Within Law School Industry, The Quest For Clarity Continues

BY RYAN BYRNES

From student gripes on Internet forums to official orders from judicial benches, the calls for greater transparency regarding post-law school employment data continue to grow louder. And, slowly but surely, law schools themselves have begun to oblige.

As reports of smaller hiring classes and lower average salaries circulate the industry, this generation of law school graduates appears that it will actually have one characteristic that will positively impact the law school application process in the future. A perfect storm of an epic recession, an already saturated legal job market and just enough disappointed graduates set on blaming the system instead of themselves has left in its wake a new era of expectations, one where clarity is king and anything short of that is regarded as potentially deceptive.

One example of the new era is the organization Law School Transparency, a non-profit company started by a pair of recent graduates of Vanderbilt University Law School. What started in the fall of 2010 as a mission to gather more useful employment data from ABA-approved law schools has evolved into a system of reports that specifically details what schools are sharing what information on their websites about their graduates’ employment status. In January, LST published an index based on 19 categories of employment-related data, including specifics on full-time vs. part-time employment and salary data that reflects graduated classes in the aggregate.

In the March issue of the National Jurist, the magazine translated the LST index into a grading system and provided a list ranking the transparency of 197 law school websites. Seton Hall University School of Law received an A, ranking it among the top 15 schools listed. The grading was even more impressive when compared to those assigned to the law schools of Seton Hall’s regional rivals (though St. John’s and Temple each received an A+). Villanova received a B-, New York University got a C- and New York Law School and Pace each received a D+. More glaringly, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, Fordham, Hofstra and both Rutgers campuses received failing grades.

That last group is hardly alone – the National Jurist grading system was harsher than the curve in any law school course. Forty-one percent of schools on the list were assigned failing grades, with an additional 15 percent getting a D. The fact that such a staggering number of schools received such low grades speaks less to the flaws of any one particular institution and more to the glaring gap between what the purveyors of transparency see as ideal and what schools have accepted as commonplace. But some school officials just don’t see why that gap has grown so wide.

“There’s no reason law schools can’t be posting the information they’ve always been gathering on their website,” Beth Kransberger, associate dean for student affairs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, told the National Jurist.  “You have to feel good enough about the integrity of your law school and the legal education you’re providing [so] that there’s no reason to shy away from transparency.”

The grades assigned by National Jurist don’t carry anywhere near as much weight as more traditional law school rankings, such as the annual list released by U.S. News and World Report last week. But the coverage is representative of the increased scrutiny that law schools have found themselves under as recent graduates find that their early careers (or lack thereof) are not what they expected them to be. Though signs of an economic downturn were evident as early as late 2007, many students claim their decision to enter their respective law schools were a result of misleading or deceptive data about what careers they could expect after graduating. At least 14 law schools have or are facing lawsuits from former students, with claims centering around this central gripe.

The first of those suits, filed in August by a group of recent graduates of New York Law School, was dismissed on Wednesday by the New York Supreme Court for New York County. The court’s holding was significant, noting that “the issues posed by this case exemplify the adage that not every ailment afflicting society may be redressed by a lawsuit.” (The dismissal was essentially based on three grounds: that the school’s marketing materials were not misleading to a reasonable consumer acting reasonably; that the plaintiffs could not have reasonably relied on the school’s alleged misrepresentations, given ample information available from other sources; and that the plaintiffs’ theory of damages that was too speculative.) But in addition to the legal aspect of the dismissal, the case was notable for the op-ed-like conclusion to the court’s decision, which seems to be a call for correction from all within the legal world.

“If lawsuits such as this have done nothing else, they have served to focus the attention of all constituents on this current problem facing the legal profession,” wrote Judge Melvin L. Schweitzer. “All must take a long, hard look at the current situation with the utmost seriousness of purpose.

“To the extent law schools are turning out too many graduates for the positions available, market forces will begin to correct themselves,” he wrote (a trend that already appears to be occurring). “But that does not itself excuse our collective responsibility to those who have been unfortunate enough to have been caught in the midst of the maelstrom. To them we owe our best efforts to get them situated.”

Unlike this decision, a similar suit brought against Thomas Jefferson School of Law survived a motion to dismiss in a California court. But in a way, the New York Law School decision presents of blueprint of how the issue is likely to be resolved. On one hand, courts are unlikely to bail out students for failing to read the writing that was on the wall before or during their law school experience. However, it also appears that courts hope to bring about some change by wagging their fingers at schools themselves, even if their pats on the backs on plaintiffs are not as encouraging.

The judiciary does not appear to be alone in bringing the pressure. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IO) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have written to the ABA about the issue, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has called for the Department of Education to investigate law schools.

But before the legislature can even begin to intervene, law schools have already showed signs of change. Many schools quickly responded to LST’s index when it was published this winter, according to the National Jurist (noting the University of Colorado School of Law as one school that quickly updated its site to include detailed graphs and charts).

As a Seton Hall Law enrollment official said last month, the law school cycle is going to reward the schools that play by the rules. Even before the courts and Congress can intervene, it appears an increasing number of schools are beginning to realize that just might be the case.

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Author: R. Byrnes

Ryan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Yi! News.

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