UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Apparently, some law school deans just don’t get it and never will. One of them, Dean Rudy Hasl of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, wins my latest Unfortunate Comment Award with his remarks reported in The Wall Street Journal:

“You can’t measure the value of a law degree in terms of what your employment number was nine months after graduation.”

All right. Then how should we measure it?

Bad facts and getting worse

Hasl was trying to explain away his school’s position in the bottom five of those reporting the new ABA-required metric: percentage of graduates with full-time long-term jobs requiring a law degree. Thomas Jefferson School of Law reported that only 27 percent of its 2011 class held such jobs nine months after graduation.

Transparency can be unflattering. For the profession overall, the full-time, degree-required, nine-month employment rate for all 2011 law graduates was 55 percent. Predictably, graduates from the top schools fared the best. But the interesting comparisons are with last year — when the ABA and U.S. News allowed schools to include part-time and non-legal jobs in classifying their graduates as employed.

According to the Journal, data that Thomas Jefferson reported to U.S. News under last year’s broader definition showed a 68 percent employment rate nine months out. That’s nothing to brag about, but this year’s 27 percent long-term degree-required employment rate is stunning. Nevertheless, Dean Hasl says not to worry.

What metric matters?

Hasl explained that the nine-month employment rate is inappropriate because a “graduate who takes the California bar exam in July…won’t get the results until late November. Many employers won’t even interview a graduate who hasn’t been licensed.”

That moves his argument to even weaker ground. The July 2011 California bar passage rates for first-time test-takers put Thomas Jefferson School of Law dead last among 20 California ABA-approved schools — with a 33 percent bar passage rate.

Last year, it became the first of many schools facing alumni suits alleging that misleading and deceptive post-graduation employment statistics induced them to attend law school in the first place. Among their defenses, some schools have asserted a variation of the “everyone does it and the ABA says it’s ok” defense. When I was a kid, that sort of excuse for failing to exercise independent judgment didn’t usually work with my parents.

The judge in a similar case against the New York School of Law (not to be confused with NYU) didn’t buy it, either. But the court dismissed that complaint on more tenuous grounds. It thought that college graduates considering law school were “a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives before making a decision regarding their post-college options.”

That reflects some serious magical thinking about the way law schools have bombarded prospective students with dubious information. Only two years ago, the overall percentage of all law school graduates supposedly employed nine months after graduation was in the 90s — but few schools bragged about the ones who were part-time baristas at Starbucks or greeters at Wal-Mart.

Now what?

Thomas Jefferson School of Law will charge full-time students $42,000 for annual tuition in 2012-2013. What are those students buying for their more than $120,000 degrees? A one-in-three chance of passing the California bar on the first try and slightly better than a one-in-four chance of holding a full-time degree-required job nine months after graduation.

If you graduated a few years ago, you might also have a spot in a putative class action against your alma mater. The court hasn’t dismissed that complaint.

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