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Heather DiFranco ’01 awarded NALP Service Excellence Award

September 9, 2016 | Alumni

When the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s, law schools, like many institutions, were hit hard nationwide. With falling enrollment rates, firms extending fewer offers to new graduates, and a hard hit economic marketplace, both the media and the public were clamoring for more transparency in post-graduation employment data.

To combat concerns that law schools might be padding information to improve their job placement rates after graduation, the American Bar Association (ABA) implemented in 2015 an auditing system to give both the public and future law students peace of mind that the information submitted by member institutions was true and accurate. That’s where Heather DiFranco ’01 and her team came in, working on behalf of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in a workgroup designed to inform member institutions of the upcoming protocol changes, address member questions and concerns with the ABA, and help make the transition to the new system as smooth as possible.

“NALP has been gathering graduate employment data for 30 plus years to have a sense of not only the strength of the hiring market, but also what our grads are doing. Do they go into government service, or do they go into private practice?” DiFranco, who served as chair of NALP’s ABA Audit Protocol Work Group, said.

“At the time there was this belief in the media that law schools were gaming their data and their numbers. So the ABA started requiring law schools to also submit their graduate employment data to them. And a lot of the editorialists out there said, ‘OK that’s great, ABA, that you’re requiring this data but they’ve been submitting the same data for years, where’s the oversight, where’s the transparency? How do you know the data they’re submitting is accurate?’ That started the ABA working with consultants on devising an audit process where they would look at the data, look for supporting documentation, and basically double check whether what the schools were submitting was accurate.”

And what the groups found, DiFranco said, is that the data law schools have been reporting over the last several years, for the most part, are consistent with the reports submitted this year under the new audit protocols. And NALP and her workgroup anticipates that the new audit process will uncover no attempts at padding statistics or otherwise reporting misleading data.

“I hope that people see that law schools on the whole are good public citizens. We aren’t trying to fleece anyone, we still firmly believe the law is a great profession and a great career path and that the information is out there for people to make informed decisions and the information is accurate—so they can rely on it when they’re deciding if law school is right for them, what law school they should be attending, what they should be expecting to earn after they graduate, and where they may have the best likelihood of securing employment,” she said.

In her role as chair of the NALP ABA Audit Protocol Work Group DiFranco and her colleagues worked with both the ABA and NALP leadership to find ways to educate member schools about the new audit protocols, create best practices for data collection and submission, and to share feedback with the ABA on parts of the protocols that had discrepancies or ambiguities. They also served as a source of information for law schools as the audit was rolled out and reported back to the ABA on the cost of the audit to individual institutions in terms of manpower and time it took to complete the reports.

“I really think we did a lot of good work in the last year,” DiFranco said. “I think while there was still a lot of anxiety among NALP membership, they felt more confident because they had attended our programing, they had read the articles we published, the best practices guide we had updated, and they had called with questions. Our hope is that the ABA won’t find anything of concern and that we can take at least some small credit for that in terms of the efforts we made in making sure that our membership knew what was required, and had some tips and suggestions for how to make sure they were gathering and submitting documents that complied.”

For her efforts, DiFranco was awarded NALP’s Service Excellence Award for her ongoing commitment to facilitating a timely and collaborative relationship between NALP and the ABA during the process.

But DiFranco didn’t agree to chair the workgroup to gain notoriety or thanks for her contributions—she has a passion for higher education that extends to everything she does. DiFranco is the director of career planning at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. She also serves as the chapter adviser for Phi Mu Fraternity at Cleveland State.

“It’s dynamic—I’m always working with different people and there are always new questions to answer. And there’s certainly a lot of room for creativity in how we do our jobs,” she said of her work. DiFranco and her department are responsible for all of the professional development programming and career advising offered to their law students as well as employer relations development. They work with students on navigating career paths, document reviews, interview preparation, engaging in professional networking and personal branding, and social media presence.

In addition to these responsibilities, as the head of her department, DiFranco is also tasked with handling reporting requirements, assisting the deans of other departments with special projects, and working with the college’s advancement team on alumni relations and firm engagement.

While it’s a full workload for anyone to tackle, DiFranco said she truly enjoys what she does. As a college senior contemplating her next steps after graduation, she contemplated seeking an advanced degree in one of two fields—student services or law. Her father at the time was stationed overseas with the Foreign Service for the State Department, and watching his work and having the opportunity to travel appealed to her.  Wanting to pursue a similar path for her own career, she ultimately chose law school.

After marrying her husband in law school, however, the two decided to stay stateside and DiFranco joined a local law firm where she practiced domestic relations law. When her husband got a job offer in Cleveland, she took the opportunity to reevaluate what she wanted to do. She then joined Thomson West as an editor, where she worked for five years in the legal publishing industry.

When the opportunity arose to get back into the academic world, she leapt at the chance to join her two great passions—law and education.

“Looking back to my time in college, I was really heavily involved in student organizations and in my sorority and in campus life in general. I started thinking maybe there might be a place for me in higher education where my legal training might still provide value. And that was what then took me back full-circle to move back into the higher education realm. Career planning presented itself to me first and it’s been a good fit,” she said.