Law students. Deans. A pair of United States senators. Nearly everyone agrees that would-be law students deserve a more detailed and accurate picture of their career prospects and prospective earnings before forking over thousands of dollars to enroll.

There is no consensus, however, on what entity should oversee the collection and analysis of law graduates’ jobs data. A move by the American Bar Association to design its own employment-data-reporting system has sparked a rift with the National Association for Law Placement — the nonprofit organization that has been surveying and compiling law school job statistics for 37 years.

The clash caught many legal educators by surprise, and raises questions about the organizations’ motivations. A number of law school career services administrators declined to speak publicly about the dispute but said privately that they don’t understand why the ABA decided to part ways with NALP and don’t want to be seen as choosing sides.

On Aug. 5 the Council for the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admis­sions to the Bar discussed the matter and heard comments from NALP during the ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto. Leaders of both organizations expressed regret at the tenor of the discussion during the past two weeks and said they hoped to find a way to collaborate, but the council did not reverse the decision to collect job data directly.

Bill Chamberlain, an assistant dean and director of the Center for Career Strategy and Advancement at Northwestern University School of Law, suspects that the ABA is responding to criticism that it hasn’t ensured the accuracy of employment data. “The ABA is reacting to the pressure it’s under right now about transparency, which is fine,” he said. “I just think this is the wrong way to do it.”

JOINT EFFORT ABORTED

The ABA and NALP had been working on a joint effort to bolster the reporting of employment statistics until the last week of July, when the executive committee of the legal education council announced that it had changed course and decided that the annual job statistics required for accreditation purposes should go directly to the ABA, and not through NALP.

NALP leaders fired off an angry letter that hinted it might sue the ABA for appropriating its survey and research terms. NALP toned down its rhetoric somewhat in the following days, and the two sides agreed to discuss the matter.

The stakes are high for both sides, in part because the push for more law school transparency has powerful supporters, including U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Both have written to ABA leaders asking pointed questions about accreditation policies and the accuracy of job statistics.

The ABA faces mounting criticism for not erecting robust consumer protections for prospective law students, and several legal educators who are closely watching the situation said the ABA’s decision is its way of demonstrating a strong commitment to transparency. Christine Durham, chief justice of Utah and chair of the ABA legal education council, said accountability was the main factor in the decision.

“When the [collaboration between the ABA and NALP] surfaced, the council said in a discussion that this was a problem because we’re concerned about using, essentially, second-hand data,” Durham said. “We have an institutional concern that the data come directly from the law schools, so they understand that they are accountable for that data.”

During the Toronto meeting, Durham said council members have been concerned that NALP’s duty to its members and focus on research might conflict with the ABA’s regulatory function. NALP’s motivation to fight for a role is even stronger. A competing, mandatory law employment survey administered by the ABA could undermine NALP’s voluntary survey and its ability to analyze national law hiring data and identify trends — the organization’s core function.

In its letter to the ABA, NALP’s leaders argued that dueling jobs surveys would actually hurt the larger effort to increase transparency. “Virtually everything we know as an industry about the entry-level legal employment market, and our ability to describe it, quantify it, and measure change, is based on the data that NALP has collected, analyzed and published for the last 37 years,” they wrote. “The action taken by the Executive Committee this week will erode NALP’s ability to continue to provide this vital information and erode the current level of transparency.”

NALP claims that it is more independent and autonomous than the ABA, which oversees law school accreditation but also represents the interests of the larger legal industry; NALP figures that makes it better able to provide objective information. The ABA insists its motive is not to control the message, but to ensure that law schools submit accurate numbers.

When it comes to employment information, neither organization is completely free of the appearance of conflicts. Both receive funding from fees paid by law schools and law firms — groups that have a vested interest in public perceptions of the legal job market. Still, recent NALP reports have been frank about the dismal job market, with a June report concluding that the Class of 2010 faced the “worst job market since the mid-1990s.”

Thus far, the ABA’s focus has been on the accreditation of individual law schools. Leaders said they haven’t yet discussed how much trend analysis the ABA would perform on the jobs data it plans to collect.

Of course, the reaction to the ABA’s move depends on whom one asks. Bill Henderson, a professor at Indiana Univer­sity Maurer School of Law—Bloomington, believes the ABA’s plan would improve the transparency of employment outcomes at individual law schools, but cloud industrywide hiring trends. Henderson relies heavily on NALP data in his academic research.

“The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has a long track record of releasing mountains of data in a format that makes it very difficult to analyze the industry or make meaningful school-to-school comparisons,” Henderson wrote in an opinion piece posted on Legal affiliate The National Law Journal ‘s website Aug. 2.

On the other hand, leaders of Law School Transparency hailed the ABA’s move. The nonprofit organization, formed by two former Vanderbilt University Law School students in 2009, has been one of the loudest advocates of improved job and salary data.

‘SURPRISING … IN A GOOD WAY’

“This was surprising to me, but in a good way,” said Law School Transparency’s executive director, Kyle McEntee. “The important difference is [that] now the ABA will have the ability to audit the submitted numbers if they need to.” Still, the group issued a statement Aug. 4 urging the two groups to find a compromise and work together.

NALP observes a confidentiality agreement with law schools — the organization agrees not to release school-specific numbers to the public. NALP Executive Director Jim Leipold conceded that the ABA would have more direct access to job data, but countered that those figures would still be provided by the law schools themselves and that the ABA would have no independent data against which to measure the submitted figures.

Art Gaudio, the chairman of the ABA’s questionnaire committee and the dean of Western New England College School of Law, said in Toronto that the ABA would be better able to audit employment numbers. “The schools will be expected to submit a profile for each student, with a number instead of a name,” he said. “For purposes of auditing for accreditation, we’ll have that data and we can ask the school to prove it.”

Until now, NALP’s annual jobs survey has played an important role in how law schools report employment statistics to the ABA for accreditation purposes. Law schools have long been required to report annually to the ABA statistics including the percentage of graduates employed after nine months; the percentage pursuing graduate degrees; and the percentage at law firms, judicial clerkships and public interest organizations.

Law school career services offices gather information about graduates, then send that raw data to NALP, which breaks down the data in more digestible ways. Law schools then submit certain NALP-generated figures to the ABA as part of the annual questionnaire that accredited law schools must complete.

Tracking down recent graduates is time consuming, and several career services officers were not enthusiastic about the idea of filling out two similar jobs surveys. “It does seem like there will be a duplicative administrative effort,” said Linda Wendling, assistant dean for career services at North Carolina Central University School of Law, who has a staff of two. “Speaking from the perspective of a small [career services office], any duplicative effort is a frustrating effort.”

Wendling would prefer that the ABA develop incentives for recent graduates to report their job status to their alma maters. Wendling, Henderson and Chamberlain agreed it would make more sense for the ABA and NALP to create a joint survey reflecting the expanded employment information the ABA seeks.

That is precisely what the ABA’s questionnaire committee recommended in May. The panel was working with NALP to expand its existing survey when the executive committee dropped NALP from the process. The questionnaire committee explained its reasoning in a report. “This will avoid unnecessary and duplicative collection of data and save personnel time and effort in the various law school career services offices,” it wrote. “It will also avoid the potential of unwittingly creating divergent information, and the confusion that would result therefrom, if the two organizations (NALP and ABA) were to use different collection processes.”

Durham said the decision to proceed without NALP was unanimous among the six members of the executive committee, and that the ABA has yet to receive any feedback from career services officers concerned that the new procedure would create extra work for them. “I hope this will not result in a long-term rift with NALP,” she said.

For his part, Leipold hopes both organizations can reach an agreement to collaborate, and plans to meet with ABA leaders to discuss the matter in the coming weeks. “I think the best outcome would be to agree on a common data set so that schools could respond to both at the same time,” he said. “I really believe both our organizations want the same thing: more transparency, and readily available information about the legal job market.”

Karen Sloan is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York. •