all of these categories, “a job is a job.”

The employment status includes five exhaustive categories: employed, unemployed—seeking, unemployed—not seeking, pursuing an advanced degree, and unknown. Although exhaustive, the total number of graduates in each category inexplicably does not always add up to the total number of graduates. As one of many examples in the most recent Official Guide, New York Law School does not account for eight graduates while reporting according to these exhaustive categories. The ABA disclaims any warranty as to the accuracy of the information submitted by law schools, so it is unlikely that anybody will correct even basic errors.
 
The employer type rate only considers what business the employer engages in, rather than the type of job the graduate works for that employer. Accordingly, the percentage of graduates “employed in law firms” includes lawyers, paralegals, and administrative assistants. Likewise, “employed in business and industry” includes everyone from an in-house lawyer to a short-order cook. The job-type rate aims to shed some light on these logical disconnects.

NALP’s annual reports on the entry-level hiring market indicate that the disconnect is not merely theoretical, as a sizeable percentage of graduates take these non-law jobs at law firms and in business each year. That graduates take these jobs is not necessarily a problem. The problems are that it is unclear to readers that there exists a disconnect and that, once realized, readers cannot determine what types of non-law jobs these graduates take. Perhaps, originally, all that mattered was the bar-passage-required rate versus the not-required rate. But when a school advertises the versatility of a J.D., unassuming consumers are likely to think many of these graduates are doing something with their degree other than becoming a paralegal or short-order cook. The reality is that just about every graduate needs to find some way to earn money because most of them used student loans to pay for their education.

The current ABA employment reporting standard is seriously limited by its form and substance. This standard aggregates employment outcomes and makes it difficult for prospectives to understand the various employment opportunities for new J.D.’s. Quite differently from problems with the standards, schools’ individualized reporting policies often package information in ways that are not only difficult to compare, but oftentimes misleading. While arguably violative of Standard 509, the “fair and accurate manner reflective of actual practice” portion of the standard has yet to be enforced.
 
What follows is that prospective law students rarely make informed decisions about whether, and where, to attend law school. The ability to make an informed decision directly relates to prospective law students’ ability to access quality information, and the available resources are inadequate for prospectives who strive to take a detailed, holistic look at the diverse employment opportunities at different law schools.

Because prospectives usually do not have enough information about employment outcomes to make an informed decision, they often look to other resources to facilitate comparisons among schools. Most famously, U.S. News provides a yearly law school ranking that prospectives often use as a proxy for schools’ job placement opportunities. While the U.S. News ranking drives down transaction costs for prospectives seeking to acquire and explain information, it also causes prospectives to make decisions based on minute, arguably arbitrary rankings disparities. U.S. News’s decision to rank the former-third tier will only exacerbate this problem.
 
These problems have existed for quite some time, and are divorced from schools’ current struggle to help their graduates find gainful employment. That said, the economic climate is creating ever-larger implications for the legal profession. Law school in the U.S. is now an extremely costly proposition in terms of both positive attendance costs and opportunity costs. Tuition continues to rise, debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and the expected value of all outcomes is less than it was just a few years ago. The result is more graduates for whom uninformed decisions will adversely affect their well-being. Caveat emptor may be an attractive quip when consumers choose to buy inherently dangerous goods, but it is not applicable when even the most informed prospectives really have no idea what kind of return follows from investing in a particular J.D.

This post is derived from our white paper. Many of these comments were also presented by LST’s Executive Director at the ABA Questionnaire Committee hearing in December, 2010.

Standard 509 Subcommittee Posts Proposal

The ABA Section of Legal Education’s Standards Review Committee subcommittee, the Standard 509 Subcommittee, has released its revised standard regarding employment data.

The Subcommittee has this to say in the proposal:

Attached is a proposed new Standard 509(b) regarding employment data, and a chart we propose that each law school be required to fill out and post on its website on an annual basis. This new Standard will, if adopted, provide more meaningful and consistent employment information to prospective students. We believe that this information will greatly assist prospective students in making informed decisions about whether to go to law school or which school to attend. Because almost all of the information to be disclosed is already gathered by law schools, the burden on schools will be minimal.

We will soon provide a series of detailed posts analyzing this proposal according to criteria we set forth in a written statement to the Questionnaire Committee back in December.