Friday, July 29, 2011

Why The ABA Accreditation Committee Won't Lead - Part 2 - The Fix

Hmmm.  In this previous post, I commented on the internal conflict in the ABA Accreditation Committee.  The Committee has traditionally had a very law school-friendly membership and has previously seemed to act in the best interests of the law schools, rather than the students.  Although I was aware that some changes to improve transparency had been proposed to the Committee, the previous response of the Committee to such efforts led me to believe that they would be mostly ignored - to the detriment of students attempting to rationally evaluate the value proposition for going to law school.

However, I have to give credit where credit is due.  Perhaps due to one or more of: 1) a growing realization of the issue, 2) increased coverage in the popular press and "scamblogs", 3) a growing realization that students lives were being crushed, 4) a desire to avoid conflict, or a combination of one or more of these, the Committee announced in a press release on Wednesday that they have improved many important changes in their law school questionnaire.  Read on to see some of the changes and the potential impact.

Here's a quote from their press release with certain sections highlighted.
As to job data, the 2011 Annual Questionnaire will request from law schools information on their graduates’ employment status, employment types and employment locations. It will also request
additional and new information on whether a graduate’s employment is long-term or short-term. Finally, it will ask how many, if any, positions held by their graduates are funded by the law school or university.
New data will also be collected in the spring of 2012 (soon after February 15, 2012, the traditional nine-month-after-graduation date), for the graduating class of 2011, including whether the graduate’s job is part-time or full-time; whether the job requires bar passage; whether a J.D. is preferred for the job; whether the job is in another profession; and whether the job is a nonprofessional one. Definitions for these categories will be developed this coming fall. However, rather than wait until August 2012 to collect these new data, our plan is to collect those data from the schools soon after February 15, 2012 and display the data on our website in the late spring/early summer.
My feel is that this represents appreciable progress.  It's not perfect, but it is a substantial move in the right direction.  The new question go right to the heart of several "scams" that law schools have been using to over-inflate their hiring information.  For example, in the first highlighted section, some law schools have been reporting part-time work as "employed" in their "employed at graduation rate" without breaking out the statistics.  That's pretty misleading unless you break it out.  (One thing that I would like to see, that may be beyond the scope of the committee, it that law schools only be allowed to report "employed at graduation" if they actually break out the statistics.)

The next highlighted sections go to another recent scam by the law schools to inflate their hiring numbers - the law school just creates some short-term positions and "employs" otherwise unemployed grads.  These students are then reported as "employed at graduation".  Obviously, having to break out that number will lessen the manipulation and give potential law students a greater understanding of the financial realities of going to law school.  I like that the questionnaire mentions employment by either the law school or the university - one draft proposal that I saw only addressed the law school, which I thought left a gaping loophole of potential university employment (especially considering that universities typically divert millions from their law schools.)

The last highlighted section seems like a good efforts, but will actually be dependent on the definitions developed this fall for "professional".  For example, under previous law school reporting, if a law student was unable to find a job as a lawyer and instead took up, say, pole dancing - the law school would still report that person as "employed at graduation."  That's pretty misleading.  However, now such a job would be (presumably) reported as "non-professional", which would likely give further transparency - which is good.

All of the above steps are moving in the right direction.  However, there are significant problems to overcome.  Some of these include:
1) Selective reporting - law schools typically only report a small percentage of their hiring results - and have a direct financial interest in not reporting bad results.
2) Lack of auditing - Law schools have a direct financial interest in fudging the numbers and manipulating the process.  However, there is a point where the stretching just becomes too much.  In the real world, we lessen this monkey business by periodic audits - or at least the threat of audits.  However, that's not in place for law schools at this time.
3) Irresponsible advertising by law schools - even if the law school admits in its reported numbers to the ABA or NALP that only 20% of its graduating class found work as a full-time lawyer, if they then turn around and advertise to law students that their "employed at graduation rate is 95%!!!!", then they are irresponsibly creating a false impression in the eyes of their potential consumer.  (Also, based on the number of blogs pointing this out, it would be ridiculous to think that they can claim that they were unaware of it.)  The two facts of 20% employed as graduation as full-time lawyers and 95% employment rate at graduation are not mutually exclusive when you consider the part-time and non-lawyer jobs, for example.  However, most potential consumers assume that the 95% employment means that 95% find jobs as lawyers - which is just wrong.

Here are some aspects that I would suggest to build on the present progress and address some of the concerns above:
1) Require 100% reporting of employment results from law schools - Really, is that so hard?  If you figure an average class size of 300, the law school could set up a survey and track responses - and there are even free survey software available online.  For those e-mail addresses not responding, the Career Services Office could follow up with a reminder and eventually a phone call.  The law school would probably get 90+% compliance right off the bat.  If not, make it a requirement to receive the diploma.  It's really not too much to ask that law students click a couple of e-mail links to get their diplomas.  It also really gives accurate data about hiring outcomes by eliminating the law school's ability to do selective reporting.  Further, 100% reporting should be considered a requirement in the law school accreditation process.
2) Auditing - The ABA or NALP should implement randomized periodic reporting auditing for law schools.  Possibly with some sanctions if funny business is discovered.
3) Computerized reporting directly to ABA or NALP - do we even need to keep the law schools around as a conduit at all?  Passing the results through the law school just gives an opportunity for mischief - and they have a direct financial incentive to do such mischief.  Instead, the ABA or NALP can collect an e-mail list from the law school of all law students, and mail them links to their own employment survey.  Confirmation of response may then be relayed to the law school.  Response can still be required for graduation and law school accreditation.
4) Require law schools to clearly advertise the unvarnished truth - Require that when law schools advertise hiring results, they must advertise as their "Employment Rate" ONLY full-time, professional, non-temporary, etc., employment as a lawyer.  That is, the REAL law jobs. They can report the non-professionals as "Non-Professional Employment After Graduation" and the temporaries as "Temporary Employment At Graduation" in separate columns if they want.  However, they can't add those together to project an artificial number.  That is, potential law students expect "Employment Rate At Graduation" to be only those employed as full-time, professional, non-temporary, non-short term lawyers - ONLY those - so that's what the "Employment Rate At Graduation" should be.  Law schools should no longer be able to mislead potential students by reporting a hiring statistic that they 1) know that law students are not correctly understanding, 2) presents an unrealistic vision of hiring outcomes, and 3) are often purposely abusing when they talk to law students in order to convince them to go to law school.

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