Law School Transparency Weighs in on Reform

Hear from the organization's cofounder about law school reform and a new initiative.

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Law School Transparency (LST) is a nonprofit legal education policy organization. Its mission is to improve consumer information and usher in reforms to the current law school model. This week, the Student Loan Ranger (SLR) is interviewing Patrick Lynch, its cofounder and policy director.

Lynch is a licensed New York attorney with a J.D. from Vanderbilt University Law School in Tennessee and a B.A. in Economics and English Literature from Fairfield University in Connecticut. He splits his time working for LST and providing policy support for environmental nongovernmental organizations in southern Chile.

SLR: What motivated you to create LST and what is your new initiative, the Transparency Index Report, about?

Lynch: We founded LST because we saw how difficult it is for prospective students to compare employment outcomes at various schools. This has grown to us advocating for all sorts of consumer-oriented policies to combat significant problems in legal education. One method is producing reports that highlight the misinformation law schools provide about post-graduation outcomes; our latest is the Transparency Index Report.

The report measures the level of success we’ve had in convincing schools to be more transparent. It also documents how schools are choosing to portray the employment outcomes for the class of 2010. Unfortunately, the vast majority of U.S. law schools are still hiding critical information from their applicants.

[Get tips for prospective law students in a tough economy.]

SLR: What are some examples of the misinformation you highlight in the Transparency Index Report?

Lynch: Many law schools still provide no evaluable employment information about the class of 2010, despite having collected the data almost a year ago. Only 26 percent of law schools provided the legal employment rate, and just 1 percent indicated how many were in full time, long-term legal jobs. Out of the schools [that] posted salary information, 78 percent did so in a way that we feel is misleading.

An example of misleading salary information is advertising a median salary and not disclosing the reporting rate, so that people have no idea whether these salary figures are representative. As it turns out, they often tend to represent only top performers.

One school that still engages in this behavior is John Marshall Law School in Chicago, which was sued last week by a group of former students for misrepresenting its employment statistics. The school advertises that the 101 grads working in law firms with 2 to 10 attorneys had an average salary of $53,528. No response rate is provided.

Based on the information we’ve collected on John Marshall—Chicago for the two previous class years, the salary averages are probably only based on a third of respondents.

Other tricks are more discreet, but they all serve the same purpose: making the employment outcomes look more favorable than they actually are so that the value of the law school’s program looks better than it is. Stats like these really drive home the need for reform, not only over what information should be disclosed, but also whether schools generally should be trusted to put the consumers first.

SLR:  Do you think students really will pay attention to this data, or will they think they are unique and it doesn’t apply to them?

Lynch: Aspiring students still don’t get to see what types of jobs graduates are finding, nor do they realize the extent to which schools selectively share data about these jobs.

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Our culture propagates a myth that law schools are a surefire ticket to financial security. By failing to demonstrate the reality that many law school graduates are struggling, the available low-quality information only reinforces that misplaced optimism.

As better information is made available and media coverage continues to focus on these issues, people will become more skeptical about whether it makes sense to invest in a particular law degree at its current price.

SLR: What should aspiring students visiting your site pay particular attention to, and how should they use that information to understand employment information?

Lynch: In addition to the Transparency Index, we also house a Data Clearinghouse which repackages the data schools provide to U.S. News. For almost every ABA-approved school, we provide visual breakdowns of the available information for previous class years. (Class of 2010 information will be up soon.)

The Clearinghouse also lets you see the private sector reporting rates for schools that aren’t disclosing them, which is how we can tell that a school is hiding something. Both the Clearinghouse and the Transparency Index illustrate how schools dress up the employment information on their websites.

We also have a section explaining the ABA Section of Legal Education’s role in accrediting law schools and the changes they are making as a result of advocacy from groups like ours.

SLR: Do you have a broad vision for reforming law school? What would that look like?

Lynch: The discussion starts with the absurd cost of becoming a lawyer. Changes require understanding and evaluating the cost structure of the current law school model. This discussion needs participants who aren’t afraid of innovation and big ideas.

Proposals like switching to a two year program or adopting apprenticeship models in more states don’t solve the underlying problems with the existing model that will continue for the foreseeable future. Once schools start accounting for how they’re spending people’s money, solutions for cutting costs will be more apparent.

SLR: What can prospective and current students do to increase law school transparency?

Lynch: There’s a lot people can do, both when selecting a law school and in making their educational experience more valuable. Accepted students can leverage their acceptances to get information that hasn’t been disclosed and share it with LST and on discussion boards like www.top-law-schools.com.

Current students can demand better use of their tuition dollars by approaching their administration and organizing with student leadership at other schools. They can investigate the cost structure and demand changes that prioritize things like job training and career development. And they can work with us and our partners to have a greater impact.

SLR: What has the reaction been to the Transparency Index Report?

Lynch: The response has been extremely positive. We’ve heard from dozens of law schools regarding their particular performance in the Index; many have since improved their Web disclosures. Prospective students and alumni have been very appreciative.

SLR: How can people support your work?

Lynch: Financial contributions are extremely helpful for allowing us to continue our advocacy. We are hoping to expand our team, lead seminars, and participate in conferences around the country that focus on legal education reform. Because our current budget is limited, the LST staff works on an unpaid basis.

We’re also seeking travel assistance in the form of frequent flier miles, a place to crash, [and more]. We also welcome assistance from working professionals who want to contribute their expertise. Anyone who’s interested in donating should visit our Support LST in 2012 page.