What Harvard Law Students Need to Know About Law School Transparency

In March 2012, I participated on a panel at Harvard Law School’s Global Legal Education Forum. We were asked to unpack the crisis in legal education. As co-founder of Law School Transparency (LST), I discussed the importance of eliminating deceptive law school marketing and increasing the availability of high-quality consumer information. One of our core goals is to empower prospective law students to make smart decisions about whether and where to attend law school. Information, and the narrative surrounding the pursuit of transparency, is paramount to that goal.

Prior to the panel, a well-meaning event organizer approached me. He accurately predicted that my opening remarks would stress how reliable consumer information stimulates competition. The S.J.D. student then suggested that I eliminate the word “consumer” from LST’s advocacy efforts. While he agreed that transparency was critical, he reasoned that pursuing a legal education is not merely or even predominately transactional. We were likely to lose out on potential support from some within the legal academy by using consumer-laden terms.

I thought carefully about his advice for weeks. Ultimately, I decided to stick with the evocative consumer frame. These word choices remind those in and around the profession, as well as those who want to join it, that pursuing a legal education has a distinctly transactional feel. Obtaining a legal education may be primarily about acquiring new knowledge and new skills, but choosing to attend law school today has an awful lot in common with buying a car or obtaining a mortgage.

Neither a home nor car purchase is inherently hazardous, but when a sophisticated party enjoys a major advantage over the other, e.g. an information asymmetry or disparate bargaining power, the results get unfair quickly. The law school process is brimming with examples demonstrating that students need help overcoming foreseeable disadvantages—especially would-be first-generation lawyers.

For many years, law schools withheld meaningful post-graduation employment data from students. The American Bar Association’s accreditation process blessed deceptive if not fraudulent statistics manufactured by schools. Schools counted all employed graduates equally, whether they worked as an associate at a large firm or as a barista at Starbucks or in a temporary job at their law school. Schools also declined to publish survey response rates when advertising starting salaries. Against a widespread belief that law school is a ticket to financial security, statistical chicanery distorted decision-making. Many students would have chosen another school or demanded to pay less if they had known the truth.

Competition among law schools is fiercer than ever. Schools still hire their own graduates to boost employment rates and rankings, although they must disclose it. While disclosure norms have changed, 40% of law schools still do not share their NALP Report, a handy report teeming with useful consumer information. Every school receives its school-specific report from NALP annually.

Unfortunately, Harvard Law School remains one of the holdouts. HLS should have nothing to hide, so the school has zero excuse to withhold information from its applicants. HLS could choose to disclose its NALP Report and stop aiding other schools from distorting student decision-making.

In addition to a continued information asymmetry, law schools have become more creative in their marketing, particularly concerning pedagogical and curricular changes that are challenging to parse. Even the cost of obtaining a legal education is obscure for students. The accumulation of interest on student loans during law school surprises more students than it should. Tuition increases are inevitable yet difficult to predict. And many law schools prey on optimism bias through conditional scholarship programs, which eliminate scholarships based on GPA and cause these students to subsidize higher-performing students.

Applicants also generally misunderstand the purpose of most scholarships; they frequently view scholarships as gifts rather than incentives. As we reinforce the effectiveness of negotiation and emphasize the strong bargaining position today’s applicants have in a soft market, we empower them to confront extraordinarily high prices.

Law schools leave too many people full of potential without hope post-law school. Poor choices in a life-altering financial commitment negatively impact students and their families. Purchasing a legal education is a transaction, and reliable consumer information is essential for combatting unfairness. We can help students become more sophisticated, like the institutions collecting their tuition.

We will continue to change the rules and the norms so that new lawyers join our profession with their eyes wide open. To this end, LST provides prospective law students with two key resources. The LST Reports offer a popular alternative to the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. We also recently launched a podcast called I Am the Law, which expands public knowledge about the many roles that lawyers play.

We built the LST Reports (www.LSTScoreReports.com) on ABA-required data and data that we obtain from law schools through voluntary disclosure. To help people sift through schools and mountains of data, we carefully organize employment, admissions, and financial data. We help visitors see the big picture and, if they choose, the fine detail. In effect, we empower them to make strategic decisions and informed choices.

Statistics drive the LST Reports. Quantitative measures have significant merit, but answer only some questions. Indeed, “Do I want to be a lawyer?” is better answered with qualitative information. Our new podcast (www.LSTRadio.com) seeks to help people determine what, if any, legal jobs will satisfy them.

Each episode includes an informational interview with a lawyer about what his or her job entails. Our audience gains access to many more lawyers than they can interview on their own, and our hosts ask questions that provoke thoughtful, revealing answers. The interviews will help prospective students investigate whether a legal career is a good match. We hope they will also expose law students to jobs they haven’t considered. The result will be more students pursuing careers based on facts rather than fictions.

The bottom line is that the legal profession has an obligation to maximize the flow of useful, reliable consumer information. These efforts will aid students, prospective students, alumni, and clients. Our country needs lawyers, but they should be lawyers who are part of a transparent, affordable, and fair profession.