Comparing Law School Rankings? Read The Fine Print

Mar 28, 2014
Originally published on March 31, 2014 11:12 am

When students go to law school, they make a bunch of calculations. A big one is cost: top schools charge more than $50,000 a year, and graduate-student debt is on the rise. Another key calculation: The likelihood of getting a good job after graduation.

Each spring, US News & World Report releases its ranking of law schools. One of the factors that goes into the rankings: the percentage of students employed nine months after graduation.

But the US News rankings don't consider who employs the graduates, so long as they're employed in a professional position. Some schools have been hiring their own students, and rising in the rankings.

These students get a stipend from the school to work for nonprofits or in public service. That stipend can come out of the school's budget or sometimes alumni donations. And when a school hires its own students, it can bump up its ranking. William and Mary Law School, for example, jumped nine spots this year. It employs 20 percent of its students on a fellowship program.

The school's dean says the program helps students succeed by showing potential employers what they're capable of.

But Kyle McEntee, who graduated from law school in 2011 and runs a group called Law School Transparency, says students can't make an informed choice about their return on investment if they can't tell from a school's rankings how many of its jobs are permanent and how many are temporary.

Law schools say it's easy to see a breakdown of employment numbers on their websites. And the students and former students we spoke to love the programs. Brian Daner is now working as counsel on Capitol Hill, which he describes as a dream job. He was able to try out on the Hill thanks to a University of Virginia Law School fellowship. After five months, he was hired.

Andrew Beyda is in his final year at George Washington University Law School. He has a job lined up after graduation. But he says if he didn't, he'd be a candidate for his school's employment program. "It's a tough legal market," he says. "Frankly, lawyers aren't retiring or dying nearly fast enough for us to fill their spots."

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Students sizing up law schools may take into account how many graduates from a particular institution actually get employed once they have their degrees in hand. Many schools promise jobs after graduation, but not all those legal jobs are quite what they seem.

Ashley Milne-Tyte from our Planet Money team has this report.

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE, BYLINE: Prospective law students who can't make it to Williamsburg, Virginia can learn all about the law school there on the Web.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: William and Mary is the oldest law school in the United States.

MILNE-TYTE: Complete with elegant buildings, famous names...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Founded in 1779 at the urging of Thomas Jefferson.

MILNE-TYTE: And if you delve into their website, you can see the graduates of William and Mary Law School are doing great in the job market - they have a 90 percent employment rate. But not all those positions are big-paying law firm jobs. When you dig down, there's a surprising fact: A fifth of graduates are employed by the university itself. They're not working for the school. They're in a fellowship program that pays graduates a stipend to work in public service jobs or for non-profits. Dave Douglas is dean of the law school.

DAVE DOUGLAS: In this market, where jobs are tight, a student needs to have the opportunity to show what they can do.

MILNE-TYTE: He says with these jobs, graduates gain valuable experience. Within a year, most of the university-funded graduates land full-time jobs.

DOUGLAS: And that's what this fellowship program does, and that's why these students succeed.

MILNE-TYTE: It does something else too - it boosts the school's place in the Best Law Schools rankings produced by U.S. News & World Report. William and Mary Law School jumped nine spots this year. It's now the 24th best school in the nation. The dean says that jump happened in part because of the school's improved employment numbers.

Moving up in the rankings is a big deal.

KAREN SLOAN: I think it has an outsized influence, this sort of rankings obsession, in the legal profession, which is very sort of obsessed with prestige.

MILNE-TYTE: Karen Sloan is a reporter with the National Law Journal. She says a lot of things go into these rankings, but one crucial factor is how many graduates land jobs. The rankings count someone employed if they have a professional job nine months after graduation, but they don't care who employs you. So, many top-ranked law schools have these school-funded job programs, Georgetown, NYU, George Washington University.

Sloan says these kinds of initiatives became popular during the recession when legal jobs got scarce.

SLOAN: So there's really no doubt in my mind that the primary motivation for these programs was to boost employment numbers.

MILNE-TYTE: Now there's been debate in the past about how transparent law schools have been about their job numbers. Until fairly recently, you could be working at McDonald's after graduation and you'd still count as employed in the rankings. Then the rules changed. Now schools provide a more detailed breakdown of the kinds of jobs graduates get.

But Kyle McEntee of the non-profit Law School Transparency, he says there are still problems with these school-funded programs.

KYLE MCENTEE: They're not purely intentioned. They exist to help appearances whether it's improving the rankings criteria for U.S. News rankings, or improving their employment rates.

MILNE-TYTE: McEntee says students can't make an informed choice about the return on their investment if they don't know which are real jobs, and which aren't. Law schools say look, anyone can see the nitty gritty of our employment numbers on our websites - we make it clear how many graduates are on our dime.

And the law school students we spoke to didn't feel like anything nefarious was going on. Andrew Beyda goes to George Washington University Law School. He says any job, even one funded by your school, is better than no job.

ANDREW BEYDA: Well, I mean it's a tough legal market, I mean especially since the economic crisis around 2008, frankly lawyers aren't retiring or dying nearly fast enough in order for us to fill their spots.

MILNE-TYTE: And the schools that run these programs make another point: These temporary jobs are a way to get students into public service. Brian Daner graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 2011. He had a job offer from a private law firm in Washington, D.C. But he turned it down to go and work in a temporary position on Capitol Hill. A University of Virginia fellowship made it possible for him to do that.

BRIAN DANER: And the fellowship program was actually a year long, but after five months, I guess I proved my worth to my bosses and they brought me on as full-time counsel.

MILNE-TYTE: Some of his classmates also graduated to jobs in public service right from their fellowships.

Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal agrees the programs are a great opportunity for students at the universities that offer them. But she says overall, a small percentage of the country's law school graduates even have this option.

SLOAN: Some of the schools lower down the U.S. News the rankings, just, I mean they don't have the kind of endowment money, they don't have the finances to do something like this.

MILNE-TYTE: If you're one of those schools that doesn't have an employment program, your students are on their own in a legal job market that still hasn't recovered from the recession.

Ashley Milne-Tyte, NPR News.

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