Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Ethics of Strategic Emp9 Reporting

I've offered a series of posts in recent months about how the "employment at 9 months" variable functions (or, rather, misfunctions) in U.S. News and World Report's law school rankings. As I explained in the first of those posts, "USN&WR's Emp9 formula allows a law school to score notably higher in the rankings by characterizing those of its graduates both unemployed and studying full-time for the Bar as 'unemployed and not seeking work' rather than as 'unemployed and studying for the Bar full-time.'" That observation led me to pose six questions:
  • Why does that classification strategy benefit law schools?
  • Which law schools pursue that strategy?
  • How much do they benefit from it?
  • Is that ethical?
  • How did we get into the mess?
  • How do we get out of it?
I offered my answers to the first three of those questions in an earlier post. I here tackle the remaining three.

Is that [i.e., strategically answering Emp9 questions] ethical?

I admit to having no particular expertise in ethical matters. I hesitate to judge law school administrators, moreover, as I can only imagine the intense pressures they face when they fill out their ABA and USN&WR questionnaires. And what I (or anyone) thinks probably doesn't matter much, anyway, given that USN&WR has changed its Emp9 formula to henceforth avoid this particular ethical conundrum.

I daresay, though, that the better fit offered by "unemployed and studying for the Bar full-time" makes it suspect to instead call graduates "unemployed and not seeking work." The latter classification plainly aims to cover graduates who, like trust-fund kids or new parents, choose to not work as attorneys. In contrast, anybody studying for the Bar nine months after graduating law school almost certainly failed the exam the once, wants desperately to pass it the second time around, and would seize almost any law firm's job offer. To classify such a person as "unemployed and not seeking work" demands a justification.

I don't think it would suffice to answer, "Everybody else does it!" Not everybody does. Nor would some vague appeal to the inherent unfairness of the rankings move me—especially given that innocent students rely on law schools to reply forthrightly to the ABA and USN&WR questionnaires.

I find most convincing the claim that, so long as it does not out-and-out lie, a law school can describe itself as advantageously as it likes. That argument recalls the tax attorney's refrain that no obligation exists to pay the government more than legally required. On that view, USN&WR offered a loophole that only the inattentive or foolish would forego. So, at least, goes the best argument I've heard for answering USN&WR's Emp9 questions strategically. Whether "best" here rises to "good enough," though, I cannot say.

How did we get into the mess?

USN&WR wrote its Emp9 formula poorly and then failed to fully disclose the ramifications. Some schools evidently found and exploited the resulting loophole. Some law schools doubtless considered and rejected that route. Still other law schools never even knew that they might have benefited from strategically characterizing their Emp9 data. USN&WR should either have chosen a better formula in the first place or at least have made sure that all law schools knew how its Emp9 formula (mal)functioned.

How do we get out of it?

USN&WR has now adopted an Emp9 formula that will disallow the sort of strategic reporting that has marred recent editions of its law school rankings. That should cure the problem at hand. Even USN&WR's revised Emp9 measure will remain subject to a variety of tricks, however, such as law schools temporarily hiring their own graduates or adopting creative definitions of "pursuing a graduate degree."

Let's return to fundamentals. Why does anyone care about post-graduation employment, anyway? First, because law students generally plan to practice law and, second, because they usually want to earn at least enough to pay off their law school debts. We can surely find a better way to convey that information than the current Emp9 measure. We might, for instance, track the percentage of graduates who have jobs requiring a J.D. or even Bar membership. Or we might calculate the average "new graduate's monthly salary/new graduate's monthly law school debt payment" ratio for each law school—that's a number that would-be law students would surely find useful.

There probably exist other, even better ways to figure out how well law schools serve their students. How can find those alternatives to USN&WR's Emp9 measure? By pursuing reforms that will make the assessment of law schools more transparent, accurate, and competitive.

[Crossposted to MoneyLaw.]

Earlier posts about Emp9 measure:

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