Senator Boxer Questions ABA’s Resistance to Basic Change

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer has once again reached out to the ABA to express concern about the ABA Section of Legal Education’s regulatory failings. This is the third letter from Senator Boxer. The first and second letters, addressed to immediate past ABA President Stephen Zack, both called for the ABA to shore up its oversight responsibilities as it pertains to the provision and verification of consumer information provided by law schools to prospective law students. This letter (full text below), sent to current ABA President William T. (Bill) Robinson III, follows the same themes, though it specifically criticizes the Section’s decision not to require law schools to disclose their legal employment rates for the Class of 2010. It remains clear that the Senator’s interest in law school transparency is not fleeting, but rather the product of genuine concern and disbelief that law schools habitually provide misleading employment information and that the Section of Legal Education is not doing enough to curb institutional misbehavior.

This letter comes in the wake of an editorial we wrote in the National Law Journal. We criticized the Section’s proposed changes to the annual questionnaire because they did not require law schools to disclose their legal employment rates for the Class of 2010.

On Sept. 23, the Section’s Questionnaire Committee will finalize the 2011 questionnaire, which asks about the class of 2010. Additional reforms are slated for 2012. If nothing changes, the section will collect fewer job characteristics data than it has collected in prior years. Apparently, whether a job requires bar passage or only prefers a J.D., or whether a job is full- or part-time, are now too obscure to define without many more meetings.

After the Sept. 23 meeting, nothing changed. In fact, during the meeting certain committee members actually proposed additional ways to count graduate outcomes as desirable, including counting unemployed graduates as employed so long as they had declined a legal offer. While other committee members refuted this attempt to favor law schools over graduates, this sort of protectionism runs counter to basic notions of consumer protection and has no place in the regulation of our country’s law schools.

The 2011 questionnaire, which will no longer ask whether a job is legal in nature, is now active and due at the end of this month. While we believe that Senator Boxer’s letter will eventually force the schools to provide the Class of 2010 legal employment rates at each law school, it should not take congressional hand-holding to get the Section to require such basic consumer information.

As Senator Boxer points out in her letter:

In a year when a number of lawsuits alleging consumer protection law violations have been filed against ABA law schools, when major newspapers have devoted thousands of words to problems with law school reporting practices, and when two United States Senators have encouraged significant changes to your policies, it is surprising that the ABA is resorting to half measures instead of tackling a major problem head on.

The letter also follows an announcement yesterday that two law firms are planning to file class action lawsuits against 15 additional ABA-approved law schools. Taken together, the events of this week may indicate that the Section of Legal Education has less time than it thinks to start turning things around.

Senator Boxer’s Letter

Dear Mr. Robinson:

Following the previous correspondence between your predecessor and me concerning law school reporting practices, I am writing to address some unresolved issues. While I applaud the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education for addressing other deficiencies with current post-graduation employment and salary reporting requirements, I was very disappointed to learn that the Section decided not to require that law schools report the percentage of their graduates working in the legal profession or the percentage of graduates working in part-time legal jobs in its upcoming questionnaire.

In my two previous letters to your predecessor, I indicated my strong belief that the ABA should ensure that post-graduation employment data provided to prospective law students is truthful and transparent. His responses appeared to indicate a similar interest, but unfortunately it is difficult to square those previous statements with the Section’s recent decision.

According to The National Law Journal, a Washington University law professor has determined that for the Class of 2009, at least thirty law schools had 50 percent or fewer of their graduates in jobs that required a law degree. Data published by the National Association for Law Placement indicates that since 2001, only two- thirds of graduates from all ABA-approved law schools obtained legal jobs.

However, we know that most law schools report that nearly all of their students have jobs shortly after graduation. The difference between the information reported by schools and the real legal employment rate for recent graduates is very troubling. That is why requiring law schools to accurately report the real legal employment rate of their graduates is so important.

In a year when a number of lawsuits alleging consumer protection law violations have been filed against ABA law schools, when major newspapers have devoted thousands of words to problems with law school reporting practices, and when two United States Senators have encouraged significant changes to your policies, it is surprising that the ABA is resorting to half measures instead of tackling a major problem head on.

I also continue to have concerns about the lack of transparency for prospective law students in other areas:

Independent Oversight

The Section of Legal Education failed to address the overwhelming need for independent oversight and auditing of statistics reported by law schools. In September, the University of Illinois was found to have been inaccurately reporting law school admissions statistics, the second such school to have done so in recent months. In addition, many lawsuits have been filed alleging that law schools are violating various state consumer protection laws and false advertising laws.

These developments are very troubling, and without independent verification of the information reported by law schools, the opportunity to file inaccurate reports will remain.

Merit Scholarships

As I noted in a previous letter, the New York Times has 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 fail disclose how the school’s grading curve and scholarship conditions can combine to prevent the student from understanding the scholarship’s real value.

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 could receive a GPA high enough to maintain their scholarships. Students should have more information about the risks of accepting merit scholarships so that they can make fully-informed decisions about their future.

I appreciate the ABA’s willingness to make some changes to its reporting requirements, but I believe it is in the best interest of law students everywhere for the ABA to address these remaining issues as soon as possible. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator