NEW YORK, Dec 6 (Reuters) – The American Bar Association on Saturday approved a comprehensive questionnaire that will ask law schools to provide substantially more detailed information on where, how — and in some cases, if — their recent graduates are employed.
The questionnaire, accepted by the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar at its final 2011 meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was long sought by critics of the ABA, who say the new data could dramatically shift the public’s view of how healthy the legal job market is for law school graduates.
“Prospective students will now have the data they need to make an informed decision about attending law school,” said Douglas Rush, a former lawyer and professor of education at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Some students may look at the numbers and decide it’s not worth the investment.”
Before 2010, the ABA asked law schools to report only whether or not their graduates were employed nine months after graduation. The data did not specify what types of jobs graduates landed, or whether they were in the legal profession at all. As a result, many law schools, especially those in the third and fourth tiers, have been reporting high percentages of job placement even as firms of all sizes cut back on entry-level attorney positions.
The new survey asks whether a graduate’s job is a short-term one funded by the university, whether preference is given to candidates who have earned a law degree, and whether the job requires passage of the bar exam. The data, which will be published in the ABA’s annual law-school guide, could show that at many mid-tier schools, as few as half of graduates are working at full-time jobs that require bar exam passage within nine months of graduation, Rush said.
“It’s going to open some eyes,” he said. “There will be some sticker shock.”
‘RESORTING TO HALF MEASURES’
The changes come in the wake of persistent pressure from critics — including three U.S. Senators — who have argued that current requirements allow law schools to report vague and misleading employment information that paints a too-rosy picture of the legal job market.
In an October letter to ABA president William Robinson III, Senator Barbara Boxer of California accused the association of “resorting to half measures” regarding the gathering job-placement data, instead of “tackling a major problem head-on.”
Boxer cited research by Brian Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri, concluding that at least 30 law schools sent no more than half of their 2009 graduates into jobs that required a law degree. Yet most law schools reported that nearly all their graduates were employed shortly after graduation. The disconnect is “very troubling,” Boxer wrote.
Along with Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Boxer called on the U.S. Department of Education to bring additional oversight to law school job-data reporting.
Law-school graduates are also pushing for more information. In some instances, graduates have sued their schools for tuition refunds based on allegations of fraud. In two lawsuits filed last August, graduates from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan and New York Law School sued their alma maters for allegedly violating state consumer-protection laws.
The complaints claim that the law schools misrepresent graduates’ employment prospects by counting those who have only secured part time or temporary jobs as fully employed.
“Forking over nearly $150,000 in tuition payments is a terrible investment which makes little economic sense and, most likely, will never pay off,” said the complaint in the suit against New York Law School.
‘HARD TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS’
Arthur R. Gaudio, dean of Law Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts, and chair of the questionnaire committee, said that the need for more precise and useful data is greater than ever. “Especially with the economic situation facing the legal profession, collecting better information has become more and more important,” Gaudio said. “It’s the appropriate thing to do.”
But Richard Revesz, dean of New York University School of Law, said that additional questions will be “burdensome” for law schools to answer. He also noted that new categories such as “J.D. advantage” — which refers to legal jobs that call for a law degree, or non-law positions for which a law degree can be helpful — can be ambiguous because it is not always clear which individuals benefit from having a law degree when working outside the legal profession.
Revesz acknowledged, however, that the ABA is under pressure. “I have sympathy for them,” he said. “It’s hard to ask the right questions.”
Meanwhile, the ABA’s Standards Review Committee — which revises law-school accreditation rules — is crafting a proposal that details what job-placement information a school will be required to post on its own website. That proposal has not yet been finalized, but the ABA’s legal-education section has already instituted some changes. For example, law schools now must submit job-placement data directly to the ABA’s legal-education section. Previously, schools sent their data to the National Association for Law Placement, or NALP, which then gave it to the ABA.
‘PEOPLE ARE TERRIFIED’
Tamanaha at Washington University called the new questionnaire “a positive step forward.” But he and other legal-education specialists criticized the ABA for not requiring the same degree of reporting from law schools for the 2010 graduating class. The questionnaire for that class asked more detailed information than in the past — including whether a graduate’s job is funded by the university — but it did not ask whether the graduate’s work is full time or part-time and whether it requires a law degree, or if a degree is preferred for that position.
According to Gaudio, those questions were left off because committee members couldn’t agree on how best to phrase them in time for data collection. But critics suspect the omission of those questions was intentional because the jobs picture for 2010 graduates was particularly bleak: According to NALP, the class of 2010 had the lowest overall employment rate since 1996. Nine months after graduation, 68 percent of 2010 graduates for whom employment status was reported had secured jobs for which bar passage is required.
“There is no possible justification for” asking schools for less data on 2010 graduates, said University of Colorado Law professor Paul Campos, an outspoken critic of the ABA’s legal education section. “People are terrified, and they don’t want to know what the real data looks like.”
Tamanaha said he is also concerned that the ABA might not present job-placement data in a clear, consumer-friendly way. The data in the annual ABA guide is not well presented, he said, and simply adding more data could muddle the picture. Tamanaha suggested the ABA highlight the percentage of graduates who got jobs as lawyers, and what proportion are working part-time versus full-time.
“My biggest concern is that the job data charts … will provide too much information in a way that conceals what is important,” he said.
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