Jason Dolin, an Ohio attorney who is an adjunct law professor at Capital University, has just published an article in the Ohio Lawyer that digs into the employment statistics for the class of 2010 at Ohio's five public law schools nine months after graduation (unfortunately it appears you have to be a member of the Ohio bar to access the article on line). Dolin filed public records requests with the schools, and the information he gathered is eye-opening in various ways. Here I'll focus on the data released to him by Ohio State (a first-tier school) and Toledo (an unranked, aka fourth-tier school).
OSU's Class of 2010 had 202 graduates. 23 of these people (11.4%) reported themselves as being completely unemployed nine months after graduation (it's unclear from Dolin's data whether any of them were full-time students). Of the 179 who were employed, ten were "employed" by OSU itself, or in jobs funded by OSU, which appears to be an example of an increasingly common practice whereby law schools fluff up their employment numbers with what might be called Potemkin Village jobs. Of the remaining 169, 59 reported being employed either in jobs that didn't require a JD, or were part-time, or both.
Of the 110 graduates who reported having full-time jobs that required a JD, only four, according to OSU, listed their positions as being temporary as opposed to permanent. This strikes me as highly implausible. As I outlined in the New Republic in April, granular employment data from a very similar school to OSU revealed that almost one third of that school's 2010 graduates who had full-time jobs requiring a JD were in temporary positions -- and this was true even when treating the graduates in federal clerkships and state supreme court clerkships as having the equivalent of permanent full-time JD-requiring jobs. (Dolin's article doesn't break out judicial clerkships as a separate category).
In any case, the idea that only 2% of OSU's 2010 class was doing temporary full-time legal work nine months after graduation flies in the face of everything we know about the current employment market for new lawyers. This kind of implausible data highlights the need for information regarding law school employment to be subject to some sort of auditing procedure. For one thing, the current system relies exclusively on unaudited self-reporting from graduates, while my research indicates a significant percentage of graduates exaggerate the desirability of their employment situations, by for example characterizing part-time positions as full-time, and temporary jobs as permanent. The system also assumes that law schools will report this already far from-optimal data set accurately (an assumption that, given the enormous pressures law schools are under to cook their books, may well be unwarranted).
Nevertheless, even if we assume almost no 2010 OSU grads were doing temporary legal work nine months after graduation, barely half (106 of 202) claimed to have a real legal job, i.e., permanent full-time work requiring a law degree.
75 2010 OSU grads -- 37% of the class -- reported they were working in private law practice. Of these three were in solo practices, 31 were working for small firms (25 lawyers or less), and 14 were working for firms of 500 lawyers or more. (Excluding three respondents who didn't reveal the size of the firm for which they were working, this apparently leaves 24 working for firms of more than 25 but less than 500 lawyers).
90% of the class had taken out loans in law school, with an average debt load of $81,408.
Summary: The rough cut, unaudited breakdown for the graduating class of 2010 of this first tier school is: 16% unemployed (treating the school-created jobs as functional unemployment), 32% doing non-legal, and-or part-time, and-or temporary work, and 52% in real legal jobs of all kinds. 12% of the class reported having acquired real legal jobs outside private law practice. 15% of the class were working for small firms, 12% were working for medium-sized firms, and seven per cent were in BIGLAW. (Again, this is all based on the assumption that this self-reported data is accurate).
Interestingly, a slightly lower percentage of 2010 Toledo graduates reported themselves as unemployed as compared to OSU graduates (10% v. 11.4%). Toledo did not provide information regarding whether the school had hired any of its own graduates. Of the 145 graduates who reported themselves employed (out of a total class of 161), 134 provided more specific employment information. Of this group, 54 -- that is, one third of the total class -- reported being employed full-time in a position for which a JD was required. The school did not provide information regarding how many of these 54 jobs were permanent as opposed to temporary. 55 graduates reported they were in private law practice, which would seem to imply that no one in the graduating class had real legal job outside a firm setting. Of these 55 graduates, 48 reported information regarding firm size, with 39 working for small firms (25 lawyers or less), seven working in solo practice, and two working for mid-sized firms. None worked for large firms. 86% of the class had law school debt, and the class's average debt was $76,898.
Summary: Again, the crucial piece of missing information in this data involves temporary versus permanent employment. If we assume rather optimistically that the proportion of legally-employed graduates with temporary legal jobs mirrors the -- probably significantly understated -- NALP-reported national average of 27%, this would mean that around 20% of the graduating class had a real (full-time, permanent, JD-required) job nine months after graduation. (And this is treating the seven members of the class who report themselves in solo practice as having such jobs). Note that until this year USNWR would have reported the school's "employment" rate as 90.1%. This year's changes in the USNWR reporting methodology have reduced that figure to 71%, which of course is still an exaggeration by a factor of probably more than three.
In comments, someone makes the excellent point that in the current legal market the whole concept of temporary versus permanent employment is getting increasingly complicated. For example, what about the relatively new practice of hiring associates at big law firms who are hired onto explicitly non-partnership tracks? These people will surely report themselves as employed "permanently" --they are salaried with benefits etc. -- but their tenure with the firm is even as a formal matter limited from the start. Furthermore, BL1Y appropriately complicates the question of what a "real" legal job consists of beyond the question of the temporary/permanent distinction (You may want to skip this comment thread altogether if there are any sharp objects in your vicinity).
The point of this kind of analysis isn't to criticize either the outcomes or reporting practices of particular schools -- what we are looking at is clearly an industry-wide structural problem -- but rather to begin to determine the true employment rate nine months after graduation for current law school graduates (again, true employment = permanent full-time job requiring a JD). The available data suggests that number is around 40% to 45% for first tier non-T-14 schools, and perhaps 15% to 20% for fourth-tier schools. (It would be interesting to get some idea of what the number is for T-14 schools, T-6 schools, HYS etc).
We certainly need better (audited, more precise) data, but the data we have -- especially with average law school debt already above $100,000 per year at private schools, and soon to get there for public ones -- suggests that the current cost-benefit structure of legal education has completely broken down, even for many schools in the first tier. An obvious omission in the foregoing analysis was any discussion of salary levels. This is another crucial piece of the puzzle which requires much better data-collection methods than law schools are employing currently. A rough guess would suggest that a total of perhaps 20 to 25 of these 363 2010 law graduates, from two law schools at different ends of the hierarchical spectrum, were receiving a six-figure salary nine months after graduation.