Old Tricks

From time to time, I like to read real books instead of electronic ones. During a recent ramble through my law school’s library, I stumbled across an intriguing set of volumes: NALP employment reports from the late nineteen seventies. These books are so old that they still have those funny cards in the back. It was the content, though, that really took my breath away. During the 1970s, NALP manipulated data about law school career outcomes in a way that makes more contemporary methods look tame. Before I get to that, let me give you the background.

NALP compiled its first employment report for the Class of 1974. The data collection was fairly rudimentary. The association asked all ABA-accredited schools to submit basic data about their graduates, including the total number of class members, the number employed, and the number known to be still seeking work. This generated some pretty patchy statistics. Only 83 schools (out of about 156) participated in the original survey. Those schools graduated 17,188 JDs, but they reported employment data for just 13,250. More than a fifth of the graduates (22.9%) from this self-selected group of schools failed to share their employment status with the schools.

NALP’s early publications made no attempt to analyze this selection bias; the reports I’ve examined (for the Classes of 1977 and 1978) don’t even mention the possibility that graduates who neglect to report their employment status might differ from those who provide that information. The reports address the representativeness of participating schools, but in a comical manner. The reports divide the schools by institutional type (e.g., public or private) and geographic region, then present a cross-tabulation showing the number and percentage of schools participating in each category. For the Class of 1977, participation rates varied from 62.5% to 100%, but the report gleefully declares: “You will note the consistently high percentage of each type of institution, as well as the large number of schools sampled. I believe we can safely say that our study is, in fact, representative!” (p. 7)

Anyone with an elementary grasp of statistics knows that’s nonsense. The question isn’t whether the percentages were “high,” it’s how they varied across categories. Ironically, at the very time that NALP published the quoted language, I was taking a first-year elective on “Law and Social Science” at my law school. It’s galling that law schools weren’t practicing the quantitative basics that they were already teaching.

NALP quickly secured more participating schools, which mooted this particular example of bad statistics. By 1978, NALP was obtaining responses from 150 of the 167 ABA-approved law schools. Higher levels of school participation, however, did not solve the problem of missing graduates. For the Classes of 1974 through 1978, NALP was missing data on 19.4% to 23.7% of the graduates from reporting schools. Blithely ignoring those graduates, NALP calculated the employment rate each year simply by dividing the number of graduates who held any type of job by the number whose employment status was known. This misleading method, which NALP still uses today, yielded an impressive employment rate of 88.1% for the Class of 1974.

But even that wasn’t enough. Starting with the Class of 1975, NALP devised a truly ingenious way to raise employment rates: It excluded from its calculation any graduate who had secured neither a job nor bar admission by the spring following graduation. As NALP explained in the introduction to its 1977 report: “The employment market for new attorneys does not consist of all those that have graduated from ABA-approved law schools. In order for a person to practice law, there is a basic requirement of taking and passing a state bar examination. Those who do not take or do not pass the bar examination should therefore be excluded from the employment market….” (p. 1)

That would make sense if NALP had been measuring the percentage of bar-qualified graduates who obtained jobs. But here’s the kicker: At the same time that NALP excluded unemployed bar no-admits from its calculation, it continued to include employed ones. Many graduates in the latter category held jobs that we call “JD Advantage” ones today. NALP’s 1975 decision gave law schools credit for all graduates who found jobs that didn’t require a law license, while allowing them to disown (for reporting purposes) graduates who didn’t obtain a license and remained jobless.

I can’t think of a justification for that–other than raising the overall employment rate. Measure employment among all graduates, or measure it among all grads who have been admitted to the bar. You can’t use one criterion for employed graduates and a different one for unemployed graduates. Yet the “NALP Research Committee, upon consultation with executive committee members and many placement directors from throughout the country” endorsed this double standard. (id.)

And the trick worked. By counting graduates who didn’t pass the bar but nonetheless secured employment, while excluding those who didn’t take the bar and failed to get jobs, NALP produced a steady rise in JD employment rates: 88.1% in 1974 (under the original method), 91.6% in 1975, 92.5% in 1976, 93.6% in 1977, and a remarkable 94.2% in 1978. That 94.2% statistic ignored 19.5% of graduates who didn’t report any employment status, plus another 3.7% who hadn’t been admitted to the bar and were known to be unemployed but, whatever.

NALP was very pleased with its innovation. The report for the Class of 1977 states: “This revised and more realistic picture of the employment market for newly graduated and qualified lawyers reveals that instead of facing unemployment, the prospects for employment within the first year of graduation are in fact better than before. Study of the profile also reveals that there has been an incremental increase in the number of graduates employed and a corresponding drop in unemployment during that same period.” (p. 21) Yup, unemployment rates will fall if you ignore those pesky graduates who neither found jobs nor got admitted to the bar–while continuing to count all of the JD Advantage jobs.

I don’t know when NALP abandoned this piece of data chicanery. My library didn’t order any of the NALP reports between 1979 and 1995, so I can’t trace the evolution of NALP’s reporting method. By 1996, NALP was no longer counting unlicensed grads with jobs while ignoring those without jobs. Someone helped them come to their senses.

Why bring this up now? In part, I’m startled by the sheer audacity of this data manipulation. Equally important, I think it’s essential for law schools to recognize our long history of distorting data about employment outcomes. During the early years of these reports, NALP didn’t even have a technical staff: these reports were written and vetted by placement directors from law schools. It’s a sorry history.

  • Jack Graves

    What is particularly sad about this “sorry history” is that most law school faculty members claim to be champions of “justice.” I cannot think of many greater injustices than the one we continue to perpetuate in hopes of maintaining the status quo and our personal financial stake in that status quo.