New Scrutiny on Law School Data

Lawyers announce plans to sue 15 institutions, charging that they inflate statistics about job placement rates.
October 6, 2011

A legal team on Wednesday announced plans to sue 15 law schools, charging them with misleading applicants about their job prospects upon graduation. These suits, building on a suit filed in August against two other law schools, signal a rapid expansion of a push to draw attention to the tough job market facing new lawyers, and to allegations that law schools aren't being honest about how their graduates are faring in that job market.

The lawyers released only some of the information they have gathered about the law schools. But the allegations center on the idea that law schools have reported high employment rates by including part-time work, non-permanent work and jobs that do not require a J.D. The people behind the suit say that, by counting these graduates as employed, the law schools gave prospective students an unfairly rosy picture of their potential for lucrative, post-graduation employment.

Officials of many of the law schools named Wednesday said that they didn't know anything about the potential suit, and so could not comment. But officials in several legal education organizations said that the planned suits added to the considerable pressure law schools are facing over admitting students who must borrow significant sums to attend -- only to find limited job opportunities when they graduate.

Even top law schools (not named as targets of this suit) are facing scrutiny on this issue -- this week U.S. News & World Report wrote about how some law graduates of the University of Texas at Austin are working in jobs such as cartoonist, service dog walker and wind farm employee.

At a news conference to announce the new suit, lawyers said that the 15 law schools were selected on the basis of alumni complaints, press reports and their locations in parts of the country reporting saturated legal markets. All have also reported placement rates in the 90s in recent years, even amid a tight economy.

Among the law schools are Albany Law School, Chicago-Kent College of Law, DePaul University, Pace University, Southwestern Law School and Villanova University. (The full list may be found here.)

David Anziska, one of the lawyers suing, used Pace Law as an example. He showed documents from Pace saying that it had a 94 percent placement rate. But in reporting data for the Class of 2010 -- data reported after law schools started getting sued over job placement, and some are believed to have started releasing more data -- Anziska noted that Pace started including significant details that he said were previously lacking. While the percentage employed remained high, once Pace started reporting those employed in full-time vs. part-time work, he said that it was clear that only just over half were employed full-time. Likewise, a good share of those employed appeared to be in positions for which a J.D. is not needed.

Law schools, he said, are now afraid of being sued, so they are becoming more forthcoming about their data. But these data show, Anziska said, that the law schools were not being forthcoming before. "I believe nearly every law school in the country will be sued before long," he said.

A spokeswoman for Pace first said she did not know of the suit. After being sent the news release, she did not respond to further questions.

The ever-growing blog world devoted to tracking law school placement rates (and raising questions about them) responded with barbs to the data released by the group preparing the lawsuits. At law school after law school, large percentages of students in recent classes have reported being unemployed or underemployed, leaving many people stunned that these law schools (not generally considered top-tier) were reporting 90-plus percent placement rates.

"Can you believe the employment numbers on that list of defendants? I know that this is nothing we didn't already know, but seeing that list of lower ranked schools all reporting 90 percent or more employment just rams home what a farce the legal academy has become," said one comment on the blog Inside the Law School Scam.

A young nonprofit group founded by recent law graduates -- Law School Transparency -- is using the threatened lawsuit to bolster its argument that law schools regularly fail to provide an accurate picture of the job market. The group has been urging (with only limited success to date) all law schools to release highly detailed information on what happens to graduates, so prospective students can make informed decisions.

James G. Leipold, executive director of NALP: The Association for Legal Career Professionals (which gathers law placement data for law schools), said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the case. But he said it was possible that law schools were (accurately) reporting generally high placement rates in some cases where many law graduates are not working in the jobs for which they were trained.

"Employment is a very binary thing. One is employed or not. An employment rate measures just that," he said. While NALP collects detailed information on where graduates are employed, it releases that information only in aggregate, giving institutions confidential reports on their graduates. As a membership organization, Leipold said that was all his organization was authorized to do.

He said that employment rates "are not fraudulent," but are "not enough" to tell if graduates are in jobs for which they needed to go to law school.

Similarly, he said that average salary figures for many law schools are misleading -- even if they are accurate. He said that most law schools have one cluster of graduates who work in large, prominent law firms at high salaries. Then there is everyone else. "You have two peaks [of salary clumps] and a great valley between them," he said.

Asked whether it is ethical for law schools to report average salaries, and total employment rates, rather than the nuanced figures that he said would be needed to understand job placement records, Leipold said, "I'm not going to comment on that." But he said that, "in general, consumers of legal education have been way underinformed on the decisions they are making."

The various issues raised by Leipold are similar to those cited by the Law School Transparency project in support of seeking to have law schools report much more granular information than they do now. By reporting on what happens to each graduate (without naming specific graduates), law schools would give a full picture.

Law schools, however, have not rushed to embrace the request for more detail.

Susan Westerberg Prager, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said in an interview Wednesday that she had not studied the proposal of the Law School Transparency group enough to know whether it was a good one.

"It certainly is important that we try to work toward having fairly reported information out there," she said. "I think that one of the big issues here is how do we build frameworks that people can rely on and that are fair ones."

Prager said that much of the anger that is prompting the lawsuits is a result of the bad economy. "We are in a very dramatic and sustained downturn," she said.

While Prager said she can understand the frustration of some recent graduates, she said that she worried that the criticisms being made imply that only full-time work for a law firm was being viewed as an appropriate outcome of a law school education.

"Some people employed part-time may have personal circumstances, such as having a child," she said. Others may find a law degree an asset for careers in government, business or elsewhere, she said. Prager said she objected to the idea that "unless your job is in a law practice, it's not valuable."

Prager stressed that law school leaders want their institutions to be honest with potential applicants about the job market and about all aspects of legal education. "We are very concerned about the need for institutions like ours to reinforce the ethical frameworks that are involved here," she said.


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