The Continuing Disappointment of the ABA’s Response to Law School Transparency Requests: Can No One (Short of Governmental Pressure) Appeal to the ABA to Protect Law Students and Pre-Law Students?

The grim state of the legal employment market for new lawyers—and the scanty, often deceptive and almost always self-serving data that the ABA requires law schools to provide about their graduates’ employment—has been a subject of this blog and other legal commentators for awhile now.

The 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 they’re not much—and so far they’re only recommendations.  Adopted in full, they wouldn’t amount to nearly enough.  That doesn’t stop the ABA, a pretty powerful organization, from claiming they’re standing tall “despite criticism.”

One person who isn’t satisfied is Sen. Barbara Boxer.  Well, lots of people aren’t satisfied, but the ABA feels the need to respond to Sen. Boxer, if no one else.   ABA President Stephen N. Zack responded to Sen. Boxer’s initial letter to the ABA by essentially saying, well, we’re considering recommendations and continuing to look into it.  In the midst of reporting nothing that Sen. Boxer didn’t already know was a bit of self-serving rhetoric: “no one could be more focused on the future of our next generation of lawyers than the ABA and the legal profession for whom we speak.”

Followed by: “Much of the issue is about students making informed, smart choices and the ABA distributes information that can help.  I enclose a paper that the Association produced….”

Double take/daftness check.  Can it be that the ABA aspires to have the same credibility as the NCAA?  I really try to give people the benefit of the doubt—everybody has a hard job and that deserves some slack.  But, c’mon.

It’s hard to know where to start.  But could we start:

With the President of the ABA—the organization that accredits law schools and could essentially make whatever demands it saw fit—thinking that a paper is the one and only thing meriting attachment status in its response to a U.S. Senator?  That’s the best the ABA can do?  Above the Law has papers and articles.  So does the Law Transparency Project.  So does Advise-In Solutions.  But we have no regulatory power over law schools.  The ABA does.

With “informed, smart choices”?  But that’s the point—prospective law students can’t make informed, smart choices on the basis of the data the ABA requires law schools to report.  And no paper can change that until prospective students have easy access to meaningful data.  For a prospective law student to make an informed, smart choice about whether to attend law school and which law school to attend requires a lot of tooth-pulling to extract information from law schools, information that should be part of law schools’ required disclosure.  And unless that prospective law student is pretty sophisticated, or has a bang-up admissions advisor, it’s very difficult (and sometimes even with that help, impossible) to get the information you need.  Some of my clients have (rightly) walked away from law schools to which they were admitted but which steadfastly refused to provide meaningful data (in some cases, after saying they’d be glad to give it).  Shelling out money to them would have been like making a $150,000 investment (debt or no debt) in the stock of a company that won’t provide financial information.  Law schools that did provide the data were simply better investments.

To be sure, no matter what the ABA required, the smart and diligent prospective law student would always have additional information they would need to make her or his best choice.  But it would be fine-tuning information, not core data.  In the current environment, prospective law students and their advisors have to fight through a lot of white noise to get even basic information and decide whether they should trust it.  Obtaining the fine-tuning information should be the day job of prospective law students and their advisors, not the night job that follows the obstacle-course-navigation day job.

No, let’s start with “no one could be more focused on the next generation of lawyers…”.  We’ll skip whether anyone could be more focused, such a claim being even more empirically baseless than what the ABA allows law schools to report.  But if there was ever a “you clearly don’t get it or don’t want to get it” sentence, this is it.  A large part of the current problem is that the last generation of law students never became the “next generation of lawyers.”  Unconsciously or not, what President Zack is saying is that neither he nor the ABA speaks for any of those people.  Period.  Those who invested in a career they didn’t get—in some cases perhaps because they weren’t sufficiently diligent, but surely in other cases because they were misled by the very law schools the ABA regulates—are not the ABA’s concern.  The ABA speaks, at best, for lawyers, not law students.  If you’re a prospective law student, there could be only one clearer statement that you’re on your own as far as the ABA is concerned—and that would be if it explicitly said, “You’re on your own.”

In the almost one year since I opened Advise-In Solutions for business, I’ve managed to lose a great deal of respect for the ABA.  I’m sure President Zack doesn’t much care about that—or apparently about concerned members of the legal press—even though many of them and I are, if fact, among the lawyers for whom he professes to speak.

So, maybe he’ll listen to Sen. Boxer, who responded to President Zack’s answer with a little additional pressure—for example, to have actual auditing of the information law schools submit regarding employment  and to post it on their websites, on the grounds that “students should not have to search far and wide” for such information.  If they even know what to look for or have an advisor who does, that is.

Meanwhile, student bar associations (apparently having given up on the ABA) dropped a line to other senators asking for help and at the same time, other student groups have made a similar appeal to the Department of Education.

What’s sad about all this is the ABA isn’t being asked to force law schools to provide any information that is controversial.  Not even the ABA disputes the reasonableness of the requests for more meaningful data on employment, they just continue to do as little as they can while still trying to maintain an image of fairness and concern.  Sorry, I forgot, they included a paper that tells law students to make a careful analysis of their choices, the same careful analysis that the ABA is affirmatively preventing them from making by allowing law schools to hide pretty much every ball they want to hide.

Maybe enough pressure will finally force meaningful reforms, so that prospective law students and their advisors can focus their attention on analyzing data rather than gathering it and unmasking it when it’s deceptive.  Now that would finally allow law students to make “informed, smart choices.”  But it won’t be because the ABA cares about prospective law students—President Zack pretty much said that.  It will be because it wants to preserve its image as a fair and responsible organization rather than becoming the legal equivalent of the NCAA.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on May 25, 2011.

4 Responses to “The Continuing Disappointment of the ABA’s Response to Law School Transparency Requests: Can No One (Short of Governmental Pressure) Appeal to the ABA to Protect Law Students and Pre-Law Students?”

  1. I’ve heard a lot of times about Law Schools not giving their students the kind of information they need to make the right choice to attend their Law School or Law School in general.

    What information should you get when making the decision?
    How would you recommend getting that information from a Law School?
    What if the Law School isn’t helpful? Is there anywhere else you can get that information? Is there an organization fighting this? If so, how can I get involved?

  2. […] commenter on my last post, “The Continuing Disappointment of the ABA’s Response to Law School Transparency Requests: Can No On…” is fairly typical of prospective law students who want to be diligent about analyzing their law […]

  3. […] Note to the ABA—in the unlikely event that you ever decide to do anything substantive about employment statistic reporting by law schools, maybe you could have law schools report jobs they fund […]

  4. […] talked about the difficulty of getting law schools to provide meaningful employment information.  In some cases, law schools simply refuse to do so, or don’t do it after promising that they […]

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