The myth of law school brochure power

As part of an effort to examine claims that law schools were responsible for “creating” the mismatch in the market for law jobs today I took a look at the kinds of information that a prospective student might have come across when applying to my law school, Santa Clara, in 2008 and 2009. As it turns out a good deal more detailed information was available to law students then than simple broad aggregate claims of 99% employment as Professor Brian Tamanaha suggested was the case recently in a presentation at the Cato Institute. In one breakdown on our career services website, two charts detailed a range of jobs students from the Class of 2007 had obtained as well as salary ranges.

In my view it is the availability of this kind of information that weakens claims that marketing materials from law schools were some how responsible for the rising tide of applications to law school in 2009 and 2010 which has now created an oversupply of young lawyers. In fact, for the prior several years applications declined yet the marketing materials were relatively comparable and certainly did not discourage students from attending.

In the face of this logic, those who maintain that law school is a “scam” continue to try to cloud the issue with personal attacks and claims that somehow the statistics cannot be what they really are. One page I looked at, for example, included a chart indicating that 122 students (out of a graduating class of 262, or 44%) reported to SCU their salaries and type of employment.

From that a law school applicant could deduce that not every one in the class responded with that information and draw conclusions from that relevant to employment potential. I think that was (moderately) useful information to potential applicants and it was, indeed, not an undifferentiated aggregate claim of 99% employment.

Like many schools, I gather, the school had to use other means than reports from students over time to complete the NALP survey and reach the final conclusion of 97% employed as finally reported to NALP. That NALP data, too, has a detailed breakdown. Some aspects of that breakdown were also disclosed on the SCU website. Over time more of that detail was posted. Of course, since 97% of the class was employed it adds up to 97%.  But there was not just an aggregate undifferentiated statement that 97% students from the Class of 2007 were employed.

At some point I think that such information breakdown loses marginal utility. The cost of providing answers to all permutations of information needed by law school applicants would be prohibitive, indeed, impossible as suggested by Acting Justice Platkin in the Albany Law School case.

At some point in time and for a limited time SCU did use a marketing brochure with the claim that 95% of SCU graduates were employed. At that same point in time, of course, the SCU website provided the more detailed break down of employment statistics described above. While I have no reason to believe the 95% claim was not true when used I believe that such a broad claim should have included a link to that information and have been appropriately qualified or else not used at all.

I remain unconvinced, however, that that brochure or similar materials at other schools or even the employment statistics at USNWR (prepared it should be recalled through a proprietary formula that made adjustments) can be blamed for the increase in law school applications in 2009-10 or in 2003, any more than these same materials caused the decline in the period 2004-2008. College grads are not as irrational as many in the “scam” school contend.

Thus, as I have said from the outset of this debate, it is not a surprise that two New York courts have thrown out cases against law schools based on claims that this kind of broad employment data overcame the reasoning power that god gave every college graduate and lured them into law school. In hindsight, of course, it is perhaps understandable that unemployed lawyers with heavy debt loads will look for deep pockets to help pay down the debt. (Update: Three California cases continue and one of the New York cases has been appealed to the state’s highest court.)

I think this is a problem that must be resolved in light of the value these young people can create for our society. We should not let the training they have received go to waste. I think there should be a federally supported debt relief and training program to provide a bridge over the next few years for law school graduates as I described here earlier.

I think in the meantime the SBA’s should work with the ABA and AALS to establish a code of best practices with respect to disclosure so that all potential students receive similar data about the legal profession. WIth the litigation strategy failing now is the time to put constructive alternatives on the table.