A degree from a respectable law school used to all but guarantee you a job, but in today’s post-recession market, that’s no longer the case: According to statistics from the American Bar Association, only 56 percent of 2012 law school grads landed in full-time positions requiring bar passage. UVA’s School of Law, however, is sitting pretty when it comes to job placement stats. When U.S. News and World Report released its law school rankings last spring—a list that carries serious weight—it revealed UVA had an employed-at-graduation rate of 97 percent, higher than any other law program in the country, including Harvard and Yale.
But what U.S. News didn’t report was that UVA was paying the salaries of 15 percent of its 2012 graduates.
So-called “bridge-to-practice” programs that subsidize new lawyers’ early careers have become commonplace at law schools around the country, and critics are increasingly calling schools out for using the practice to boost their employment numbers. In recent years, UVA had among the highest rate of graduates going into school-funded jobs among its top-tier peers. But proponents of the law school’s program say that’s not a problem.
According a survey last year by the National Association for Law Placement, the practice of paying for graduates’ first jobs saw a massive spike in the wake of the recession; half the programs the NALP analyzed were created between 2009 and 2010.
Some schools were blunt about their motivations. Duke University School of Law, for instance, boasted a stunning 100 percent employed-nine-months-after-graduation rate in the post-recession starving time of 2008 and 2009, and promoted its bridge-to-practice program primarily as a way to keep those numbers high. Law school Dean David Levi put it this way in a story published on the Duke Law website in 2010: “Our students deserve to leave here with a job.”
But UVA School of Law Dean Paul G. Mahoney said UVA’s program stands apart for a few reasons. For one thing, it was early to the party: The Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellowship program, which pays a one-year salary to graduates in public-interest law jobs, was created in 2007, before the recession started leaving even highly ranked schools with an unexpected glut of unemployed graduates.
And while it’s not unusual to see pay-for-placement programs focusing on getting grads hired in lower-paying public sector and nonprofit law jobs, Mahoney said UVA has always had a focus on encouraging some of its brightest students to go into public interest law.
“I think it’s important that top law schools both tell their students that public service careers are a worthy goal, and that they do what they can to facilitate it, given the cost of a top-tier legal education,” he said.
Holly Vradenburgh knew she wanted to work in a prosecutor’s office after she graduated from UVA Law in 2012. But such public sector jobs are hard to land right out of school for a very specific reason: There’s a months-long lag between taking the bar and officially passing it, and unlike big law firms, most public employers can’t afford to take on a new hire who isn’t a full-fledged lawyer.
Vradenburgh’s $31,500 Kennedy Fellowship funding bridged the gap, paying her to volunteer as a practice intern in the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, where she worked under the supervision of an attorney until her bar results came in.
“Then it got really fun, because I got to be a prosecuting attorney,” she said. “I ran my own dockets and prosecuted my own cases while still under the fellowship.”
She said that by the time she graduated, nearly all her classmates had jobs lined up, and those who took fellowships didn’t see them as an option of last resort. While Vradenburgh ended up going into private practice after a year—she now works for Michie Hamlett, just across the street from the county courthouse in Charlottesville—she said most of her fellowship classmates used the program as a springboard to full-time public service jobs. Plenty of them could have taken plush positions and paid off their student loans much faster, but they wanted to work in a sector that paid less. “If you can take a job at a big firm in New York, it’s tempting to do that,” Vradenburgh said, “so it’s helpful to have a program in place so that you know a career in public service is possible.”
There are a couple of other reasons to assume UVA’s fellowship program isn’t just a rankings ploy, said David Lat, the founder and managing editor of Above the Law, a legal news and information website that has been critical of the growth of bridge-to-practice programs.
“The UVA program is done well, because it provides for long-term employment,” Lat said—not just to the nine-month mark, which is the measuring stick used by U.S. News and World Report. It’s also almost entirely funded by alumni giving, he said, so it’s not a drain on the school’s primary resources.
The kicker: By several other estimates, UVA doesn’t need to pad its employment numbers to come out at or near the top. Even when you strike out school-funded jobs, the law school has one of the country’s highest rates of employment after graduation—80 percent, according to a story in this month’s National Law Journal.
Lat’s colleagues at ATL created their own law school ranking system that, unlike U.S. News and World Report, totally ignores “inputs” like incoming students’ LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs, while giving much more weight to “quality” employment post-graduation, particularly judicial clerkships and jobs at top firms. ATL doesn’t take school-funded jobs into account at all, and UVA comes in at No. 7 in its recently released ranking. The 2014 U.S. News and World Report list puts UVA at No. 8 overall.
But even if UVA deserves its high marks, the industry- and academia-wide obsession with law school rankings—and specifically with employment stats—is indicative of a continuing problem, say observers like Lat: There are just too many new lawyers. “It will take some time for the market to achieve a new equilibrium,” Lat said. In the meantime, everybody’s watching the numbers, and even U.S. News and World Report—still “the Big Kahuna” when it comes to rankings—may be redrawing its rubric as the clamoring for greater transparency in measuring school success grows louder.
Robert Morse is the director of data research for U.S. News’ rankings. Now that the ABA is breaking out school-funded jobs numbers, “we’re definitely going to research and think about that,” he said.
But UVA’s Kennedy Fellows program is here to stay, said Mahoney, because it works. The law school makes a point of following up with its fellows to check in on their careers, and as of last spring, 35 out of the 40 2010 fellows had jobs.
“This isn’t masking some big underlying unemployment problem,” he said.