Thursday, June 20, 2013

Defending Washington & Lee's Third-Year Experiential Program

Over the last few days, several blogs, including this one, have noted Professor Deborah J. Merritt's theory that Washington & Lee's experiential program is causing W & L's poor employment outcome.  Quoting one of my co-bloggers, "In this post from the Law School Cafe blog, Professor Deborah J. Merritt analyzes the employment outcomes for Washington & Lee students and concludes that despite an innovative curriculum that has been roundly praised for its heavy emphasis on legal skills training, it doesn't seem to be producing the employment outcomes one would expect."

To quote Ira Gershwin, "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Professor Merritt is confusing chronology with causation.  Just because B follows A does not mean that A caused B.  A law professor should know this.  To show that experiential programs cause lower employment outcomes, one would need a much larger sample than one law school over two years.

Also, Professor Merritt overstates some of her facts.  For example, she states, "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 [at 49.2% for Washington & Lee’s 2012 graduates who obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required a law license.]"  I do not think that any statistician would say that 55.9% v. 49.2% is significantly better.  (Most law professors have little knowledge of statistics, and they don't realize when something is statistically insignificant.)  Similarly, she writes, "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 Iowa and Virginia job markets are not comparable; comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges.  Virginia is a market saturated with law schools, while the Iowa market has fewer law schools.

Most imortantly, Professor Merritt does not reveal that W & L's program was not fully implemented until the 2011-12 year.  It is disengenous to blame W & L's experiential program for W & L's "noticeably dismal" job placement figures for 2011 when the program wasn't fully implemented until the next year.  Also, what were the job placement figures before W & L implemented its program?  Did they decline more, less, or the same than the decline in legal employment in general?  Maybe, W & L has had a job placement problem for many years.  (This is very hard to tell since the ABA has required detailed job placement figures only recently.)

So, why is W & L's job placement so poor when compared  to other first-tier law schools?  Some commenters have theories.  Some think the poor job placement is caused by W & L's caerer services department.  "I'm a recent graduate and I have to say - one of the reasons many students sincerely believe the statistics are so terrible is because W&L Law's office of career planning is, quite frankly, AWFUL. It is just...terrible. Students regularly hear horror stories about excellent firms contacting W&L to hire students, and the office of career planning simply won't respond or responds poorly. Students are consistently given bad advice about job searches, application processes, or resume/cover letter adjustments. The office of career planning makes little to no effort to reach out to new firms or create job fairs. Further, everybody working in the office is, by general consensus of the student body, incompetent. Although the problem of employment isn't entirely the fault of the office of career planning, it is clear based on student consensus and experience that they are largely to blame. This problem could, and MUST be solved by literally firing most of the staff in the career planning office. W&L has a policy of shuffling people around that have been at the law school for years but consistently underperform or provide no real benefit to the school...and unfortunately some of those people have ended up in career services. Either way, the new Dean needs to do a major renovation of this office, otherwise the school risks dropping down further in the rankings." (W & L Law Alum on Tax Prof Blog).

Likewise, "HTA, who posted above, hit the nail on the head. The problem with W&L students getting a job is, and always has been, the office of career services/planning. They are utterly incompetent--beyond worthless--and for some ungodly reason the school refuses to fix the problem. I have personally seen the total resistance the administration has to any meaningful change in this area, and it is infuriating. W&L students are as sharp and as well-rounded as any in the country and they get an excellent education from a stand-out faculty. The school is small but has a great alumni network, people who are very successful and well-connected all over the country and who are passionate about W&L. W&L has a culture and history that has a tendency to produce alums who are unusually proud of and loyal to their school. But career services utilizes none of these advantages and their incompetence in the various other areas mentioned by HTA above actively discourages firms from recruiting at/from the school. When I went to W&L Law, it was Top 20. The school really deserves to be top 15. If students had better opportunities for placement around the country, I guarantee you would see those rankings rise rapidly. It's the only thing really holding the school back."  (W&Lee Law Alum on Tax Prof Blog)

Finally, "W&L Law Alum is right about the "Career Services" at that school. At the beginning of the last decade, the office was good: W&L's employment statistics were on par with other schools in the top 20, and were really amazing for such a rural school. (W&L also placed extraordinarily well into clerkships.) Sometime around 2004 or 2005, the people who had been in the office left and were replaced with people who, if I am not mistaken, had never done legal career services in their entire lives. W&L gives a great legal education to talented students, but it's a small, rural school that people have not heard of: it needs a good career services office in ways that other schools do not.  Right around the middle of the last decade, W&L's employment stats began to tank. (Career "Services" started doing all these job fairs, so W&L students would have to buy plane tickets and hotel rooms to do screening interviews with big firms. If they got at least two interviews, they were required to attend, or would be kicked out of OCI for the rest of the year. When your school tells you that you need to shell out thousands of dollars to attend screening interviews - screening interviews! - you know there's a problem.) Look at the U.S. News that came out in fall 2007 or spring 2008, and you'll see that even back then, W&L's employment stats were dead last in the top 50 schools. That is appalling enough, but it's a professional school, not three more years of generic liberal arts. Yes, W&L has horrible employment rates, even after its revamped 3L curriculum. What you're all missing is that its employment rates were just as bad prior to the 3L curriculum. "  (Another W & L Law alum on Tax Prof Blog)

Other comments: "We had a talk about the W+L program and it turned out they basically used adjuncts to fill up the third year. It doesn't work because it doesn't have much substance. The reality is that Rutgers and numerous other public law schools provide a better value than more expensive schools with trendy marketing devices."  (Michael Livingston on Tax Prof Blog)  "W & L's job placement figures have nothing to do with its third year program. W & L's reputation has been slipping with Virginia law firms over the last several years. The new program could help in the long run if law firms see that its graduates have improved." (Virginia Attorney on Tax Prof Blog)

In sum, chronology does not equal causation.  While we should be looking closely at employment outcomes for law schools that are adopting educational reforms, Professor Merritt has not tied W & L's employment outcome problems to its third-year experiential program.

(Scott Fruehwald)

P.S. For an extensive discussion of W & L's program and the successes it has being having see here and here.

Others have defended the W & L program.  For example, "As a professor who has taught in the new third-year program at W&L since its inception, I wanted to chime in regarding one dimension of the measure "success" that your article ignores, namely, whether the third-year program is achieving its goal of better preparing students for "the real world." To date, I have taught a civil litigation practicum to approximately 80 third year students. At the end of the semester, they possess more practical litigation skills than any first year associate that I ever observed while in private practice. And they know a heck of a lot more than I knew as a green, first year associate. I believe that many of my colleagues at W&L would make the same observation about their law students and their skills. In short, the third-year program is working splendidly. W&L Law School is producing graduates who can smoothly transition from law school to private practice. And I'm confident that, as more employers become familiar with this very new program, that employers will continue to be realize the quality of our students."  (Todd Peppers on Tax Prof Blog) 

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