The ABA’s Ugly Table Fetish
posted by Dave Hoffman
TaxProf reports on the ABA’s possible move toward more substantively revealing employment statistics. Key to the change would be a table that each law school would have to post on its website. The Table would list salaries and employment of law school graduates, and break it down into quartile percentiles.
What’s useful about this kind of disclosure is that it avoids the problem of misleading means and medians in salary– itself caused by missing data. That is, law schools aren’t able to collect salary information for each graduate. When schools calculate mean/median salaries, they exclude missing graduates, and thereby overemphasize the importance of high earners. As the relevant committee explained:
“Schools receive salary information from a fairly small percentage of graduates. Graduates reporting their salaries are skewed towards those earning the most . . . A school that touts median salary information, without appropriate qualifiers, is misleading prospective students. We propose that all salary information clearly indicate the number of respondents and percentage of all graduates . . . We would not require schools to disclose any salary information for a given category unless there are at least five respondents.”
To the extent you think that law schools are bad actors, and that the market won’t motivate disclosure, this is a good reform. I have a different perspective: it is a bad idea for an accreditation agency to micromanage the internal workings of law school business, especially when the data is then connected to the machinations of a deeply flawed, secretive and corrupting ranking magazine. I have particular doubts about disclosure of salary data. It seems to me that this is a classic example of a liberal policy that might have unintended consequences – salary collusion between market makers in the entry level job market. It’s also the case, as I am about to discuss in a Conglomerate Masters Forum, that the ABA’s meddling in the internal affairs of the schools can be seen as (yet another) attempt to increase the price of legal education & resulting consumer costs, while protecting incumbents. To be clear: law schools should be pressured to disclose more about outcomes (and inputs). But when that pressure comes from an accrediting agency that happens to be a guild, you have to worry about what’s happening behind the scenes.
However, let’s pretend like this exact disclosure requirement is welfare maximizing. How should it proceed? The ABA wants to mandate that schools produce & display a very, very ugly table. But, for Tufte’s sake, why? All of the information in that table could be better displayed in figures – Henderson’s bimodal distribution (using # of graduates on the y-axis), and then a few bar charts displaying where people work. I am quite confident that this is possible because I am putting the finishing touches on Temple’s self-study accreditation document, which liberally uses figures – instead of tables – to display data on employment, revenues, debt, and admissions. As Epstein, Martin and Boyd explained, Tables are ugly and are terrible tools to communicate data, especially summary statistics. If the ABA thinks that communicating this data is important, it should mandate that the data be presented in a clear way, not in an ominous, busy, 11 (!) column Table that no one, ever, will read.
Shucks, it is as if the ABA wants to pretend to care about disclosure, so as to maintain its accreditation monopoly, but to implement sunshine in a form that effectively destroys its utility.