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Jay Conison Headshot

What is Legal Education Good For?

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Is law school a good investment? Critics charge that it is not. A key claim is that the employment market for graduates is weak and that odds are low that graduates will secure a job or career that makes the investment of time and money worthwhile.

This claim about employment goes to value, a central question in higher education today. I believe there is a key respect in which law schools needlessly understate the value of a legal education and needlessly encourage the critics.

Take, for example, a report recently released by the National Association for Law Placement. The report contains results of the annual survey of law graduate employment, and one highlight is that "only 65.4 percent obtained a job for which bar passage is required." Another highlight is that "[n]ot quite half (49.5 percent) of employed graduates obtained a job in private practice." Both of these figures reflect declines from prior years.

Standing alone these numbers are data, not norms. The 65.4 percent figure and the 49.5 percent figure are not intrinsically good or bad, high or low. Yet, the unmistakable message of NALP -- a message repeated by many in legal education -- is that the numbers are not good. They are thought not good because of an implicit norm that graduates (at least at graduation) should be in private practice or other jobs for which bar passage is required.

We see this norm in many contexts. For example, it is common in the legal education community to describe jobs for which bar passage is not required as alternative careers. The implication is that these are alternative to real jobs, and somehow second class. The culture of law schools does not provide much encouragement or support for students in the pursuit of these careers.

That attitude is a mistake. The job category of bar passage not required, and the concept of alternative career, lump together Starbucks baristas and McKinsey consultants, and devalue the latter. It is not clear why working as a McKinsey consultant should be thought inferior to working as a public defender or a plaintiff's lawyer. Yet that is the upshot of the prevailing mode of talking and thinking.

It is useful to consider what -- beyond baristas -- is encompassed in the vague category of alternative career. As a start, here is a partial list of jobs and careers held by Valparaiso Law alumni whom I know:

• Vice president for public affairs of a major corporation.
• Human resources directors.
• Executive directors of non-profit organizations.
• Wealth managers.
• FBI agents.
• Global Vice President for Claims of a major insurance company.
• Policy official in a federal agency.
• Real estate developers.
• Consultants (in many fields).
• Lobbyists.
• Business entrepreneurs.
• Project manager.
• Art gallery owner.
• Professors and teachers.
• Fundraisers.
• Foreign Service officer.
• Business managers.

The irony of this list is that law schools have long said that they prepare people for this range of business, government, and other professional careers. Law schools emphasize their expertise in developing highly versatile skills and competences -- in particular, critical reading, analytical reasoning, persuasive writing, and problem solving -- that are valuable in an enormous range of jobs, fields, and business settings. One commonly hears it said -- emphasizing this versatility -- that a J.D. is at least as useful as an M.B.A., if not more.

Yet the message about the strength and versatility of legal education seems forgotten once the conversation turns to actual jobs and careers. This has unfortunate consequences.

One is to underserve students. The market for law practice positions is down today. But as the list shows, law practice positions do not exhaust the good jobs and careers for which law graduates are qualified by their education. Law schools today take seriously their responsibility to provide career-related services. As part of this responsibility, they owe it to students to educate them about the full scope of opportunities available and effectively support students' pursuit of those opportunities.

A second consequence is to understate the value of legal education. The message about the versatility of legal education is half of a strong value proposition. But the value proposition remains incomplete unless schools make clear that they deliver on the promise. If they can deliver, they have a powerful message with potential to attract and serve a wider range of students.

Finally, by underserving students and understating value, schools needlessly support criticism that legal education is not a good path to a rewarding career. Schools are artificially narrowing what counts as a successful outcome of legal education. There is no justification for this restriction and it is inconsistent with deeper statements about what law school is good for. If law schools keep in mind the full scope of valuable career outcomes, and act on that understanding, law schools can better respond to critics while better serving their students.