As Student Interest in Law Schools Drops, ABA Moves to Tighten Accrediting Standard

March 20, 2012

The number of Law School Admission Tests administered this year declined by 16.2 percent, the largest drop in more than a decade, the Law School Admission Council reported.

The numbers reflect widespread pessimism about the value of a legal education today as education debts soar and job prospects remain dim.

The decline, from 155,050 tests in 2010-11 to 129,925 this year, follows the previous year's 9.6-percent fall.

The drop comes at a difficult time for the nation's law schools. A team of lawyers representing disgruntled law-school graduates has filed 15 lawsuits against law schools for allegedly publishing inflated data on the jobs and salaries of their graduates. The lawyers recently announced plans to sue 20 more schools if they round up enough plaintiffs to pursue class-action lawsuits, and to continue cranking out batches of suits every few months.

In the meantime, unhappy graduates have taken to so-called "scam blogs" to decry what they see as deceptive reporting on jobs and salary data.

Lawyers for some of the schools that have been sued counter that they have been reporting what the American Bar Association requires, and that they are not misleading potential students.

Meaningful Salary Data

The ABA, which has been under pressure from Congressional critics, as well as law-school graduates, to demand more-meaningful employment reporting from the law schools it accredits, is moving forward with proposed changes in its standards.

On Saturday the ABA's accrediting arm gave preliminary approval to a revised accreditation standard that would require law schools to report much more specific details about the jobs their graduates land and their chances of retaining scholarships. Law schools would be required to specify, for instance, whether jobs are full or part time, whether they require a law degree, and whether they are paid for by the law school itself. The ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar also approved changes that spell out penalties for schools that misreport employment data.

However, the council rejected a recommendation that schools report salary data specific to their schools. Some legal educators say that because relatively few graduates report their pay, schools would have a tough time coming up with meaningful salary data.

After a period of public comment, the revised standard will return to the council for a final vote before going to the ABA's House of Delegates, probably in August.

Jeffrey E. Lewis, dean emeritus of Saint Louis University's School of Law and chair of the ABA's Standards Review Committee, said on Tuesday that the recommendation that schools be required to publish school-specific salary data was controversial even on his committee, which ultimately passed that proposal on to the council.

"The argument in favor of reporting the data is that it's more potentially useful information," he said. "The argument against it was that schools have a hard time getting this data from their graduates, and those with low salaries tend not to respond. The council concluded that the information is more likely unhelpful and unreliable, and as such, we ought not to require schools to report it."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who has criticized the ABA for not moving quickly enough to demand better employment numbers, released a statement on Tuesday saying she is "very concerned that the ABA appears to be backing away from its commitment to provide prospective law-school students with the critical information they need to make this decision for their future."

Kyle McEntee, who heads a nonprofit group called Law School Transparency, said on Tuesday that while the benefits of reporting potentially skewed salary data "isn't a slam dunk," law schools should be required to report the data.

"This is an expensive decision students are making," he said, "and they will have to do so without salary information."