I spoke at Michigan Law School yesterday to a group of around 100 people. The audience was made up mostly of current law students, with a few prospective students mixed in, along with one tenure-track faculty member and one administrator. People asked a number of good questions afterwards, so we had a lively discussion.
The most thought-provoking question was asked by a man who I would guess was in his early 20s, and who I believe was a prospective student. Paraphrasing, he asked me what I had to say about the position of people such as himself, who were graduating from college with no apparent good options in terms of career choices. He acknowledged that the information I presented suggested that law school, even an elite law school such as Michigan, was in many ways a very risky and even flat-out bad gamble under present circumstances, but on the other hand what are young people who have been preparing all their lives to be professional-class persons supposed to do?
It's a good question, to which I don't have anything like a satisfactory answer. Pointing out that his generation has to a significant extent gotten screwed by economic and social circumstances may be accurate, but the short-term practical value of this insight in minimal. The long-term value may be something else, since a more general recognition of this could be a starting point for various sorts of reforms in the structure of higher education, not just law school.
I also had a spirited exchange with the one faculty member in attendance, who acknowledged that I was making a lot of good points about the need for genuine reform, but that I was in his opinion interfering with the message by making certain hyperbolic statements. I spoke to him privately afterwards, and came away with the sense that there are at least some people on the UMLS faculty who actually do believe there's a serious long-term structural problem with legal education in general as well as at their school in particular. So that was encouraging.
The most interesting piece of information I picked up was that according to a 3L who has seen the numbers UMLS paid for about 70 "post-graduate fellowships" in the class of 2011. The way this works, apparently, is that graduates who are still unemployed at the end of the summer are told that if they secure a volunteer position the school will pay them a few thousand dollars (the number I was quoted was $4000, total).
Graduates who accept are then counted as employed full-time for the purposes of the nine-month NALP data. I was told that around 15% of the 2010 class had such fellowships, while closer to 20% of the 2011 class had accepted them. I was also told that the number was likely to be lower for this year's graduating class compared to last year's, because last year's class was given bad advice by the career service office in regard to bidding for positions with Chicago law firms (far too many people bid given the state of the Chicago big firm legal market). I was also told an unspecified number of these fellowships had developed into real jobs (that would also be a good number for the school to make public).
Michigan is my alma mater three times over, including the law school, and I retain great affection for the institution in general and the law school in particular. So it was extremely disheartening to hear that the law school's administration has seemingly gone to such lengths to hide such a crucial piece of information from prospective students, current students, and apparently the school's faculty (I spoke at length with a friend of mine on the faculty later in the day, and I'm certain he knew nothing about any of this).
If 15% or more of Michigan's recent graduating classes have been unemployed several months after graduation then this is something people who are spending, or considering spending, $70,000 dollars a year to go to law school in Ann Arbor need to know. It's also something the law school's faculty needs to know.
Of course I welcome any clarifications or corrections the law school's administration may wish to make in regard to this information, and will certainly publicize them, should there be any. But after hearing all this, I went back and re-read the administration's semi-official reaction to David Segal's first New York Times piece on law school unemployment. Unless what I was told regarding the post-graduate program is seriously inaccurate (and I was also told the numbers for the class of either 2010 or 2011 were actually posted on the web site for a few days) that response, written little more than a year ago, does not do credit to an institution for which I still care deeply.