Elephant in the Room

January 5, 2012

When the Association of American Law Schools gathers in Washington today for a three-day conference, many big and timely issues will be up for discussion. Presentations will address the financial crisis, the mortgage crisis, the legal fallout of the BP oil spill and, perhaps inevitably, Occupy Wall Street.

But relatively few sessions address a crisis making headlines that falls much closer to home for faculty and administrators from the association’s more than 160 member schools: the increasingly prominent questions about transparency, job placement rates and "value" in American legal education, and the attendant concern that law schools could be next (after the "vocational" and for-profit programs subject to the U.S. government's new "gainful employment" rules) in line for federal scrutiny and regulation.

The event’s organizers say that those issues will doubtless be discussed at the conference, although the nature of planning such gatherings -- many sessions are proposed almost a year in advance -- makes it more difficult to highlight up-to-the-minute issues. And a workshop today will address “the future of the legal profession and legal education,” including sessions on innovations in teaching and challenges and changes to law school economics.

Still, few presentations appear to address a central, rising concern in the past year: the amount of debt that law school students accumulate, and their difficulty finding jobs as lawyers to help them pay it off. Legal hiring has contracted during the recession, but the number of students attending law school has not diminished. The central complaint has been that law schools provide insufficient or even misleading data on students’ employment outcomes, failing to separate full-time and part-time work or not taking into account whether graduates are using their degrees.

In several high-profile class action suits, law school graduates, as well as their own lawyers, have argued that the result is a kind of false advertising that leads prospective students to continue pouring into law schools and accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. So far, the suits have focused on law schools generally considered less prestigious, but even top law schools have responded, with some -- including most recently New York University and the University of Virginia -- releasing more complete employment data than they have in the past. The American Bar Association has said it will require schools to provide more detail in jobs reports as well.

A growing number of blogs have joined the fray, including "Inside the Law School Scam," written by a University of Colorado law professor who wrote in a recent post that "at present ABA law schools are pumping out two graduates for every available legal job, and that the cost of acquiring what jobs there are has gotten far too high. No amount of pedagogical reform by itself is going to change that." And the concern has risen to high levels, including The New York Times, which has explored the plight of recent law graduates in a series of articles. "American legal education is in crisis," the paper editorialized in November.

Among observers, there are concerns that this could lead to "gainful employment" rules for law schools. Two senators, Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, have requested information on law school data. The next step could be hearings, such as those held in the Education Committee on for-profit education.

But few sessions at the law school conference reflect this concern. In descriptions that run for pages, none mention student debt or employment outcomes. Only a very few address the changes in legal education, focusing instead on changes in the profession and long-term challenges for law schools (such as those related to alumni giving).

“It really makes you wonder how serious they are, how introspective they’re actually being,” said Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency, a new nonprofit group that urges law schools to release better figures on job placement and other student outcomes.

Those sessions that do focus on changing law schools seem to be “tinkering,” McEntee said. “The one critical question is how can we reduce the cost of educating lawyers.”

One reason for the disparity is that conferences are planned far in advance, with some sessions proposed almost a year before the faculty and administrators convene, said Susan Westerberg Prager, the association’s executive director. Many sessions also reflect faculty members’ interests in specific areas of law, such as tax or international law, rather than questions facing law schools as a whole.

Although the association does add sessions on “hot topics,” including sessions this year on Libya and the Occupy Wall Street protests, those are determined by which proposals are submitted, and there was not a strong proposal for a session on the legal education crisis, Prager said.

“Those programs where it’s very natural and logical to come to these topics will be talking about some of them, undoubtedly finding ways to do that even though the program description doesn’t include it,” she said.

One such program is the opening session for a daylong workshop on institutional advancement. “Longstanding patterns of lawyer employment have been interrupted not only by the slowdown in economic activity, but also by the globalization of the legal services industry, the growth of both domestic and offshore legal process outsourcers, and the accelerated commoditization of certain kinds of legal work through advances in technology,” the description reads, going on to promise a focus on the entry-level job market.

Few other sessions reach that level of specificity. But Prager and Linda Jellum, the association’s associate director, also said the conference will take a broader view of the issues than just the questions surrounding transparency and job placement.

“We’re looking at our profession from a much longer-term perspective and how are we going to best equip our students, and that involves a number of various things,” Jellum said. “We’re interested, but we don’t see it in such a narrow aspect.”

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