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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Law schools may be forced to disclose
grads’ job prospects

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Consumers, politicians and organizations that use law school employment statistics are demanding changes that make it easier for law students and potential law students to assess future job prospects, and it appears they are going to get them.

The ABA Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar last month approved asking more detailed questions of all ABA-accredited law schools about employment statistics.

Two other ABA committees also are considering measures to eliminate fuzzy employment statistics. A group of 55 law school student body presidents have proposed legislation to submit their admissions and employment data to the U.S. Department of Education. And the editor of the U.S. News & World Report school rankings also reports a “very strong likelihood” the magazine will get tougher about how law school placement data is reported.

The actions come amid a vociferous outcry that includes at least one lawsuit from students and others to give them a clearer picture of the job and salary outlook for law school graduates, not least because they want to decide whether a law school education is worth $100,000 and more in school debt.

“Most students reasonably expect to obtain post-graduation employment that will allow them to pay off their student loan debts, and rely on this information ― which may be false at worst and misleading at best ― to inform their decision,” California Sen. Barbara Boxer wrote in a March letter to ABA President Stephen Zack that reflects much of the criticism of law school employment statistics.

“As reported in the New York Times and other publications, the ABA allows law schools to report salary information of the highest earning graduates as if it were representative of the entire class,” the letter continued. “Also, when reporting critical post-graduation employment information, law schools are not distinguishing between graduates practicing law full-time from those working part-time or in non-legal fields.”

U.S. News uses information provided by the ABA and the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) to report employment data in its annual law school rankings, which many administrators admit they watch closely and with great concern. Officials at Villanova University even recently reported that its law school had inflated grade point averages and other admissions data and that an internal investigation was being initiated.

Law School Transparency, a nonprofit started by two Vanderbilt University law students in 2009 that has gained a loyal following, called the ABA’s action “an enormous step” in helping law students make informed decisions.

Currently, law schools are required by the ABA to provide information about whether graduates are working in law firms, government, academia, judicial clerkships or other industries. Critics have said that law schools don’t differentiate between work that requires a law degree and any other work, including working as a waiter or a clerk at a convenience store. Some law schools also hire unemployed students around the time the law school needs to report its employment statistics, shift students from full- to part-time status to avoid having to report low grades or entrance examination scores and accept them late in the year after statistics have been reported, critics charge.

With the new requirements, law schools will have to say whether students are unemployed, in a job that requires a law degree or in a job funded by the university. If the employment status is unknown, that will be reported as well. Salary information will be reported in the guide on a state-by-state basis, and schools will have to report the top three states in which their graduates get work and the number working overseas. Graduates are not required to report employment information to their alma mater, and many do not, but an even smaller number report salaries.

J. Polden, dean of Santa Clara Law School and chair of the ABA’s Standards Review Committee, said the economy and the “concerns that have been very much highlighted by recent law graduates and others have made us focus on what more we need to do in improving the clarity and accuracy of the information.”

Still, he said in an interview, as far as he can tell, law schools are amenable to providing more information. “I think many of the law schools have been really caught up in a difficult situation. They’ve been reporting what the questionnaire asked them to report. They publish this information and the ABA reports this information and U.S. News asks for some of this information and they change it a bit so they can come up with one (ranking) number. There are flaws with what they were asked to provide.”

Beth Kransberger, associate dean for student affairs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law (TJSL), said the school has always reported its data “accurately, fully and completely.” TJSL is the target of a $50 million class-action lawsuit filed in May by Anna Alaburda, a 2008 honors graduate who can’t find a full-time job. The suit, which charges the school with unfair business practices, false advertising, fraud and misrepresentation, said Alaburda relied on U.S. News statistics that showed an 80 percent employment rate for its graduates. She “would not have enrolled at TJSL ― and consequently would not have incurred $150,000 in school loans ― but for TJSL’s false and misleading statements,” the suit said. It continued: Alaburda “is not optimistic that she will work as a full-time attorney at any point in her career.”

Kransberger said she doesn’t believe Alaburda or any other students “worth their salt” base their choice of a law school solely on the U.S. News rankings. “The costs and stakes are too great,” she said. She added that more detailed information than what is printed in U.S. News is available from the ABA and NALP. “This is an interesting time in the U.S. as we have a difficult economy and the issue of student loan debt is coming to the forefront. And we just unfortunately happen to be the school that (Brian Procel, the lawyer who filed the class-action suit on behalf of Alaburda) chose to turn his gunsights on.”

In the wake of the ABA action, Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, wrote in a blog that the new ABA standards “should result in a significant improvement in both the quality and quantity of post-J.D. employment data.” He said “there is a very strong likelihood that U.S. News will change the way it computes ‘at graduation’ and ‘nine months after graduation’ legal placement rates” because of the new requirements.