Among the many joys of having Judith Wegner as a colleague and a friend are that she is not only tireless in her thoughtful contributions to your work, she has the great gift of being able to see a complex situation clearly. In response to my last post about how school-funded bridge positions are or could be paid for, Judith posted a Comment raising a number of very serious and legitimate concerns. The issues Judith raises seem well worth further discussion, which I attempt here.
Are law schools funding bridge positions out of a desire to maintain their US News rankings and the prestige of their brands, rather than (or predominating over) a concern for the welfare of their students? This is undoubtedly true for some of the schools that fund these positions, and quite possibly true for most or all of them. Does that make school-funded bridge positions a bad idea? In my view, not necessarily.
Unlike any number of other tactics inspired by blind competition for US News rankings that are irrelevant or even inimical to the quality or value of the professional education a law school might offer, this is one that—properly administered (an important qualification discussed below)—could potentially complement the school's educational mission and directly enhance the value of a student's degree. The fact that the school is engaging in the tactic for the sole or predominant purpose of improving its ranking may affect how the benefit is administered, which in turn may affect the degree to which the tactic actually benefits students. But sometimes unintended consequences are good.
It does seem clear that private schools with more money are using some of that money to improve their placement numbers. (See my earlier post here.) But is this necessarily bad or invidiously unfair? The fact is that richer schools can use their superior resources to benefit their students in all kinds of ways. If they use those resources to fund postgraduate bridge positions, and those positions actually provide students with useful practice experience and improved entrée into a constricted job market, that’s a good use of resources. And if a law school uses its superior resources effectively to provide greater benefits to its students, it deserves a higher ranking.
Are students being forced to bear the cost of this benefit (assuming for the moment that it is a benefit, whether or not expressly so intended)? In some sense they are. Certainly if a school is spending (say) $1 million per year on postgraduate bridge fellowships, unless the money comes from a grant restricted to this purpose the school could spend that money on something else. That something else could be reduced tuition across the board, or scholarships, or faculty salaries, or facilities improvements, or eggs benedict in the student lounge every morning. But it's the dean's job to decide how to allocate the funds available to the benefits obtainable, and deciding to allocate this additional money to student placement and training (which is what the benefit is, assuming that there is one) is not inherently irrational or unfair.
Okay, then, is it unfair that this benefit does not uniformly benefit all students at the school? Not necessarily. Nearly every educational benefit is consumed unevenly. Some students use the library more than others; some use Career Services more than others. Some students need the kind of special educational assistance programs most law schools provide, while others don't. No one thinks it's “unfair” to provide this kind of extra help (often in the form of very expensive one-on-one tutoring) to only a relatively small portion of the class. So to the extent that you could say that school-funded bridge programs are directly reflected in higher tuition (a doubtful proposition, as tuition reduction is only one alternative application of the funds at issue), neither the cost nor the distribution of the resulting benefit is obviously improvident.
Are school-funded bridge positions misleading to prospective law students who assume that high-priced or high-prestige schools offer better prospects for placement? Quite possibly, at least up till now. And that’s a shame. As an aside, I’d like to draw a distinction between schools that are high-prestige (which essentially reflects a reputation for quality in some general sense, often deserved) and those that are merely high-priced. Many low-prestige law schools are as or nearly as expensive to attend as Harvard; and ironically it is the higher-prestige schools that disproportionately offer school-funded bridge positions to their recent graduates (see here).
But back to the question—are school-funded bridge positions misleading prospective students? US News has inexplicably treated holders of temporary school-funded positions as equivalently “employed” to those with full-time paying law jobs, while assigning 18% of its ranking to placement outcomes. This has likely skewed those rankings, which are reportedly the single most influential factor affecting prospective students’ choices for application and attendance. And while some schools reporting placement outcomes on their websites have expressly disclosed what proportion of their graduates hold school-funded positions, a number have not. Starting next year, however, the ABA Section on Legal Education likely will require this disclosure, and US News has pledged to change the way it calculates the placement factor in its law school rankings (though it hasn’t said how yet). All in all, the more we talk about it, the less misleading it gets.
All of which brings us down to the single most pragmatically important question: Do these placements actually help students enough to be worth the candle? The empirical data are incomplete, and I think the best we can fairly say is “maybe.” As I’ve previously mentioned, we just don’t know how many of the recipients of bridge positions this year or last are finding long-term full-time law jobs, and it will be very difficult ever to determine how many would have gotten comparable jobs in a comparable time without the bridge positions. Nor do we have very much detail regarding whether the existing programs are well administered, and thus as effective as they could be. The positions need to be the right kinds of jobs, involving real supervised legal work (rather than mere clerical or administrative work, or cloistered research for academics). The anecdotal data we have now suggest that many bridge positions are the right kind, but there is more to learn, and what we learn will likely suggest flaws in some programs. The beneficiaries have to be the right kinds of students, generally those who will actually be materially more employable at the end of the placement than they were at the beginning. We have very little data about this variable, but I would guess that a concern for selecting the graduates most likely to benefit from the bridge position is largely absent from most programs.
All told, then, an attitude of inquiry and even skepticism about this tactic is fairly merited. But current educational and placement models are resulting in dispiriting and even disturbing outcomes. Innovation is essential, and experimentation—with intelligent planning and due regard for the consequences of failure—should not be rejected out of hand. And some of the best conceived experiments will fail.