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]

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.

Post-Mortem of the ABA Questionnaire Committee Meeting

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

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

Episode 10

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

A Note from Our Co-Founders

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the Best,

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

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

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.

A Response to the JD Surplus Argument

We have received a lot of thoughts both via email and elsewhere about whether a new reporting standard will make any difference if the real problem is a surplus of lawyers. While the market retraction has exacerbated the number of JD graduates who can’t find suitable work, the problem we have focused on solving — how to get uninformed consumers on the path to making better decisions about whether, when, and where to enter the legal profession — is nothing new. Some commenters hope that we pave the way to fewer lawyers by discouraging a significant number of would-be lawyers from ever attending law school. This is not our goal, though it may be one consequence.

As we mention in our paper, better information about where graduates go will highlight law schools that have successfully created a niche. Whether this niche is in a particular region or city, a field of law, or a sector (think Government or Public Interest), the standard provides schools with a new opportunity to publicize their 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’s clearer where a school fits into the legal hiring market, schools will be encouraged to adapt and innovate. Schools want graduates to be successful and give back to the institution, and figuring out how to recruit and train new lawyers in ways that maximize employment outcomes and minimize debt loads is a burden we fully expect schools are willing (and able) to carry.

Many critics are nevertheless concerned that there are just too many law schools graduating too many law students. They fear that simply providing more meaningful employment information will do too little to stop law schools from graduating a surplus of debt-ridden attorneys, many of whom need not only on-the-job training and mentoring but jobs that permit debt repayment. We think a market retraction is a great time for legal education institutions to innovate. Shutting the doors or shrinking class sizes are just two possible reactions. Some others include increasing scholarship funding and reducing tuition to minimize debt loads, emphasizing niche placement, and developing apprenticeship programs during school or after graduation (more here). Whether schools shrink their class sizes or go away will depend on their ability to meet the needs of both employers and students.

Concerns about how schools should react is appropriately the subject of next week’s annual Tennessee Judicial Conference. LST co-founder Patrick Lynch is participating in a panel discussion about some of these same questions, along with Vanderbilt’s Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, the Dean of Nashville School of Law, and the Dean of the new Belmont University College of Law. We are very excited about the opportunity to present our thoughts to members of the Bench and Bar here in Tennessee, and we expect a lively discussion with the audience.

We will post our thoughts on the discussion after the conference. In the meantime, please send us yours.

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.