January 01, 2018 From the managing Director

From the Managing Director: Let's Talk Data

Barry Currier, Managing Director

The Section has always played a (if not the) leading role in the collection and dissemination of legal education data. That role has evolved over the years; there is now a hyper attention focused on some of it. This is a good time to review our policies and practices and to consider what changes, if any, we should make to what we do and how we do it.

The basis for collecting data is to gather information that is necessary and appropriate to review whether a school is operating in compliance with the accreditation standards (see Standard 104). Previously, we collected a lot of data that was not required for that purpose. For example, we collected each year the number of schools’ living graduates and their annual giving rates. Interesting, to be sure. Helpful, one could reach to say, to analyzing the resources available to a school to operate a compliant program (see Standard 202). But that is a stretch. The Section then packaged much of this data, on a school-by-school as well as aggregate basis, and sold it to the schools. Called the “take-offs,” the data was stated to be for the confidential use of the law school dean. Most schools subscribed, and the subscription revenue was a significant revenue item for the Section.

Recently, the Council and staff have been purging questions they deem unrelated or only tangentially related to compliance with the standards. This is an ongoing project which will reduce schools’ work in responding to the questionnaires and recognizes the fact that there is no basis in the standards to ask for information unrelated to a standard. Most data we collect is now made public. We no longer charge anyone for access or use of the data. Much of the data that others organize and publish derives from the data we collect.

We have stopped reporting certain data points that are no longer part of the accreditation review of a school. An example is the student-faculty ratio. Designed to give the accreditation process (and, eventually, consumers/potential students) a meaningful way to gauge the teaching resources available at a law school, the formula provided by former Interpretation 402-1 was so politicized that it was not particularly useful in analyzing a school’s teaching resources and an improper and misleading way to communicate teaching resources to the public. So, the interpretation was deleted from the standards.

U.S. News, however, did not reach the same conclusion; it continues to ask schools to self-report a student-faculty ratio computed in accordance with that now deleted ABA interpretation. From time-to-time, we are asked how a student-faculty ratio reported by a school to U.S. News could possibly be correct, followed by a suggestion that if U.S. News is going to use the data in its rankings of law schools, then perhaps we should collect it, require the schools to attest to its accuracy, and then police what is reported to that magazine.

It is true that Standard 509 requires that “all information that a law school reports, publicizes, or distributes shall be accurate, complete, and not misleading….” That includes data given to U.S. News. The standard states that a law school that violates this standard is subject to sanction by the Council, including measures such as public censure and fines as ways to police what schools represent and report.

We have contacted schools about public statements or data reports that come to our attention that may be inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading. However, the current size and scope of our operation limits what we can do as a fact-checker (a la Politifact) for legal education. I don’t know that that is necessary, and I don’t know that the Council would think that this was an appropriate role for us to play, even if we had the resources. I do know that at least some law school administrators and some observers of legal education believe that our role should include a review of what schools report to U.S. News and other rankers and reporters.

As a person interested in legal education, I agree that more data about law schools and legal education would be useful. There has been some conversation among the staff leadership of the ABA Section, AccessLex, AALS, LSAC, and NALP about whether a national legal education database to which we all might contribute our data would make sense. It would put a lot of data in one, convenient place and organize it to be more user-friendly than it now is. AccessLex is moving us in the right direction with its Legal Education Data Deck.

What should the role of the Section be in collecting and publishing legal education data? Should we limit ourselves to data required to assure that schools are complying with the standards or is there a larger role for the Section, for both consumer and research purposes? Should all the raw data and information that a school reports to the Section be made public? Does the Section have a larger responsibility than it is currently assuming to assure the accuracy of the data that is reported to others, such as U.S. News? What is the Section’s role in the public discussion and debate about what the data means? These are some of the questions that it seems to me would be useful for the Council to consider.