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Senator urges more transparency on law school employment data

Diana Smith, Staff Writer//April 8, 2011

Senator urges more transparency on law school employment data

Diana Smith, Staff Writer//April 8, 2011

By DIANA SMITH, Staff Writer

[email protected]

 

A high-profile voice has joined the call for the American Bar Association to change its rules for how law schools report employment and salary data to prospective students – a push for transparency that North Carolina educators welcome, especially given the increasing recognition that schools nationwide are fudging statistics to elevate their rankings.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sent a letter to ABA President Stephen Zack on March 31 seeking a “detailed summary” of the organization’s plans to implement reforms.

The ABA is under fire for loose reporting requirements that make it easy for law schools to falsify their placement and salary statistics, which may mislead consumers to apply to schools they might otherwise have avoided.

“There’s a concern that the numbers posted may not always present a full picture that would allow students to make informed decisions with respect to where, and when, and if they go to law school,” said Raymond Pierce, dean of the N.C. Central University School of Law.

Boxer spokesman Zachary Coile did not say whether a specific incident prompted the senator to get involved, just that the letter came “out of concern” for law students who will graduate with high debt and a tighter job market than their predecessors. 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Keith Faulkner, vice dean for administration at Campbell University’s law school in Raleigh. He also serves on the ABA’s Questionnaire Committee, which is coming up with proposed changes to what type of data must be supplied by schools.  

“It’s really important to understand how much it is in law schools’ benefit to have high employment data reporting,” Faulkner said. “The U.S. News & World Report annual rankings are a huge source of information for potential law students, and fluffing the numbers with your employment data can have astronomical effects on where you’re ranked.”

Indeed, the University of North Carolina’s law dean, Jack Boger, said he found the number of schools reporting over 95 percent placement rates in the most recent U.S. News rankings to be “stunning” given the disintegration of legal jobs during the recession.

“I don’t know how they’re doing that in a legal market where there has been 15,000 big firm jobs lost,” Boger said. “We did not report those numbers.”

Thirteen of the nation’s 190 ABA-accredited law schools reported hiring rates of more than 95 percent nine months after graduation in the 2011 U.S. News rankings, including No. 11-ranked Duke University in Durham. UNC, at No. 30, reported a 90.7 percent employment rate (see chart). 

David Yellen, who chairs the ABA’s Standard 509 consumer information subcommittee, said he is reluctant to say that law schools are intentionally misleading students.

“Other people feel differently,” he said.

In some cases, the schools are admitting it themselves.

In February, Villanova Law School officials announced that the school “knowingly reported” inaccurate data to the ABA related to LSAT scores and students’ undergrad GPAs in years prior to 2010. It still isn’t clear whether the inaccuracies were reported in other areas, but an audit is in its final stages, said spokesman Jonathan Gust.

Currently, Standard 509 requires schools to publish “basic consumer information,” but schools “appear to disclose employment rates using different methodologies,” according to a March 14 memorandum written by Yellen.

That means a school might include grads who are working in campus positions or in non-legal fields among its employed, which would inflate the school’s placement rate.

“It’s one area that law schools, to be candid, can easily manipulate,” said Melissa Essary, Campbell’s law dean. “And there’s no auditing that occurs, so no one is looking to see what kind of jobs those really are, or whether they’re real jobs. I was at a national deans’ conference about six weeks ago where someone said, ‘Those of you who are telling the truth are being punished,’ and that’s correct.”

Similar fluffing happens when schools report salaries only for a small number of respondents, which skews the data in favor of those earning more.

“Schools that do that without saying how many students that salary data is based upon are certainly being lazy, and it certainly has a misleading effect,” Yellen said. “Whether they have a misleading intent, I’ll leave others to judge.”

Proposed changes, which were presented to the ABA Standards Review Committee on April 2, would disaggregate employment information into more detailed categories, require schools to report the number of students whose job status is unknown and break down the number of graduates reporting salaries.

But Essary is concerned that may not be enough to make a difference when it comes to rankings. 

“Even if the ABA does its work and comes up with a good reporting system for placement data, that is no guarantee that will transpose on to how U.S. News reports it. In other words, they could just add it all back together again,” she said. “We can’t control what a magazine does.”

Still, “even if it hurts us or helps us, I prefer the truth,” she added.  

 

 

2011 Employment rankings

Here’s how North Carolina law schools fared in the employment placement rankings in 2011, according to U.S. News & World Report. Data for the Charlotte School of Law and Elon University School of Law were unavailable because they are not fully accredited by the ABA yet.

 

Percent of grads known to be employed
Nine months after graduation

Duke: 95.4%

UNC: 90.7%

Wake Forest: 90.1% 

Campbell: 89.7%

N.C. Central: 57.7%

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