30 Years after They Graduated…

The law school transparency discussion is animated by the assumption that graduate employment data from nine months out reliably indicate the ROI of a law degree. Readers know I question the “reliability” in the assumption, yet such data are reliable because of the importance of first jobs after graduation and that meaningful employment in the legal profession for large numbers of graduates vanished long ago. It’s a pitiful set of circumstances when asking for increased transparency in the name of consumer protection amounts to twisting the law schools’ arms into admitting to the public that they’re over-enrolled, overpriced institutions, economic stagnation or no.

Nevertheless, for all you transparentists out there, this month’s ABA Journal has a blurb about the efforts of the Section of Legal Education’s changes to the All-Important Questionnaire. The Section got a good heap of hate piled onto it for appearing to self-servingly decide against distinguishing between various job types, especially professional and non-professional jobs.

[T]he section will add several more questions to a questionnaire about jobs held by 2011 graduates. As of late September, the questions still were being developed and new jobs categories still were being defined.

But a letter mailed to deans in August outlined the type of information the section is likely to seek. It includes how many graduates have jobs requiring bar passage or for which a law degree is preferred, how many are employed in another profession, how many hold non professional jobs, and how many are working full- or part-time. The results will be published online by about July 2012, an accelerated schedule that will get the information to the public nearly a year ahead of the usual time. [Emphasis LSTB]

So there. Since there wasn’t any hope of telling fall 2011 applicants before they enrolled how their distant predecessors fared, July 2012 seems a fair time to gently inform the next wave what they should already know by a visit to their friendly neighborhood scamblog. Since it doesn’t look like there will be any independent auditing, law schools may find ways to juke these numbers.

Whether this development (dis)satisfies transparency advocates is not today’s concern, for I’m busy resolving a contradiction: Candidly informing prospective students that large swaths of them will be worse off if they go to law school cannot be good for law schools’ bottom lines. Bad job numbers means declining applicants means smaller enrollments means less revenue means reduced spending means lower relative U.S. News rankings means reduced prestige means new dean, yet Section members appear unconcerned if their efforts ultimately encourage applicants not to buy their product; instead, they’re more concerned about image:

[Section chair and New England School of Law (NESL) dean John F. O'Brien] also expressed concern that the widespread media coverage of the issue has obscured perceptions of the overall job law schools are doing.

“The vast majority of law schools have been doing a tremendous job of training future lawyers, supporting pro bono work by students and alumni, and finding work for graduates in an extraordinarily difficult economic climate,” O’Brien said.

Readers should know that NESL’s current annual full-time tuition is $40,904, up from $22,475 in fall 2004, an astonishing growth. Moreover, New England has the worst ratio of law graduates to projected law jobs of any region in the U.S. Surely Dean O’Brien knows that if any law school shouldn’t expect to prosper in the coming transparency era, it’s NESL. Indeed, it’s the poster child for the tuition bubble, and with the dean of such an expensive, parochial law school chairing the Section of Legal Education it’s no wonder transparency advocates question if the Section is a captured agency whenever it declines to adopt a full transparency regime to their liking, even though it looks like it will by next year, not that it’s set in stone. Yet herein lays the contradiction, for as the block quote implies, rather than cynically manipulating the Questionnaire to shield his law school from Impending Doom as many expected, Dean O’Brien doesn’t appear to care. This indifference surprises me because I doubt law school deans are excited by the upcoming orgy in tuition, salary, and faculty cuts that will inevitably accompany applicants walking by law schools such as his, even if it means razing the building and telling the 3Ls to finish their degrees elsewhere in the name of The New Law School Order. Deans must be predicting a more modest outcome, meaning continued over-enrollment. (A much better example of Dean O’Brien’s pacific outlook appears on the National Law Journal’s site discussing legal education.)

(Note: this confusing, ubiquitous “sanguine law school” attitude is belied by the defensiveness found in Cooley’s “Report One: National Employment,” which portrays law schools’ critics as bullies intent on vengefully depriving the profession of its badly needed practitioners and by inference law schools’ accounts receivables.)

Assuming they’re not completely clueless, this “modest outcome” entails either (a) prospectives acknowledging the likelihood of underemployment but applying anyway, or (b) the short-term data correcting the situation … but for only the nine-month period, after which market forces take over and erode the long-term value of graduates’ law degrees. Law schools will view this through a lens of “proximate causation,” i.e. they believe the students bear the post-nine months market risk. “Law is not for everyone,” they’ll say, but they’ll deny systemic over-enrollment or that their schools are superfluous. Both options belittle transparency efforts, for the former means that law schools will continue to be over-enrolled, overpriced, and possibly gaming the transparency regime, while the latter means that the “reliability” in the transparency assumption is wrong and the effort wasted.

If the short-term data aren’t reliable (i.e. (b) above), what long-term knowledge of the value of a law degree is out there? There’s the After the JD project (AJD) and a paper on the LSAC’s Web site titled, “From 1L to 401(k): A Pilot Study of the Later Stages of Lawyers’ Careers.” AJD is a longitudinal survey of 5,000 year 2000 graduates sampled in 2002, 2007, and 2010. I’ve found only two relevant papers based on the data. Sadly both focus on lawyers’ careers rather than JDs’ careers, and it’s only in the LSAC paper that we find that the After the JD project used only people who’d already passed the bar, and that by seven years after passing the bar (2007) 5.1 percent of After the JD participants were unemployed, and 7.9 percent had left the law entirely. If only they were able to start it ten years earlier.

“From 1L to 401(k)” is much better written and more interesting than any of the AJD articles. It gives us a sample of the fates of the mid-1970s classes. Of particular interest is Table 2 on page 5 (PDF 9):

So I had to bust out my grad school research methods textbook, and I can tell you that the Chi-square tells us the likelihood that there’s a correlation between the type of law school attended and graduates’ career tracks. The author should’ve given us the raw numbers instead of just the percentages, and my textbook orders me to chide her for not telling readers that there’re ten degrees of freedom in the table. The number in parenthesis after the Chi-square is the probability of no correlation between the two variables. That it’s 0.000 means that there is a significant correlation, and to give you a comparison, here’re the expected percentages if these two variables were independent of each other.

48.3%
8.4%
10.3%
4.4%
19.7%
8.79%

It’s odd (statistically) that late 1970s “urban” law school graduates did not find their way into government or in-house positions and instead “stepped out” of the profession, which in the researcher’s definition means they maintained their law licenses despite not working as lawyers. “Other fields” means they aren’t licensed anymore, and the purpose of the distinction is to give an idea of how many graduates still identified as lawyers by maintaining their licenses (or would have had they not been disbarred). I should also add that she was concerned about over-counting in-house counsel based on the methodology.

This isn’t much to extrapolate on, but if 35.3 percent of 1970s urban law school grads left the profession within thirty years, that doesn’t say much good about the value of the degrees their law schools sold them as compared to those who went to state (22.6%) or elite schools (27%). Although, tuition was cheaper relative to elite schools and law jobs were more common back then, so recouping the investment wouldn’t’ve required as much time in the profession. The ten-year standard repayment plan could’ve been sufficient, and we should be more concerned about legal education’s ROI than whether graduates have long careers. Suffice it to say, though, the NESL of 1975 was more affordable and charged a lot less than 86 percent of what Paper Chase-era Harvard did.

Table 3 shows us gender’s impact on law careers:

Trusting the “unverified” numbers, fully 36.3 percent of women who went to law school in the mid 70s weren’t working as lawyers in the mid-2000s. For men it was 25.6 percent. Take from that what you will.

But Table 4 goes for the gold.

I like how the author didn’t bother printing the Chi-square, probably because it’s blatantly obvious there’s a correlation between school attended and size of practice.

Thirty years is a long time, but while it’s possible some subsequent classes kept with the law longer, we know that to the prestigious go the jobs. Brian Tamanaha has graphically demonstrated this pattern is alive and well and likely worse since then.

I won’t copy Tables 5 and 6, but they testify to the signaling value an undergraduate degree from an “elite” institution has on career tracks even more than thirty years ago. With this in mind, you can see how downward mobility affects the decision-making of young Americans. With a dearth of living wage jobs for high school and college-educated people, demand for graduate-level education increases, and using transparency to tell the public that law jobs are now McJobs (or non-Jobs) doesn’t address the fact that there are so many such jobs in the first place. We should give credit to the moral character of the large numbers of applicants who prefer downward-mobile McJobs to a legal profession that offers them no better.

There’s more to the study’s methodology than the pithy points I’ve brought up, but we know that today there are far fewer law jobs than in the late 1970s, they don’t pay as well as back then, there will be fewer jobs going forward, there are more law schools than necessary, and the total cost of attending law school is catastrophically higher than in the past, so the tendency of significant percentages of legally educated Americans “stepping out” of the legal profession has worsened since the 1970s. I further believe that law careers are shorter, accelerating the “stepping out” rate.

So, is it worthwhile today to throw down more than $120,000 for an NESL law degree when it basically guarantees a career in low-paying small practice work for the majority of graduates who manage to enter the legal profession? Put differently, are the transparency enthusiastic NESLs under the Section’s wing clueless, CYOA-ing, or callous as to the long-term value of their degrees? Are law school deans like John F. O’Brien counting the days until they can fire their faculty and abandon their state-of-the-art law school buildings for the forsaken ones relegated to humanities departments?

My thoughts on the long-term value of a law degree lead me to two points:

(a) Much depends on whether applicants really care if the degrees they’re buying are disastrous career-wise. Rather than blaming the media for this by glamorizing law practice, pundits should look at macro-level forces like downward mobility caused by income inequality, but this requires viewing the law school problem as a part of a political problem, which the profession’s elite prefer not to do.

(b) Even if the transparency era arrives, law graduate employment data will still conceal a very high long-term attrition rate they may not even know about. They’ll figure it belongs to the nebulous category of information applicants are supposed to obtain from existing practitioners to “find out if law is really right for them.”

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3 Responses

  1. How do they define “elite” vs. “urban”? Is Vanderbilt “elite”? GULC? BU, BC, GW, UMinn…?

    • They don’t say.
      I’m taking it in good faith that “elite” is T14ish. UMinn would be a state school. Schools that emphasize part-time evening programs, like William Mitchell, would be “urban.”

  2. […] compare the After the JD 2012 survey with “From 1L to 401(k),” discussed many moons ago here, which covered a group of law students in 1975. It found that depending on the school, the […]

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