If it seems like a silly debate, it’s only because you haven’t been buttonholed by a law school dean who has had just about enough of your oh-so-funny jokes about his school.

Law deans, especially law deans of schools with underwhelming employment numbers, are convinced, convinced, that the “employed nine months after graduation” statistic vastly under-represents the value of their law degrees. Recent graduates of their schools who have been sitting around without jobs for nine months think that their law deans can go jump in a lake. But a small percentage of these grads will get jobs — mainly crappy, barely-legal jobs, which don’t begin to justify the massive investment they’ve made in legal education — between months nine and ten. This could make it easier for law deans to inflate their job statistics with a ten-month rule.

The law deans are few but powerful. The people aligned against law deans (recent graduates, independent third parties, pretty much everybody else) are vastly more numerous but lack real power to influence the rules.

Caught in the middle is the American Bar Association. Normally, you might expect the ABA to do whatever the law deans want, but here there are just too many arguments in favor of the basic consumer utility of the “nine months.”

And so the ABA has decided to delay making a decision until later this summer. What do you think they should do?

As Jim Leipold explained at the big NALP conference this year (NALP, by the way, has no official position on this issue), the best way to look at the issue is through the lens of consumer information. The relevant date shouldn’t be an arbitrary point in time, but should be tied to when a student’s loans come due. Prospective students deserve to know whether or not they will be earning money at a time when they will be expected to start paying off their loans.

From that standpoint, nine months is already a compromise in favor of the law schools. Most students need to start making payments before that date. Now I know this is a little hard for some law deans to understand, but people can’t pay back student loans with the fullness of their experience of three years of law school. They need money to do that, and for that they need jobs. Students going to schools that struggle to place people in jobs nine months after graduation should probably worry about taking on heavy debts to go to those law schools; that is the utility of the statistic.

BUT… it’s also an undeniable fact that as the market for legal jobs has changed, the timing of getting jobs has also changed. Fewer people are getting jobs at or before graduation. That means a greater percentage of the jobs that are out there are being secured after graduation, and most people aren’t going to hustle a job after graduation until they pass the bar exam.

State boards of law examiners haven’t caught up to this reality. Why would they? They’re state boards, and they couldn’t give a crap about the on-the-ground realities of the job market. Some states (EVERYBODY IS LOOKING AT YOU CALIFORNIA, JESUS MONKEY BALLS) take so long in processing bar exams that many students don’t have a lot of time to integrate passing results into a credible job search. This is especially true on the February bar. If your nine months start running in June, and you fail the July bar, but don’t find out until December, you won’t know if you passed the February exam before the nine months is up in a slow moving state.

But that situation describes a vanishingly small percentage of people. I think a lot of people, myself included, would be inclined to go along with pushing back the collection period if law deans had collectively shown any commitment to honesty or transparency, any trustworthiness or integrity, or really any hint of moral or ethical standing when it comes to accurate representations of the value of legal education. But they have not. That’s the funny thing about trust: when you willfully piss it away through years of double speak and fuzzy math, nobody trusts you. I’d like to think that deans are honestly concerned with presenting the “most accurate” picture possible, but I can’t help noticing that many schools collect deposits on the next crop of students on or around April 15th. If I was a cynic, I might point out that the nine-month date ensures that the old crop is collected before the new crop has to commit, while the ten-month date allows for a lot of “we haven’t collected all the data yet” tomfoolery.

Moving from nine to ten just sounds like a way for deans to count more people in terrible jobs as “employed” and further confuse the issue for prospective students.

My solution would actually require law schools to show their work, so it’s probably DOA, but I would just have them collect and publish both. If you have one group of people who really think that the relevant consumer information is employment at nine months after graduation, and another group of people who think employment at ten months after graduation gives a much more full and complete picture, why not collect and publish both and, you know, let prospective students decide for themselves.

One of the fundamental problems with law school transparency is that we have law deans who are really “law school salesmen” putting themselves in charge of the relevant information about law school value. It’s like trying to buy a house when the only person you are allowed to talk to is the seller. Law schools should just collect all the information, as much raw data as possible, and let the ABA and independent third parties sort out what is relevant and what is not. Again, you wouldn’t let a house seller tell you “the dining room is the most important part of this house, so I’m not going to let you look at the bedroom.”

What do you think? Should law schools report employment nine months after graduation, ten months after graduation, or both?

When should the ABA require law schools to collect employment data?

  • Nine months after graduation (57%, 151 Votes)
  • Nine month and ten months and after however many months law deans say they want. (36%, 96 Votes)
  • Ten months after graduation. (7%, 19 Votes)

Total Voters: 266

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Track job outcomes 9 or 10 months after graduation? ABA legal ed council to take it up in August [ABA Journal]


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