Law School Transparency, the nonprofit organization that helped push the American Bar Association into beefing up the consumer information law schools must report each year, has unveiled a new "LST Certification Program."
The group said it would review a law school's marketing materials to ensure that the job placement statistics provided comply with the ABA's rules and adhere to LST's own best practices. It promises "compelling graphics that appeal to today's applicants" and to bestow an "LST Certified" mark for schools' promotional materials — evidence to prospective students, alumni and others that they are "open, honest, and fair."
The idea is as old as the organization itself, said executive director Kyle McEntee, who co-founded the group in 2009 while a student at Vanderbilt University Law School. "We put it on the backburner for years, but we rekindled the idea when we put together the Transparency Index."
That index, launched in early 2013, was the organization's effort to gauge whether the jobs data law schools posted on their websites complied with the ABA's new reporting rules. By March, the organization had concluded that nearly half of ABA-accredited law schools had fallen below the expectations. But the index was better at identifying schools that were acting badly, rather than rewarding those that followed the rules.
"We began to see more clearly that there was a need for schools to do better and that we could help," McEntee said.
But any new effort would require financial resources, of which the group has few. So it proposes to charge law schools $2,750 per year, an amount it says would only partially cover its costs; it is seeking grants and donations for the rest.
In fact, the group suggested that participating law schools seek alumni donations to foot their certification bills, rather than divert tuition money. Early adaptors would receive a 30 percent discount during the inaugural year.
The initiative drew sharp criticism from Santa Clara University School of Law professor Stephen Diamond, who on his blog likened it to a protection racket that uses "fear and intimidation" to drum up customers. Diamond has on occasion clashed with LST and other law school critics that he argues have undervalued the J.D.
"I began to suspect that there was another agenda at work," he wrote. "One possibility I suggested was that LST actually was operating like a startup business and it intended, god forbid, to make money from its efforts."
McEntee denied any ulterior motive, saying he has worked for his organization full-time for more than three years essentially without compensation and needs money to sustain the nonprofit.
"We didn't create this market," he said. "Law schools created this market through years of deceptive advertising. LST shed light on these practices and LST put pressure on the ABA to treat consumer information more carefully. The fallout contributed to the decline in trust, which we hope to help schools restore."
His organization won't launch the certification process until at least 10 schools have signed up, McEntee said. He has talked with administrators at a few dozen law schools, he said, but declined to specify how many have committed to the program.
Meanwhile, the ABA is moving forward with its own effort to better police the employment and salary statistics that schools submit. It recently retained independent advisory firm Duff & Phelps Corp. to develop a protocol for reviewing law school numbers. The firm, which was retained in 2011 by the University of Illinois to investigate the falsification of admissions data by the former admission dean, was one of four that responded to a request for proposals from the ABA. Duff & Phelps will be paid $75,000.
The ABA's auditing process likely will consist of both random and targeted reviews of data submitted by individual law schools, said Barry Currier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation and legal education. The review process is expected to be in effect by 2015.