Sunday, April 19, 2020
Law School Transparency has put out a new report on its Vision for 2025. LST is a nonprofit dedicated to making the legal profession more transparent, affordable, and fair. The report identifies LST’s priorities, recommendations, and efforts to create more accessible, affordable, and innovative law schools—all with an eye to creating a more diverse law student body and, by extension, a more diverse practicing bar. (The report was funded by the Iowa State Bar Association—kudos to that organization and its leaders for its financial support of LST and its advocacy!)
I’m on LST’s board of directors, so I knew this report was coming, but I’m blown away by its depth and thoroughness. There’s a useful executive summary on pages 5-11. Some highlights:
1. Taking on US News: David and Goliath
The first half of the report addresses the wrongheadedness of our national reliance on Goliath: the US News rankings. As LST’s Executive Director, Kyle McEntee, said to me recently, “Ordinal rankings—one, two, three—convey authority because of their simplicity. They convey that one is better than two, and two is better than twenty.” But of course law schools have many dimensions of strengths and weaknesses, and prospective law students have a diversity of priorities, so ordinal rankings don’t address prospective students’ actual interests.
In response, LST is in the process of developing its own, more nuanced, rating system for law schools. Called the LST Index, it will evaluate schools based on a better set of criteria than US News’s clunky proxies. The exact criteria are still in development—LST will draft a list of approximately 50 criteria for consideration, then refine those criteria through an extensive public engagement period. Each criterion will be measurable, document-able, and provable. (LST has already workshopped some proposed criteria with D&I experts, deans, law students, and practicing lawyers at University of South Carolina and Boston College.) Then, the entire system will be improved through an iterative review process—does the Index measure the things law schools and law students value? More information about the LST Index is available at pages 31-39 of the report.
Meanwhile, as LST is developing an alternative to the US News rankings, it’s also lobbying US News to modify its existing ranking algorithm. I think it’s really practical for LST to address the problem on both fronts—loading its slingshot with the LST Index while also working with Goliath to be smarter about things. LST’s specific suggestion here is that US News replace its current “expenditures” data point with an “efficiency” metric. That is, instead of taking into account how much a school spends per student, a figure that will always make private schools look better than public ones, LST is suggesting that US News give credit to schools who provide more bang for their buck. An efficiency metric would consist of the ratio of tuition revenue to high-quality jobs (e.g., long-term, full-time JD-required or JD-advantage jobs) after graduation. More information about the proposed efficiency metric is available on pages 40-50 of the report.
2. Adjustments to the Law School Accreditation Process
The second half of LST’s report addressed law schools’ accreditation. LST has specific critiques of which accreditation metrics the ABA should ease up on and which it should tighten. These are more interesting to law faculty than to prospective students, but they’ll still be important adjustments that can make a big cumulative difference. In particular, LST is lobbying the ABA to allow more flexibility in how law schools deliver learning outcomes, review what full-time faculty members do to provide high-quality legal education, liberalize distance education standards (oh, how timely!), examine the diversity of valuable ways in which libraries contribute to legal education, and refine the variance system. On the other hand, as a matter of consumer protection, LST argues that the ABA should ask tough questions about why different students—particularly students of color and women—in a law school class are paying different amounts of tuition, and frankly, why legal education is so freaking expensive in the first place. LST has always been a proponent of transparency (it’s right there in the organization’s name: Law School Transparency), and the report makes compelling arguments for law schools to make more disclosures about law student borrowing, tuition discounting, and diversity. More information about accreditation changes can be found in Part II of the report, pages 51-84.
Lastly, a plug for assistance. If you want to help LST develop the LST Index or lobby for different accreditation standards, check out ways to help here.
(Cassie Christopher - Guest Blogger)