Law schools: Still hiding the sad truth from students?

March 20, 2013, 5:04 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Law schools are coming under scrutiny like never before — and for good reason.

According to a new analysis from nonprofit research group Law School Transparency, almost 80% of nearly 200 accredited legal institutions offer incomplete, inaccurate, or even misleading job placement information on their school websites.

As tuition has climbed but legal jobs have evaporated, American law schools are being taken to task on the grounds that they have not been forthcoming about graduates’ financial burdens and employment prospects. Such misrepresentations have led students to believe that substantial loans will be offset by a steady five- or six-figure annual salary.

In fact, jobs requiring a law degree are scarce in many parts of the country, compared to the number of law graduates out there, and swaths of students in recent years have plunged into major debt, casting a shadow on the viability of the legal profession.

To be sure, college seniors and recent graduates are also dealing with mounting debt and fleeting job prospects, but law school has always had a special resonance as an all-but-sure ladder to the middle class (and beyond). It is only recently that the juris doctor degree has begun to be viewed as fraught with serious financial consequences.

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While some law schools are taking some defensive steps — including teaching more professional skills to students — many have yet to provide adequate data so students know, going in, the overall amount of debt they will incur and their actual job prospects.

“School websites are one of the first places that potential students search for information,” says Kyle McEntee, who helped found Law School Transparency, which monitors the country’s 200 American Bar Association accredited law schools. By and large, however, prospective students “still have to scour such sites for their most basic questions,” says McEntee, co-author of Law School Transparency’s “Winter 2013 Transparency Index Report.”

Last year, the ABA changed its accrediting standards, requiring law schools to provide more information to prospective students that could affect student debt and post-graduate employment prospects.

The ABA now requires schools to detail the number of law school students who receive conditional scholarships for their first year of school. In some cases, students entering on generous scholarships find themselves shouldering the much higher, full tuition burden for the second and third years. Law schools must also provide the percentage of graduates employed in jobs nine months after they leave law school, where a J.D. degree is either required or advantageous.

Law School Transparency compiled ratings of law schools and found weak adherence to these new requirements across the board. Since the report was published earlier this month, McEntee says that about 100 law schools have added information to their websites to address some of the information gaps. “But there is still a long way to go,” he says. “Information that is incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading is usually not intentional but stems from carelessness, misinformation, and unverified assumptions.”

Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid, and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School, says law schools have growing increasingly aware of the major shift in the job landscape. “We had not been doing anything different than other law schools,” she says, noting that graduates had gone on to prestigious private firms, nonprofits, and government jobs or clerkships. “Our students were getting great jobs, but then the economy changed and we began to see some decline in offers.”

Michigan began to post more information on its website, including data compiled by the National Association for Legal Career Professionals, called NALP, that describes law school graduate salaries, the date graduates receive their job offer, and how graduates have found jobs.

Even with a top job placement record, Zearfoss says Michigan continues to add features designed to help students, including its new “debt wizard,” which allows a student to correlate the amount of debt accrued with future earnings.

“When schools are not forthcoming with numbers, there is a sense of insecurity about the point of becoming a lawyer,” she argues. While job placement has not rebounded to 2008 levels, 91.5% of the most recent Michigan Law graduates landed jobs where a law degree was required or advantageous, she says.

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Michigan Law has received passing grades across the board from Law School Transparency. But it is among only about 20% of schools in the study that have achieved that level of openness. At the same time, law schools are feeling pressure to be more open because applications are half of what they were a decade ago, even as more law schools have opened their doors during that same period.

According to the Law School Admission Council, the number of applicants to enter in fall 2013 is at about 46,600, down 18% from the 60,000 who applied to enter in fall 2012 and less than half of the 100,600 people who applied in 2004.

While large and elite schools are seeing a shrinking applicant pool, schools like the University of Oklahoma Law School, in Norman, have had little disruption. The state law school places 88.8% of its graduates, with many going on to jobs in the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma and some to Texas, says Casey Delaney, the school’s director of professional and career development.

Oklahoma received a positive rating from Law School Transparency for the inclusive student loan and job placement data it provides prospective students.

“We have not seen a drop-off in enrollment, but we are focused on low debt,” says Delaney, who graduated from the school in 2005. “At the end of school, I have to sit down and face these students, so we make sure we do everything we can for them.”