By Elizabeth Olson, Big Law Business
When times got rough a few years ago and student numbers started to slip, deep-pocketed law schools took solace in being able to give some refuge to unemployed graduates. They used their own funds to pay the salaries of students — often times creating temporary positions in law libraries or even dean’s offices — and were able to count them as employed.
Eventually critics of legal education outcomes caught wind of it and the American Bar Association altered its reporting standards to make school-funded jobs more obvious. But several years later, the group, which accredits law firms, is still tussling over those rules.
In June, the requirements were thrown into question again with an unexpected adoption of changes in the way such information is disclosed.
Paul Mahoney, a former dean of University of Virginia Law School, which has subsidized such positions, proposed the change, which made it harder to discern such positions from other jobs that are full-time, long-term bar passage required jobs — the gold standard that all law schools seek for their graduates.
At the time and in continuing days, advocates of more disclosures have argued that law school applicants will be hampered in evaluating their career prospects without knowing the realistic chances of obtaining a legal position after earning their JD degree.
The ensuing controversy, dissected at the ABA Section on Legal Education, during the annual meeting in New York City on Friday, exposed some lingering splits in the legal education community.
Most law schools cannot afford to subsidize the jobs at issue, which are defined as public or government jobs that require bar passage and pay $40,000 a year.
“There is a concern that only certain schools have the resources to fund these jobs,” said Antonio Garcia-Padilla, dean emeritus and professor at University of Puerto Rico School of Law who is a member of the legal section. “That could convey that the higher employment ratio is not real,” he added.
On the other hand, those who support reclassification of the school-supported jobs maintain that such positions are a small portion of the tens of thousands of jobs law school graduates obtain each year. The estimates vary between 200 and around 750 school supported jobs.
“It is such a small amount that the council is getting itself wrapped up in a tempest in a teapot,” said Roger Dennis, dean of Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law.
The importance lies not in the actual numbers but in the fact that employment outcomes are a major selling point law schools use to attract students and convince them to sign up for well over $100,000 in debt. They make the commitment with the assurance that a well-paying job is available at the end of their three-year commitment.
The other key concern is that employment outcomes are a major metric in the national rankings of law schools, which are still a major consideration for many students in deciding where to apply.
For now, the issue is on hold, and the disclosure of the proportion of jobs that law schools subsidize as opposed to those on the open market remains the same. The legal education council will take up the issue again in November.
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