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Law School Transparency: Who’s Naughty and Who’s Nice?

Kyle McEntee (left) and Patrick Lynch (right), co-founders of Law School Transparency (LST).

Late last year, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Anziska pledged to make 2012 “the year of law school litigation.” Anziska, who’s currently spearheading efforts to sue law schools over allegedly misleading employment statistics, told my colleague Staci Zaretsky that he and his team members “want to sue as many law schools as we can to bring them into the fray.”

That’s all well and good — for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and for news outlets like ours seeking juicy stories to cover. But there are other ways to achieve reform. So here’s another thought: Could 2012 instead be the year of law school transparency? Transparency achieved voluntarily, by law schools coming forward on their own to share comprehensive data about how their graduates are faring in the job market?

In the weeks since we wrote about the University of Chicago Law School providing very detailed employment data about its recent graduating classes, based on our interview with Dean Michael Schill, we’ve heard from deans, professors, alumni and students of other law schools, all with similar messages. They believe that their schools, like Chicago, are also transparent about graduate employment outcomes — and they want to be recognized for it.

This chorus of “me too!” messages raises a promising possibility: Is law school transparency becoming, for lack of a better word, “cool”? Will honesty about employment data become the hot new trend for U.S. legal education?

Perhaps. But there’s still a long way to go, as shown by a report issued this week by Law School Transparency….

Regular readers of ATL should be familiar with Law School Transparency (LST), the Tennessee non-profit with the mission of “help[ing] inform prospective law students about the value of a U.S. law degree, using dialogue and advocacy to improve the quality and presentation of post-graduation employment outcomes.” In 2010, the founders of LST, Kyle McEntee and Patrick Lynch, were honored by Above the Law readers as Lawyers of the Year.

Here are the chief findings of LST’s latest study, set forth in the just-released Winter 2012 Transparency Index Report:

  • 27% [of surveyed law schools] do not provide any evaluable information on their websites for class of 2010 employment outcomes. Of those 54 schools, 22 do not provide any employment information on their website whatsoever. The other 32 schools demonstrate a pattern of consumer-disoriented behavior.
  • 51% of schools fail to indicate how many graduates actually responded to their survey. Response rates provide applicants with a way to gauge the usefulness of survey results, a sort of back-of-the-envelope margin of error. Without the rate, schools can advertise employment rates north of 95% without explaining that the true employment rate is unknown, and likely lower.

These two findings are just plain sad. It’s ridiculous that over a quarter of law schools don’t post evaluable information about employment outcomes on their websites. Prospective law students, if you don’t see such info on the website of a school you’re considering, assume the worst.

The response rate issue is important too. One of the favorite ways of law schools to massage their employment stats is by selectively collecting data, applying greater diligence in collecting information from graduates that the schools know to be employed at high-paying law firm jobs, and less diligence in collecting information from the unemployed.

(This is admittedly anecdotal, but a few years ago I was hanging out in Chicago with two recent graduates of an area law school. One of them had just landed a law firm job — and as soon as the career services office heard of his good fortune through the grapevine, they contacted him about his employment status. His friend, who graduated the same year, was unemployed — and nobody had contacted her to learn about her lack of a job.)

  • Only 26% of law schools indicate how many graduates worked in legal jobs. 11% indicate how many were in full-time legal jobs. Just 1% indicate how many were in full-time, long-term legal jobs.

Who are “the 1 percent”? According to the ABA Journal, the two schools reporting how many of their graduates are in full-time, long-term legal jobs are Michigan State University College of Law and Southwestern Law School.

This is noteworthy — and perhaps surprising. It’s not the case, as one might expect, that the highest-ranked schools are making the most robust disclosure. As Kyle McEntee of LST told Vivia Chen of The Careerist, “it seems that lower-ranked schools are outdoing their rank in terms of transparency.”

Back to the report’s findings:

  • 17% of schools indicate how many graduates were employed in full-time vs. part-time jobs. 10% indicate how many were employed in long-term vs. short-term jobs. 10% of schools report how many graduates were employed in school-funded jobs.
  • 49% of schools provide at least some salary information, but the vast majority of those schools (78%) provide the information in ways that mislead the reader.

These issues are why LST was less impressed than we were with U. Chicago’s employment reporting. As noted in footnote 4 of the LST report:

The Chicago methodology does not distinguish between full- and part-time jobs, between long- and short-term jobs, or whether positions are funded by the law school. Nor does it indicate the numerator for the salary figures. For Chicago, this is a relatively minor oversight because it collected salary data from 94% of employed graduates. But the further the response rate moves away from 100%, the more important it is that the rate be disclosed for every category that a school provides salary information for.

(My own speculation: these aren’t really problems for Chicago, since most of their grads probably do obtain full-time, long-term positions, not funded by the law school. Of course, if my speculation is correct, then Chicago might as well share this good news — and put pressure on other schools to make similar disclosures.)

In addition to their report, LST also unveiled its Live Transparency Index, which it explains as follows:

This index measures how transparent law schools are on their websites about their post-graduation outcomes for the class of 2010. It takes 19 criteria and indicates whether the ABA-approved school in question adequately informed a site visitor about each criterion. Except for “Percent Unknown,” if a school does provide adequate information, it receives a “Yes.” If it does not, it receives a “No.”

You can check out the index here. Right now it’s a bit on the cumbersome side, but as LST explains, the index “is under construction and will become more user friendly” over time.

It’s easy to berate law schools for their shortcomings (and we do so all the time here at Above the Law). So let’s close on a positive note, by praising schools that are doing, in relative terms, a good job on law school transparency issues. When he was interviewed by Vivia Chen, Kyle McEntee, executive director of LST, identified these top-ranked schools as doing a decent job of reporting employment data:

  • Northwestern
  • Vanderbilt
  • Yale

(I’d also think Chicago should be up there, since they basically adopted the Yale reporting template for their own disclosures. LST also had some tempered praise for Chicago, in footnote 4 of their report: “even Chicago’s [imperfect] efforts are worthy of applause when you compare what they did to the status quo.”)

McEntee cited these six schools as doing a “good” job of disclosing placement information:

  • Michigan State
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Houston
  • Florida
  • Seattle
  • Denver

So kudos to these schools for leading the way on law school transparency, even if it might not be in their own self-interest. Along these lines, here’s a noteworthy message we received in our inbox, after our initial story on U. Chicago:

Just read your piece on UChicago’s disclosures, thought I’d point you toward Seattle University Law School’s website, where they provide comparably thorough employment stats. It’s easy for places like Yale and Chicago (where median salaries clock in at $160) to jump onboard with transparency, but it takes more guts for a (good but not T6) school like Seattle to do so.

That’s a fair point; it does take guts for law schools with less-than-fabulous employment statistics to be open and honest about their graduates’ job outcomes. So let’s hope for more such gutsiness from law schools in 2012, which will hopefully go down as the year of law school transparency rather than the year of law school litigation.

P.S. Of course, and in fairness to the lawyers who are suing the law schools, law school litigation can help advance law school transparency. It’s possible that some of these cases will be resolved through settlements that require law schools to make certain disclosures in certain ways. And it’s also worth noting that schools that have not yet been sued might try and avoid being sued in the future by making full and fair disclosures of job data on their own websites. If a law school reveals on its website that many of its graduates don’t have jobs — or don’t have full-time jobs, or long-term jobs, or well-paying jobs — it will be that much harder for a graduate to later sue the school, claiming that he or she was misled by questionable data.

Winter 2012 Transparency Index Report [Law School Transparency]
Live Transparency Index [Law School Transparency]
Report: Law Schools Still Stingy with Job-Placement Data [WSJ Law Blog]
Beg Us, Beat Us—We Still Won’t Tell! [The Careerist]
Study of law schools’ job placement disclosures raises a ‘red flag’ [National Law Journal]
Only 26% of Law Schools Report Percentage of Grads with Legal Jobs, Study Finds [ABA Journal]

Earlier: The University of Chicago Law School Offers Detailed Employment Data; Will Other Schools Follow Suit?

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