US News and Employment Outcomes

Over the last two years, pressure has mounted for more transparent information about the jobs that law school graduates obtain. US News traditionally used very coarse measures of employment, most recently focusing on the percentage of graduates who reported any type of job nine months after graduation. Those nine-month employment rates included part-time jobs, temporary positions, and employment with little relationship to a law degree. A part-time sales clerk at Macy’s was just as “employed” as a law firm associate on the partnership track.

This measure allowed law schools to claim very high employment rates, both in the US News tables and in their own promotional materials. The dazzling nine-month percentages–97%, 98%, 99%!–implied that law school was still a sure road to secure, professional, and well paid employment. Applicants had to seek other information, often buried in complex websites, to understand how many of those “employed” graduates were working in part-time, short-term jobs–sometimes funded by the law schools themselves.

We’ve made progress over the last year. Law School Transparency led the way by publishing more detailed job information about every ABA-accredited law school. The ABA followed suit by requesting more nuanced information from law schools and publishing that data. The ABA also revised its accreditation standards to insist that law schools disclose more complete information to students. But still, those tables in US News, with all of those high employment rates, were very, very appealing.

Today US News joined the push for more accurate employment information. The 2014 rankings include a new measure of employment outcomes. US News now weights jobs according to whether they are JD-related, part-time or full-time, and short-term or long-term. The online magazine is not disclosing the full formula, but notes that “[f]ull weight was given for graduates who had a full-time job lasting at least a year where bar passage was required or a J.D. degree was an advantage.” At the other end of the spectrum, “[t]he lowest weight applied to jobs categorized as both part-time and short-term.”

Perhaps most important, US News has published for each law school the percentage of its 2011 graduates who obtained jobs falling into the first category–jobs that were full-time, long-term, and related to the JD. Those percentages are available, free of charge, for all law school applicants to ponder.

The results aren’t pretty. At the top eight schools, more than 90% of graduates are still finding full-time, long-term jobs that use their law degrees. Some of those jobs may not justify the cost of attendance, and we might still wonder about some of the graduates who didn’t obtain full-time, long-term, law-related work within nine months of graduation. But law-related employment rates of 90% or more might justify three years of expensive, intensive professional education.

Outside the elite eight, however, job outcomes plummet sharply. Berkeley and Michigan, two premiere public schools, tie for ninth place in the new ranking. Yet only 82.6% and 85.8% of their graduates, respectively, found full-time, long-term employment for which the JD conferred an advantage. Conversely, by nine months after graduation, 14-17% of their graduates were still marking time in part-time, short-term, or non-legal positions. Those aren’t outcomes for which students should pay top tuition dollars.

Further down the list, the outcomes are even more bleak. Minnesota and Washington University in St. Louis round out the top twenty law schools with a tie for nineteenth place. Yet nine months after graduation, only two thirds (66.3% and 66.6%) of the graduates from these schools were working in long-term, full-time jobs related to the JD. A full third of each class failed to achieve employment that used their expensive and hard-won degrees.

The percentages vary after that, climbing as high as 88.0% (for George Washington) and falling as low as 23.6% (Whittier). Over the next few days, bloggers will analyze the factors that contributed to higher employment rates (school-funded positions, geography, a large percentage of JD Advantage jobs) and those that produced lower outcomes. No amount of analysis, however, can conceal the overall pattern. No school outside the top eight placed more than 90% of its graduates in full-time, long-term, law-related work. Only 13 schools, including that top eight, exceeded the 85% mark. And only 34 schools, out of the 195 supplying employment information, managed to place as many as three-quarters of their graduates in a full-time, long-term, law-related job within nine months of graduation.

The new employment measure devised by US News is far from perfect. Its greatest flaw lies in equating all “JD Advantage” jobs with positions requiring bar admission. Statistics gathered by NALP show that law graduates are far less satisfied with JD Advantage jobs than with ones requiring a law license. Among 2011 graduates, 46.8% of those in JD Advantage jobs were still seeking other employment; just 16.5% of those in bar-admission-required jobs were doing so. Those statistics appear only in NALP’s Jobs and JDs book, and they do not distinguish full-time, long-term jobs from part-time, short-term ones, but I will ask NALP if they can provide more information on those distinctions.

Even more worrisome, I don’t believe that any organization audits the claims that graduates and law schools make about which jobs carry the “JD Advantage” tag. NALP counts the jobs reported in that category but, apparently, does not ask schools to identify the positions that count as “JD Advantage.” Nor, to my knowledge, does the ABA or US News. Does a job as a court assignment clerk count as a “JD Advantage” position? What about a job as a middle school social studies teacher? Or one as a bail agent, debt collector, or police officer? I can imagine a JD assisting workers in any of these fields–but the jobs are ones that the majority of job holders perform quite well without the training or expense of a JD.

These are issues that we need to address very soon, both for purposes of the US News ranking scheme and with respect to the information that law schools provide their applicants. But for now, the generous definition of “employed,” which includes any job carrying the “JD Advantage” label, makes the outcomes reported by US News especially troubling. Even allowing for a very liberal definition of law-related jobs, even including all of those “alternative” careers that schools have touted, law schools are leaving a remarkably large percentage of their graduates without jobs that use their degrees. Short-term and part-time jobs are not good outcomes for students who have spent over $100,000–often borrowed at high interest rates–for a legal education. Neither are jobs unrelated to the JD, ones for which schools don’t even dare claim a “JD advantage.”

Prospective students and law schools need to take note of these outcomes and take them seriously to heart. If we can’t provide even solid “JD Advantage” jobs to a substantial number of our graduates, then the value of our degree is in serious question.

  • Jack Graves

    With the new law school focus on articulating specific “outcomes” and effective “assessment” of these outcomes, it seems to me that we ought to do more to define desirable employment outcomes in advance, instead of simply coming up with ad hoc “assessment” mechanisms to try to put dress up an unpleasant outcome. I would love to see each and every law school poll its incoming !Ls (with a well drafted, standardized questionnaire) to learn, specifically, what each was seeking by way of employment objectives–both ideally and, as a minimum satisfactory outcome. With this data in hand, we could do a far better job of promoting and planning for successful outcomes, as well as assessing the achievement of those outcomes. I agree that the new narrowed focus is a step in the right direction, but it’s a very small one, and we have a long way to go.