The truth trumps top 14

Dave Player

Last December, when my fellow law students and I were cramming for finals, we received news that our fearless leader, Dean Lawrence Sager, had been fired. This past month, once again cramming for finals, we received more welcome news: distinguished legal scholar Ward Farnsworth had been hired as the new dean. Dean Farnsworth brings an impressive list of accolades to UT, though some of us were already familiar with him as the author of our torts textbook.

In an introductory email to students, Dean Farnsworth invited us to give feedback on how the law school can perform better going forward. I’m sure many of my fellow students would like to see more flexible class schedules, fewer tuition increases or a return to the US News & World Report’s cherished “T-14.” However, I only have one request of the new Dean and his administration: above all else, never lie to us.

I don’t mean to imply that Dean Farnsworth, or any of the law school’s exceptional administrators would do such a thing. I have never had a negative experience with any member of the staff or administration. But recently their peers at other law schools have failed to uphold those ethical standards.

In the past year both the University of Illinois and Villanova University were publically embarrassed after they were caught fabricating admissions statistics in order to improve their positions in the law school rankings. More troubling is how some law schools have inflated their employment statistics, thereby misleading prospective and current students as to the likelihood they’ll be able to find employment. Last year 15 law schools were named in a class action by former students who alleged that the schools engaged in deceptive business practices by purposefully misleading prospective students. Those schools, which are all part of the “fourth-tier,” routinely reported post-grad employment rates well over 90 percent. Those numbers came despite the fact that the national employment rate for law graduates last year was only 85.6 percent, with only 65.4 percent of jobs requiring bar passage. The nation’s worst law schools were claiming that they were out-performing the national average.

The impact of those allegations of fraud have been compounded by a struggling legal industry. Rampant unemployment is coupled with the sky-rocketing cost of a legal education. The National Law Journal recently estimated the average debt for the class of 2015 will be $210,796 once cost-of-living is included. The result is a proverbial death trap where graduates are saddled with debt and can’t find employment to pay it off. It’s a familiar story, but the impact on law students has been especially hard.

UT Law hasn’t committed the kind of egregious misrepresentations that other law schools have engaged in, but the school can still do better when it comes to accurately presenting graduates’ employment statistics. For instance, the school’s 2011-12 Admissions Bulletin claims that, in an average year, 97 percent of graduates are employed within nine months of graduation. However, the past few years have not been “average” when it comes to finding employment. In 2008, the number of graduates employed within nine months was approximately 94.5 percent. In 2009, the number dropped to 92.8 percent. Last year it was 89 percent.

Furthermore, those numbers do not necessarily mean graduates are obtaining stable employment. The employment data for the class of 2011 includes graduates working positions that are short-term or part-time as part of the total number of “employed” graduates. Of this year’s 382 graduates, only 302 are actually employed in long-term, full-time positions.

Statistics such as the claim of 97 percent employment may technically be accurate, but they’re not a good faith attempt to inform prospective students about the realities of the current job market, which are bleak even at a law school with UT’s prestige.

That doesn’t mean that any members of the UT Law community have acted unethically or lack principle. The school’s leaders are always under enormous pressure to improve UT’s position in the extremely influential law school rankings. It’s a laudable goal as well. Improvements in the rankings help to bolster the law school’s reputation, and my classmates and I will soon be relying on that brand as we search for jobs.

But, we shouldn’t let our desire for a higher ranking compromise the school’s moral obligation to be truthful to its students. Giving up three years and nearly $100,000 is a life-changing decision that should only be undertaken after applicants have reviewed all of the facts. UT Law will best serve its students, alumni, and the constituents of this state by being forthright and honest about employment expectancy in today’s job market, even if other schools aren’t.

Dave Player is a second-year UT law student and a member of the Texas Student Media board.