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Law School Transparency Still Fighting After a Decade (1)

Dec. 20, 2019, 9:51 AMUpdated: Dec. 30, 2019, 5:22 PM

When Kyle McEntee enrolled at Vanderbilt Law, he was not planning to build a career questioning the very system he was joining.

He expected to get a job at a law firm or with the government that paid the bills and his student loans. But all that changed when he and Vanderbilt classmate Patrick Lynch began looking out of curiosity at their school’s graduate job outcomes, and comparing them to those at other schools.

Some schools, they discovered, were making rosy but misleading claims like “95 percent of graduates employed.” It turned out those schools were inflating how many graduates had full-time jobs by counting unrelated jobs like waiting tables as post-graduate employment. The deeper the pair looked, the more questionable statistics they uncovered.

In 2009, after their first year in law school, they formed a nonprofit consumer advocacy and education group, Law School Transparency. Ten years later, McEntee still helms the North Carolina-based organization, funded by grants and small donations, that has become a key part of a bigger shift in how consumers weigh the benefits versus the substantial costs of law school.

McEntee was a paid contributor to Bloomberg Law’s Big Law Business in 2016, authoring articles on law schools and other legal industry topics.

Deceptive Numbers

One of the group’s early findings was that high starting salary salaries often listed for law school graduates were based on a low number of alumni responses.

“Some schools that claimed graduates made $160,000, for example, were basing it on as few as 6% of the responses that listed that amount,” McEntee said. “That was incredibly deceptive.”

When LST asked for more information about post-graduate pay, law schools refused, arguing it was too much work, too costly, and violated recent graduates’ privacy.

McEntee and Lynch were struck by the reluctance of schools to disclose employment and other data that they already were reporting to the American Bar Association, which accredits schools.

Avoiding public disclosure has historically helped schools secure higher rankings with the ever-popular U.S. News & World Report law school list, McEntee said.

LST also released a study in 2010 that laid out the lack of transparency in law graduate employment outcomes, and challenged the 200+ accredited law schools to disclose the percentage of graduates who were landing full-time jobs requiring law degrees, and their actual salaries.

Deborah Merritt, a law professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, said there was “a lot of puffery and exaggeration” in schools’ self-reporting at the time. “LST helped applicants understand how to read that data, and to make it clear what kinds of jobs they were,” she said.

Battles to Fight

As LST got underway, law schools were beginning to confront significant fallout from the Great Recession, which made jobs scarcer and applicants leery of the costs of a J.D. Then bar passage rates tumbled and questions arose about what law schools were doing to ensure their graduates became licensed attorneys.

McEntee kept busy. He spearheaded efforts to bar schools from practices that admitted students without a clear chance to become an attorney. He’s spoken at law school campuses, developed student loan data, created a podcast series, and posted data on individual schools’ job placement on the LST website.

Over the decade, he’s chosen to forego conventional legal employment, and the solid paycheck that comes with it, and remains committed to LST.

To attend his first ABA meeting in 2010, McEntee used frequent flier miles that sympathetic law school professor, William Henderson, who teaches at University of Indiana Maurer School of Law, gave him.

Henderson is among a half-dozen or so reform-minded law professors at various schools who have pushed publicly for new approaches to legal education.

Despite such enthusiasm from the legal community though, LST has not been without its critics over the last ten years.

Brian Leiter, the University of Chicago law professor who blogs at “Law School Reports,” concedes that LST “collects a lot of good data,” but said the advocacy group “has a fantasy about its impact on law schools. Deans don’t really pay attention.”

But Scott Norberg, former deputy managing director of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, credits McEntee with pressing institutional gatekeepers for more detailed information about graduate job outcomes.

“His perspective and persistence helped move these changes along,” said Norberg, a law professor at FIU College of Law, in Miami.

Recently, the organization has focused on accreditation and the bar exam.

LST championed an effort to revise accreditation standards to require 75 percent of each school’s graduates to pass the bar exam within two years of graduation, in order to ensure schools only admit students equipped for practicing law.

The idea was rejected twice by the ABA’s policymaking body before accreditors adopted it last May, overcoming objections from such high-profile opponents as former ABA president, Paulette Brown, a Locke Lord partner and the firm’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. Brown, the first black woman to lead the ABA, publicly said the measure could “decimate the diversity of the legal profession.”

McEntee disagrees, arguing, “We don’t diversify the profession when graduates don’t pass the bar.”

In recent years, more than a half-dozen law schools have closed or consolidated largely because of the stricter accreditation that LST has advocated. Some have also been placed on probation by the ABA.

McEntee said his organization is working on a law index that ranks schools on measures including diversity. It’s also advocating for lower tuition, which particularly at public law schools, has outpaced inflation since 1985. Salaries have barely kept up with inflation, he said, pointing out that black and Latino students pay and borrow more due to inequitable distribution of scholarships.

“We can talk endlessly about who or what is to blame for the exorbitant cost of law school, but it’s far more productive to focus on changing what needs to change,” McEntee said.

(Story dated Dec. 20, 2019, updated at paragraph five to note McEntee’s status as a contributor to Big Law Business.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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