It looks as though the American Bar Association may not require law schools to disclose detailed graduate salary information after all.
The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar on March 17 gave preliminary approval to a new accreditation standard that would require law schools to report additional details about their scholarship retention rates and the jobs that their graduates land.
But the council rejected a recommendation that it require law schools to report school-specific salary data. Transparency advocates said the omission would leave prospective students without important information about their earning prospects.
“This is the council’s latest mistake in a string of mistakes,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit organization that pushes for better law school consumer information. “It’s a pattern of consumer-disoriented information.”
Council chair John O’Brien, dean of the New England School of Law, was traveling on March 19 and unavailable for comment, but said last week that the ABA is working to improve law school consumer information.
“There should be no doubt that the section is fully committed to the clarity and accuracy of law school placement data,” O’Brien said. “Current and prospective law students will now have more timely access to detailed information that will help them make important decisions about their futures.”
The ABA has undertaken a comprehensive review of its law school accreditation standards, and a special standards review committee has spent the past three years developing recommendations. During a two-day meeting Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the council took up changes to Standard 509, which deals with consumer information; and to Rule 16, which outlines the penalties schools may face for violations.
“This really is the first thing that has come out of the standards review,” said Hulett “Bucky” Askew, the ABA’s consultant on legal education. “The council felt this should happen now, given everything that has been going on.”
Law school consumer information — especially its accuracy — has been the focus of transparency advocates and a number of powerful U.S. senators in recent years.
After about an hour of discussion, the council gave initial approval to the committee’s recommended rewriting of Standard 509 and Rule 16. Schools would be required to publicly disclose on their Web sites their admissions data; tuition rates and fees; enrollment data; faculty size; curricular offerings; library resources and facilities; employment data; and bar passage rates. They would have to disclose the number of graduates who factor into any published salary figure.
The standard itself does not spell out what details the schools must report; rather, they were included on a supplemental chart developed by the standards review committee. Schools would also have to report the number of graduates employed in jobs that require bar passage; jobs in which a juris doctor degree is preferred; professional and nonprofessional jobs; and the numbers of graduates pursuing further education and unemployed.
For each of those categories, schools would have to report whether those graduates were in full-time or part-time jobs, and whether they were long-term or short-term positions. Finally, the committee recommended that schools report the number and percentage of graduates with jobs that are funded by the law schools themselves.
The committee recommended that for each of those job categories, schools report the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile salaries their graduates earn. Those salary figures would also have to be provided for 15 jobs categories ranging from small and large firms to government, public interest and academia.
Against the advice of the standards committee, the council decided to eliminate all salary fields from the chart — meaning that schools would not have to report that salary data at all.
That outcome was not totally unexpected, said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and the chairman of the standards review committee.
The inclusion of salary data “was controversial even within the standards review committee,” Lewis said. “The pro argument was that the more information you have, the better. The con argument was that it’s really hard for the schools to gather salary information from graduates, and the response rates tend to be low. That means the information might not be useful or might be misleading.”
By striking the salary data, the council has brought the accreditation requirements in line with changes already made by the ABA’s questionnaire committee — a separate group that designs the questionnaire that all accredited law schools must fill out every year. The questionnaire committee decided last year that instead of school-specific salary data, schools should disclose the three states in which the largest percentage of their graduates found jobs. Prospective students or other interested parties could then look at state-specific salary information.
Without the school-specific salary reporting, there is no way for prospective law students to differentiate between the graduate salaries of lower and higher-ranking law schools in any given state, McEntee said.
“If this decision really has to do with quality of salary information schools provide and not wanting it to be misleading, why not adjust how the information is collected and provided. You could say, ‘Don’t provide a number unless you have at least ten graduates responding.’ Why stick with the status quo?”
The council’s March 17 vote was not the final word on the matter. With preliminary approval secured, the council is soliciting public comments and will hold a public hearing in the future. After the comment period and possible revisions, the council will again vote on the standard. The standard will not be final until the ABA’s House of Delegates votes on the entire package, which will happen no sooner that August.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.