Kyle McEntee wasn’t trying to take on the legal establishment when he first filled an Excel spreadsheet with data about how law school graduates fared in the job market. He just wanted a way to decide where to pursue his legal education.
But four years later, McEntee’s project has snowballed into an obsession that has made him a leading voice warning of a legal education bubble in which law students pay an average of about $200,000 for schooling before struggling to find a scarce law firm job to pay off their loans.
McEntee is now a year out of Vanderbilt Law School-for which he owes $167,000-and finishing a fellowship with the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta. As he looks for permanent employment, he’ll continue to run the nonprofit he co-founded, Law School Transparency.
Its goal is to pop the law school bubble by publishing as much information as possible about skyrocketing tuition expenses alongside difficult employment prospects. Armed with data about the real value of their educations, students will make wiser choices about their higher education, and law schools will have to change their ways, he said.
“There’s still lines of students wanting to come to law school, maybe because they’re not informed, maybe because they think they’re special snowflakes who are going to succeed beyond the odds,” said McEntee. “Even the people who do get jobs have too much debt to justify the cost and live a fulfilling life.”
Law School Transparency quickly shook the legal establishment, pressuring the American Bar Association to require law schools to reveal more information about their educational outcomes and bringing to light the disparity between costs and rewards, said Bill Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law who has urged the ABA to improve its school assessments.
“It’s going to facilitate a shakeout in legal education … and probably put some schools out of business,” Henderson said. “It’s a great story of will and noise and organization, and he did it the right way.”
McEntee’s mission started in March 2008, when he was trying to decide between attending law school at Vanderbilt or Cornell. Unlike Cornell, Vanderbilt published details about its recent graduates’ employers and locations, which McEntee typed into a spreadsheet and posted on an Internet message board where other prospective law students could share the information and make more informed choices about where to enroll.
Once McEntee was a first-year law student, he heard from his classmates about how useful his spreadsheet was. He and a second-year Vanderbilt student, Patrick Lynch, launched the Law School Transparency website in January 2009 with data from Vanderbilt and Duke, which also volunteered some of its employment numbers. From there, McEntee gathered information from more and more schools, and his hobby turned into a passion.
Law School Transparency, which incorporated as a nonprofit organization in July 2009, pushed the ABA and law schools to reveal more about graduates’ job prospects and debt loads.
The site has drawn critics, including Mercer University School of Law Dean Gary Simson. He takes issue with the organization’s effort to go beyond the ABA’s data collection requirements without any accountability for its methodology.
Simson doesn’t particularly like Law School Transparency’s recently released scores of how individual law schools’ graduates fared. The site doesn’t count graduates who go into solo practice as having permanent employment; McEntee argues that solo practice isn’t sustainable employment for rookie lawyers.
Simson said that formula isn’t fair to schools like Mercer that don’t emphasize placing students with big firms. Mercer received a 67.1 percent employment score, 49th nationally, from the site.
“You have a bunch of people looking at numbers and making some pretty arbitrary judgments about what’s real and what’s not,” Simson said. “There’s a lot of room for transparency to do good, but in a way, this just gives it a bad name. … I don’t think they understand the implications of doing what they’re doing without the assistance of law schools.”
What McEntee did on his website was combine numbers from the American Bar Association, U.S. News & World Report, school websites and National Association for Law Placement to create what he said is a clear picture of what each program has to offer. He reported the number of graduates who find full-time law jobs, continue their education, accept school-funded jobs, or take employment outside of their field, as well as the projected cost of a legal education.
Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean David Yellen said McEntee’s site had been an important factor in “a sea change in the expectation of transparency in employment data in the last couple of years.”
“Today people’s attitudes to disclose employment data hardly met with any opposition in the end, where five years ago, it would’ve been a nonstarter,” added Yellen, a member of the ABA’s Standards Review Committee.
The ABA is now taking public comment on a proposal revising its Standard 509, which would require law schools to post on their websites information about how many graduates were hired and in what kinds of jobs, he said.
Scott Norberg, deputy consultant on legal education for the ABA, said the ABA has benefited from McEntee’s participation. He said the site and the ABA have “an overlapping interest in having law schools report complete and accurate data that gives prospective law students a full and accurate picture of their employment prospects.”
But Norberg said there is a key difference between the efforts of the ABA and Law School Transparency: the ABA is an accrediting body that doesn’t rate schools or compare them to each other.
Law School Transparency remains a small organization, with three permanent volunteer staff members, about five sporadic volunteers, an advisory board and only $1,500 in the bank from donations.
McEntee wants to build on his start, saying he sees vast structural problems with the nation’s legal institutions that won’t be fixed by disclosure alone.
Students still find easy access to “Monopoly money” in the form of federal student loans, which saddle them with debt that can take decades to pay off, he said. Even many of the brightest graduates find themselves unemployed in a severe job market. Law schools continue to rely on their rankings in U.S. News & World Report, which emphasizes factors such as per-student spending and teacher-to-student ratios that drive up costs, he added.
Dreams of making partner and sharing millions of dollars in firm profits are out of reach for most students, who instead face years of crushing debt and sometimes can’t even find a job in the legal profession, he said.
“I don’t begrudge anyone for making a lot of money. That’s good for them, but it’s not relevant to the discussion of how we price a legal education,” McEntee said. “I don’t consider $200,000 in debt access to education. It’s difficult to consider getting married with this kind of debt. It’s difficult to consider moving jobs with this kind of debt.”
McEntee said he’d like to see the federal government reduce how much it loans to law students, forcing schools to lower their tuition if they’re going to continue attracting students.
Change is coming fast, thanks to Law School Transparency’s work, said University of Colorado Law School professor Paul Campos, an advocate for more openness.
“If prospective law students had accurate information about the net present value of a law degree, the majority of those people going to law school right now wouldn’t go. There’s no way of disputing that,” Campos said. “The thing about bubbles is they tend to pop relatively quickly. If there was some way of shorting legal academia, that would be a wise investment.”