Correction to This Article
A earlier version of this story misidentified the university attended by two law school students who started the Law School Transparency group.

Critics say law schools don't give students realistic career expectations

By Amanda Becker
Monday, February 21, 2011

A chorus of complaints from newly minted lawyers who say they were lured into the profession by schools that reported too-rosy employment prospects found a sympathetic ear last week, as the American Bar Association urged law schools to present more accurate information.

Though the admonishment came in the form of a nonbinding resolution passed by the ABA division that represents young lawyers, the organization hopes it will be a first step in a process that will result in more truthful marketing to prospective law school students.

"There should be a very clear understanding about what will happen when they graduate before they encumber themselves with debt that can be $100,000 or $200,000," said ABA President Stephen N. Zack.

Law school, once viewed as a golden ticket, has become for some graduates a liability. Though law school has never been cheap, annual tuition and fees at private schools on average increased from $21, 790 in 2000 to $35,743 in 2009, with graduates typically borrowing more than $100,000 to finance their education.

Many graduates take on the expense out of the belief they will have a good chance of landing a law firm gig paying as much as $160,000 annually. When that doesn't happen, some have taken to broadcasting their disappointment on blogs like Subprime JD and Esq. Never that accuse law schools of participating in a Ponzi-like scheme that churns out more than 40,000 indebted grads a year with little hope for lucrative employment.

"We saw this issue of transparency bubbling up on the Internet and grew quite concerned that prospective law students did not have the ability to find accurate and realistic information about the prospective earning potential from law schools," said David Wolfe, chairman of the ABA's Young Lawyers Division.

Differing measures

Law schools provide information about their graduates to several entities, including the American Bar Association and the National Association for Legal Career Professionals. Both issue big-picture reports, which are then cited in the rankings compiled by U.S. News and World Report, which in January challenged both the ABA and NALP to provide more accurate data.

But experts say this data can be misleading. The figure schools supply for the percentage of their graduates who are employed, for example, is based on a survey taken nine months after graduation that includes those working part-time and who have taken jobs outside the legal profession. The salaries reported are usually means and not medians, meaning a small number of highly paid graduates skew the figure higher, creating unrealistic expectations for students.

"The data gets really, really spotty," said Indiana University law professor William Henderson. "Really what's going on here is that schools are afraid of going down in the rankings."

Though most local law schools, including those at American University, Catholic University, George Washington University, Howard University and the University of Maryland, provide online statistics about their graduates, the scope of such data varies. Catholic's Columbus School of Law, for example, breaks down its Class of 2009 by region and employment sector, reporting median salaries for each industry. The law schools at the University of the District of Columbia and Georgetown, however, only describe the vast number of career prospects available to prospective graduates.

"Increasing the transparency of employment numbers is something that would be helpful," said Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor, who said the school is working with NALP to publish more granular data. "We're also thinking about doing some greater disclosure on our own."

Officials at the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clarke School of Law did not respond to a request for comment.

Promoting transparency

Promoting this sort of voluntary disclosure is the mission of a nonprofit group called Law School Transparency, started by two Vanderbilt University law school students in 2009, but thus far it has received little concrete response. In August the group sent a letter to all accredited schools urging them to commit to stepped-up reporting standards. So far, none has taken the group up on its request.

"The most important thing that comes from the [ABA] resolution is that it shows young lawyers do care about this issue and believe there is an information asymmetry that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later," said co-founder Kyle P. McEntee, who cautioned there was still a long way to go.

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