Straight Talk About JD Advantage Jobs

April 28th, 2013 / By

Earlier this month, I expressed my concern about NALP‘s aggressive marketing of JD Advantage jobs to pre-law students. Last week NALP posted additional information about these jobs on its website. Although some of the data are interesting, NALP is still withholding key information it possesses about JD Advantage jobs: law graduates are much less satisfied with these jobs than with ones that require bar admission.

The omission is both regrettable and deceptive. NALP has published much of the data it collects on JD Advantage jobs, while ignoring some of the most negative–and relevant–information in its possession. This biased disclosure reflects poorly on NALP, but it also embarrasses us as legal educators and professionals. NALP is a membership organization composed of law schools and legal employers, so it speaks for us. The last thing that law schools need, after years of bad press about distorted job statistics, is publication of more misleading data.

As educators, we care about both our graduates’ welfare and the accuracy of data. NALP’s dissembling with respect to JD Advantage jobs raises real questions about whether it is capable of continuing to represent our interests. Perhaps it is time for law schools to create a different organization–or work solely with the ABA–to collect and publish unbiased data about the careers of law school graduates. We need that information, not only to advise prospective and current students, but to guide our own decisions about how to reshape legal education. Feel-good presentations that omit key facts will not help us confront the ongoing challenges to our schools and profession.

I summarize here some of the information we currently have about JD Advantage jobs, including the data omitted by NALP. I also suggest ways that we could begin collecting more objective data about these jobs. If JD Advantage jobs are going to play an important role in the future of legal education, we have to get serious about examining these positions.

Looking Back

There have always been law graduates who pursued careers outside of law practice. The information we have, however, suggests that most of those graduates embraced alternative careers after practicing law for at least a few years. An earlier statement by NALP, for example, acknowledges: “It is certainly true that people with JD degrees work in a wide variety of alternative careers. However, while that may be true down the road, lawyers most often choose a non-traditional path after practicing law for at least a few years.” (This statement still appears on the NALP website, but it is not connected to the pages promoting JD Advantage jobs as entry-level positions.)

This distinction is important. Graduates who take JD Advantage jobs after practicing law differ from those who seek these jobs immediately after law school. The historical record suggests that some employers value the JD plus law practice experience for certain jobs; the record tells us very little about the value of the JD alone for those career paths. When we advise current and prospective students about the value of JD Advantage jobs, we have to be careful to distinguish graduates who used their degrees plus practice from those who attempted to secure JD Advantage jobs immediately after law school. A graduate who takes a job in “compliance” right after graduation has a very different job from one who moves in-house to do compliance work after three years in a regulatory law practice. Their long-term career trajectories may also differ; we have little available information on that score.

Earlier graduates in non-traditional positions offer an important resource for gathering information about JD Advantage jobs and, if those jobs seem promising, developing career paths for current graduates. We have to seek that information, however, in a serious way. It’s not enough simply to talk with these graduates at reunions. We need to map law-related opportunities more systematically, seek feedback on which law school experiences are particularly valuable for those jobs, and analyze objectively how much a JD contributes to graduates obtaining those positions and advancing in them.

JD Advantage Today

As entry-level jobs in law practice have contracted and shifted to less attractive positions, law graduates have looked to alternative fields. NALP’s Detailed Analysis of JD Advantage Jobs shows how important those jobs have become. Among 2011 graduates who reported their job status, 12.5% took JD Advantage jobs. That represents one out of every eight graduates. As a percentage of all graduates, including those who did not report their job status, graduates in JD Advantage positions accounted for 11.7% of the class.

According to recently released ABA figures, the percentage went up for the class of 2012. Among those who reported their employment status, 13.2% held JD Advantage jobs. As a percentage of the full graduating class, these jobs accounted for 12.9% of graduates.

Those percentages are substantially higher than the rates reported during the century’s first decade. For the class of 2001, 5.9% of graduates reporting their employment status indicated that they held “JD Preferred” jobs; that category was the precursor for the contemporary “JD Advantage” one. For the class of 2004, the figure was 7.5%, and in 2007, it was also 7.5%. The percentage edged up to 7.8% for the class of 2008, then began jumping noticeably each year: to 8.8% for the class of 2009, 10.2% for the class of 2010, 12.5% for the class of 2011, and 13.2% for the class of 2012.

This pattern in itself suggests that law graduates are turning to JD Advantage jobs as a “Plan B” when they cannot find jobs in law practice. Interest in these jobs has not been “growing steadily” since 2001, as NALP suggests in its recent analysis. Instead, interest jumped significantly after the recession hit the legal market in 2009. We need to look seriously at graduates’ satisfaction with JD Advantage jobs. Do recent graduates hope to build a career in this work? Or are they using JD Advantage jobs as place-holders while looking for work in law practice? If the latter, how well can graduates make that transition?

Job Satisfaction

NALP already has data on some of these questions. As part of its annual survey of law graduates, NALP asks employed graduates whether they are “seeking a job other than the one” reported to their Career Services Office. The answers to this question shed important light on a graduate’s job satisfaction. Graduates answer this survey within nine months of law school graduation. If they are seeking another job that quickly after graduation, the reported job either lacks permanence or holds little appeal.

Responses to this question consistently suggest that law graduates prefer jobs that require bar admission over JD Advantage ones. In 2001, just 6.7% of graduates working in lawyering jobs (those that required a law license) were looking for other work; a full third (33.3%) of those with JD Preferred jobs were actively seeking another job. In 2004, the percentages were 8.5% (for those in jobs requiring bar admission) and 37.0% (for JD Preferred jobs). Three years later, in 2007, the percentages were virtually identical to the 2004 ones: 8.7% of graduates with lawyering jobs were seeking other work, while 37.7% of those with JD Preferred positions were on the job market.

NALP’s latest figures, from 2011, show the same pattern. With a tighter market and more ad hoc jobs, the percentages have risen in both categories. 16.5% of graduates with lawyering jobs were seeking other work, and 46.8% of those with JD Advantage jobs were doing so. For graduates with other types of professional employment, the percentage was even higher: more than half (52.1%) of those graduates were sufficiently dissatisfied with their jobs to be seeking a different one.

These figures further suggest that JD Advantage positions are fallback jobs, rather than affirmative career decisions, for many graduates. Some graduates may eagerly pursue jobs in this category, but a large number do not. Almost half are seeking other work as soon as they begin these positions. Even among JD Advantage workers who have temporarily withdrawn from the job market, at least some may hope to move into law practice eventually.

This is essential information to know about the job market, but you won’t find the data on NALP’s web page offering a “Detailed Analysis of JD Advantage Jobs.” A prospective law student or interested law professor would have to purchase NALP’s $90 book on Jobs and JDs to find that information. The student or professor, of course, would also have to know that the additional data exist.

We need to grapple with negative information about JD Advantage jobs, not selectively ignore those data. Which graduates are satisfied with JD Advantage jobs and why? What work are the other graduates doing? Will that work help them secure jobs that better fulfill their career ambitions?

Toward Better Data

As noted above, I’m not sure that NALP is the best organization to collect more data on JD Advantage jobs or other evolving facets of the job market. The organization’s recent treatment of JD Advantage jobs suggests that it is spinning data rather than providing objective information. The ABA might serve as a better resource for ongoing career information. That professional group is providing data more quickly than NALP, and it is publishing the data in both summary and detailed form. Law School Transparency is also offering rapidly updated, objective career information through its Score Reports.

Whatever organizations we work with in the future, here are some questions that we need to address about JD Advantage jobs:

1. What are these jobs? Both NALP and the ABA allow graduates and their schools to decide whether a job qualifies for this category. It is very easy for a JD graduate or a JD-granting institution to conclude that their degree confers a “demonstrable advantage in obtaining or performing” a particular job. These decisions, however, may overstate the value of the JD. Is a job as a substitute middle school teacher a “JD Advantage” one? What about a job as a police officer? Law graduates in these jobs probably would draw upon their legal training, but are these the type of jobs we envision as “JD Advantage” ones?

There’s no reason to debate these questions in the abstract. We should simply require schools to list the jobs they have counted as “JD Advantage” ones. The ABA could publish that information, both for individual schools and in the aggregate. Some students may find positions as middle school teachers or police officers attractive; others may decide that the JD is not the best route to those positions. By publishing the data, we can inform both students and ourselves about possible career paths for law graduates.

2. How many students take different types of JD Advantage jobs? Law schools count paralegal positions as “JD Advantage” ones, but they rarely tout those jobs. Instead, websites tend to refer to policy analysts and investment bankers. Following the previous suggestion would allow us to advise students (and ourselves) about the prevalence of graduates in these very different JD Advantage positions.

3. How do other degrees and experiences contribute to graduates’ success in pursuing JD Advantage positions? A JD offers an advantage for some accounting positions, but it is very unlikely that a law graduate could obtain an accounting job without also holding a degree in accounting. Similarly, some JDs in business hold an MBA along with the JD. To give our students good counsel, as well as to enhance our own understanding of legal education, we need to collect more granular data about the relationship of JD Advantage jobs to other degrees. This research might suggest that other degrees shoulder much of the weight in securing some “JD Advantage” positions. Alternatively, it might identify particular joint degrees as especially useful for law students. The research might also suggest that we could benefit our students by incorporating elements of other degree programs in the JD curriculum.

4. How do law graduates fare in fields dominated by graduates with college or master’s degrees? According to the Department of Labor, only 20% of arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators hold a professional or doctoral degree; both BA and MA degrees are more common in this field. The Department does not even mention the JD as an educational prerequisite for a Human Resources Manager; 73% of those workers have just an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, while 27% possess a master’s degree. What do we mean, then, when we say that the JD provides an advantage for these positions? Do law graduates enter these fields at higher levels of responsibility than graduates with other preparation? Do they advance further? Based on anecdotal information, my sense is that the answer to both of these questions is “no.” The JD plus practice experience gives graduates an advantage in these fields, but the JD alone may not. But that’s just an impression; we need hard data on this issue.

Answering questions like these will help us advise prospective and current law students. Equally important, this information will inform our own decisions about the future of legal education. Is a three-year necessary for these JD Advantage jobs? Would a one- or two-year degree serve equally well? What elements of legal education contribute to these jobs? Is it critical thinking skills? Knowledge of legal doctrine? Both? How large are the contributions? We have to be willing to ask these questions as researchers and to interpret the answers objectively. Armed with that information, we can make responsible and productive decisions about how to improve the value of legal education.

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