The Nearsightedness of Career Services

William A. Chamberlain, “Law Schools are Adapting to the Shifting Job Market,” in the National Law Journal

I think the best response to Northwestern dean Bill Chamberlain’s piece is some good old press beating.

“In 2011, law schools came under fire for charging excessive tuition, strapping graduates with unmanageable debt and for allegedly publishing incomplete or misleading employment outcomes to lure unsuspecting students.”

In 2011? More like 2007. For example, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition started in December 2005, Big Debt, Small Law began in 2007. The New York Times didn’t precede the scamblogs. Dean Chamberlain’s revisionism gets worse.

“Just a few short years ago, jobs in the legal profession were plentiful — although perhaps we remember those times as better than they were. Many students could rely on on-campus interviews, job postings or applying directly to government offices to get their first jobs. Networking, contacting alumni, constant follow-up and frequent lack of response from potential employers were not the norm. Rejection happened, but there always seemed to be another opportunity just around the corner.”

This might’ve been true for Northwestern grads, but career services are often nearsighted. Once grads have their “first jobs,” its work is done. This is fine, but that doesn’t mean we should rely on what they say regarding the long-term value of a law degree.

“If [post-graduate employment] information becomes standardized, prospective applicants will be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools and, hopefully, their decisions about pursuing law school will be better informed. Some of those pursuing the degree just for the money may be deterred, leaving those who have weighed other alternatives and are truly passionate about practicing law.”

Like many law school deans, Chamberlain believes standard economic laws do not apply to law practice; in other words, the most productive lawyers are those that work for less, and passion for “The Law” alone makes one a good attorney and creates jobs. Admissions departments also apparently have no capacity to screen out the hordes of greedy, mercenary applicants who by desiring a living wage must be incompetent attorneys. The idea that people who would make good lawyers are deciding not to apply because the profession has no place for them doesn’t cross his mind.

“One response to the market has been the proliferation of bridge-to-practice programs that fund unemployed graduates for a short time to work in public or private sector jobs … It seems more responsible, for the law schools that can do so, to provide funding for the unemployed graduate so that he or she gets legal experience and makes contacts rather than abandoning that grad to a low-paying retail job to pay the rent.”

This is the first direct endorsement of law school-paid positions for graduates. Oh what the hell, let’s call them what they are: law graduate dowries, but what I’ve read about them is that they only enroll a fraction of a graduating class and can’t possibly be sustainable. The graduates’ incomes are really their successors’ debts. One doesn’t have to ponder the veracity of Ricardian Equivalence theory to realize that this pseudo-Keynesian legal sector stimulus will reduce law graduates’ long-term living standards, IBR aside. Also, if career services personnel are so concerned about abandoning graduates why not tell admissions departments to enroll fewer students?

I must add that I’m still waiting for law schools to cook up a scheme in which they hire one another’s graduates so they can report them as employed in “academia” rather than “law school funded” positions.

“Even with high tuition and a contracted job market, the J.D. is still worth having. All sectors of the economy have been hit by the recession, but, in relative terms, getting a law degree still makes a lot of sense … [I]t remains the threshold to a worthwhile profession for those who truly want to be there.”

I have to credit Chamberlain with the backhanded closing, but it is confusing for him to worry about abandoned law grads and then close by saying that they’ll get law jobs later. If that’s the case, as a successor law student, I certainly wouldn’t want to pay for their dowries, but as I said, career services personnel are nearsighted. They do not have the credibility of Bureau of Labor Statistics when they opine on the long-term value of legal education, particularly when their work ends when graduates land their first jobs.

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