When wearing a tie, don’t pop the collar.

Legal education is a hot-button topic these days. Elie Mystal and I have taken our debate on the future of legal education to UNLV and Cardozo Law, in appearances co-sponsored by the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society, and our roadshow hit Georgetown Law earlier today. (If you’d like to invite us to your school, most likely for the fall semester at this point, drop us a line.)

Despite disagreements over proposed solutions, folks generally agree on what needs to be improved. In an ideal world, law school would be less expensive, and legal jobs would be more plentiful. In an ideal world, more than 55 percent of recent law school graduates would wind up with full-time, long-term legal jobs.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in the real world, which is imperfect and messy and depressing. Law schools and their graduates have to make the best of a challenging situation.

Which takes me to the practice of law schools employing their own graduates. In an ideal world, law schools wouldn’t have to resort to this. But in the real world, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least when it’s done right.

So pop your collars in celebration. UVA, I’m looking at you….

Earlier this month, I noted the impressive “employed at graduation” rate at UVA Law School — at 97.3 percent, the highest among the top 14 law schools (and presumably all law schools). I wondered about the secret to UVA’s success.

Commenters directed my attention to the LST Score Report for UVA, which reveals that the school employed 17 percent of its 2011 graduates in school-funded jobs. That number is on the high side (the highest in the T14), but other top schools are also in the double digits. Here are the percentages of 2011 grads in school-funded jobs for the top 14 law schools (per Law School Transparency):

1. Yale – 12.2%
2. Harvard – 5.7%
2. Stanford – 1.6%
4. Columbia – 8.3%
4. Chicago – 12.3%
6. NYU – 12.2%
7. U. Penn. – 4%
7. UVA – 17%
9. Berkeley – 4.5%
10. Michigan – 3.2%
11. Duke – 5.3%
12. Northwestern – 3.8%
13. Cornell – 12.9%
14. Georgetown – 13%

Critics of school-funded jobs raise the issue of the school’s motivation: aren’t these school-funded jobs just a cynical attempt to game the influential U.S. News rankings? Perhaps, perhaps not, but subjective motive strikes me as beside the point. Any rankings system will reward some activity and punish other activity. The ideal rankings system will reward the good activity and punish the bad activity.

And here is why I think law schools’ hiring of their graduates, when done right, constitutes good activity:

1. Some income is better than no income, especially when you have huge student loans. And paying those graduates who couldn’t find other employment could be viewed as an tuition rebate of sorts.

2. Some experience is better than no experience, especially in a market where employers want young lawyers to hit the ground running.

3. School-funded jobs can and often do turn into non-school-funded jobs.

4. Some fields, such as public interest law, can be particularly hard to enter right after graduation. School-funded jobs can give recent graduates the experience and connections they need to get their foot in the door.

For a case study in how to run a successful postgraduate fellowship program, check out UVA’s Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellowships. From an article recently posted on the school’s website:

Brian Daner, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, wanted to pursue a career on Capitol Hill, a job market that is difficult for new law graduates to enter.

“The Hill is a very insular world,” Daner said. “Most of the time the only way you can get a job here is if you know someone, and I didn’t know anyone on the Hill.”

[The Kennedy Fellowship program] allowed Daner to start his career in the type of Capitol Hill job that he wanted. After working as a fellow with the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he was officially hired as full-time counsel in June.

That’s exactly how these programs should work. And Daner is not the only success story:

When he graduated in 2010, University of Virginia law alumnus Michael Robertson received a fellowship to work in the legal department of a nonprofit biotechnology industry organization in Washington, D.C. After his fellowship, he secured a federal district court clerkship and ultimately a prestigious clerkship with Judge Stephanie Thacker on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Impressive. Contrary to what some might think, the graduates who end up on school-funded fellowships are not always the weak links of the class. You don’t get a federal appellate clerkship, as Robinson did, with a subpar transcript (even from a school as highly ranked and good at clerkship placement as UVA). Some of these grads — like Daner, who turned down his offer from a law firm — could have gotten Biglaw jobs but chose to pursue public interest or government work.

Are Daner and Robertson outliers, the two winners trotted out to justify a much larger program? Apparently not:

“The fellowships have succeeded brilliantly,” [Dean Paul G.] Mahoney said. “We made a major commitment to public service employment and it paid off in the toughest legal job market of my lifetime.”

The Law School provides ongoing career counseling aimed at securing post-fellowship employment tailored to each graduate’s career objectives. A recent follow-up study of the Class of 2010 found post-fellowship employment information for 35 of the 40 fellows. All 35 are now employed in permanent, full-time positions — 32 as lawyers, two in jobs for which a J.D. was an advantage, and one in a position that did not require a law degree.

In today’s difficult legal employment market, finding full-time jobs for another 35 graduates is no small feat. Congratulations to UVA on that excellent result.

So what should a school-funded employment program look like? Based on the UVA program, here are some thoughts:

1. It should fund graduates for at least a full year (not just, say, the February after graduation, the crucial “nine months after graduation” mark).

2. It should support work for legal employers — no offense, Starbucks — and it should help connect graduates with employers, especially ones in public interest law and other hard-to-enter fields.

3. It should, at least in the ideal world, be funded by outside contributions, not by tuition dollars. (UVA’s program, which pays a salary of $30,000 a year to fellows, is funded by “alumni and friends of the law school.”)

If a program meets these requirements, it’s a good thing. It’s good for the graduates, who receive income and experience, and it’s good for the law school, which gets a boost in its employment score (and U.S. News ranking). These programs aren’t cheap — UVA spends seven figures a year on its postgraduate fellowships — but they are worth it.

Of course, one could argue that school-funded job programs, even the well-designed ones, could have some negative ancillary effects. They could, by boosting overall employment figures, mislead prospective law students about post-graduate job prospects. They might function as a “crutch” for law schools, keeping them from taking a tough look at themselves and implementing necessary reforms, such as shrinking the sizes of entering classes and training graduates better for the job market.

But I’m not hugely troubled by these potential issues. Regarding the first problem, prospective law students are more aware than ever about the ways that law schools boost their employment scores, thanks to media scrutiny and organizations like Law School Transparency (which may explain why law school applications are cratering). Regarding the second problem, the “crutch” isn’t that sturdy — law schools have no choice but to innovate and reform (and probably shrink) themselves, at least if they want to remain in business.

Law-school-funded job programs, if structured properly, should be applauded and encouraged. It would be great if we lived in an ideal world — anyone else remember those 2007 bonuses? — but we don’t. Until we reach a new equilibrium in the legal education and employment markets, law school fellowship programs represent a pragmatic solution to the problems of the real world.

P.S. If you enjoyed this more optimistic take on law schools and legal employment, please check out some of my prior pro-law-school posts — e.g., here, here, here, and all of these law school success stories. While we want prospective law students to think carefully before investing time and treasure in pursuit of a law degree, it’s not accurate to say that we are uniformly negative about legal education here at Above the Law.

Kennedy Fellowships Open Doors to Public Service [University of Virginia School of Law]

Earlier: Who Has the Best ‘Employed at Graduation’ Rate Among the Top 14 Law Schools?
Which Law Schools Employed the Most Graduates as Real Lawyers Versus Real Baristas?


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