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.


About Law School Cafe

Cafe Manager & Co-Moderator
Deborah J. Merritt

Cafe Designer & Co-Moderator
Kyle McEntee

ABA Journal Blawg 100 HonoreeLaw School Cafe is a resource for anyone interested in changes in legal education and the legal profession.

Around the Cafe


Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.


Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Monthly Archives


Have something you think our audience would like to hear about? Interested in writing one or more guest posts? Send an email to the cafe manager at We are interested in publishing posts from practitioners, students, faculty, and industry professionals.

Past and Present Guests