A Jobs Bridge Too Far: Law Schools Are Channel Stuffing!

I knew that the legal market was in bad shape last summer when I came across the story that top law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges announced its first mass layoffs in 82 years, but I had no idea it was this bad.

As most of you will be aware, U.S. News & World Report publishes a widely anticipated ranking of undergraduate as well as graduate schools. I recall how closely my peers scrutinized these rankings back when I was a high school senior and, apparently, a similar obsession continues to this day.

In fact, law schools are so consumed with performing well in these rankings that they are going to outrageous lengths to make it look like their students are performing better financially after graduation than they actually are. One of the most ridiculous ways they achieve this is by paying the salaries of their graduates upon graduation. This way, students can take on employment at non-pofits and government agencies, positions they would never otherwise consider in light of their mountains of student debt. In return, their alma maters can pretend their graduates got real jobs. It is the academic equivalent of GM automobile channel stuffing.

This isn’t just a minor trend of one-offs being exaggerated by the media either. For example, George Washington University paid the starting salaries of 22% of its graduates in 2012, while the University of Virginia paid for 15%.

These programs even have a name that reminds me of a financial derivative packed full of worthless securities. These programs are being called “bridge to practice” schemes and according to The Economist “in a recent survey by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), 45 of the 94 schools that responded now run such programs.”

Now more from The Economist:

EACH YEAR when U.S. News, an American publisher, releases its league table of law schools, potential students seize on it and the universities decry it for oversimplifying a personal and unquantifiable decision. But the schools can ill afford to ignore it, since not just applicants but donors and even credit-rating agencies pay close attention to the scores.

Among the ranking’s most important components is the share of graduates who find jobs. The 2014 table, announced on March 11th, shows that the University of Virginia (UVA) and George Washington University (GW) do especially well on this. Although UVA’s law students are only in ninth place for their scores in standard admission tests, 97.5% of the class of 2012 had a job on graduating—the best mark in the country. At GW the discrepancy was even more striking: its 85% graduate-employment rate ranked ninth, whereas its admission-test scores were 21st.

However, the two schools’ performance is not as stellar as it seems. A close look at the online employment database of the American Bar Association reveals that GW and UVA are among the leaders in a striking trend: law schools paying the salaries of their alumni when they go to work in legal firms, non-profits or the government. GW paid the starting salaries of a whopping 22% of its 2012 graduates; at 15%, UVA was not far behind.

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