Dean Kramer dedicated a few paragraphs to relating the employment outcomes for the class of 2011, which he described in a markedly defensive tone:
It was a difficult year, though nowhere near as bad as the media and blogs would have you believe (more about this on page 7). So despite what you may think from reading headlines, I am pleased to report that the Class of 2011 did as well as Stanford Law classes typically do. Placing everyone was harder than usual, to be sure,and we are still working with a small number of graduates caught by the contraction in government and public interest jobs, but our overall results are, on the whole, normal.Readers of the letter prone to lawyerly suspicion will be struck by how Dean Kramer's subsequent elaboration of this claim avoids citing any numbers, other than noting that 35% of the 2011 took clerkships (There's no further breakdown of what sort of clerkships, other than noting that four members of the Class of 2010 will be starting SCOTUS clerkships). Beyond this, Dean Kramer retreats into statistic-free generalities:
In the meantime, the private law firm market stabilized after several rocky years, pretty much as we expected. Summer programs are smaller than they used to be, but students who obtain a summer position and do good work can once again expect to receive an offer. And many of the larger firms are starting to grow again, albeit more slowly than during the halcyon years leading up to 2008. The bottom line is that placement in private law firms has reverted to normal for SLS graduates. As is typical, the vast majority of this group sought and found positions at large firms in the major markets (the Bay Area, New York,D.C., and L.A.), though we continue encouraging students to consider other cities with large, interesting practices, such asNot everything has reverted to normal, whatever that means, however:
Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix.
Where students ran into trouble finding jobs this year was in the government and public interest sectors. This was a surprise, because hiring in these sectors had remained robust after the economy collapsed. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see a number of factors that delayed a contraction in government and public interest work until now: federal stimulus spending, the slowness of state and local governments to cut their budgets, the willingness of private philanthropies to fulfill pledges made when times were good. Now, the federal government is shrinking and state and local governments are slashing spending and implementing deep cutbacks in social services. Government grants to nongovernmental public interest organizations have also declined, a drop in support that has been exacerbated by a matching drop in private philanthropy for legal services organizations, especially from law firms. Unfortunately, this does not look like a short-term setback, not in the current political and economic climate, and the public interest world may be in for a long winter.Nevertheless Dean Kramer's bottom line is that, "despite these new and continuing challenges, nearly all of our new graduates have been successful in finding positions." Again, those of a lawyerly inclination might find the phrasing of that sentence a bit too slippery for comfort. Leaving aside the vagueness of "nearly all," what percentage of these positions are real legal jobs? As I noted in an earlier post, "nearly all" 2010 graduates of the University of Toledo School of Law "found positions" as well -- it's just that the vast majority of those positions weren't permanent full-time legal jobs. Now of course there's no doubt that the large majority of SLS's latest class have real legal jobs (for these purposes we can put federal and state supreme court clerkships in this category), but it would be nice to know what those numbers actually look like, especially given the fact that quite significant percentages of new graduates and current 3Ls at places like Michigan and Duke don't have such jobs.
Dean Kramer's otherwise upbeat letter ends on a discordant note, with a section entitled "Legal Education and the Media:"
Before closing, I want to say a few words about the unending stream of negative media stories we saw this past year describing law schools and their discontents. To hear the press, legal educators are little more than 21st century snake oil salesmen—who take money from unwitting students (apparently to fund the rest of the university), teach them nothing of use to a practicing lawyer, and then—having lied to them about their real employment prospects—leave them jobless and saddled with enormous debt. The stories are frustrating because they are so badly done—filled with factual misstatements, unexamined (and false) assertions, extreme (and idiosyncratic) examples, and misleading claims. They are frustrating as well because they look only at today’s job market. Obviously, when the economy is in awful shape, the legal profession suffers along with everyone else. The appropriate question concerns the value of a law degree across one’s whole working life, which has been and remains very high—and not just at elite schools like Stanford.I suspect that Dean Kramer is going to regret taking up this line of argument. There's an old saying in politics: Don't pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel. When Dean Kramer impugns the journalistic integrity of the national media for questioning the value of law degrees and the behavior of law schools, he is asking for trouble -- especially given that his defense of that behavior consists of nothing more than fact-free bluster. Does Dean Kramer really want to take the position that law schools haven't engaged in, to put it as delicately as possible, misleading conduct in regard to the employment prospects of their graduates? Under the present circumstances, that would be a rather extraordinary position to defend.
Perhaps we should be flattered that law schools have been singled out for this special attention. Still, it’s curious that no one compares law to other disciplines. Graduating doctors get jobs, but how do those jobs compare given the much larger debt required to get through medical school and the deteriorating state of health care economics? How do lawyers fare in the return on their educational investment to, say, psychologists, dentists, nurses, social workers, or graduates in the humanities and social sciences, much less the majority who forgo graduate school altogether? How about compared to journalists?This has become a matter of concern, because the bad press seems to have spooked potential students. Applications to law school nationally were down by nearly 12 percent last year—contrary to past downturns, when young people very sensibly treated a bad economy as a time to invest in their future. And we want them to do so: We want talented men and women to attend law school, because our nation will need the analytic and leadership skills good lawyers bring if it is to sort out the mess made by our civic and political leadership.
Law schools are not perfect. We have needed to change for a long while. As you know, SLS began reforming its curriculum to better address the needs of the profession years before the economic downturn; Stanford students today can, as a result,take advantage of myriad new curricular opportunities designed to prepare them for their careers. Nor need you fear for thehealth of our school. As just noted, we continue to attract astonishingly bright and talented students—and they continue todo extraordinary things after they graduate, despite the weak economy. Nor are we alone, and other law schools have similarly changed or begun to change what they do.
Those same circumstances also counsel against saying things like "the value of a law degree across one’s whole working life has been and remains very high—and not just at elite schools like Stanford." This is, at the present moment, a very audacious (and, at least in regard to non-elite schools, extremely implausible) claim -- and I wouldn't be putting it forth as "evidence" for the proposition that the nation's most prominent newspapers and magazines are libeling our ancient and noble profession by engaging in shoddy and sensationalistic journalism. Just like everyone else, Dean Kramer can only guess at the extent to which the contraction in the market for high-priced legal services is a cyclical rather than a structural event. It's perfectly possible that the lifetime value of a 2011 Stanford Law degree will be far lower than that of a 2001 degree, and far higher than a 2021 degree. Furthermore, we can be fairly confident that any economic developments that hurt the lifetime value of Stanford Law degrees are having and will have even more negative effects on the lifetime value of the degrees granted by the nation's 197 lower-ranked ABA law schools.
Dean Kramer's querulous complaints about the supposedly disproportionate attention being given to law schools are also ill-advised, given that as far as I know graduate schools in journalism and social work don't advertise fictitious 97% employment rates and median starting salaries of $160,000 per year. Dean Kramer's reference to medical school seems particularly awkward, given that apparently Stanford Law students are graduating with a higher average debt load that Stanford Medical students.(To be fair, nationally speaking, average medical school debt is about 50% higher than average law school debt; nevertheless there's no doubt that that the average medical school graduate realizes a vastly higher return on investment than the average law school graduate).
Dean Kramer's letter does at least indicate that he's concerned about the bad publicity law schools are getting, which is progress of a sort. But we're beginning to get past the time for the combination of defensiveness and denial it features. The media stories Dean Kramer attacks aren't fabricating or exaggerating a non-existent or minor problem: they're reporting on a real and major (and growing) crisis within American legal education. It doesn't help matters when a dean of one of the nation's top three law schools -- schools that have, after all, the least to lose and the most to gain from genuine reform -- blames the messenger for bringing unwelcome news to the placid precincts of Palo Alto.