ABA Subcommittee Proposes to Make Law School Graduate Employment Data Slightly More Transparent: A Quarter-Loaf is Better than Nothing (except if it’s Mistaken for a Whole Loaf)

The consumer information subcommittee of the Standards Review Committee of the American Bar Association has proposed “controversial” new standards for law schools’ reporting of their graduates’ employment.  Among the changes, reports the National Law Journal, are that “law schools would disclose the percentage of students whose employment status after nine months is unknown, as well as the percentage with law school-funded jobs. Additionally, schools would have to report the percentage of employed graduates who have jobs requiring bar passage and those in non-legal jobs. Schools would have to stipulate how many students are in part-time and full-time jobs, and would continue to disclose the number of graduates in business, government, judicial clerkships and academia.”

There are other proposed changes, including eliminating, as an accreditation standard, a tenure system for law school faculty (which is certainly controversial among law school faculty) and elimination of the LSAT as a requirement (the ABA has previously granted individual exceptions to the LSAT requirement).  We’ll leave those proposals to one side and focus on the proposed changes to employment data reporting.

First, there’s the fact that, um, we went through and officially came out of a recession—and legal employment continues to suffer (see the “Beyond Law School” posts on this blog)—accompanied by virtual silence from the ABA about this issue.  Never mind that law students regularly incurred six figures of debt without, if they relied on the public data that the ABA required, any realistic way to assess the potential payoff for their investment from any particular law school.  When the super-rich get soaked like this, there’s an investigation; apparently it was ok to do it to law students.  At best, the ABA has proven that it is sclerotic.  At worst, well, there are a lot of possibilities.

Second, we’ll see what the ABA does with this proposal and how soon they do it.  If the ABA adopts and enforces it, it will be an improvement.  To be sure, not that much of an improvement.  You might say—and you’d be right—that requiring disclosure of the proportion of jobs that require a J.D., as opposed to selling paint at Lowe’s, is literally the least law schools could do.

Disclosure of statistical pumping by law schools funding jobs also seems minimal.  During the recession, it’s good that some law schools stepped up to bridge their students into law by funding their jobs, but it’s not clear that holders of those jobs won’t face a competitive disadvantage going forward, and it’s certainly not what entering students are led to expect will be their fate.  So, disclosure shouldn’t be controversial.  Part-time versus full-time?  Really?  What’s the argument for not disclosing that?

That the ABA can’t have made these changes yesterday (or a decade ago, for that matter), doesn’t speak well of its concern for law students.  Sometime semantics aren’t important; sometimes they are.  In this case, I think the fact that it’s the consumer information subcommittee that has ABA jurisdiction with respect to law students says a lot.  You are consumers, nothing more, nothing less, in the eyes of the ABA.  You’re not future colleagues entitled to the benefit of being considered an equal but consumers of a six-figure product for which “buyer beware” seems to be the operative theory.  You’re not one of them, you’re an ancillary thought.  And the ABA, I guess to its credit, doesn’t even dress it up by calling its subcommittee consumer protection.  Nope, just information.  You’re pretty much on your own. 

Of course, the proposed changes, if implemented, are better than nothing.  But, as critics such as the Law School Transparency project, have pointed out, they’re barely better.  The ABA process reminds one a little of Congress passing a bill (Congress used to do that!) that addresses a small part of a problem, and leaving the impression that it solved the whole problem.  The danger for people deciding between law schools is that they’ll view these minimal improvements in data as sufficient for them to make a law school decision.

They’re clearly not.  In some respects, that’s not the ABA’s or anyone else’s fault.  I’ve made the point before that whatever information is required to be disclosed, entering law students will always want more in order to make their best law school admissions decisions.  The question, on one level, is just the benchmark.

But the benchmark matters.  For each Advise-In Solutions client navigating the law school admissions market, I develop a strategic plan for getting the information—far beyond what the consumer protection subcommittee now proposes—that my clients need to maximize their chances of a financially secure legal career after they graduate, without a crushing debt load.  But the low benchmark makes my job and my client’s jobs harder and less efficient.  We spend time prying loose information that should be public, and that slows the process of getting and systematizing additional important data.  I’m persistent and patient, so my clients get what they need; those prospective law students without similar doggedness aren’t getting certain vital information at all.  (Of course, don’t forget that the ABA and law schools aren’t your only sources of easily-obtainable information).

Beyond that, prospective law students confront the significant obstacle that they’re dealing with professionals—law schools are good at slicing and dicing (“concealing”?) employment information to put it in its most favorable light.  Entering law students simply haven’t been in the market long enough (you’re in this market once, whereas for law schools it’s more like industrial production) to think through what information they really need to be able to make a good decision.  Add to that that many entering law students trust “higher education” and you have a recipe for, well, what we’ve seen, which is a lot of graduates with a lot of debt and career opportunities that were far more constricted than they’d been led to believe.

To expect the ABA to protect you, to ask many of the questions of law schools that any entering law student should have answers to, seems increasingly to be too much to expect.  You’re just a consumer to it.  Even were the ABA not to think of law students as “consumers” but colleagues, there would still be serious work that prospective law students and their admission and application advisors would need to do so that you can make your best law school decision.  The ABA may offer consumers a crust of bread.  Don’t mistake it for the whole loaf you need and to which, in view of your commitments of time and money, you’re entitled.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on March 29, 2011.

4 Responses to “ABA Subcommittee Proposes to Make Law School Graduate Employment Data Slightly More Transparent: A Quarter-Loaf is Better than Nothing (except if it’s Mistaken for a Whole Loaf)”

  1. […] unhelpful nature of the data the ABA currently requires law schools to disclose and the relatively anemic reforms that are being contemplated.)  You are about to drop a significant amount of money into law schools’ laps—and you have a […]

  2. […] there has been a little flutter recently about making employment data more transparent, even those proposed changes are minimal.  At least if you buy a Prada bag, the salesperson will tell you how it’s made and you can […]

  3. […] ABA’s answer: some weak-kneed recommendations for “reforms” and a promise to keep looking into it.  The recommendations so far are better than nothing but […]

  4. […] 2.  The squishiness and unreliability of law school employment data.  While the ABA has announced some reforms relating to the employment data law schools are required to report (more on that in a future blog), the current data is often less than useless. […]

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