March 30, 2012 12:05 PM

Explaining ABA Intransigence

Posted by Steven Harper

Who are these people?

Recently, the American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar rejected an important recommendation of its Special Standards Review Committee. The proposed rule would have required law school-specific disclosure of salary information. No dice, said the council.

It raises a question that no one seems willing to ask: Who are these council people, anyway?

Perhaps the council’s composition is relevant to understanding why it vetoed its own committee’s effort to promote greater candor. In approving a host of other transparency initiatives that have been far too long in coming, the council stopped short of requiring what might be the most important disclosure of all: If a student manages to get a job upon graduation, what are the chances that it will pay well enough to cover educational loans, rent, food, and the bare necessities of life?

I don’t know how individual members voted, but their affiliations are interesting. The current chair is dean of the New England School of Law, which has a perennial place in the U.S. News  World Report unranked nether regions. (Regular readers know my disdain for the U.S. News rankings, which have transformed deans into contortionists as they pander to its flawed methodology. But as an overall indicator of general quality groups rather than specific ordinal placement, the rankings confirm what most people believe to be true anyway.)

Consider the other academics on the council. The Chair-elect is also a dean—Washington University in St. Louis School of Law (in St. Louis)  (twenty-third on the U.S. News list). The council’s secretary was dean at the University of Montana School of Law (No. 145). Others deans and former deans on the council hail from Hamline University Law School (unranked), North Carolina Central University School of Law (unranked), University of Kansas School of Law (No. 89), University of Miami School of Law (No. 69), and Boston University School of Law (No. 26). Another member is an associate dean—University of Minnesota Law School (No. 19). The remaining academic council members teach at Drexel University (No. 119) and Georgetown (No. 13).

Several other council members who are not full-time professors have teaching affiliations with, for example, Cleveland-Marshall Law School (No. 135), University of Utah (No. 47), and Arizona State University (No. 26, tied with BU and Indiana University).

Each institution has its share of outstanding faculty and graduates; that’s not the point. If these or most other schools had to disclose their recent graduates’ detailed salary information, would it make any of them more appealing to prospective students? Not likely.

The “appearance of impropriety” is an important ethical concept in the legal profession. Any dean or former dean on the council who voted in favor of salary disclosure should say so. Those who don’t should live with the guilt by association that will accompany adverse inferences drawn from their silence.

Here’s the current chairman’s spin on the situation: “There should be no doubt that the section is fully committed to clarity and accuracy of law school placement data. Current and prospective students will now have more timely access to detailed information that will help them make important decisions.”

Unless, of course, the information that students seek relates to the incomes they’ll earn after forking over $100,000-plus in tuition and incurring debt that they can’t discharge in bankruptcy.

Also from the ABA statement:

“The Council specifically declined to require the collection and publication of salary data because fewer than 45% of law graduates contacted by their law schools report their salaries. The Council felt strongly that the current collection of such data is unreliable and produces distorted information.”

If a 45 percent response rate is sufficiently low to throw out data as unreliable because it produces distorted information, what does that say about U.S. News‘ survey, which is used to calculate almost one-seventh of every law school’s 2013 ranking? The response rate for its “assessment by lawyers/judges” component was 12 percent.

I know, I know: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson, R.W.,â€�Self-Reliance,â€� First Essays, 1841)

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast

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