Do Our Graduates Have Jobs? What Are They Making?

A couple of years ago — spurred by the helpful questions of a commentator on this blog — I tried to figure out whether the University of Miami School of Law was reporting starting salary data about its graduates in a full, fair, and honest manner. I thought now would be a good time to revisit that question, using the law school's presentation of new data on last year's class, a group suffering the worst legal hiring recession since the Great Depression.

Two years ago, the short answer to my question about whether the data was presented accurately turned out to be yes, but only if you read the data very, very carefully, more carefully than one would expect of even a reasonably prudent law applicant not trained in statistics.

The slightly longer version of the old answer was that then and now UM complies with external reporting standards set by the ABA and NALP and that these reporting standards tend to mask some realities about starting salaries. UM nonetheless adheres to them because a failure to do so would (1) Mean our numbers were reported with an asterisk, making it look like we have something to hide; (2) Make the UM numbers no longer comparable with other schools' numbers; (3) Put UM at a terrible competitive disadvantage.

The even longer version of the old answer (skip down if you want the new stuff) was this, lifted from More About Starting Salaries:

According to Career Development Office, the reason why the both the $104,500 number [for average starting salary for those employed by firms] and the more detailed but somewhat different pie charts accompanying it [which, based on firm size, suggested a lower number] are accurate has to do with response rates, differing data sets, and national reporting standards.

Not everyone who responded to the law school's survey about what they were doing immediately after graduation chose to disclose their salary. Thus, the charts about firm size, for example, are based on a bigger data pool than the salary number. In 2007 we had 378 JDs. Of that group, 346 had replied to our survey at the time the Viewbook was produced. Of that 346, however, not all worked for firms — and of the group that worked for firms only about 46% gave us salary data. So the average salary number of $104,500 is based on the data provided by that 46%.

Since firm size and starting salary are related, you might reasonably object — as I did — that it would be more reasonable to pro-rate the responses of the people who gave salary data on the assumption that the people who didn't fill in that part of the survey earned similar amounts by comparable firm size. And I still think there's something to that. But I'm told by the Career Office — and I believe them — that the average salary data is presented the way it is because that's how all law schools do it and the goal is to provide prospective students with numbers that can fairly be compared to what is provided by other law schools.

The Career Development Office avers that it collects the data and reports it in accordance with ABA and NALP guidelines, using the same methods that every other accredited law school in the country uses. Were the law school to do something else, the administration notes, it would no longer be reporting to students in the way it reports to the ABA and NALP. That would mean our data would have an asterisk. And even if we were doing it in order to provide better data the inevitable conclusion that most people would draw is that we were trying to hide something. So the Catch-22 is that we have to do it this way, possibly sacrificing some statistical excellence and even accuracy, or else we'll look like we're engaged in some sort of cover-up. And, of course, in addition to having an asterisk, we'd be harming our competitive position since we'd have gone to some trouble to calculate and report a lower number which would harm marketing and recruiting.

Well, here we are now in a very bad legal hiring year, and U.M has again provided some employment data for 2009 graduates that, on first blush, looks somewhat cheery:

graphic-employment_stats2009.gif

In this latest report, the median salary for a UM law grad employed in a firm of two persons or more is $112,500 and the average ($111,696) is almost the same. Two years earlier the average was $104,500. So things are going great, right?

Well. Not so fast.

The critical statistic may be the reporting percentage in the fine print. The salary data in the 2008 edition of the Viewbook was based on 46% participation of the graduates (although the firm size info was based on a 91.5% response rate of those employed by firms). The 2009 salary data has only a 33% response rate. In 2008 the percentage of graduates providing salary info was 39%, and in 2007 it was 40%. Human nature suggests that the people who have good jobs are more likely to respond to questionnaires about their fortunes than those who are struggling. So even though both the median and average in the new data may be higher, the lower response rate sets that off, indeed might more than set that off, depending on how badly the missing 11% are doing. (One might hypothesize from these numbers that some students are still getting high-paying jobs, and that a lot of others are suffering, but without more data it is hard so say with confidence that this is what is actually going on.)

Despite this tendency to over-cheeriness, the law school's presentation of the data in the new graphic is, I think, significantly superior to the old version that I was unhappy with. The fine print at the bottom isn't actually that tiny and is much more explicit about where the numbers come from, it includes the reporting rate, and it also gives a median and average for all respondents in all jobs (median 90K, average 95K). Given the double-humped curve that faces graduates who get jobs (see Starting Salaries For Law Students are BiModal — If Not Bipolar), with one peak well over $110K and other peak somewhere in the $60Ks, both that median and average conceal as much as they reveal, but it is still better information, more clearly presented, than the law school made available two years ago. I believe that a prospective law student should be able to understand what's going on much more clearly than was the case two years ago, where frankly it took far too much effort to work it all out.

If I were asking for the moon, I'd want time series data, especially regarding response rates, and a comparison to some regional and national averages, but I don't know where we'd get that aggregate information, and for balance you'd probably want to have something showing general economic conditions too. Or, maybe, how about a second set of pie charts with 2/3 in light gray showing “we don't know” in order to make clearer the limitations of our data?

Here is what we do know about the class of 2009, as reported recently to the ABA:

  • We know the employment status of 95% of the class of 2009, ie of 354 persons.
  • Of that 95% only 7% (24 people) stated they were unemployed; and of that group only 9 persons said they were still seeking work; whether the 15 others were so discouraged they gave up, or were kept men or women, or so rich they don't need to work, we just don't know.
  • 6% (22 people) were enrolled in full-time degree programs.
  • Of the 87% (309 people) employed full time,
    • 68% were in private practice.
    • Almost 11% were in government or clerking.
    • 11% were in business or industry — but some (almost half) in jobs that did not require a law degree.
    • The remaining almost 11% were in public interest jobs, academia, or (in one case) the military.

The very worst face you can put on this, counting all non-respondents as unemployed, is that at nine months after graduation, 10% of the class 2009 didn't have a job, and 5% only worked part time. (The situation with the 5% of graduates working in non-legal employment is very hard to figure out. Those few who reported their salaries all reported amounts from good to great.)

As regards the 90% of the class (95% of respondents) whom we know have some sort of job, we have the salary distribution data in the charts above, but it is based on what only four out of ten with jobs, 36% of the total graduates, were willing to report. And, again, human nature suggests that those reporting may not be representative of the whole.

I should add that I'm genuinely curious and uncertain about the state of the market for this coming year's graduates, as anecdotally I'm hearing contradictory things. Students are clearly worried. The national news is still quite grim. The law school is sufficiently concerned about its graduates' prospects to create an on-the-job post-graduate training program, the Legal Corps. (See Meet the UM Law Legal Corps Fellowship Program and More on the Legal Corps.) On the other hand, a completely unscientific sample of local partners mostly me tell things are up a bit from last year's trough. I thought more rising 3Ls had summer jobs last summer than I expected. Jobs-in-hand for the 3Ls right now is not particularly great, although I do know a number of strong students with jobs nailed down. Rumor has it that the number of applicants for the Legal Corps program is substantially less than expected (or feared). Complicating matters, one of the oddities about the South Florida jobs market is that even in boom years only the very biggest firms have tended to extend employment offers before graduates pass the bar. In so doing they save themselves the expense of carrying a nonlawyer at lawyer pay rates, they don't have to contribute towards studying for the bar, and they avoid the awkwardness of dealing with someone who fails. So the most meaningful measuring point for the outcomes for this year's graduates, the class of 2011, remains far in the future.

As to the question I posed at the start of this entry — is the law school reporting starting salary data about its graduates to prospective students in a full, fair, and honest manner? — the answer is a less-qualified yes than previously, but still not an unqualified yes. Despite what must be pressure to make things look good when times are bad, the overall quality of the law school administration's presentation of the data and the fullness of the report both have improved. Unfortunately, the recent graduates' response rate on salary has dropped — a fact you could only figure out from the pie charts if you compared them to earlier years' reports — and although this is not the law school's fault, the consequence is that although the employment data look to me to be very reliable, the salary data likely give a rosier picture of the distribution than one would guess to be the actual case. Caveat emptor — and not just at UM.

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8 Responses to Do Our Graduates Have Jobs? What Are They Making?

  1. tom says:

    The problem, I think, doesn’t lie completely with UM’s reporting or that of any other school. The problem is that the ABA allows law schools to count as employed graduates who, for example, are working in jobs created by the law school that are temporary and those who are working as bartenders and other jobs that don’t require a J.D. (i.e. jobs that graduates could have had without dumping $100k+ into a law school).

    That said, there are certainly some problems with the way schools report. One of them is that some schools are now requesting that only students who have jobs fill out the employment surveys. See http://abovethelaw.com/2010/11/the-secret-to-inflating-employment-rates-only-survey-law-grads-who-are-employed/#more-44985 Seems like a pretty good way to mislead prospective students into thinking that they actually have a chance at a job.

    All of this may be for naught though, because prospective students apparently do not look at employment statistics when applying to schools, or if they do, they believe that they will never be one of the ones who can’t find work when it’s over. These kids are hypnotized by the US News rankings, they don’t care about much other than the little number that magazine puts next to a school’s name. In fact, for prospective students, thinking about the prospects of actually getting a job after professional school barely registers! Only 8% of prospective students even consider a school’s placement stats. See http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20101116005536/en/Kaplan-Test-Prep-Survey-Aspiring-Law-School This means that 92% of these people think there are more important things than being employed after freaking professional school.

    It’s so sad. There is literally no reason to go to professional school if you can’t get a job. It’s almost as though law students are such prestige whores that they relish the chance to bury themselve sin debt for the privilege of sitting on their couch in 3 years saying “I went to a top 50 school.” The study cited above is even more depressing, because it shows that 52% of respondents were “very confident” they will get jobs, but somehow only 16% of them are “very confident” that their peers will get jobs. Talk about hubris.

  2. whizzer_white says:

    Well said. Though, I do think that Dean White has found clever ways to pad the school’s % employed numbers (by creating the one-year Student Service Fellows and the six-month Legal Corps program, for instance). And I say clever because the Legal Corps program only goes for six months, just enough time to report the student as employed for USNWR purposes, but temporary enough to minimize any investment by Miami Law. I’m sure there was chatter about the estimated costs to pay for Legal Corps being weighed against the possibility that doing so may result in a jump up in the rankings…

  3. tom says:

    I think you’re right. The programs that UM has set up recently are better than nothing, and they show creative thinking, which is always appreciated, but they definitely aren’t there because the school cares about students – they’re there because the school doesn’t want to plummet in the rankings by having 300 of the 400 2010 grads unemployed.

  4. michael says:

    I’d like to add two data points to the above. The first is that many of the (admittedly small number of) students who worked in the Foreclosure Project — the precursor to the Legal Corps — got jobs out of it, either in the places they worked, or through people they met, or doing very similar work. So there is much more to these programs, if they are serious, than warehousing. And I’m certain that the UM Legal Corp program is going to be a serious one. The school will not turn up its nose at the value it has for employment statistics, and I’m sure that this is a garnish that makes the expenditure that much more palatable, but there’s no way in the world that this law school would spend that kind of money just to goose employment statistics. The main events are that this is valuable training, networking, experience, and a way for both the students and the school to do good.

    The second is that the application rate for the Legal Corps is said to be much lower than you would think. Now maybe this is just more evidence of the same optimism that drove the statistics quoted by tom in the first comment above. On the other hand, maybe it means that the large majority of the class of 2011 sees its prospects as at least adequate or better.

    I do agree, however, that letting schools hire people to shelves books in the law library and count them as employed, or giving short-term jobs for a week or two at six months out of graduation (both stories I’ve heard) are abuses that shouldn’t be allowed.

  5. tom says:

    I love the fact that the administration at UM is being creative and proactive, because that’s something that isn’t usually associated with law school or university administrators. I think any time people can think differently and come up with something new to deal with a problem we should appreciate it. I just struggle with the idea that the Legal Corps is designed for training and networking. I’m not saying you’re wrong about that, in fact I think you’re right on, but that’s the problem; networking and that kind of thing seem to me to be things that students do while in school.

    We spent three years being told by the career center essentially one thing: network. Networking isn’t fun, for the student or (probably) for the lawyer being sucked up to, but I think most of us realize that it’s an important thing for students to do. But when it comes time to graduate, the idea of law school is that your networking is all done and you have a job lined up. When that isn’t the case, then you have graduates out there forced to become, basically, schmarmy car salesmen, only this time the car they are selling is themselves. Only they have less leverage than a car salesman because every month that the graduate doesn’t have something to fill the dead space on that resume, there are going to be fewer and fewer potential buyers.

    I also struggle with the training part, because firms that hire students end up training those new hires to work the way that firm wants them to anyway. So, I just wonder if it is possible that when a person completes the Legal Corps program, will the training they get as a result be marketable? or will firms shy away from the person because they feel like the person has already learned a certain way of doing things that might not be easy to change?

    At the end of the day, I really don’t have much sympathy for anyone who applied to law school after August 2008, when firms began bloodletting. It was painfully obvious shortly thereafter that things had probably changed forever. Those people in the classes of 2009 and 2010 really had the rug pulled out from underneath them, but they had applied to school when times were good and had already invested a huge amount of money by the time the bottom fell out. They were stuck. But these kids who applied to school while firms were throwing their associates overboard without a lifejacket while everyone was watching from the shore must be delusional. Not only will they be competing with their own classmates for jobs in a thoroughly saturated market, but they will be competing against unemployed 2010 grads and, more ominously, the thousands of laid off attorneys with experience who can tell potential employers about their actual ability to handles cases from beginning to end.

    I don’t know if law schools can really do anything to help the situation. Really, the ABA should grow a pair and reduce the number of law schools out there instead of accrediting more marginal ones (North Texas Law, Southern New England School of Law, etc.). Universities and law school won’t police themselves; they bring in way too much money.

  6. Matt Lister says:

    Thanks for doing this, Michael. It’s very useful and admirable, and I wish more people (and schools) would do the same.

  7. Rob says:

    First, love the redesigned look of the website.
    Second, the lack of response for certain of the categories is probably irrelevant. If they are employed full-time, as they claim, then the p.d. and legal service attorney salaries are public. One can estimate a base for attorneys working in firms larger than 26. (If it is $60K, that is not great, but not so bad either)(Are there no firms with between 16 and 25 lawyers?)
    Third, there are key unknowns. What does someone mean by solo practice? (Do 3% of UM graduates hang out their own shingles? Do they get clients? Commit malpractice? Should they be counted as relatively unemployed?) Also, what is meant by Government service for the 90% who don’t fit into one of the three categories? (Are they party operatives paid by giving them credit cards? Or environmental watchdogs?) And, as someone above notes, what types of jobs are included in business/industry? It is off-putting that no sub-categories are provided. I understand why the school would not want to list waitstaff, but finance/insurance/banking; public relations; compliance management … are categories as useful as “military service.” Perhaps you can get more transparency out of the CDO.

    • I presume government service includes working as an agency lawyer, working for a legislative or committee staff, things of that nature. For example one of my current students has a job working for the General Counsel’s office of a regulatory agency lined up for next year. That’s government service.

      The numbers of folks working in industry are small, and the number reporting details smaller; a few do seem to be in insurance/investment work. I’d wager that a few joined the family business, but there’s no evidence of that. The great unknown is whether any, and if so how many, are working at crummy non-legal jobs. But given there’s clearly some of the good stuff, we’re talking low numbers here at worst.

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