Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Does a practical legal skills curriculum produce better employment results for students?

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. 

An Employment Puzzle

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Continue reading here.

Hat tip to Above the Law.


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