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Law Schools Face New Rules on Reporting Graduates’ Success

Ohanian Comment: As someone with an MA in medieval literature,it's no surprise that I've never equated a college degree with finding a job. I studied medieval literature because I had a passion for it. The day after receiving my degree, I got on a plane to New York City and found a job on Madison Avenue--because I could type 80 words a minute.

I realize it would be naive to assume people study law because they have a passion for the subject--without both eyes on well-paying employment, but tying the study of law totally to the market is degrading, and the deceit employed by schools to game the numbers give credence to all the bad lawyer jokes.

Of course if law schools were put under the same evaluation weight as public schools, then they would be evaluated according to the percentage of cases their graduates won.

By Jacob Gershman

U.S. law schools face renewed scrutiny over claims about their ability to find work for their graduates, a crucial selling point amid one of the legal industry's worst-ever job markets.

Some of the schools have been creating temporary jobs for grads by paying nonprofits and others to employ them, a move that in some cases has boosted the schools' standings in the much-followed U.S. News & World Report rankings.

A new rule adopted last week by the accrediting arm of the American Bar Association will tighten such claims, giving law schools less credit for jobs that they subsidize.

These so-called "bridge-to-practice" fellowships typically pay graduates $1,000 to $4,000 a month for jobs in the nonprofit or public sectors that often expire within a year.

Critics say such jobs unjustifiably burnish the results reported by law school deans, who are under pressure to make their schools stand out as the financial value of a law degree increasingly has been questioned.

A key selling point for schools is the number of long-term, full-time jobs taken by students for which passage of the bar is required. School-funded jobs accounted for 3% of all such positions in 2013, up from 2% the year before. That is a thin slice, but represented most of the modest growth in job placements in the time period, according to University of St. Thomas Law School Prof. Jerome Organ, a member of the ABA committee that pushed for stricter reporting rules.

Under the new ABA rule, effective next year, all 204 schools accredited by the group will have to leave out jobs they subsidize when reporting how many graduates found long-term, full-time employment that requires a law license.

Last year, George Washington University Law School reported that 469 out of its 603 graduates in the class of 2013 had such jobs by nine months after graduation. The school sponsored 88 of those jobs, or 19%.

Under the new rule, its employment total would be reported as 381, with the 88 positions listed separately. The cost to the university of creating the jobs totaled about $1.8 million last year, a spokeswoman said.

Two other law schools, at The College of William & Mary and Emory University, each subsidized about a quarter of the long-term, full-time legal jobs obtained by their 2013 graduating classes.

Davison M. Douglas, dean of the William & Mary law school, ranked 29th by U.S. News, told the ABA in January that "one of the reasons that law schools like William & Mary have a public service [job] fellowship program is because we want to help our students fulfill their aspirations to engage in public service."

William & Mary spent $814,000 on the jobs in the 2013-2014 school year, a spokeswoman said.

Emory Law's vice dean, Robert B. Ahdieh, said, "It is Emory's expectation that we will continue to provide significant support for our graduates in the face of a still difficult employment market." Emory, ranked 19th by the magazine, declined to say what it spends on creating the jobs.

Schools that pay for such positions say the point isn't to massage their job-placement numbers but to give graduates a cushion and some hands-on experience as they plunge into a tough market.

"I tend to look at the program as back-end financial aid," said Blake Morant, dean of George Washington’s law school, ranked 22nd by U.S. News. He said 90% of its graduates who receive such positions end up finding substantive jobs.

The new rule comes less than four years after the ABA last tightened rules about jobs data following improbable claims that more than 90% of recent graduates were finding employment, even as the recession knocked the bottom out of the legal market.

Starting with the class of 2011, the ABA required schools to disclose whether such positions were full time and required passage of the bar exam. Adjusted for those requirements, the data showed that under 55% of class of 2011 graduates found legal jobs.

When U.S. News released its latest annual rankings of law schools last week, it indicated its new methodology effectively penalized schools for funding jobs.

"Law schools with large percentages of graduates who hold jobs funded by the law school or university typically will rank lower than they would have if those jobs had been at law firms or in government," wrote Robert Morse, the publication’s director of data research.

Heather Hayes, assistant dean for career services at Boston College Law School, wrote to an ABA committee advising the group's accreditation council that "so many law schools are artificially gaming the system for the purpose of U.S. News rankings rather than genuinely trying to launch a handful or so of their graduates into public-interest careers." Her college sponsors two full-time positions for graduates.

The ABA is trying to strike the right balance with its rules, said Tracy Allen Giles, a Virginia bankruptcy lawyer who serves on the accreditation council.

"You've got students who are trying to decide what school to go to and who want to know when they get out, their J.D. is worth something. And you've got law school administrations and deans that are under tremendous pressure," he said. "We've got to get to the point where the two groups that are the most anxious have and present the most transparent and accurate information."

The ABA's oversight body also is weighing a plan that would require law schools to disclose more details about the credentials of new students, a change that could shine more light on the tests scores of those at the bottom and top of an incoming class.

"We know nothing" of the people of the bottom of the class, Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, said in a recent newsletter.

Write to Jacob Gershman at jacob.gershman@wsj.com

— Jacob Gershman
Wall Street Journal




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