One law school’s transparency.

“These days if you peruse the Internet you can’t help but come across websites from disgruntled law students and new lawyers… . Bloggers are complaining about the job market for legal professionals. Some go so far as to call law school a scam. At the same time, some members of the legal community … are working together to reach a solution.”

–Anna Stolley Persky, “Are Scambloggers Right About Law School?,” ABA Journal Podcast, 24 Jan. 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times ran an article entitled, “Is Law School a Losing Game?” Although it was just the most recent voice in a long series of traditional media and online pieces about the legal job market, it got a lot of attention, what with being the New York Times and all. And it was the first such piece that generated any significant number of inquiries to my office from prospective applicants—amazingly enough, we had not previously seen much interest in any direct way despite the steady drumbeat of the last two years. As a general proposition, we don’t wait to be asked questions that we think applicants and students need to know the answers to, and for many years—long before the legal employment landscape began to get reshaped in the fall of 2008—we have attempted to produce admissions materials that would help paint a clear picture of what sort of career a JD from Michigan Law School might be expected to lead to. And we’ll continue to do that even when the current challenges abate (which some recent indicators suggest is beginning to occur).

But without doubt, the Times piece and the ensuing conversations have been very helpful in educating us about what questions our particular pool of applicants has (many thanks to one prospective in particular who, as a veteran journalist, was able to articulate the inquiries in a way that was enormously clear and useful). One outcome of these colloquies will be seen here in this blog, as I address some basic questions and unpack some frequently seen statistics. Today, two basic introductory points.

First, a very general question that pertains to law schools everywhere: Why does our website, and every other law school’s website, reflect data from 2009 when this is 2011?! Frankly, the offset between graduation and generation of data is frustrating to me, too, because it all gets supremely confusing. Our 2010 graduating class departed the Law School nine months ago. We report employment data to the National Association for Law Placement from nine months after graduation; they allow us a bit of time to compile it, and so it’s due in February—about 10 months after graduation. As soon as we report it to NALP, we also slap it up on our website. For the few months prior to every changeover, admittedly, that prior graduating class’s data starts looking pretty stale.

Second, a special combination general-and-specific question: How is the overall employment rate calculated? NALP and the ABA instruct schools to omit from the equation anyone who is “not looking.” People whose career status is unknown are counted as ¼ employed; in other words, if a school doesn’t know the outcome for four graduates, the assumption is that only one of the four has found a job. So the overall calculation is: total number of graduates, less those who are employed, less those who are continuing their education, less those who aren’t looking for work, less the number of people whose outcome is unknown multiplied by .25, yields total number unemployed; divide that by the total number of graduates less the number who aren’t looking to yield the percent unemployed.

Still with me? For Michigan, our 2009 nine-month employment rate was 99.14%. The total JD graduating class size was 412. Of those, 397 were employed and seven were continuing their education. Four told us they weren’t looking for a job; two were unemployed; and two were people we never succeeded in tracking down. So: (412-397-7-4) – (.25 x 2) = 3.5; 3.5/408 = .86% unemployed, or 99.14% employed.

To me, the obvious follow-up question for this data is: Why on earth would someone be “not looking” for employment? I have been careful not to ask Career Services about the four people in the 2009 class so that I can speak completely hypothetically and not break any confidentiality; my answer will be based on anecdotal data from other years. Some very understandable reasons for not looking are medical. Graduates sometimes have babies, or schedule surgery, around the time of graduation, and in both instances, simply delay looking for work for a considerable period. Similarly, people are sometimes one-half of a pair, and are waiting to see where their partners land before they start looking. Other reasons, more problematic from a career-counseling standpoint, might be best categorized as “discouragement.” Occasionally, people who have a great deal of difficulty finding employment tell us that they don’t want our help and are simply bowing out of the search. Related to that group are the people who get to the end of three years of law school and think, this field just isn’t for me.

Having worked with law students for more than a decade, I am pretty dubious about any institution that claims to have completely eliminated the population of unemployed, not looking, and unknown. Clearly, our mission has to be to minimize those numbers—but realistically, in a group of 400, a couple of people are going to have a very hard time finding a job. That said, prospective law students certainly should be closely scrutinizing the offset between the total number employed and everyone else. If a school is declaring a large number of people unknown or not looking, there’s a concern; even a large number who are continuing education might indicate a problem (whereas a smaller number almost certainly indicates a few people finishing up JD-related dual degrees or, sometimes, specialized tax LLMs). Although most schools don’t explicitly lay out the math behind their figure on their website (and not necessarily for any duplicitous reason—as anyone who has waded through this post might attest, the math does not make riveting reading), it is all available online in the ABA/LSAC Official Guide to Law Schools; Michigan-specific data is available here. (Although—that data is always one year further out of date than what’s on our website, thanks to the exigencies of publishing!)

-Dean Z.
Assistant Dean for Admissions
and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies

1A number of commentators have taken issue with the accuracy and quality of reporting in the piece, but I won’t add my voice to that well-trodden ground; being a gadfly about sloppiness seems beside the point when the issue has been raised in many fora and reflects a clearly valid concern. I will note, however, that the Times did print a correction with regard to one point, in which an unemployed individual was wrongly identified as a Columbia Law grad, and the current online version reflects the correction.