Law school works to defy national trend

Law schools across the country are facing criticism for failing to prepare students to work in the legal world, a trend that administrators are working to buck.

In light of criticism from both employers and academics toward law schools nationwide, the American Bar Association approved new standards Dec. 3 for reporting employment information about graduates designed to make educational programs more accountable for the young lawyers they produce.

Starting in May, almost two dozen law schools nationwide were sued for exaggerating employment and salary statistics for postgraduates to attract prospective students.

Patrick Lynch, policy director for Law School Transparency, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the amount of consumer information available regarding legal institutions, said cases of false employment data reporting generally occur during the recruiting process.

“If a law school is not being open and honest when providing information to future students, how do you expect the students to learn and practice those values that lawyers are supposed to represent?” Lynch said.

The association will mandate that law schools start reporting individual salary information of each recent graduate rather than an average salary for a graduating class, and will shorten the time frame for reporting postgraduate employment data to a year.

“When you tie individual salaries to each job characteristic, there is a huge variety in employment salaries in terms of how high they pay based on the size and place of employment,” Lynch said. “An average salary is arguably very misleading, since not everyone works at the same place.”

GW Law School Dean Paul Schiff Berman defended the law school’s devotion to practice-based topics in its curriculum and its extensive internship offerings.

“Preparing students for the real world of law and policy practice is already a big part of what we do here,” Berman said.

In 2008 and 2009, the law school’s employment percentages held in the 90s – a figure that Berman hopes to bring even higher. The number of students employed by the time of graduation was 93.4 percent for 2008 and 93 percent for 2009, while the number of students employed nine months after graduation was 98.9 percent and 97.5 percent, respectively.

The law school has initiated a number of programs this semester geared toward getting students job-ready, including a new mentoring system to help connect first-year students with professionals that will roll out over the next year, in addition to a long-term grooming of the school’s curriculum that will begin next semester.

“My experience with educational institutions is that once a new program or pathway for students is created, it develops its own momentum and keeps going, especially if it is popular with the students,” Berman said.

A key focus of the law school’s existing job preparation tactics are the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics, which are designed to provide students with the opportunity to develop lawyering skills by providing actual legal assistance to people on issues ranging from immigration to domestic violence cases.

Third-year law student Rebecca Gray said her participation in a clinic that represents families seeking compensation for vaccine-related injuries and death will make her a better job candidate after graduating.

“The clinic I participated in gave me the opportunity to advise real clients,” Gray said. “In law school skills classes, the clients you are dealing with are fake – they don’t come to you with questions, and they don’t depend on your answers.”

Berman is also putting an emphasis on faculty experience within the classroom, asking professors “to turn their legal and policy engagement into practicum courses, through which students can participate directly in outside projects.”

Tiana Bey, who graduated from the law school in 2011 after already having 13 years of experience in the field, said her education helped her to grow as a litigator.

“The trial advocacy classes give you a real feel of what the practice is like,” Bey said. “It’s like being in a real case from beginning to end, from a complaint to completing the trial to getting a verdict.”

The law school recently ranked No. 22 in The National Law Journal’s list of “Go-To Law Schools” based on how many 2010 graduates became a part of the journal’s 250 big-firm market.

But not every law student wants to enter a major firm. The journal noted in its rankings that the number of graduates who took positions at one of the 250 firms dipped by 3 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Gray, who wants to be a prosecutor, said she wishes the law school offered more support for graduates who choose to pursue careers outside firms.

“Right now, they are incredibly firm-oriented, but in today’s economic market, most students are not being offered firm jobs,” she said.

Carole Dewey-Montgomery, associate dean for career development at the law school, said the school’s career development center is committed to supporting public interest and public service internships and careers in addition to firm positions, saying that “no counselors are ‘allocated’ solely to advising on firms.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.