Lots of news broke out about legal education during the past year. Unfortunately for law schools, much of it was bad. Here are the top 10 law school stories of 2011.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that law schools feel pressure to admit students with good grades and high scores on the Law School Admission Test, since those metrics count heavily toward their U.S. News & World Report ranking. That pressure got the better of some administrators at Villanova University School of Law, who admitted in February to goosing the numbers reported to the American Bar Association and U.S. News for years. (Those involved, including a former dean, resigned or were fired). The University of Illinois College of Law was next; an investigation launched in August revealed that the school’s admissions dean had reported falsely high credentials for incoming students since 2005. The Law School Admission Council — which maintains data on applicant tests scores and grades — now is considering whether to audit the figures law schools report, and the ABA is mulling tougher penalties for schools that lie.
Instead of asking alumni for money, maybe law schools should ask graduates to pledge not to sue them. 2011 will go down as the year law students got litigious — at least against their alma maters. An underemployed graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law got the ball rolling in May, when she filed suit alleging the school committed fraud by misrepresenting its employment statistics. In August, alumni sued both New York Law School and Thomas M. Cooley Law School, raising similar claims. Cooley fought back with its own defamation suit against the plaintiffs’ lawyers as well as a series of anonymous Internet commentors who had blasted the school online. This could be the first sign of a litigation wave. The lawyers involved in the New York Law School and Cooley cases are looking for plaintiffs for class actions against another 15 schools.
Forget the fight over the debt ceiling or high unemployment. A number of U.S. senators this year zeroed in on the American Bar Association’s oversight of law schools — or what they apparently see as a lack thereof. For months, senators including Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) fired off letters to the ABA expressing concern over the accuracy of the job information law schools release and requesting detailed information about student loan defaults, accreditation policies and more. The ABA insisted that it shares those concerns, but more often than not the senators were unsatisfied with its responses. Boxer and Coburn in October asked the U.S. Department of Education to compile a decade’s worth of law school data. Rumors have been swirling that the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold hearings on law schools next year. Stay tuned.
It was bound to happen. Applications to American Bar Association-accredited law schools declined by 10 percent in 2011 after increasing during each of the previous two years as recent college graduates sought to ride out the dismal job market in law school.
The number of people taking the Law School Admission Test during the 2010-11 cycle also declined by 10 percent — a huge reversal from the previous year, when that figure increased by 13 percent. It seemed that all the grim news about rising tuition and a weak legal job market finally sank in with some would-be law students. The National Association for Law Placement reported that the class of 2010 “faced the worst job market since the mid-1990s,” noting that their 87.6 percent employment rate was the lowest since 1997. Even worse, only 68.4 percent of those recent graduates were in jobs that required bar passage.
The movement to improve law school consumer information started when the legal job market dried up several years ago, but really hit its stride during 2011. Law School Transparency — a nonprofit founded by two Vanderbilt University Law School graduates — lobbied individual schools and the American Bar Association to improve the reporting of job and salary data, and saw results.
A few schools, including the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, increased the amount of job information available on their Web sites. The ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar voted in December to beef up the graduate employment section of the annual questionnaire that law schools must fill out. From now on, schools will have to ‘fess up when they put recent graduates on the payroll and call them “employed.” Schools also will have to stipulate whether graduates are in long-term or short-term jobs. More changes could be on the way in 2012.
The U.S. News & World Report law school rankings looked a little different when they came out in March. Gone were the third and fourth tiers that divided the bottom half of American Bar Association-accredited law schools into two groups, listed alphabetically but unranked. Instead, U.S. News extended its numerical rankings to the top 143 schools, effectively eliminating what had been known as the third tier. The bottom 25 percent of schools continue to be unranked in what is now called the second tier.
“We think the public finds numerical ranking more understandable,” said Robert Morse, the magazine’s director of data research.
The change was a net positive for previously unranked schools that ended up near the top 100, including the University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law and Saint Louis University School of Law. However, fans of the popular law school putdown, “third-tier toilet,” or TTT, were said to be devastated.
Plenty of law deans quietly left their posts on schedule in 2011. Then there were a few who went out with — shall we say? — a bang. Popular University of Baltimore School of Law Dean Phillip Closius was canned in July after fighting to retain a larger share of law student tuition for the law school. University of Texas School of Law Dean Larry Sager was forced out in December — six months before his planned departure — after faculty members complained about unequal compensation. (Sager explained that he’d used loans and raises to recruit and retain top faculty talent and keep them out of the clutches of well-funded Harvard and Yale.) Robert Ward, dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Law – Dartmouth, resigned unexpectedly in October amid reports that he had made personal purchases on a state-issued credit card. Ward cited poor health.
Law school is expensive and some law graduates struggle to repay their loans. Not all law students will retain their merit-based scholarships. Law school curricula center on theory rather than practical skills. None of this was news in the legal world, but a series of front-page articles by David Segal of The New York Times brought long-standing critiques of legal education to a wider audience. This, in turn, prompted handwringing by law professors and administrators, who alternately acknowledged problems identified by the Times and dismissed the coverage as overly simplistic and negative. Legal academics were particularly galled by a Nov. 19 piece that painted them as ivory tower-dwelling chin strokers who neglect to teach their students how to practice law.
Slowly but surely, the American Bar Association is changing its process for accrediting law schools. A review committee discussed proposals including elimination of what many see as a venerable requirement that law schools protect tenure — an idea that raised the ire of many a law professor but that would give schools more flexibility to offer low-cost education. The committee also is contemplating dropping the requirement that schools weigh Law School Admission Test scores in admissions decisions; mandating any specific test is not the proper role of the ABA, the committee reasoned. Some test haters took to the Internet to hail the impending demise of the LSAT, but law school admissions officials said they weren’t likely to abandon the test anytime soon, even with the ABA’s permission. Sorry.
It all started with Monty, or General Montgomery, as he is known in formal circles. The 21-pound border terrier mix became something of a celebrity during the spring, when he began appearing in the Yale Law School library to calm stressed-out law students. The law librarians behind Monty’s appearances hoped that spending 30 minutes with a trained therapy dog would help keep the students from climbing the walls. It didn’t take long for other law schools to take note; dogs have since appeared at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, George Mason University School of Law (which hosted 15 homeless puppies in November), the University of San Francisco School of Law, the University of Minnesota Law School and the University of Richmond School of Law. There’s no word yet on law schools circulating therapy cats.
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.