The ABA Has Begun Randomly Auditing Law School Employment Data

Law school employment reporting has typically been a ridiculous mess. Schools self-report their data, and inflated employment statistics have run rampant, with bottom-dwelling law schools like Thomas Jefferson School of Law reporting 92% employment for its graduates. This sham data has resulted in a number of lawsuits, including one that finally went to trial. Thomas Jefferson’s defense in that case was, essentially, saying it was only reporting employment data the way the ABA told it to and therefore they couldn’t be at fault. (It prevailed, by the way.)

Perhaps in response to high-profile terribleness like this, in 2015 the ABA strengthened its requirements for how law schools reporting employment data. The heightened requirements focus on ensuring that schools create a “Graduate Employment File” with verifiable data for each graduate. The requirements also specified what sort of employment data law schools were required to place on their websites and how long that data had to be available. In short, the ABA seemed to be telegraphing that it would hold law schools to more rigorous reporting standards. The ABA also explicitly said it would be conducting random reviews of ten schools to check for compliance. It looks like those audits have started:

The auditors are examining data from 10 randomly selected law schools and from 382 randomly selected students from 156 law schools, reports. The aim is to make sure schools followed proper procedures in collecting and verifying the employment data, which was released in May.

The ABA is using an external consulting firm to conduct the audits. You might be wondering how it can afford to do so. It turns out the ABA dinged the University of Illinois $250K a few years ago for misreporting statistics, so that fine is funding this third-party audit endeavor.

This all sounds like a great step forward, but over at Outside the Law School Scam, they’ve noted that there is some “fine print” we should all be paying attention to: the ABA’s managing director says that if the audits show that schools are generally behaving, they ABA might flip back to using less intensive audits. This does not inspire confidence. Outside the Law School Scam also points out that the ABA has said it won’t release audit results unless the audit finds something that leads to a public sanction.

This seems like an odd approach for the ABA to take. It has all the rigor of random third-party audits, but none of the reporting transparency you would expect to be the logical product of those rigorous audits. Shouldn’t consumers—a/k/a prospective law students—know if a school has been audited and passed with flying colors? Wouldn’t that be something that might affect decision-making about where to attend? And about the idea that if things go well, the ABA will just drop back to not being so tough?

It’s hard not to see this move as lip service designed to produce results that permit a devoid-of-detail “Law Schools Doing Great in Reporting” article later this summer. And it will be truly meaningless in preventing the nonsense of the past if the ABA changes to a “less intensive” (read: what it was in 2008) auditing system after a few exercises in confirmation bias.

Here’s the takeaway: prospective students do not just have a right—they have a full-fledged need—to know how successful graduates of a given school are at landing a job. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, that past performance is all students have to go on when making choices about what school to attend. Law schools—and the ABA—owe those students a duty of maximum transparency. Here, it looks like they are taking baby transparency steps. It’s a start, but it’s not enough.

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