An Employment Puzzle

June 18th, 2013 / By

Pedagogically and professionally, it makes sense for law schools to teach practical skills along with theory and doctrine. New lawyers should know how to interview clients, file simple legal documents, and analyze real-world problems, just as new doctors should know how to interview patients, use a stethoscope, and offer a diagnosis. Hands-on work can also deepen knowledge received in the classroom. Law students who apply classroom theories to real or simulated clients develop stronger intellectual skills, as well as new practical ones.

Employers say they are eager to hire these better-trained, more rounded, more “practice ready” lawyers–and they should be. That’s why the employment results for Washington & Lee’s School of Law are so troubling. Washington & Lee pioneered an experiential third-year program that has won accolades from many observers. Bill Henderson called Washington & Lee’s program the “biggest legal education story of 2013.” The National Jurist named the school’s faculty as among the twenty-five most influential people in legal education. Surely graduates of this widely praised program are reaping success in the job market?

Sadly, the statistics say otherwise. Washington & Lee’s recent employment outcomes are worse than those of similarly ranked schools. The results are troubling for advocates of experiential learning. They should also force employers to reflect on their own behavior: Does the rhetoric of “practice ready” graduates align with the reality of legal hiring? Let’s look at what’s happening with Washington & Lee graduates.

Employment Outcomes

I used the law-job calculator developed by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers to compare Washington & Lee’s employment outcomes with those of other schools. Drawing upon ABA data that reports job outcomes nine months after graduation, the calculator allows users to choose their own formulas for measuring outcomes. I chose two formulas that I believe resonate with many observers:

(a) The number of full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission, minus (i) any of those jobs funded by the law school and (ii) any solo positions; all divided by the total number of graduates.

(b) The number of full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission or for which the JD provided an advantage, minus (i) any of those jobs funded by the law school and (ii) any solo positions; all divided by the total number of graduates.

[Note: These are not the only formulas for measuring job outcomes; other formulas may be appropriate in other contexts. These formulas work here because they allow the most straightforward comparison of employment outcomes across schools. These formulas also make the best case for Washington & Lee’s outcomes, because that school did not report any long-term, full-time solos or school-funded jobs in 2011 or 2012.]

Using those two measures, Washington and Lee’s employment outcomes for 2011 were noticeably mediocre. By nine months after graduation, only 55.0% of the school’s graduates had obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required bar admission. That percentage placed Washington & Lee 76th among ABA-accredited schools for job outcomes. Using the second, broader metric, 64.3% of Washington & Lee’s class secured full-time, long-term positions. But that only nudged the school up a few spots compared to other schools–to 73rd place.

In 2012, the numbers were even worse. Only 49.2% of Washington & Lee’s 2012 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required a law license, ranking the school 119th compared to other accredited schools. Including JD Advantage jobs raised the percentage to 57.7%, but lowered Washington & Lee’s comparative rank to 127th.

These numbers are depressing by any measure; they are startling when we remember that Washington & Lee currently is tied for twenty-sixth place in the US News ranking. Other schools of similar rank fare much better on employment outcomes.

The University of Iowa, for example, holds the same US News rank as Washington & Lee and suffers from a similarly rural location. Yet Iowa placed 70.8% of its 2012 graduates in full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission–more than twenty percentage points better than Washington & Lee. The College of William & Mary ranks a bit below Washington & Lee in US News (at 33rd) and operates in the same state. After excluding solos and school-funded positions (as my formula requires), William & Mary placed 55.9% of its 2012 graduates in full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission–significantly better than Washington & Lee’s results.

What’s the Explanation?

Law school employment outcomes vary substantially. Geography, school size, and local competition all seem to play a role. But Washington & Lee’s outcomes are puzzling given both the prominence of its third-year program and the stridency of practitioner calls for more practical training. Just last week, California’s Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform suggested: “If, in the future, new lawyers come into the profession more practice-ready than they are today, more jobs will be available and new lawyers will be better equipped to compete for those jobs.” (p. 14) If that’s true, why isn’t the formula working for Washington & Lee?

I think we need to explore at least four possibilities. First and most important, the connection between practical training and jobs is much smaller than practitioners and bar associations assert. Employers like practice-ready graduates because those new lawyers are cheaper to train; an employer thus might be more likely to hire a practice-ready graduate than a clueless one. Most of those hiring decisions, however, involve choosing among applicants, not creating new positions. A few employers might hire a practice-ready graduate when they wouldn’t have otherwise hired any lawyer, but those job-market gains are likely to be small.

Practice-readiness can even reduce the number of available jobs. If a practice-ready lawyer handles more work than a less-experienced one, her employer may need fewer entry-level lawyers. Even the best-trained new lawyer is unlikely to grow the client base immediately. The number of legal jobs depends much more on client demand and employer entrepreneurship than on the experience that new graduates possess. Maybe the employers recruiting at Washington & Lee have recognized that truth.

Second, even when allocating existing jobs, employers may care less about practical training than they claim. Law school clinicians have noted for years that legal employers rarely demand “clinical experience” as a prerequisite for on-campus interviews. Instead, their campus interviewing forms are more likely to list “top ten percent” or “law review.” Old habits die hard. Employers have maintained for the last few years that “this time we really mean it when we ask for practical skills,” but maybe they don’t.

Third, employers may care about experience, but want to see that experience in the area for which they’re hiring. This possibility is particularly troubling for law schools that are trying to expand clinical and other client-centered offerings. As a professor who teaches both a criminal defense clinic and a prosecution one, I can see the ways in which these experiences apply to other practice areas. A student who learns to discern the client’s individual needs, as our defense lawyers do, can transport that lesson to any practice area. A student who weighs competing interests in deciding whether to prosecute can apply similar skills for any employer.

Unfortunately, however, I don’t think employers always share my impression. Over the years, I’ve had the sense that students from the criminal defense clinic are stereotyped as public defenders, do-gooders, or (worse) anti-establishment radicals–even if they took the clinic for the client counseling, negotiation, and representation experience. Prosecution students don’t encounter the same negative images, but they sometimes have trouble persuading law firms and corporations that they’re serious about practicing corporate law.

No matter how many clinics and simulations a law school offers–and Washington & Lee provides a lot–each student can only schedule a few of these experiences. If a student chooses experiential work in entertainment law and intellectual property, does the student diminish her prospects of finding work in banking or family law? Does working in the Black Lung Legal Clinic create a black mark against a student applying to work later for corporate clients?

I wonder, in other words, if the menu of clinical choices we offer students actually operates against them. Would it be better to cycle all students through a series of required clinical experiences? That’s the way that medical school rotations work. Under that system, would employers better understand that all clinical experience has value for a new lawyer? Would they be less likely to lock graduates into particular career paths based on the clinical experiences they chose? These are questions we need to pursue as we expand experiential education in law schools.

A fourth possible explanation for Washington & Lee’s disappointing employment outcomes is that the students themselves may have developed higher or more specialized career ambitions than their peers at other schools. Some students may have been so excited by their clinical work that they were unwilling to accept jobs in other areas. Others, buoyed by employers’ enthusiasm for practice-ready graduates, may have held out for the most attractive positions on the market. If this explanation has power, then Washington & Lee’s graduates may fare better as more months pass. Maybe practice-ready graduates get better jobs, and perform better for their employers, but the matches take longer to make.

What Do We Learn?

What lessons should we take from Washington & Lee’s 2011 and 2012 employment outcomes? First, the school still deserves substantial credit for its willingness to innovate–as well as for the particular program it chose. If law school remains a three-year, graduate program, then experiential work should occupy a larger segment of the curriculum than it has at most schools in the past. That makes pedagogic sense and, even if experiential learning doesn’t expand the job market, it should produce more thoughtful, well rounded attorneys.

Second, legal employers should take a hard look at the factors they actually value in hiring. What role does clinical experience really play? Do grades and law review membership still count more? Are employers discounting clinical work done outside their practice area? Are they even holding that work against a candidate? Law schools are engaging in significant introspection about the education they provide; it is time for employers to critically examine their own actions and hiring assumptions.

Third, law schools and employers should work together to design the best type of experiential education–one that prepares graduates for immediate employment as well as long-term success. If employers value a 4-credit externship with their own organization more than 12 credits of clinical work in a different area, we need to grapple with that fact. Schools might decide not to accommodate that desire; we might worry that externships are too narrow (or too exploitative of students) and encourage employers to value other clinical training more highly. On the other hand, we might agree that the best experiential education relates directly to a student’s post-graduate job. Unless we work together, we won’t figure out either the hurdles or the solutions.

Washington & Lee’s employment outcomes are a puzzle that we all need to confront. Graduates from most law schools, even high-ranking ones, are struggling to find good jobs. Experiential education can work pedagogic magic and prepare better lawyers, but it’s not a silver bullet for employment woes or heavy debt. On those two issues, we need to push much harder for remedies.

  • kindasorta

    Even if the rewards for law graduates have divided into two distinct modes, the full-time-and-bar-required employment rates among our 220+ law schools still follow a bell-shaped curve. At one end, you have about 20 schools which still managed to place 65% or more of their graduates in such jobs even through the trough of demand in 2010 and 2011. At the other, you have about 30-40 schools which placed a third or less of their graduates in such positions. In the middle, you have about 170 law schools of varying U.S. News esteem that all placed within a statistically insignificant margin of the 54% full-time/bar-required average nationwide.

    This figure doesn’t tell the whole story, because the mix of jobs is as important as the rate of placement in telling you the quality of a school from that perspective. However, it sums up what the marketplace thinks about law schools: you would be a fool not to hire a graduate from one of the uppermost twenty schools, and equally a fool to hire a graduate from one of the lowest thirty or forty. What about the schools in the middle? Whatever; it’s not like any of them send us a graduate that we won’t have to expend significant effort in training.

    W&L’s program may or may not make a better lawyer, but if it does, it will take time for the employer and prospective student market to know it. In the meanwhile, those 45% of graduates who can’t find someone to pay them while they learn to be lawyers would really have appreciated a program that spent less time dazzling them with their inadequacy and more time preparing them to render a service for a client. The best law schools in this middle category over the next twenty-five years will be the ones whose newly graduated sole practitioners come out feeling good about what they know and can do for a client without an experienced someone holding their hands.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    Northeastern School of Law has also been hovering around/below the 50% FT, LT, JD-required mark since the new reporting regime came out, despite their supposedly-phenomenal* and mandatory co-op system, under which everyone takes four 11-week co-ops. Like W&L, Northeastern also stickers well north of $200,000, and its financial aid is tiny (the average and median grant are both about $8k/year). What’s more, since the recession became the new normal, mumblings abound that small law firms are increasingly using the co-op system for free labor in lieu of hiring actual associates or, as the case may be, legal secretaries. What’s more, the law school insists that 40% of each graduating class lands a FT, LT, JD-required job from one of their co-ops. As far as I can tell, they have been claiming this stat for at least a decade without one scrap of corroborating data. Of course, since if 40% of the class gets a *real* job from a co-op, but only 50% of the class gets a *real* job period, it would suggest that outside of the co-op system, Northeastern students have a 10% success rate in entering the profession in any meaningful way. Things I wish I knew years ago.

    *In my case, it amounted to a lot of secretarial tasks and grunt work, and extremely little hands-on legal work or training. Were I to go solo, I would not be any less of a walking-talking-malpractice case than a graduate of any other law school.

  • Theperkyone

    The conflict that leaps out to me is that both the law schools and the law firms want the law school to be a sorting experience but the way the law school wants to sort students and the way that practitioners do are not consonant. You suggest adopting the rotation that medical doctors go through but it strikes me as an exceptionally poor fit. The major reason medical schools have stable rotations is because doctors needs to know what their fellow practitioners in other parts of the medical field are doing. The GP has to know what specialist to refer the patient to, what treatment he is likely to receive there, and how to deal with the patient when he comes back from the specialist. The law doesn’t work that way, for the most part. The public defender doesn’t need to know the details of corporate law, for example, because it would be the expectational situation where he would have a client to who he needed to refer to that specialist. Medicine as a field of practice is simply more integrated than the law. This is why proposals to make the legal equivalent of a medical “teaching hospital” make no sense.

    It has struck me more than once that much of the reform in legal education today is designed to respond to problems that do not exist because it is too discomforting to respond to the ones that do. Far from becoming more like medicine, the law profession is heading in the opposite direction with fields of specializations a world onto themselves. The troubling question is whether the “general purpose” law school can survive into the coming decades or whether it better to allow students to sort themselves up front by developing schools that cater to only public defenders (as an example). The irony is that is that in the not too distant future the law profession might wind up right back where it was in the 18th century with most students “reading the law” under the guidance of a practicing lawyer rather than going to a law school.

  • Kadidal

    i was under the impression that W&L’s enrollment numbers shot up when they implemented this program — class size jumping from 130 or so to 180. Wouldn’t that, by itself, explain this “phenomenon”? (On the more macro level, let em out after two years, I say! Apprenticeship worked fine for centuries in our profession.)

  • James Maxeiner

    Professor Merritt’s post “The Employment Puzzle” is enlightening. All of her explanations have merit. The one that I want to elaborate on here is “Third, employers may care about experience, but want to see that
    experience in the area for which they’re hiring.”

    Lateral hiring, i.e., hiring three-to-five or more years out of law school, tells the story. As I found out myself in the market some years ago, employers hire people who are doing today in one office, what they will want them to be doing tomorrow in their office.That explains why in house hires look to hire people working, not only in the same specialty, but in the same industry.

    That is a definition of practice-ready that few law schools want to hear. As Professor Merritt notes, law schools can give that kind of experience in only a few areas, and those areas are not the ones that compensate the best. This explains, too, why the medical education model of practice-ready can be a success. Not only does it offer three-to-five year internship/residency on top of four years of medical school, it offers some thirty+ different fields, so that when finished, graduates are truly practice-ready. They are the lateral hires of the legal world. For information on the medical school model, see pages 21 and following my “Educating Lawyers Now and Then,” in book form, at or in article form at

    Professor Merritt addresses simulations and suggests skepticism by employers exists there, too. She’s right and it’s long-standing. See,
    e.g., Law Apprenticeships, 5 ALB. L.J. 97 (1872) (“Mock courts exist, indeed, but they are no more like real courts than a manikin is like a living man. We would laugh at a medical professor who should introduce at a clinic a patient that pretended he was sick or wounded, and ask the students to doctor or carve such patient for practice.”).

    In the book cited, and elsewhere, I argue that Legal Education is not just Law School Education. The bench and bar should have a major role in
    providing professional education, just as they do in nearly all other major countries (e.g., English-speaking “articling,” German-speaking “Referendar”, etc.) and in other U.S. professions (e.g., medical residents, theology vicars, etc.).

    James Maxeiner

  • Jim Moliterno

    At Washington & Lee, as at most schools right now, we would prefer that our students were more successful in obtaining employment. But the 2012 employment figures, unfortunate as they are, say nothing about our
    curricular reform. It is simply too early, . . . much too early.

    The 2012 numbers refer to the first full class to pass through the reformed third year curriculum. Ours is a slow-to-change profession. Employers as a group do not change their settled practices on a dime. Nothing in the employment numbers that we see for the next 3 to five years should be seen as reflecting on the reception given to the curriculum reform. No curricular reform I know of, including Langdell’s, changed settled practices of others overnight.

    We are confident in the reform and the value it adds to our students. The reform has become reasonably well-known within legal education, but we have considerable work yet to do to make it known and understood to the
    employing-branch of the legal profession.

    The education a W&L student receives today is more rigorous than was the education received by their predecessors. The first year, with added requirements of administrative law and transnational law and professional responsibility, continues to be taught with the techniques and materials that have made the first year a legal education success story. The second year, too, is largely unchanged in its methodology. But in the reformed third year, students are challenged in ways they are not challenged in the traditional third year. Students must study and adopt the analytical practices of sophisticated lawyers. They must write more than their predecessors in the traditional third year. They must problem solve more. They must work as teams. They must progress in the mastery of the complex mental processes of sophisticated lawyers. The data gathered by the Law Student Survey of Student Engagement shows that our third year students are more actively involved in their education than both their W&L predecessors and current students at our peer schools.

    And, too, students in the new curriculum continue to learn law, but they learn it as lawyers do rather than as students do. In a course, for example, such as The Lawyer for Failing Businesses, the students learn bankruptcy and creditor law. But they learn it to solve a client’s problem or engage in other representation activities: they learn the law to use it instead of to pass a 3 hour exam on it. They begin to form the mental pathways of lawyers, who analyze and act on client needs by weighing a wide variety of factors beyond the law itself. Business interests, reputational interests, client risk-comfort levels and a wide variety of other factors weigh into that advice and work of sophisticated lawyers. Students in the reformed curriculum begin to develop those critical sensibilities.

    I fully agree that it is incumbent on employers to “buy” what they have implored law schools to do to prepare students for the rigors of sophisticated practice. Time will tell. Employers’ behavior is long- entrenched and employers are being especially cautious due to the financial crisis, but eventually we remain confident that these reforms, adopted in the midst of the most turbulent market in legal services in modern history, will bear fruit for all constituencies. The employment success of the very first class through a curriculum reform comes far too early to launch speculation about its connections with the reform.

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