The ABA Approves New Law School Employment Data Reporting (and it Should be Helpful to Law School Applicants)

Sometimes, crow is just delicious.  In the past, I’ve been extremely critical of the pretty miserable law school employment data that the ABA requires law schools to report, as well as the seemingly glacial pace of the ABA process in compelling law schools to report data that would actually be useful to law school applicants and not subject to easy manipulation by law schools.

There was good news last month that indicated that the ABA might approve a significant overhaul to the current lax reporting system.  I held my tongue on the grounds that you can’t tell the number of chickens by counting eggs.

But yesterday, the ABA announced that its Legal Education and Admissions section has approved significant changes, which will be reported next year.  There are still hurdles—among them, defining certain terms and seeing how law schools actually report the data—but law school applicants and their advisors should have to fight through a lot less white noise beginning next year.  In the meantime, applicants need not wait until actual publication to politely request relevant data from law schools.  Law schools can no longer (as some of them, unbelievably, did) claim they just don’t have some basic data.

Most important, the ABA appears to have taken seriously its job as law schools’ regulatory body.  It doesn’t matter so much that it may (or may not) have done so under increasing political pressure or that the ABA’s own statements of concern were often clumsy, at best.  Nor may it matter that the ABA explicitly noted that it wants to avoid “unnecessary” effort by law schools—you could take that to say that law schools simply do (or clearly ought to) have basic information available.

There are a few highlights but the best way of seeing the scope of the changes is to look at the chart that the ABA appears to be requiring law schools to complete (see the last page of the memorandum that begins of p. 20 of this pdf) and comparing that chart to what had previously been required.

Assuming that these changes were adopted in full (today’s ABA release includes confusing language saying that “these [reported] and other proposed changes were recommended in June,” leaving open the possibility that some of the changes described below may not have been approved), here are some of the more significant changes:

1.  Instead of requiring simple employment data, the ABA will require a specification of what jobs require a J.D.; which one prefer a J.D., and which ones don’t.

2.  Full-time vs. part-time employment will now be reported separately.  That’s a significant advance and should prevent law schools (depending on the definition of “part-time”) from slipping over the significant difference between the two in income, prestige and future career potential.

3.  The ABA will require reporting of the number of jobs funded by the law school, a technique that several prominent (and other) law schools have used in the last several years that had the effect of significantly enhancing the appearance of employment percentage numbers.  You can appreciate that law schools want to “bridge” their graduates’ employment in tough times and still want to understand the extent to which they’re doing it, appropriately discounting the employment numbers.

4.  Law firm jobs will be broken out by size of firm.  That’s a significant improvement over the prior aggregation of law firm data.  The ABA, unfortunately, did not require law schools to further disaggregate their government and business employment data.  That will still be something that applicants will need to find out on their own.

5.  Salary information will be “unbundled” from employment information.  This should help with some of the incredible numbers we’ve seen some law schools report regarding their “median” salaries, which have been artificially inflated by (in some cases) shockingly small sample sizes.  Instead, the NALP numbers on statewide salaries will become the gold standard, on the theory that this will decrease cherry-picking of statistics by law schools.

To be honest, I was initially suspicious of this unbundling but have come to believe that the ABA made the right choice.  If any individual law school’s sample size is large enough to be meaningful, applicants and their advisors can put it on the list of items to cover.

6.  Clerkship data has been broken down into federal and state clerkships.  That’s important and, while the data could always be more granular, it should prevent some law schools from touting clerkship numbers as if they are the equivalent of U.S. Supreme Court clerkships.

I think there’s more the ABA could have done but what they appear to have done is a lot.  There are still uncertainties to be resolved, of course, before anyone should exhale.  First, we’ll see what law schools actually do.  I’m pretty confident that some will engage in some creative interpretation of the requirements.  That’s related to a second point.  Just as when legislation is passed, attention turns to regulatory lobbying, here the ABA’s official statement notes that “Definitions for these categories [part-time/full-time; J.D. required; J.D. preferred; “another profession”; “non-professional”] will be developed this coming fall.”  Um, that’s 90% of the game—if the definitions are lax, the data will be meaningless and potentially deceptive.  It will be of paramount importance to see how these categories are actually operationalized.  I haven’t eaten my crow yet but I’m really hoping that I’ll have a double-helping when it’s finally out of the oven.

If the categories are operationalized in a meaningful way, I won’t say that the new reporting scheme will make my clients’ and my job easier.  There’s still additional information that any individual client or law school applicant will want in order to make her or his decision responsibly.  More important, the task of getting that information and negotiating with law schools in a friendly and productive way will continue to be a challenge requiring careful tactical thinking.  All that is just the nature of the business when you’re making a six-figure investment in law school.

Here’s what I hope the new reporting scheme will do.  First, it will make applicants’ and my work more productive and efficient.  There should be less obfuscation and obstruction to combat, and law schools will be less able to hide the ball or cherry-pick their statistics.  Perhaps more important, at least for the moment, the ABA has signaled that it will act, and that business-as-it’s-been-practiced simply isn’t good enough anymore.  If law schools internalize that regulatory mood, and some of them likely will (others likely will immediately look for new ways to manipulate their data), law schools may also be more forthcoming with—and view it as less of a burden to provide—additional or clarifying information that law school applicants need to make a good-faith, responsible decision about which law school to attend.  Law school applicants may also feel a little bolder about requesting data they need to make their decisions.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 28, 2011.

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