August 20, 2010
A Word of Advice for Prospective Law School Students and 1Ls on Acceptance or Transfer Decisions: Ask the Admissions Dean "how much are you paying me to 'gain on-the-ground experience, and strengthen [my] lawyering skills' when I graduate?"
There was a time when law school students were more worried about the terms of an employment offer than they were about whether any employment offer would be forthcoming. But those days are over. The economic downturn has produced a glut in the labor supply and today's grads will be competing for job opportunities with laid-off attorneys with real work experience. In In defense of young lawyers (NLJ), Duke Law School Dean David Levi writes
The downturn in the legal economy has been hard on many new and young lawyers. They have faced lengthy deferrals and withdrawals of job offers, layoffs, shrinking job prospects and lower salaries. While unwelcome, these new burdens are at least understandable; they reflect the laws of supply and demand at a time when there is simply less legal work to go around. What is not understandable is the surprising amount of criticism heaped upon younger lawyers, offered as if to justify placing a disproportionate share of the economic downturn on their shoulders
The criticism comes from law firm managers, in-house counsel and former lawyers who now comment on the legal profession. They most likely represent a minority view, but they are vocal. They say that clients are no longer willing to pay for the work of young associates because their work is "worthless." We might expect clients to make any argument that could lead to a lower bill, particularly during an economic downturn. But it is wrong and surprising for experienced lawyers inside and outside of firms to acquiesce in, even reinforce, this line of argument.
As the title of his NLJ article states, Dean Levi makes a pitch for the value of young lawyers. "Like any good CEO should, Duke Law School dean David Levi has written an editorial defending his product," writes ATL's Kashmir Hill. Hill observes that Duke is willing to prove its point by way of the school's Bridge to Practice program. Launched in 2008, Duke pays law school grads a stipend for eight- to 12-week fellowships in nonprofit and advocacy organizations, district attorneys offices, law firms, and courts to "gain on-the-ground experience, and strengthen their lawyering skills." See Duke Law News, 100% employment: Meeting a lofty goal. The program had nine participants in 2008 and 15 in 2009. The number likely doubled this year reports ATL's Hill in his June 10, 2010 ATL post entitled The Secret to ‘100% Employed at Graduation’: Duke’s Bridge to Practice. With an average class enrollment of about 210 students that means a whopping 14% of the Class of 2010 participated in Duke's program.
No way this can hurt Duke maintain its amazingly high as in 100% employment rates at graduation and nine months after, right? Just the "facts" from Duke Law's website here. Like a good CEO, Dean Levi knows how to sell his product, law school grads, and at a discount to employers no less, while also enhancing the school's prospects for scoring high marks in US News Law School rankings (currently 11, 10-year average also 11, according to LLB's The Long, Hard, Nearly Impossible Climb to Reach Elite Status: Top 30 Law Schools, 2002-2011.)
It's common knowledge that unaudited employment rates for law school grads reported to US News are gamed because law school administrators are not held accountable by any ethical standards. In this instance, perhaps a big asterisk needs to displayed in next year's US News Law School Rankings under the Placement Success metric for Duke. Duke, however, is not alone. See, for example, ATL's SMU Will Pay You To Hire Their Graduates.
Law schools that are doing this actually get a 2-fer because underneath the mask of US News metrics, what drives rankings improvements is substantially increasing the school's expenditures-per-student. Increase that by any means other than scholarship awards is the quickest, most cost-efficient way to improve a law school rankings. See What Is It Going to Cost Stanford Law to Become the No. 1 Law School in the Country? Another way to increase expenditures-per-student.is to hire more full-time faculty to reach the promised land of less than a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio. This is half the 20:1 ratio under ABA Accreditation Standards. Of course, that reported ratio isn't audited either to take into account law profs on sabbatical for the reported year.
Now, I for one, like the idea that law schools are financing the employment prospects of their students and that lower student to faculty ratios are beneficial to the educational experience assuming the profs counted each year aren't on sabatical and certainly prospective law school students want to know what their employment prospects may be if they attend a given law school. However, these metrics used by US News are so seriously flawed that it reveals what most folks, except, perhaps prospective students and employers, know, namely the fundamental reason US News produces its series of annual rankings is because it sells magazine issues. As Brian Leiter recently stated, "If there's money to be made in ranking Rabbis......then why isn't Newsweek also ranking law schools? Seriously, I'd tell them how to do it."
My unsolicited advice to prospective law school students before deciding on a school to attend and 1Ls before deciding to stay put after the first year is to ask the Admissions Dean "how much are you paying me to 'gain on-the-ground experience, and strengthen [my] lawyering skills' when I graduate?" [JH]