Let's Stop Arguing About Unemployment Rates for New Lawyers and Start Fixing Them

In January, I had the opportunity to present the results of IAALS’ Foundations for Practice study at the Association of American Law Schools’ Annual Meeting as part of the President’s Program. As always, I began my talk by framing the problems we are trying to fix through our work, and among the problems we simply cannot ignore are the lackluster employment rates for new law school graduates. I shared the following numbers with the audience:

  • 40% of 2015 law grads did not land full-time, long-term employment requiring bar passage
  • 30% of 2015 law grads did not land full-time, long-term employment that recognized their law degree (meaning, either requiring bar passage or giving an advantage to candidates with a JD)
  • 25% of 2015 law grads did not land full-time, long-term employment (including other professional and even non-professional jobs)

These numbers remind us of a major problem facing law schools and the legal profession, but they are a relatively small piece of my presentation, which is more broadly focused on our study and what we learned about the skills, competencies, and characteristics new lawyers need to be successful professionals.

Still, employment rates for new lawyers always strike a chord with audiences. And sometimes they strike dischord.

In the nearly 20 presentations I have given across the country over the last year, I have had people challenge the numbers I present because the long-term job prospects for lawyers (over the course of their careers) are better than early employment rates suggest, or because they only reflect a snapshot of where graduates are at ten months after graduation, or because they may simply reflect the percentage of students who do not pass the bar exam, or because short-term and part-time jobs can be great positions.

At the AALS meeting in January, I learned that another presenter went so far as to suggest that my numbers were not accurate and that they were scraped from “law school scam blogs.” The actual percentage of unemployed graduates, he suggested, was closer to 15 percent.

But, thanks to the data released by the American Bar Association, we don’t have to argue about percentages. In 2015, the percentage of law graduates who landed full-time, long-term employment (including professional and non-professional jobs) was 75.1%, so about 25% did not land such jobs. A few years ago, IAALS created a tool on top of the ABA’s data, so we can check that fairly easily here. (By the way, we recently added the 2016 data to the tool, so we also know that the percentage of 2016 graduates who landed full-time, long-term employment, including professional and non-professional jobs, was 75.8%, so 24% of students did not.)

So where does the presenter’s 15% number come from? I’m betting he included short-term and part-time jobs because when I enter that into our tool, it tells me that 84.6% of 2015 grads obtained jobs if you include those categories (see here), which means roughly 15% did not.

If that’s the case, neither of us is wrong—it’s just a value judgment about the types of jobs you think qualify for successful law school employment outcomes. The tool we created allows you to make your own value judgments. For example, think we shouldn’t include school-funded positions? That changes the outcome for 2016 graduates to this. Go ahead—give it a try and make your own value judgments.

But here’s the thing. Aren’t we well beyond arguing over whether to include short-term/part-time jobs and whether the unemployment rate for new graduates is 25% or 15%? Aren’t both numbers unacceptable for students who have invested three wage-earning years and, often, six figures into a professional degree? We know the numbers and we can agree to disagree about the value of short-term/part-time jobs, but we can’t agree to disagree about the fact that even 15% is still substantially higher than the unemployment rate for, say, college graduates.

Would I like to know more about the actual employment outcomes for recent graduates so I can make fewer value judgments? Of course. Not least of all, I would like to know a whole lot more about the quality of the positions obtained by recent graduates. I would like to know how long they stay in these positions, what their salaries are, and what they do when they leave them. I would like to know how satisfied they are with these positions. I would like to know what kind of mentoring they receive and what the path to promotion looks like. I would like to know if they are doing a good job of serving their clients and meeting the needs of legal consumers. I would like to know if the investment in law school pays off for them in both financial and non-financial terms.

But data collection is complicated and right now we have these employment rates, which is a whole lot more than what we once had. Instead of trying to debate and justify them, let’s take that time and energy and invest in improving them.