In the Spring, a law dean’s fancy turns to thoughts of . . . jobs. In reaction to employment prospects for new law graduates that are seriously inadequate for what is probably the first time in the history of the American legal profession, employment outcomes data are the focus of increasing attention. Percentages of the next-to-last graduating class employed at graduation and nine months after graduation currently comprise 18% of the basis for the much-maligned US News rankings, the latest installment of which was released just last week (see here).
And rightly so. Just ask yourself a simple question: If you were deciding whether or where to go to law school, how important would you consider information about how many of a law school’s recent graduates had found full-time law jobs? It’s a pretty essential measure of how likely it is that you would be able to use the degree you were about to spend over $100,000 and three years of your life acquiring, right?
Now let’s take it a step further: How important would you consider information about how many of a school’s recent graduates listed as “employed” in fact had only temporary jobs funded by the law school they had attended? Pretty darn important, because realistically only those graduates unable to find a permanent, paying, full-time law job would take a temporary one funded by their school. (Surely you would prefer a temporary school-subsidized job to no job at all, but equally surely you would prefer a “real,” permanent, paying law job over either.)
Since the Great Recession began, we’ve heard here and there (and more recently here) about a few law schools helping out a few graduates with employment subsidies of one kind or another. But US News’s reports of school after school boasting over 90% postgraduate employment got us thinking—how many of those are really permanent paying law jobs?
The preliminary results of our inquiry are nothing short of stunning. I expect to post a more comprehensive dataset within a week or two, but at first glance it appears that significant numbers of top-tier law schools are subsidizing the employment of significant numbers of their recent graduates. Here are a few examples:
- Washington & Lee (US News rank 24): The school (and US News) report 89.4% of the class of 2010 employed at graduation, and 90.2% employed 9 months post-graduation. But according to W&L’s own website, a full 41% (yes, 41%) of the graduating class held temporary positions funded by the law school at graduation, and 10% of the class still did 9 months later. Take out the temporary positions funded by the law school, and the actual employment numbers are 48% at graduation and 80% at nine months.
- Vanderbilt (US News rank 16): The school (and US News) report 89.6% of the class of 2010 employed at graduation, and 91.6% employed 9 months post-graduation. Over 20% of the class of 2010 held temporary positions subsidized by the law school at graduation, and 11% still did 9 months later. Take out the temporary subsidized positions, and the actual employment numbers are 68% at graduation and 80.6% at 9 months.
- University of Minnesota (US News rank 19): Reports 91.9% of the class of 2010 employed at 9 months. 14.1% of those were in positions funded by the law school (2.4% of those in what the school describes as “long-term” positions). The actual employment number at 9 months is 78-80% depending on how you count the “long term” school-funded placements.
- Notre Dame (US News rank 22): Reports 91.3% of the class of 2010 employed at 9 months. 12.2% of the class held temporary positions through a school-funded “Public Service Initiative.” The actual employment number at 9 months thus is 79.1%.
- Arizona State (US News rank 26, jumping up from 40 last year): Reports 98.2% of the class of 2010 employed at 9 months. 12% of the class holds school-funded fellowships. Take these out, and the actual employment number at 9 months is 86.2%. [post amended 3/20/12 to include repaired link to ASU employment data]
- Even mighty NYU (US News rank 6) reports 96.6% of the class of 2010 employed, but 7.6% of the class held temporary “postgraduate grant positions.” The actual employment number thus is 89% (with some lack of clarity about when some portion of the grant recipients found permanent employment).
Let me be clear: These data do not show that any school has been dishonest in its reporting. To the contrary, all the information provided here is publicly available on the relevant schools’ websites. Nor do these data suggest that any benefit of this kind is intended to mislead anyone regarding a school’s postgraduate employment prospects. Again to the contrary, this is a rational strategy to help graduates find permanent law jobs in the current depressed market, for the simple reason that the best way to get a job is to have one, and the experience and references it provides, from which to move on.
But there are a number of very important things that these data do show. As mentioned above, we’ll have a more complete dataset in a week or two, but I predict that more detail will indicate that significant numbers of the most prestigious law schools in the country are funding temporary employment for significant portions of their graduating classes. And what that suggests is that the current legal job market is appreciably more depressed than many interested observers had previously estimated. We thought it was bad, but not this bad. After all, if something like one in five of the graduates of the 50 most prestigious law schools in the country can’t find a permanent, full-time law job within a year after graduating, what does that tell us about the prospects for graduates of the additional 150 accredited schools falling below them on anybody’s list? There are a number of schools in the “unranked” section of US News’s listing with nine-month placement rates under 50%. Holy cow.
Another thing these data show beyond serious question is that US News has screwed the pooch again. Since we can all agree that any rational decisionmaker would consider the prospects for a temporary school-subsidized job to be much less valuable than the prospects for a permanent full-time law job, US News’s investiture of 18% of its entire ranking in a statistic that fails to distinguish between the two when the former will sometimes be 20% or more of the latter inevitably results in some pretty serious distortions.
I will have more to say about all this (including some suggestions about why we are where we are in the job markets today) in future posts. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the Pre-Law Committee of the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has circulated proposed revisions to Accreditation Standard 509 and its associated forms (which concern the “consumer information” that accredited law schools must disclose to the public) requiring law schools to break out postgraduate employment numbers by (among other things) part-time vs. full-time; long-term vs. short-term; “bar-passage required” vs. “JD preferred” vs. “professional position” vs. “nonprofessional position”; and “Of employed—University/Law School Funded Short Term” (see here and here). Let’s hope the Committee sticks to its guns.
As for US News, it acknowledges the coming changes and says it “plans to incorporate this more granular data into our methodology for future rankings.”