Spate of Fraudulent (and might-as-well-be-fraudulent) Numbers from Law Schools: Why Isn’t the ABA Doing More to Protect Law School Applicants?

In the last week, we’ve been treated to some interesting stories about law schools.  “Interesting” in the nuanced sense that I learned from Minnesotans.  The villains were Villanova and Thomas Cooley.  There is a hero, though: Washington & Lee.

First, the stories.  Villanova reported to the ABA that prior to 2010 it “knowingly reported” inaccurate admissions data to the ABA.  The GPA and LSAT numbers reported falsely are, of course, numbers that prospective law students, pre-law advisors and law school rankings rely on.  It’s just bad news for everyone, but especially Villanova law students, whose law degree and job prospects may well be tarnished by the scandal.  The one thing you shouldn’t be when you spend $35,300 per year for the (now) tied-for67-ranked law school is lied to.  And by the way, if they “knowingly” fabricate to the ABA, are they giving similar disclosure to students to whom they related certain employment information (I’m guessing they didn’t have a pang of conscience over that)?

There are many, many ways,of distorting the truth without actually lying.  Fourth-tier Thomas Cooley devised its own “objective” law school ranking system in which it claims to be a better law school than Chicago, Stanford, Yale, everybody except Harvard.  As Above the Law reports, the criteria it used to create the rankings are preposterous.  My favorites in the category of no-demonstrable-or-even-conceivable-relation-to-educational-quality-or-employment-prospects are the number of library-related criteria, including floor space.  This in an era when virtually all current legal resources are available online, such that some law schools and law firms are drastically reducing library space because it’s wasted real estate.  Thomas Cooley must have a heck of a hard library but if that was ever a major criterion of quality, it was in 1911, not 2011.

The hero of the week is Washington & Lee.  Here’s a school currently ranked in the top 40 (less than 10% more expensive than Villanova, over 30 slots higher in the US News rankings and apparently incomparable in relative veracity) that actually decided to release more transparent employment data.  Their employment data discloses, for example, the proportion of recent graduates with a legal job, not just a job, as well as other helpful data.

Whether interested in Washington & Lee or not (and the relatively open disclosure, in my view, makes W&L a better choice), every prospective law applicant should take a very careful look at its disclosures.  Why?  Because it’s precisely the kind of data that the ABA doesn’t require all law schools to disclose.  Consequently, almost none of them do, despite the roundhouse criticism of the opacity of law school employment data from this blog, the Law Transparency Project, Above the Law and others who actually care about entering law students.

Washington & Lee doesn’t tell you everything that you want to know as an applicant.  They do tell you a whole lot more than other law schools are telling.  In addition, no matter the granularity of data, there will always be other questions an applicant will want to ask.  I’ve talked about some of those before.  In the best of all worlds, you and a top-flight law school application and admission advisor will still need to develop and carefully execute a strategy for obtaining additional information that puts you in position to know what you need to know to make a wise law school decision.

Whatever the limits of W&L’s disclosure, it’s at least a refreshing change from law schools denying that the current market has had an adverse impact on their graduates’ employment and even more preposterous fantasies of the Cooley/Villanova ilk, to name but a few insults and injuries.

All of this raises a question, though.  Why should pre-law advisors and companies like Advise-In have to try to outsmart law school reported data rather than just being able to ask what their students or clients need to know to make responsible decisions?  There’s plenty enough work to be done in refining inquiries for individual clients without having to fight through a lot of white noise (or worse).  In the context of the Villanova kerfuffle, the Wall Street Journal made a case for regulation of law school information (and when was the last time the Journal even smiled about the possibility of any regulation anywhere?).

But, one might say, there’s already supposed to be regulation—by the ABA.  Why doesn’t it work?  Aside from asking people to actually report honest LSAT and GPA numbers, it’s less than anemic.  Why is that?  Here’s an unsympathetic theory (but one I reluctantly conclude is probably true).  The ABA doesn’t care.

Take our two cases.  Inaccurate LSAT and GPA data hurt everyone except for the law school that provides them—other law schools, legal hiring and law students.  The ABA cares about that.  A law school system and a constant supply of lawyers—and reliable hiring by its membership—help the ABA.  On the other hand, nearly useless employment data and nonsense rankings like Thomas Cooley’s hurt only law students without a healthy suspicion and able advisors, and even those few-and-far-between applicants with the right attitude and superb advisors are paying in time and money for things they shouldn’t have to.  But none of that damages the supply of lawyers who will pay ABA fees or law schools that can continue to jack up tuition without having to provide credible or helpful data—it only hurts applicants and students.  And as near as I can tell, the ABA just doesn’t care about them.  I’d love to be convinced that it does but I see no evidence of effective concern.  As long as it’s just law students getting mugged, the ABA is a pretty indifferent cop.

So, prospective law students: you’re on your own.  You will be told basically what law schools want you to know and additional information that you and your advisors can find out, sometimes over heavy resistance.  You can find out a lot but be prepared to put a lot of time and careful planning into that effort and consult with your advisors early and often.  Other than you, your advisors and Washington & Lee, there’s really no one else stepping up to help you, especially not organizations that you might think should.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on February 11, 2011.

3 Responses to “Spate of Fraudulent (and might-as-well-be-fraudulent) Numbers from Law Schools: Why Isn’t the ABA Doing More to Protect Law School Applicants?”

  1. […] believe they’re underranked (which includes just about everyone, and especially those like the farcically self-ranked Thomas Cooley Law School) and the ABA, which pitches and moans about “cooked” data and figures […]

  2. […] unlike Stanford, do not generally have great post-law school employment placement (or at least they won’t reveal meaningful data that would allow us to assess whether they do).  At a much higher level, a school in the top 25 […]

  3. […] The data are limited by their purpose, but considerably more helpful than the information that law schools are required to report by the ABA.  For one thing, these are legal jobs, with salaries that are generally verifiable (one might ask, if NLJ can get this data, why won’t the ABA?). […]

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