Legal Education

After transparency criticism, ABA law school employment questionnaire revisions postponed

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ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar

Criticism over plans to change questionnaire rules for law school-funded employment—which some legal education critics say would negate all recent action for transparency—has led to the council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar on Friday referring the matter to the Standards Review Committee for its October meeting.

The current version of the employment questionnaire parses out school-funded jobs, most of which involve public interest or government work. If adopted, the revision will allow jobs funded by law schools that are full-time, long-term, require bar passage and pay more than $40,000 annually not to be identified as school-funded positions, according to a memo (PDF) the council received from Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, and Bill Adams, the deputy managing director of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

The council adopted the revisions at its May meeting, forgoing an assessment from the Standards Review Committee. A memo (PDF) from council member Paul Mahoney, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, led to the revisions. Criticism came after the council posted details about the revisions last week, and Gregory G. Murphy, a Montana lawyer who chairs of the council, announced in an Aug 3 memo (PDF) that he planned to recommend the group consider referring the issue to the Standards Review Committee for its view.

As of Friday, 24 comments about the revision were posted to the section’s website. Concerns included transparency for law school graduates’ employment numbers and the council not seeking input from others before approving the proposed revision.

“Our law school career services members were caught by surprise that the change was made without any notice or process for hearing from the law schools themselves, and have been bewildered by the claim that it will simplify the data collection regime, when it will do no such thing,” states a letter (PDF) from the National Association for Law Placement.

“The harm created by the revised Employment Summary Form is that it theoretically allows schools with greater resources to ‘hide’ their school-funded positions from the U.S. News ranking methodology, leaving schools with fewer resources to be penalized for their school-funded jobs by those same rankings,” the letter states. “We support all law schools’ efforts to provide funding for public interest fellowships regardless of specific funding levels, and recognize that in this time of compromised tuition revenue, schools are not equally situated to fund these important public service opportunities.”

Comments opposed to the revision also came from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, a Denver-based think tank, and Scott Norberg, a law professor at Florida International University who is a member of the section’s Standards Review Committee.

“The council’s decision is likely to have significant consequences for law school career services professionals, and for the law school rankings, but was made without any of the transparency or procedures that have accompanied such decisions in the past,” wrote Norberg, a former deputy managing director with the section. “A major beneficiary will be the school of the party that made the proposal. For all these reasons, I urge that the matter be sent to the Standards Review Committee for some further work.”

Mahoney was dean of the University of Virginia School of Law from 2008 to 2016. He told that his motive for the memo was to simplify the employment questionnaire, not give his school an advantage for its employment data.

“If UVA, NYU, Yale and other peer schools simply stopped offering fellowships altogether, the net result would be to decrease public interest employment and increase law firm employment, with a trivial impact on their graduates’ overall employment and therefore a trivial impact on rankings,” Mahoney said.

The University of Virginia’s class of 2016 had 330 members, 19 of which had full-time, long-term, JD-required jobs funded by the school and 293 that had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a law degree, according to its employment summary (PDF).

Among those supporting the employment questionnaire revision were the law school deans at Notre Dame, Yale and four University of California schools. The California deans’ letter (PDF) notes that the UC System invests $4.5 million annually in summer and post-graduate public service positions.

“Law schools that provide such fellowships … are making a substantial investment in public service and should not be penalized for doing so,” the letter stated. “The failure to treat positions the same regardless of funding gives prospective law students and the public a misleading picture of actual employment numbers.”

At the five law schools in the University of California system, there was a total of 1,202 graduates in 2016, according to the employment questionnaires from Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles and Hastings. Of those grads, just over 70 percent (842) had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a law degree, while 6.7 percent (82) had school-funded jobs.

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