When Barbara Boxer and Tom Coburn start cooperating, you know something is going on. The two have jointly asked the US Dept. of Education's Inspector General to compile ten years' worth of data on American law schools, including such basic information as tuition and student-loan debt rates, graduation and bar passage rates, and job placement rates (hat tip to the NLJ). Rep. Boxer and Sen. Chuck Grassley, another pairing that should alert you that something is afoot, asked for related information from the ABA last spring, with the dispiriting results (or lack thereof) prompting this new approach.
The ABA, in what many consider a thoroughly embarrassing display of obscurantism and capture, has shamelessly dug in its heels in delaying requirements that the law schools it accredits provide some of this information, which most rational consumers would want to evaluate in considering whether or where to seek a law degree. Astoundingly, the ABA recently decided to allow accredited law schools to provide less job placement information this year than it required last year, specifically relieving law schools from reporting which of their graduates had found work requiring as opposed to merely "preferring" a law degree, and which students were working full-time as opposed to part-time nine months after graduation. The justification offered was that it was too hard to define these abstract and elusive categories in the limited time available, even though that data had been required in prior years (hat tip to NLJ and the Law School Transparency organization).
I doubt I am the first to predict that the results of this inquiry will prove deeply embarrassing to many law schools. We have already had two prominent institutions (the University of Illinois and Villanova) caught in flat-out lies about the qualifications of their entering classes. In the case of job placement data, many schools have protested that they are providing all the information the ABA requires, with the ABA apparently enabling the concealment of what prospective applicants would really want to know by not requiring the schools it accredits to disclose it. I predict that, between what some schools will have failed to disclose because they did not have to, and what some schools will have concealed through "creative" or outright dishonest interpretations of how to report what is required or manipulations of their data, a drastically different picture of the value of a law degree from quite a few institutions will emerge with the complete information now being sought. And a few more heads may roll (in addition to those of the Dean at Villanova and the Assistant Dean for Admissions at Illinois).
I am not, of course, suggesting that no law degree has value, or even that all have materially less value than they had three years ago. I do think there will prove to be drastic differences in the value of law degrees from different institutions. Many institutions will prove to have fairly and faitfully reported relevant information, and to have succeeded in providing educational and placement services worth every penny of the tuition and debt their students have incurred. Others will not fare so well.
I will discuss in subsequent posts some thoughts I have published and am pursuing in further scholarship on what's affecting the economic value of a legal education in recent years. In the meantime, let's get the facts out on the table.