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Hungry for Jobs

August 9, 2010

If new law graduates can't find jobs, whose fault is that? Are the latest crops of new graduates just unlucky to be job-hunting in the worst economic downturn in decades? Are law schools admitting too many students without being fully open about the job market?

These are some of the questions being raised by Ethan Haines, the name or pseudonym (he won't say which) of a blogger who announced that he started a hunger strike on Thursday to demand reforms of law schools. He wrote to 10 law schools (randomly selected from the top 100 law schools listed in the rankings of U.S. News & World Report) and asked them to commit to meet new standards of transparency on their job placement rates, and to agree to do an audit of their career counseling programs. As of Sunday, he said he had yet to receive responses from any of the law schools -- and so is rejecting food. (Several of the law schools, contacted by Inside Higher Ed, declined to comment.)

Haines is not talking on the phone, but via e-mail he said that he sees that, given the horrible economy, "the availability of jobs is not the fault of law schools. However, they should fairly represent this to law students -- school brochures should not tout the same high employment and salary statistics that they did before the recession. This is where transparency comes into play."

As for the tactic of a hunger strike, he said that "I truly believe that only a gesture of this magnitude would get their attention. The problem is that everyone has screamed these same concerns at the top of their lungs but nobody listened. Similar to a class action, to ensure success for countless wronged individuals against a large organization, you must gather your resources, appoint a class representative, and go in ... together."

Haines would not answer questions about whether that is his real name and where he went to law school, so Inside Higher Ed could not confirm his story or identity. But his Unemployed JD blog appears to be part of a trend of recent law grads going online to vent about what they see as a raw deal they received paying (frequently with student loans) for a legal education that isn't giving them the economic payoff they expected.

There's Third Tier Reality, a blog devoted to discouraging anyone from attending a law school outside the "top eight" and without a full scholarship, arguing that others are destined for job disappointments and big debts. The blog focuses on exposing what it considers misleading information in law school promotional materials about job success, dubbing one law school recently examined "a second tier sewage plant" and another a "clown college of law."

There's Exposing the Law School Scam, where a recent post compared Craigslist postings from employers offering plumbers $50 to agree to interview for a job with a recent law grad offering $200 to anyone who would get him an interview with a law firm, and another $800 if he is hired. One recent comment posted by a reader: "The law school deans, administrators and career services officers should be ashamed of the lives they have destroyed."

And there's Shilling Me Softly, whose creator says: "I bought into the law school scam, and now I'll be paying for the next 30 years." On many of these blogs and others, the hunger striker is being praised and readers trade theories about why law school job statistics aren't to be trusted (a common theme: those who are unemployed are somehow not contacted or included). Responding to all of these reports, at least one observer has tried to analyze how law schools would be affected if the "gainful employment" regulations proposed for for-profit career schools would be applied to legal education.

Amid the many more such blogs with horror stories are also more serious efforts, such as Law School Transparency, which is a new nonprofit group committed to getting law schools to provide more information about the job market before students enroll and to improve career counseling for those who do enroll. Haines, the hunger striker, is demanding that law schools adhere to the standards of Law School Transparency, But he says he has no ties to the group. and its leaders (who are upfront about their identities -- more on them later) say that they don't know who he is, nor have they asked anyone to go on a hunger strike.

How Bad Is It?

All the anger raises the question of how bad the job market is for new J.D.s. The national median salary for those in the law school class of 2009 working full time and reporting a salary was $72,000, and the national mean was $93,454, according to an annual study by NALP: The Association for Legal Career Professionals.

Those kinds of figures are unlikely to attract much sympathy from adjunct professors or new humanities Ph.D.s. The median salary for a new assistant professor of English last year was $51,000, and the median for an associate professor of English was $62,000, according to data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Adjuncts in English, of course, aren't earning anything close to those figures, despite in many cases having been in graduate school much longer than the three years it takes to earn a law degree.

So if the new Ph.D.s in humanities might kill for starting law salaries, why so much frustration among recent law grads? As the blogs all note, many of those who went to law school (borrowing heavily in some cases) assumed that they, unlike their counterparts in humanities Ph.D. programs, would emerge employable, and comfortable if not wealthy, soon after graduation. And the NALP report makes clear that the mean and median figures are hiding a lot of danger points for those starting out. For starters, the salaries at large law firms (in the $160,000 range, and for positions for which those at elite law schools are much more likely to get the call) skew average salary figures.

And then there are other factors. The employment rate is 88 percent -- which sounds healthy compared to some programs, but is down 3.6 percentage points over two years and is a figure that itself may be deceiving. The survey found a sort of adjunctification of legal jobs: About 25 percent of those with jobs are in temporary positions. And several thousand new J.D.s reported that their start dates had been pushed back by months beyond when they expected to start -- so while those people are employed, they faced cash shortfalls and knew early on that they were entering jobs where funds were tight.

Another major complaint on the blogs is that amid the tight job market, all signs point to law schools continuing to seek enrollment increases and even to universities creating new law schools. Data from the Law School Admission Council show that in the fall of 2009, matriculations were up 5 percent and -- in a sign that this increase may be repeated this fall -- the number of LSAT administrations for the year was up 6.4 percent.

The University of California at Irvine just finished its first year with a law school. Concordia University in Oregon is planning to open a law school in Idaho. Lincoln Memorial University will admit its first full-time law students in the fall. When the Southern New England Law School, a private free-standing institution, last year came to the University of Massachusetts for help, the state system absorbed it and it is now seeing major enrollment increases.

Calls for Transparency

In this environment, critics say that much more transparency is needed. The group Law School Transparency wants law schools to move away from average salary reports and instead to release information on the employment status of every single graduate, position by position. The idea is to give prospective students something to look at that truly gives a sense that X number of graduates end up well-compensated, and that many don't. Scanning such a list gives a much better picture than averages, the group says.

Kyle McEntee, co-founder of the group and a rising third-year law student at Vanderbilt University, said he got the idea from his positive experience with his law school's career office. He asked for that data and was provided it at a program for accepted applicants, and he said that the information was decisive for his own decision to come to Vanderbilt, as well as for several others who attended that day. McEntee had an internship this summer in the legal division of Yahoo, and said he feels that he has been given strong support in his job search, but that his organization hears all the time from law students who don't feel that way. "We are not disgruntled law students. We see a problem and we're trying to solve it," he said.

The data sought by Law School Transparency differs from the averages offered by many law schools and used by U.S. News for its rankings. The magazine's methodology counts employment upon graduation, employment nine months after graduation, and bar passage rates.

Brian Leiter, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago, writes regularly about law school rankings and the way applicants can evaluate law schools on one of his blogs, Brian Leiter's Law School Reports. He does see a transparency problem for law schools, but disagrees with some of the criticism.

"Students have always blamed career services offices for their difficulties finding jobs, and those complaints are, pretty uniformly, without merit," he said. "The more serious issue, about which I've written for a long time, is misrepresentations by schools about employment and salary prospects." He said that the American Bar Association could "crack down" on these abuses but "has not shown an appetite for doing so."

Leiter said that "students will really have to do better due diligence" and that means looking beyond U.S. News. He said that his advice to prospective law students is to get each law school they are considering to provide the list for the last year of employers that came to the law school for on-campus interviews. "This is where the differences between schools become very, very clear," he said.

An Unusual Time or a Broader Problem?

Susan Westerberg Prager, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said she hadn't seen the various blogs focused on the career challenges facing law graduates and wasn't familiar with the standards being called for by Law School Transparency, but that she thought those behind those efforts would have an impact. "I think the fact that students and recent grads are speaking out is one reason this will receive more attention," she said.

Prager said she realized that there was intense frustration among many recent grads over this issue -- and that there were a number of reasons for the anger being expressed at law schools.

Those who have graduated from law school in the last two years are "almost uniquely affected" in ways unlike past economic downturns, she said. These students entered law school before the economic collapse of the fall of 2008 and so made their decisions to enroll "when the world seemed limitless in terms of economic growth," and now these same students "are ready to graduate when the picture is so dramatically worse -- it's that swing at a time of expectations.... I think it's the dissonance between the expectations and the current reality that is just so great that it is producing some of the deep, deep disappointment and feelings of unfairness."

Prager said she strongly believed that law schools should be "transparent" about job placement and about the kinds of jobs graduates are getting. And she said that she has not seen law school leaders telling anyone that there is about to be a quick turnaround in the job market.

What about today? If law schools are enrolling more students and if more law schools are being created at a time that current grads are complaining about a lousy job market, is something wrong with the system? Is it possible there are too many slots and that would-be students aren't getting the right information to make informed choices about enrollment (and borrowing to pay for law school)?

Prager said that she has been surprised by the creation of new law schools, but that she has also noticed these law schools "filling their seats," suggesting that demand remains strong. "It's very difficult to say to this generation that they cannot aspire to this education," she said, especially given that the law is not the only field with a tight job market and that many undergraduates are more likely to consider graduate or professional education at a time like this, when there aren't as many good jobs for new B.A.s.

In the United States, she noted, the availability of slots for various kinds of education programs are "market driven and not controlled by the state," and law schools are responding to a growing market.

And it is important to note, Prager said, that law school graduates can use their education in many fields. "Law is an education that helps a person in a wide variety of career choices," she said, citing jobs in government, nonprofit groups and education as examples. "So saving a legal education for me has never meant that this means that the highest and best use of this person will be to be practicing law."

Further, she said that "I don't think as you think about how measure our professional lives that we measure them exclusively on what we earn. We also measure them based on some of the satisfaction that we feel and the intellectual content that came along with this discipline. So someone who is pursuing a main career in a relatively low-paying government job may also be engaging in civic organizations where they are drawing on their legal education, may be doing work for family members or someone in the community, and a lot of them take tremendous satisfaction, so the picture is much more complicated."

Prager said that many law deans are concerned about prospective students being able to make informed choices and about being able to provide more need-based financial aid to minimize the need for large loans to attend law school. But she noted that various trends in the field make this difficult, citing a recent ABA report suggesting that law schools trying to improve their U.S. News rankings end up spending more (adding to costs) and focusing on merit aid (trying to attract students with the highest LSAT scores) -- decisions that may exacerbate the tensions that appear to be growing over law school costs and the job market. (The magazine has responded by saying that the law schools are scapegoating the rankings for decisions they are making.)

Whether Haines, the person whose blog describes his hunger strike, will take comfort in Prager's statements is unclear. He said via e-mail that he's not interested in a career beyond practicing law. "I didn't go to law school to be get rich at a big law firm. I attended because I actually wanted to practice law, which you can only do by going to law school," he said.

And he blasted the career counseling he received. Career offices, he said, "have been used to having jobs thrown at them and have not yet adjusted to the new post-recession market that includes social media, firm employment strategies, and the competitiveness of the global market. Legal outsourcing anyone? Fortunately, I am a determined, resourceful individual capable of taking control of my own destiny, as I am attempting to do here. Many of my peers have the same characteristics, I only ask law schools to provide them with the proper tools they need to effectively utilize these traits."

As of Sunday, he said that he has received many supportive e-mail messages from law students and recent grads, but is still waiting to hear from a law school. He said that many have urged him to reveal his identity and that he is thinking of doing so, possibly by showing up at one of the law schools he has asked to meet his demands.

 

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