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The Problem with Law School Employment Data

Two students are working overtime to change the way law schools report their job placement data. And they were unwittingly supported by a hunger striker over the summer. But despite all the effort, change may be slow in coming.     

Dozens of bloggers over the past year have been accusing law schools of  “fraud and misrepresentation” over legal employment placement numbers. While most in legal education say these bloggers represent a “very unhappy minority,” few doubt there are problems.

“Prospective law students need better information about the legal marketplace,” said William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University Mauer School of Law. “Law school brochures are filled with glossy pictures of alumni at large law firms. Many law schools fail to provide the complete picture of what their graduates do and how much they earn.”

Last year two Vanderbilt law students started an effort — Law School Transparency — to collect more accurate employment data from law schools. The students, Patrick Lynch and Kyle McEntee, unveiled their plans to schools this summer. In August, another recent graduate, Zenovia Evans, waged a nearly month-long hunger strike to support their cause. While her strike was ridiculed, her action shows just how deep the anger and frustration has grown. 

The jury is out on whether Law School Transparency’s efforts will succeed. But most agree that it has added to an overall conversation among professors and deans on the matter.

In August, Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a wake-up call to his peers.  “Law professors know there is a problem,” Tamanaha said. “We see students. We know about the heavy debt burdens. I am just the guy who wrote about this one afternoon to prompt some collective conversation.”

The conversation may be making some progress. The American Bar Association accreditation committee has announced that as part of an overall review of its standards, it will look closely at employment data.

The data men

 Patrick Lynch first met Kyle McEntee when he was a first year at Vanderbilt Law School, and McEntee a prospective student. Lynch was helping the school reach out to prospective students through discussion boards when he realized there was salary discrepancy that made his school look less attractive.  Vanderbilt’s response was to release a list that provided actual employer names and locations for 90 percent of the class of 2007. McEntee then compared the data with National Association for Law Placement (NALP) figures for firm salaries and derived a more meaningful median salary for the law school.

Based on that, he chose to attend Vanderbilt, and once he got to campus, connected with Lynch. The two decided that every law school should follow a similar approach — which would give prospective students more accurate data.  They set up a non-profit organization, Law School Transparency, last year and sent a notice to law schools this summer.  “The employment standard is the problem and not the schools that comply with it,” said Lynch, who graduated in May and is now working in Chile doing public interest law. “The stats that the ABA requires are aggregate, which means you can’t tell if someone is working for a law firm as an attorney or a secretary.”

The two hope to gather data from schools that breaks out each graduate by position name, whether the bar is required for the position, full-time or part-time status, salary and whether the graduate worked on a journal. However, position and salary would not be attached, in an effort to protect privacy.  “People will have the opportunity to tap into our database and make their own analogies of the data,” McEntee said. “It will be a data information clearinghouse. One place where they can go to find out job information for law schools.”

Both Lynch and McEntee say the current problem is that salary data that schools advertise currently represents a small percent of graduates. Even Yale Law School’s salary information can be misleading.  “When you look at the school brochures, the fact that the [Yale] median only represents 41 percent of the class is either missing or in small fine print,” Lynch said. “For some schools, the median only represents 10 percent of the graduating class. So they can show a really high median because it really only represents the top 10 percent of their class.”

Lynch said he is hopeful that their project will help prospective law students make more educated decisions. But first they have to get law schools to provide the information, and that could prove a challenge.

Don Polden, dean at Santa Clara University School of Law and chair of the ABA standards review committee, met with McEntee this past summer and said they are taking a “constructive and meaningful” approach to the issue. But, he said, there are serious privacy issues.  “The privacy issues are really not unsubstantial, even, though only a small number of graduates identities could be revealed,” Polden said. “All you need is the fear of one graduate threatening a lawsuit to get the general counsel of the university to shy away from it.”

Lynch and McEntee, who have devoted thousands of hours to the project, will spend hundreds more this semester trying to explain and convince law schools to participate. Schools would submit data in February, so they have time and are trying to be patient.

But not every one wants to wait and see what will happen.

The hunger striker

 Zenovia Evans decided that she also wanted to make an impact on the employment data front.  “I realized that a lot of students are having problems based on my own personal observations,” said the 2009 graduate from Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. “This problem was just outrageous to me.”

She announced her hunger strike on Aug. 5, under the alias of Ethan Haines, and sent a letter to 10 of the nation’s top 100 law schools asking them to comply with Law School Transparency.  “The only thing that law school administrators will understand is something of this magnitude,” she said. “People are starving by choice here. Another blog just talking about the issue wasn’t going to do anything to help the cause.”

But Evans’ effort was ridiculed and called a hoax. She finally revealed her identify through an article in USA Today in hopes that schools would see she was a real person, really suffering.  “I used an alias because this could be dangerous to your career,” said Evans, who is a graduate student at the University of Denver and had contract employment at a law firm. “I wanted to be the representative similar to a class action. You select one person to represent everyone.”

She says her hunger strike was real. She lost 16 pounds and ended the strike on day 24 because her doctor told her she was at a very dangerous stage.  “Some days I was OK, other days it was really not so nice,” she said. “I had chest pains, a lot of problems with my legs and the abdominal pains were outrageous.”

Despite the criticism and the fact that no school responded, she says her strike was not in vain.  “The coverage I got for Law School Transparency was awesome,” she said. “I believed in this. I was being the change that I wanted to see in this world.”

Still, Law School Transparency made it clear that they had no connection to Evans.  “Neither of us are disgruntled with our law school,” McEntee said. “We just see a problem and want to fix it. We hope to see our standard adopted across the board, and we don’t care if it is the ABA or Law School Transparency that does that. We just want prospective students to have more information. If they know what they are getting into, they will be happier.”

Don Polden agrees that change is necessary.  “We don’t do a very good job of presenting data to our students and to the public,” said the Santa Clara dean. “We think the necessary data is already being collected. The issue is how it is presented.”  He said that law schools are more focused on the placement rate than they should be, because it is used by U.S. News & World Report in its annual rankings.  “It has become the Holy Grail and schools strive to improve that number,” he said. “But they lose focus on the detail.”  Polden says that his standards review committee, NALP and the committee that oversees the ABA questionnaire are all working on the issue. He expects committee reports by next summer. 

Brian Tamanaha, the law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said it is important that law schools recognize they can make a difference — and need to.  “Schools need to think about the future and discuss possible implications — look for solutions,” he said.

 This story was written by Jack Crittenden and published in the Winter 2011 issue of preLaw Magazine.   Click here for the digital edition of the Winter 2011 issue or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school.

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