TRUTHINESS IN NUMBERS

Two recent developments here and across the pond share a common theme: ongoing confusion about young attorneys’ prospects. But the big picture seems clear to me.

Last month, I doubted predictions that the UK might be on the verge of a lawyer shortage. I expressed even greater skepticism that it presaged a similar shortfall in the United States. In particular, College of Law issued a report suggesting that an attorney shortage could exist as early as late 2011 and “may jump considerably in 2011-2012.”

This came as a surprise because the UK’s Law Society has warned repeatedly about the oversupply of lawyers in that country. Why such dramatically different views of the future?

Some commenters to an article about the College of Law report suggested that perhaps the study hadn’t taken into account the existing backlog of earlier graduates who, along with young solicitors laid off in 2008 and 2009, were still looking for work.

Another explanation may be that the College of Law and its private competitors, including Kaplan Education’s British arm, wants to recruit students to their legal training programs. Sound familiar?

The following is from the College of Law website:

“84% of our LPC graduates were in legal work just months after graduation.*”

But mind the asterisk: “*Based on known records of students successfully completing their studies in 2010.”

I wonder who among their students isn’t “known.” As for “legal work,” a recent former UK bar chairman observed that the oversupply of attorneys in that country has driven many recent LPC graduates into the ranks of the paralegals. Digging deeper into the College of Law’s 84 percent number yields the following: 62 percent lawyers; 22 percent paralegals “or other law related.” At least the College appears to be more straightforward than American law schools compiling employment stats for their U.S. News rankings.

That takes me to the recent ABA committee recommendation concerning employment data here. U.S. News rankings guru Robert Morse has joined the ABA in assuring us that help is on the way for those who never dreamed that law schools reporting employment after graduation might include working as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Morse insists that if the schools give him better data, he’ll use it.

It’s too little, too late. Employment rate deception is the tip of an ugly iceberg comprising the methodological flaws in the rankings. For example, employment at nine-months accounts for 14 percent of a school’s score; take a look at the absurd peer and lawyer/judges assessment criteria, which count for 40 percent. Res ipsa loquitur, as we lawyers say.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the prospects for progress even on the employment data front. Until an independent third-party audits the numbers that law schools submit in the first place, their self-reporting remains suspect. No one in a position of real professional power is pushing that solution.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Allen & Overy — a very large firm – announced its “second round of cuts on number of entry level lawyers hired” — from the current 105 London training contracts down to 90 for those applying this November.  The article concluded:

“The news comes after the latest statistical report from the Law Society highlighted the oversupply of legal education places compared with the number of training contracts in the UK legal market. The number of training contract places available fell by 16% last year to 4,874 and by 23% from a 2007-08 peak of 6,303.”

So much for the College of Law’s predictive powers. Prospective lawyers in the UK are probably as confused as their American counterparts when it comes to getting reliable information about their professional prospects. Most students everywhere assume that educational institutions have their best interests at heart.

If only wishing could make it so.

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