American Bar Association / ABA, Job Searches, Law Schools, Rankings, U.S. News

Increasing Transparency in Employment Reporting by Law Schools: What Is To Be Done?

Lat here. Today’s topic: transparency in how law schools report their graduates’ “employment outcomes” — i.e., the jobs that their graduates obtain.

When we attended admitted students’ weekend at Yale Law School — back in 1996, so almost 15 years ago — we were given detailed lists showing where the past few classes ended up working. The graduates were listed in alphabetical order, and below each person’s name was the name and address of their employer. For prospective law students, it was reassuring to see so many federal judicial clerkships and large law firms on these lists. The implicit message: if you graduate — or when you graduate, since we’re talking about YLS, not known for failing people (although it does have grades) — you will be able to secure a good job.

Alas, we understand that not all law schools are so forthcoming about where their alumni end up working (or not working, in this economy). There have been widespread allegations of law schools gaming the system, by massaging or manipulating the employment data they report to the American Bar Association and, perhaps even more importantly, to U.S. News & World Reports (for use in the magazine’s highly influential law school rankings). There have even been claims of law schools outright lying about how many of their graduates wind up employed, where they end up working, and how much they earn from these jobs.

Most observers are content just to complain about law schools not being forthcoming enough about employment information. But two enterprising law students at Vanderbilt — Kyle McEntee and Patrick Lynch, a 2L and 3L, respectively — are doing more. They’ve started a nonprofit organization, Law School Transparency, which has the goal of “encouraging and facilitating the transparent flow of law school employment information.” They’ve also written a paper, A Way Forward: Improving Transparency in Employment Reporting at American Law Schools (SSRN download), proposing a new approach to reporting of job outcomes by law schools.

More details and links — plus commentary from Elie, who feels strongly about this issue — after the jump.

We met McEntee and Lynch when we spoke at Vanderbilt Law a few weeks ago — on the subject of whether there are too many law schools, actually — and we spoke with them again by phone last week (together with Elie, who chimes in below). We were impressed by their commitment to, and enthusiasm for, improving employment reporting by law schools. It’s an obviously important and worthwhile project. From the abstract of their paper:

The decision to attend law school in the 21st century requires an increasingly significant financial investment, yet very little information about the value of a legal education is available for prospective law students. Prospectives use various tools provided by schools and third parties while seeking to make an informed decision about which law school to attend. This Article surveys the available information with respect to one important segment of the value analysis: post-graduation employment outcomes.

“Significant financial investment” is an understatement. If you’re going to spend three years of your life and over $100,000 in hard-earned (or borrowed) money in pursuit of a J.D., you really should have a good idea of your job prospects on the other side.

One of the most pressing issues with current access to information is the ability to hide outcomes in aggregate statistical forms. Just about every tool enables this behavior, which, while misleading, often complies with the current ABA and U.S. News reporting standards. In this Article, we propose a new standard for employment reporting grounded in compromise.

Developing a new standard for employment reporting is also the focus of McEntee and Lynch’s organization, Law School Transparency. They’re hoping to start a grassroots movement that will push law schools towards more complete disclosure of their graduates’ employment outcomes. The National Law Journal explains:

Under the model, participating schools would report employer type, employer name, position name, bar passage requirement, full-time or part-time status, office location, whether the student worked on a law journal and salary for each alumnus nine months after graduation. To protect the former students’ privacy, the schools would not be asked to include the graduates’ names in connection with their employment and salary information. Law schools already collect most of this information, although they generally release it in the aggregate and don’t break it down by individual, McEntee and Lynch said.

The information reported by law schools would be available to prospective law students on Law School Transparency’s Web site, and they could compare schools. Privacy concerns would likely prevent schools from including class ranks or grade-point averages for graduates, but reporting whether a student worked on a law journal (a publicly available distinction) will help would-be law students get an idea for which graduates were at the top of their class, McEntee said.

Protecting individual privacy is nice and all — but as we pointed out when we spoke over the phone with McEntee and Lynch, in the age of Google and LinkedIn and law firm websites with detailed bios, it’s arguably much less of a concern than it used to be.

Individual salary data might be a bit more confidential, but maybe not by much — especially for recent graduates, who have not yet entered the black box of “merit-based compensation.” For example, for first-year associates at large law firms and law clerks to federal judges, salaries are generally publicly available (through sites like Above the Law and our career center, for example).

Here’s the more serious difficulty for LST, per the NLJ:

The real challenge to getting the Law School Transparency project off the ground is convincing schools to turn over individual employment and salary data, said McEntee and Lynch. The duo plans to begin soliciting that information from law schools this summer, though they don’t expect 100% compliance right away. Rather, they expect that a small number of schools will provide them with the requested information, and that others will follow suit under pressure from prospective students.

Here’s to hoping. One tipster who contacted us about the LST project is less optimistic: “I expect law schools to spew the same kind of BS excuse as the firms that won’t report equity vs. non-equity partners to NALP….”

But maybe this is too pessimistic a view. McEntee and Lynch tell us they’re already making progress:

Since we first started this transparency project, three law schools — Vandy, then Duke, and now Chicago — have begun publishing full employment lists for graduating classes. Our goal is to push their lists a little further and standardize it across all ABA-approved law schools. All of the information will then go up on our nonprofit’s website, www.lawschooltransparency.com. In the meantime we are trying to establish the website as a place where the public (largely prospective students) can have open access to information on past post-graduation outcomes.

Of course, Vanderbilt and Duke and U. Chicago are top law schools, with little or nothing to hide when it comes to their graduates’ job outcomes. For example, take a look at the list of employers for the 2009 U. Chicago class, hosted on Law School Transparency. You’ll see a lot of leading law firms and well-regarded judges.

So highly ranked law schools might be happy to crow about their placement records. Will third- or fourth-tier law schools agree to be as forthcoming about where their graduates end up working and how much they’re earning, on an individual-by-individual basis (albeit with names redacted)?

Elie, what do you think?


Elie here. Collective action is always a problem, especially when you are relying on organic grassroots pressure applied by people who aren’t even in law school — i.e., “0Ls,” or future law students — and have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.  Prospective law students have already proven themselves to be downright incapable of realistically assessing their own career prospects. I really hope McEntee and Lynch don’t expect know-nothing, 22-year-old liberal-arts majors to stand up and force a school like Columbia to do anything. AsColonel Nathan Jessup might say: “Please tell me that you have something more. These law students are on trial for their financial futures. Please tell me their lawyer hasn’t pinned their hopes to an application fee.”

On the other hand, McEntee and Lynch will only need prospective law students to help if law schools themselves don’t voluntarily comply with the basic and fair standards LST is looking for. These reporting standards are pretty obvious. The American Bar Association Committee on Law Schools should be demanding this information from law schools as a condition of keeping ABA accreditation. McEntee and Lynch are trying to fill a void left open by organizations with regulatory power (the ABA), organizations with public power (U.S. News), and organizations with no power (NALP). The legal profession would be better off if law schools complied with LST.

But when was the last time law schools cared about what was in the best interests of their own students, or the profession as a whole?

The push back won’t come from top law schools. I’m not saying that Yale or Harvard will comply with transparency, I’m saying it doesn’t matter if Yale or Harvard complies. Yale could start publicly caning rejected applicants who had the audacity to waste everybody’s time with an application — and it would still get thousands of students for hundreds of spots. And Yale knows it.

No, the problem McEntee and Lynch will run into is with the middle- and low-tier schools. The law schools that exist because of their ability to sucker in low-LSAT students with the promise of non-existent jobs that will allegedly offset massive student loans. What incentive can McEntee and Lynch offer a law school that will make the school voluntarily expose the bait-and-switch of illusory job prospects?

Even now, check out the third and fourth tier schools on the latest U.S. News law school rankings. Many of them took a mandatory point reduction instead of reporting their employment statistics. There are many law schools that are simply unwilling to let you know that the JDs they offer don’t lead to well-paid legal jobs.

At the very least, let’s hope that McEntee and Lynch succeed in shaming the ABA into action. Law schools will never willingly report their disastrous lackluster results when it comes to “graduate outcomes.” Only an organization that can hold the threat of de-accreditation over law schools’ heads will be able to force them to comply with basic transparency for prospective law students.

If the ABA had the courage of these two Vanderbilt guys, we could fix this problem tomorrow.

Law School Transparency [official website]
A Way Forward: Improving Transparency in Employment Reporting at American Law Schools [SSRN via TaxProf Blog]
Law Students Feel Jobbed, Work for Better Employment Data From Schools [National Law Journal via Am Law Daily]
Law Students Push for Transparency, More Info Re: Law School Employment Stats [ABA Journal]

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