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Law Schools Feel the Heat From Unemployed Grads

Posted: 02/24/2012 11:54 am

Law schools across the country are starting to feel the heat from a growing number of former students who after graduating have been left with hefty loans and no solid job prospects. Many recent graduates who say they were lured into law school by promising job prospects, are calling on their alma maters to be more transparent about their graduates' actual job prospects.

To date, at least 50 students have joined together in 12 different lawsuits to sue their alma maters for allegedly misleading them about job prospects.

Student complaints stem from the allegation that law schools aren't being upfront about the employment numbers of their graduates. Some graduates claim that their alma matters report as employed, students who have only landed temporary jobs, menial jobs or jobs in which their pricy law degree is not even needed. Other students complain that their schools aren't transparent about the fact that when average salaries of students are reported, the numbers often only reflect a small percentage of students who actually fill out school employment surveys. Still others claim that some of the jobs their fellow grads receive are temporary jobs funded by their alma maters to boost employment numbers.

Many law schools hire their own graduates in February, just as the nine-month mark approaches in accordance with the U.S. News's stat called "graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation." But the jobs are often 3-6 month, part time stints that pay $15-20/hr.

An example of this can be seen in an email the dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law sent to recent graduates, which reads in part: "To help our newest alumni during this difficult period, the School of Law has created the Transitional Employment Program (TEP). The purpose of the TEP is to provide a few temporary, part-time jobs for recent graduates who have passed the bar and have not yet been able to secure employment.... These positions are with our faculty as research assistants and with administrative offices at the School of Law working on distinct, law-related projects.... The positions are part-time (20 hrs/week), will last for three months, and we anticipate a start date of early to mid February. The pay is approximately $15 dollars per hour."

One former University of San Francisco law student, who graduated in 2009, said, "I wouldn't recommend law school to anyone. I know so many people who, after three years of searching for decent legal employment, have settled for temporary document review work that is boring, unrewarding, and unreliable. If you want to be unemployed for half the year, stuck to your computer waiting for a staffing agency to email you a temporary job then, sure, go to law school. But good luck paying off your loans."

According to the American Bar Association (ABA) and a recent Law School Survey of Student Engagement, nearly one-third of respondents said they would owe about $120,000 upon graduation. While graduates are typically strapped with upwards of $100,000 in student loans after graduating, many are left with no way of paying off their loans and instead face increasing debt as interest on their loans accrue. According to some studies, the average law student needs to earn about $65,000 a year to be able to repay his/her loans.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) most recent numbers, in 2008, the number of employed attorneys hit 759,200. The BLS predicted that between 2008 and 2018, employed attorneys will increase to 857,700 -- rising 13 percent. But these predictions were put out prior to the recession and therefore the numbers are likely now inflated. The Los Angeles Times reported that when post-recession numbers and the number of retirees and deaths are taken into consideration, the actual number increases are closer to 30,000; to put the numbers in context, about 45,000 students graduate from law school in the US every year.

Many students fault the ABA for failing to place proper and necessary checks on the institutions granting law degrees. In response, the ABA recently changed its rules. The Association promised that as of next year, law schools will have to publish employment numbers in more detail -- reporting whether their graduates are employed full time and whether or not the positions filled required a law degree.

Some fault the U.S. News & World Report, which bases its famed annual rankings on unaudited, internal surveys conducted by the law schools themselves; the law schools in turn use questions from the ABA and the National Association for Law Placement. But the fact that the survey results are not double-checked by an impartial third party is cause for concern for many students who commit to law school largely based on these numbers. In addition, the surveys are inherently biased in that the students who actually have jobs are much more likely to fill out the questionnaires, while students out looking for jobs or making minimum wage working at a part time job are less likely to respond. Because of this, both rates of employment and average graduate salary numbers are likely to be artificially high.

But the U.S. News has said that despite having the power to demand more transparent and accurate data from the schools, it would have to completely redefine what "employed" meant, and said it preferred the ABA to take the lead on that.

"There is a considerable amount of pressure on law schools to boost their rankings in the U.S. World News & Report by inflating their post-graduation employment statistics," Brian Procel, an attorney at Miller Barondess, LLP, said, adding, "Law schools need to be held to the same standard as any other business with respect to honest marketing and advertising. Law schools do not get a free pass to deceive prospective students because they are in the education industry."

Things don't seem like they will be looking up anytime soon. According to a recent Northwestern Law study, about 15,000 attorney and legal-staff positions at large firms have been closed since 2008, while other firms are outsourcing or contracting-out entry-level work -- meaning even less jobs for the upcoming graduating classes.

David Strickland, a graduate of George Washington Law, said even if law schools are forced to be more transparent about their employment numbers in the near future, it's too late for those who have already graduated.

"The majority of law schools don't inflate their employment stats intentionally; instead, they willingly employ practices which lead to the inevitability of misleading numbers," Strickland explained. "Shortly after my graduation from George Washington Law School, I began receiving monthly phone calls from the Career Development Office (CDO). Each call would lead with a single question: 'Have you found a job yet?' Each time, I hadn't. For nine months I searched for employment. Finally, after nine months, I found a temporary paralegal position at a two-person law firm. At the end of that month, GW called again and asked how my search was going. I gladly told them I found a part time job as a paralegal. I haven't received a call since. Schools aren't looking for in-depth information. At this point, it's five years of graduating classes who can barely find a job, have little hopes of reaching their potential, and are suffering under the burden of student loans so large that it's only a matter of time before the next headline is 'Sallie Mae suffers devastating losses due to the student loan delinquencies.'"

Strickland continued, "Just recently, abovethelaw.com reported the applications to law school ticked down for the first time in more than twenty years. Maybe they're getting it. The problem is that it's too late for many of us. In addition to the lack of job prospects for new attorneys, the legal industry is in the midst of its largest systemic downturn ever. Hundreds of thousands of jobs aren't coming back."

The issue has gained such momentum and national attention that Senator Barbara Boxer, D-CA and Senator Tom Coburn, R-OK, have asked the Department of Education to launch an investigation into the employment rates reported by American law schools.

 

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