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May 03, 2012


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Brian Tamanaha


Thanks for your series of informative posts on this topic. Your statistics have been very helpful. I wonder, however, whether you are being too charitable toward law schools in some of your descriptions of this practice.

Your first post on this topic appeared to deny that schools are being misleading or are gaming US News:

"Let me be clear:...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."

You appear to suggest that law schools are doing this out of their own pure motives. Although your current post acknowledges the gaming aspects, it continues to downplay the misleading aspect:

"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....

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.... 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."

The straightforward answers to the questions you pose, in my view, is that law schools are definitely doing it to boost their US News rank (while extending a bit of help to grads in a tough spot) and this practice is certainly misleading.

When musing about whether this practice is misleading, we should not assume that what we know and talk about is also known by most prospective students applying to law school. I doubt that many of them read this blog (no offense) or my own posts on these topics. And while more and more law schools (after a great deal of prodding and arm twisting) disclose this information on their websites--although many still do not--the information supplied by law schools is not always easy to apprehend (as you noted in a previous post).

Given all the bad publicity about law schools lately, prospective students may be aware that advertised employment rates should be taken with a grain of salt, but that awareness alone does not tell them what the real underlying numbers are at any given school. Your charity is admirable, but until we clear up this problem, I don't think we should downplay it. This practice, and the way we report it, misleads our consumers into thinking employment results are better than they really are.

Having said that, I agree that it is useful to consider ways to make these programs better, and the underlying data you provide is very helpful toward that end.

Bernie Burk

Brian, Your reading of my prior posts, and the point you make about the need for continuing vigilance and comment, are both quite fair. When I started writing about this issue, there were no data of which I was aware indicating how many schools were offering school-funded bridge positions and not publicly disclosing it. That only became apparent after the ABA released its Class of 2010 data. Overall, I’d have to say that my views on this aspect of the subject have evolved as I’ve acquired and considered more data, though not as much you apparently think they should have. Let me try to explain why.

The proliferation of school-funded bridge positions in the last few years raises (among others) two distinct questions—(1) what is motivating the schools that do it, and (2) whether it is “misleading” or “dishonest” to do it but not publicly disclose it.

You and I appear to agree that the motivation at most schools that offer bridge positions is some combination of a desire to improve their US News rankings and a desire to help recent graduates gain practical training and succeed in the job market. You seem to think that a school’s motivation has some bearing on the morality of its administration; I don’t. The reason is that, in my view, a school that helps its students get better practical training and job placements is doing a good thing, something that should make us view it as a “better” school than one that did less in this regard (all other things being equal). I would hope you would agree. Accordingly, a well-conceived ratings system would credit schools’ efforts to assist their students in these areas. This may be one of those rare instances where the US News ranking formula provides some appropriate incentives. Or as I put it in the post above: “ If [a law school] use[s its] resources to fund postgraduate bridge positions, and those positions actually provide students with useful practice experience and improved entrée into a constricted job market . . . , it deserves a higher ranking.”

Whether applying but not publicly disclosing the tactic is “misleading” or “dishonest” is more difficult. I suppose it is fair to say that schools funding a significant number of such positions and treating them as “employed” in their placement reporting without further explanation are not providing placement information consistent with most likely users’ needs or expectations, and in that sense are providing information that is “misleading.” (For what it’s worth, my own institution, the University of North Carolina, does not fund any short-term postgraduate positions of which I’m aware, so I have no axe to grind on that score.) US News has fostered and amplified this inaccuracy by treating temporary school-funded positions as “employed” for purposes of its reporting and ranking, and that’s regrettable.

But have any of the schools that have not disclosed the fact or extent of their funding of bridge positions failed to do so dishonestly, for example by intending to mislead prospective students (or others) into making ill-informed decisions? I certainly hope not, and I would like to think that any errors involved were merely ones of omission. But of course I don’t know. I can understand the urge to find out, and to call any actual malefactors to account. For my own part, however, while I’m not interested in making any apologies for anything that’s happened, I would prefer to devote my energies prospectively to devising tactics for improving educational and placement outcomes, and methods for accurately measuring the extent to which we’ve succeeded in doing so. I could use all the help I can get, Brian, so I hope you’ll continue to comment on my posts, and continue to contribute your own on Balkinization. Thanks for speaking up.


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