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George Washington University Law School Reverses Course, Restores Funding for Unemployed Grads Program

Life moves pretty fast in the digital age. Yesterday, we reported on the horrendous decision by Dean Paul Schiff Berman of George Washington University Law School to cut the stipend of GW Law’s “Pathways to Practice” program. The program is for unemployed graduates who get a stipend from the school to take a fellowship while they continue to look for more remunerative work.

When George Washington Law students signed up for the program a month ago — just in time to be counted as “employed upon graduation” — they were told that the stipend would be $15 per hour for a 35-hour work week. But Dean Berman decided that GW Law grads needed more of an incentive to find paying work, and yesterday he announced a plan to cut the stipend by a third, to $10 per hour.

Last night, after an outcry from students (and some bad press), Dean Berman changed his mind and decided to restore funding to the $15 per hour level.

Good times! There’s nothing quite like having to fight and beg for a one-year, $15-an-hour job after paying $45,750 per year in tuition.

In his letter reversing his decision, Berman has recast the reasons for wanting to cut the funding in the first place. I hope the class of 2013 is paying attention, because in the high likelihood that funding is cut next year, this is the justification you should expect to see….

Dean Berman’s letter to students starts out with an apology for not “explaining” his rationale for cutting funding correctly. Yesterday, Berman said that anecdotal evidence made him believe that some students were hanging on to their luxurious $15-per-hour jobs instead of “jumping” at real, paying jobs. In his reversal email, Berman said this:

In hindsight, I apologize for not doing a better job of explaining my rationale for this decision. It was not made lightly, nor in a vacuum.

I designed this program to be the most generous it could possibly be, and indeed it is among the most, if not the most, generous program of its kind in the country. And contrary to what some believe, this program does not impact GW’s ABA placement statistics since those statistics specifically separate out positions funded by the University.

Sorry, I have to stop him right there. Nobody, least of all me, as said that this program impacts GW’s ABA placement statistics — I’ve said that it impacts U.S. News’s rankings, because U.S. News is not looking at the data at a more granular level. I’m going to go on and assume that Berman of all people knows the difference between the ABA and U.S. News, so I can only assume that line was a red herring meant to confuse the issue.

Anyway:

You will understand that supporting a program as generous as this one for a full year takes extraordinary financial resources, and I am trying to support the Program as best I can. With limited resources, our priority has been to accommodate all graduates who would like to participate, and we calculated that this change would make it possible.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that so many of you have already relied on the earlier funding level in making life choices. Accordingly, I will redouble my efforts to make the funds available for the Program, and I hereby rescind my earlier e-mail and will return the funding to its previously announced level of $15 per hour.

Well, there you go. It was only George Washington’s attempts at generosity that caused it to announce it was screwing people out of a third of their promised funding. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Or something.

It’s great that George Washington restored the funding for this program, but there is a larger issue here for GW and for all the law schools that have instituted similar programs. It’s clear that administrators like Dean Berman think that these programs should be viewed as Herculean and expensive efforts on the part of law schools to help students weather challenging times, but these administrations need to remember that the programs are only necessary because they admit and take money from more students than they can place in full-time, well-paying legal jobs.

Law schools want you to think that they can have these programs or cast their unemployed recent graduates down with the sodomites in unemployment land. But that is a false choice. A third option would be for law schools to reduce the size of their incoming classes to levels where they know they can find jobs for the people who graduate. A fourth option would be to spend more money on your Career Service Officers than your random tenured professors who teach one seminar a semester. A fifth option would be to (gasp) reduce tuition so that kids wouldn’t need a fellowship to take on low-paying work while they sorted out their careers.

In short, there are a lot of things that law schools are supposed to do to help their graduates succeed. Pathways to Practice (and other initiatives like it) is a remedial program designed to ameliorate a design flaw in the law school business model. It’s not a favor. It’s not a magnanimous gesture. You don’t get a cookie. There’s not a student on Pathways who wishes they weren’t in the program and instead in a full time legal job like the one GW suggested they would get when the school recruited them to campus, three years and more than $100,000 ago.

In any event, check out the next page for Dean Berman’s full memo. It’s very good that he responded to student outrage and changed his mind on this. Hopefully, next time he’ll talk to affected students before he makes a major change to a program after people have committed.

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