How should we think about law school-funded jobs?

One of the most contentious elements of the proposed changes to the way law schools report jobs to the American Bar Association is how to handle law school-funded jobs. In my letter, I noted that more information and more careful examination of costs and benefits would be needed before reaching a decision about how best to treat them. The letters to the ABA mostly fall on a more black-and-white alignment: school-funded positions should be treated like any other job, or they should remain a separate category as they have the last two years.

Briefly, school-funded positions may offer opportunities for students to practice, particularly in public interest positions, in a transition period toward opportunities where funding may be lacking. At their best, it provides students with much-needed legal experience in these fields and can help them continue a long career in such opportunities. At their worst, however, they are opportunities for schools to inflate their employment placement by spending money on student placement with no assurance about what that placement looks like after the year is complete.

In the last couple of years, the number of positions that would even qualify as "law school-funded" have been severely limited. I noted in 2016 that these positions had dropped in half, to fewer than 400 positions nationwide, accompanying the change in the USNWR reporting system that gave these positions "less weight" than non-funded positions. Jerry Organ rightly noted that much of the decline was probably attributable to the definitional change: only jobs lasting at least a year and with an annual salary of at least $40,000 would count.

This methodological change likely weeded out many of the lower-quality positions from the school-funded totals.

So, are law school-funded positions good outcomes, or not? It seems impossible to tell from the evidence, because we have essentially no data about what happens to students from these positions after the funding ceases. We have some generic assurances that they are successful in placing students into good jobs; we have others who express deep skepticism about that likelihood. One major reason I endorse the proposal to postpone the change to employment reporting data is to find out more information about what they do! (Alas, that seems unlikely.)

But we do have one piece of data from Tom Miles (Chicago), who wrote in his letter to the ABA: "97% of new graduates who have received one of our school-funded Postgraduate Public Interest Law Fellowships remained in public interest or government immediately after their fellowships; 45% of them with the organization who hosted their fellowship."

That is impressive placement. If such statistics are similar across institutions, it would be a very strong reason, in my view, to move such positions back into the "above the line" totals with other job placement.

Finally, my colleague Rob Anderson did a principal components analysis of job placement and found that law school-funded positions were a relatively good, if minor, job outcome among institutions.

It may be that the worst excesses of the recession-era practices of law schools are behind us, and that these school-funded positions are providing the kinds of opportunities that are laudable. More investigation from the ABA would be most beneficial. But it's also likely the case that the change may be quite modest in the event the ABA chooses to adopt the changes this year.