By Robert A. Clifford
Clifford Law Offices
Transparency in the profession is a good thing. And that is what is going on right now with the American Bar Association and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). On March 31, she began an exchange of letters with ABA President Stephen Zack about her concerns with a student's ability to make informed decisions on whether to attend law school and the prospects of securing a job after graduation given the cost of the education and the economic downturn's impact on the job market.
She raised the issue that law schools need to be more candid about the scarcity of jobs before these people incur as much as $100,000 in debt that they will be repaying throughout their young adult lives. The ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is the U.S. Department of Education's recognized accreditor for legal education and its nine members are required to carry out accreditation activities independent from the ABA.
In her March 31 missive, Boxer urged the ABA to push law schools to "ensure potential students have a full understanding of the costs and benefits of legal education." She asked that she be provided with a "detailed summary" of its plans to implement reform.
"This very serious problem takes on greater significance when viewed in the context of news articles highlighting law schools that allegedly falsify post-graduation and salary information in attempts to increase their position in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings," Boxer wrote to the ABA.
She points to a Northwestern University study that since 2008 some 15,000 legal jobs with large firms have disappeared and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a decrease in legal services jobs from 1.2 million in 2007 to 1 million in 2009. "Experts predict that fewer than 30,000 new attorney positions per year will be available to the more than 44,000 law school graduates entering the marketplace each year," she wrote.
Several committees and commissions are discussing this issue and resolutions are expected to be brought before the ABA's governing body, the House of Delegates, at its annual meeting in August in Toronto. In an April 27 response, Zack told Boxer that the Young Lawyers Division is looking into "how the ABA can encourage additional dissemination of relevant information on this topic."
Can you imagine being one of the nearly 2,000 students who just graduated in Illinois with a law degree, along with the 42,000 others in the country, and are you now diligently studying for the bar exam in July? For those who have jobs, congratulations! For those who are still looking, good luck.
Boxer noted that U.S. News post-graduation employment statistics "may be false at worst and misleading at best" which makes it impossible for law students to make informed decisions. It has been revealed that U.S. News counts gainful employment as working part-time at Applebee's, interning for free or working for an hourly minimum wage with no job security.
For many, yes, that is the case. But probably not for those who toiled through Contracts and Property, Constitutional Law and Taxation. They want a job in the field of law. Existing ABA rules governing the reporting process also do not distinguish whether a person is working full or part-time.
In a follow-up letter to the ABA, Boxer pointed out "the need for independent oversight of the data law schools deans submit to the ABA and publications like U.S. News & World Report ." She also said the ABA needs to "undertake efforts to ensure that students have easy access to post-graduation employment and salary information," data that is "so critical to determining their futures" but is not readily attainable.
The New York Times in a Jan. 8 article reported a disturbing fact: Some schools even hire a handful of unemployed law students for a six-week period starting Feb. 1, falling coincidentally right at the time U.S. News asks for an accounting of their graduates. Boxer also mentions a New York Times article that "demonstrated how scholarships are being used to convince students with high LSAT scores to attend lower-ranked law schools."
U.S. News first reported in 1997 the average employment rate of 84 percent of "graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation." In its most recent rankings,U.S. News reported 93 percent of graduates were working — a nearly 10 percent jump. All the more reason to make students optimistic. It goes on to report that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000, even for many schools who are not in the top 40.
William Henderson of Indiana University is reported in The New York Times ' Jan. 8 story as calling it "Enron-type accounting standards."
The Wall Street Journal reported on March 17 that as prospective law students grow increasingly aware of the grim job market and the difficulties in paying off huge law school loans, the number of law school applicants this year is projected to be down 11.5 percent from a year ago, the lowest since 2001.
Don't get me wrong. I firmly believe in a solid legal education, but these applicants need transparency on realistic job prospects before they mortgage their future.