In a column in this week’s New York Law Journal, Jill Backer, assistant dean of career and professional development at Pace Law School, says it’s artificial to distinguish between jobs that require a law license and jobs where the JD confers an advantage. Backer contends that doing so through the ABA’s standardized employment reporting regime reinforces a perception that JD Advantage jobs are “less than” the Bar Passage Required jobs.
As it turns out, there’s strong evidence that many of these jobs are “less than.” But Backer does not address overwhelming evidence that JD Advantage jobs pay substantially less on average and leave graduates looking for new jobs shortly after starting them.
Additional information showing otherwise would be helpful, but law schools do not provide it. Instead schools hope we’ll trust their word that JD Advantage jobs are not only desirable, but worth pursuing through the JD-path instead of a shorter, less painfully expensive degree.
I will be the first to admit that there are many great JD Advantage jobs. For instance, my job as executive director of Law School Transparency would count as JD Advantage because my JD provides a “demonstrable advantage in . . . performing the job,” even if my job “does not itself require bar passage or an active law license or involve practicing law.” The same applies to the editors of Above the Law, the founders of Hire an Esquire, and federal agents.
The problem is that JD Advantage category is so broad that it loses meaning. Schools infuse meaning on the term through the occasional, sexy anecdote—just like the ones in my previous paragraph. Look no further than Baker’s column lede to see how these anecdotes are operationalized. Baker frames readers’ understanding of JD Advantage jobs by pointing out that the President of the United States holds a job for which the JD is an advantage.
But the definition does not even require the employer to care about the JD—the education merely needs to be helpful. A colorable argument can be made that a legal education helps with just about any job a law graduate would consider. How many jobs would you take that don’t require some measure of critical thinking or understanding of our legal system?
The category is so flimsy that paralegals and graduates in administrative positions at law firms count as JD Advantage. For example, at Baker’s own school, 14 class of 2013 graduates (or 13% of all graduates in firm jobs) were paralegals or administrators. Of the 14, five were “professional” jobs and nine were “JD Advantage.” Nobody pays $45,000 per year in law school tuition to become a paralegal. But nearly a quarter of Pace’s graduates in JD Advantage jobs were paralegals or administrators at law firms.
According to NALP, 41% of all class of 2013 graduates in JD Advantage jobs were still seeking another job nine months after graduation. Graduates in Bar Passage Required jobs were one-third as likely to indicate the same. According to data from law school graduates, JD Advantage jobs are not nearly as desirable as Baker would have readers (and prospective students) believe. Further, NALP reports that the average JD Advantage salary is 25% less than the average salary for graduates in bar-required jobs.
There are certainly people who attend law school with other aims, and they may find desirable work outside of the practice of law. (Note that there’s good reason to believe that non-legal employers are after people with legal experience, rather than a legal education.) Though I don’t speak for others, LST does not include non-legal jobs in the LST Employment Score for straightforward reasons. For people interested specifically in a non-legal career including these jobs in the LST Employment Score would not make the score more meaningful. Such a mixed score would be determined primarily by legal job placements. A mixed legal/non-legal score does not really tell prospective students about alternative job placement.
For people interested in only a legal career, the addition of non-legal jobs greatly depreciates the value of the score by including a number of jobs they are not interested in. The only group that would be well served by a mixed score is a group who would be okay with pretty much any job upon graduation. While there are third-year students and recent graduates scrambling for any job they can obtain, few people have such an attitude before entering law school.
If a school prides and sells itself on its ability to produce graduates primed for JD Advantage jobs, it ought to find another way to prove its graduates are different than the 41% of graduates in JD Advantage jobs looking for a different job just a few months after starting. I’d like to think schools in this category would want to do this. Regardless, the onus is on law schools to prove that their JD Advantage outcomes are desirable and worth pursuing a JD to obtain.
Northwestern University School of Law, for example, makes a persuasive attempt to do just that. On a page titled, “JD Advantage Employment,” Northwestern actively distinguishes itself from other schools through data and context. By request for this column, the school’s dean supplemented that information. Northwestern graduates from 2013 and 2014 are substantially less likely than the national average to be seeking another job with one in hand—an estimated 10% of JD Advantage and 3% Bar Passage Required job holders.
Law schools are in a position where they need to become more attractive to prospective students, especially the highest achieving ones. A school could legitimately position itself as a force for the new economy. Northwestern does this as well as anyone. If other schools want to show how they’re different, they need to do more than throw together a new program to sell to applicants and alumni or claim that their JD is the best path to these new economy jobs. It requires more than just bold claims and factless editorials. To schools like Pace hoping to carve out a new niche, show us your work in a meaningful way. The applicant market is listening.
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