For prospective students, 2012 may be remembered as the year that law schools were first required to air their dirty - and clean - laundry regarding graduates' employment rates, offering detailed insight into the legal job market for new lawyers. In August, the American Bar Association adopted rules that will drastically change the way law schools report their recent graduates' work status and salaries.
The move answered a growing call for change from law graduates - who have recently filed lawsuits against three U.S. schools, including one in California - complaining that their alma maters inflated graduate employment numbers. Criticism of the old reporting requirements came from nearly all sides: students, the media, academics, and lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California.
The ABA will attempt to address the criticisms by asking schools in future questionnaires to provide details about the number of hours worked and the duration of jobs; disclose the number of their own graduates that the schools employ; and distinguish between JD-preferred and bar-passage-required legal jobs, as well as between professional and nonprofessional jobs. The association will also collect salary information on a state-by-state basis, presenting the data for the three states where the greatest number of each school's graduates work. Data will be posted on the ABA's website and published in an ABA report.
Law School Transparency, a student group calling on schools to more thoroughly report their graduates' employment status, criticized the ABA's decision to postpone some changes until 2012. The group's executive director and cofounder, Kyle P. McEntee, says omitting questions from this fall's questionnaire regarding how many 2010 graduates are holding nonlegal jobs will "help law schools hide essential information" during a particularly bad year for job placement. "[It] raises serious questions about whether there are powerful members within the ABA committed to protecting law schools' interests rather than those of consumers," he says.
The changes also caused a brief controversy with the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) when the ABA announced it would begin collecting its own data rather than relying on NALP, as it has in the past. "We have duties as the accreditation agency, so we need to be collecting this data directly and holding schools accountable for that data," says Hulett "Bucky" Askew, a consultant on legal education to the ABA.
U.S. News & World Report
is expected to include the ABA's new data in the calculation of its gold-standard school rankings. Although some schools may worry that the new information will lower their ranking or result in fewer applicants, Steven Smith, dean of California Western School of Law and former chairman of the questionnaire committee for the ABA's Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, says he thinks any effect would be small.
It remains unclear how the rule changes will affect three class actions alleging that law schools duped students into taking out huge student loans they had no realistic chance of paying off. But Gerald Thain, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, was skeptical that the schools could use compliance with the ABA's old reporting requirements as a defense.
The changes are relevant to the cases, says Thain, "but the next question is, Are the ABA rules sufficiently realistic in the consumer protection context?"