Employers say they are eager to hire these better-trained, more rounded, more “practice ready” lawyers -- and they should be. That’s why
the employment results for Washington & Lee’s School of Law are so troubling. Washington & Lee pioneered an experiential third-year program that has won accolades from many observers. Bill Henderson called Washington & Lee’s program the biggest legal education story of 2013 [more here]. The National Jurist named the school’s faculty as among the twenty-five most influential people in legal education. Surely graduates of this widely praised program are reaping success in the job market?
Sadly, the statistics say otherwise. Washington & Lee’s recent employment outcomes are worse than those of similarly ranked schools.
The results are troubling for advocates of experiential learning. They should also force employers to reflect on their own behavior: Does the rhetoric of “practice ready” graduates align with the reality of legal hiring? ...
Washington & Lee’s employment outcomes for 2011 were noticeably mediocre. By nine months after graduation, only 55.0% of the school’s graduates had obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required bar admission. That percentage placed Washington & Lee 76th among ABA-accredited schools for job outcomes. Using the second, broader metric, 64.3% of Washington & Lee’s class secured full-time, long-term positions. But that only nudged the school up a few spots compared to other schools -- to 73rd place.
In 2012, the numbers were even worse. Only 49.2% of Washington & Lee’s 2012 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required a
law license, ranking the school 119th compared to other accredited schools. Including JD Advantage jobs raised the percentage to 57.7%, but lowered Washington & Lee’s comparative rank to 127th.
These numbers are depressing by any measure; they are startling when we remember that Washington & Lee currently is tied for twenty-sixth
place in the US News ranking. Other schools of similar rank fare much better on employment outcomes.
The University of Iowa, for example, holds the same US News rank as Washington & Lee and suffers from a similarly rural location. Yet Iowa placed 70.8% of its 2012 graduates in full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission–more than twenty percentage
points better than Washington & Lee. The College of William & Mary ranks a bit below Washington & Lee in US News
(at 33rd) and operates in the same state. William & Mary placed only 55.9% of its 2012 graduates in full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission -- but that was still significantly better than Washington & Lee’s results. ...
Just last week, California’s Task Force on
Admissions Regulation Reform suggested: “If, in the future, new lawyers come into the profession more practice-ready than they are today, more jobs will be available and new lawyers will be better equipped to compete for those jobs.” (p. 14) If that’s true, why isn’t the formula working for Washington & Lee?
I think we need to explore at least four possibilities. First and most important, the connection between practical training and jobs is much smaller than practitioners and bar associations assert. ... Second, even when allocating existing jobs, employers may care less about practical training than they claim. ... Third, employers may care about experience, but want to see that experience in the area for which they’re hiring. ... A fourth possible explanation for Washington & Lee’s disappointing employment outcomes is that the students themselves may have developed higher or more specialized career ambitions than their peers at other schools. ...
What lessons should we take from Washington & Lee’s 2011 and 2012 employment outcomes? First, the school still deserves substantial
credit for its willingness to innovate–as well as for the particular program it chose. ... Second, legal employers should take a hard look at the factors they actually value in hiring. ... Third, law schools and employers should work together to design the
best type of experiential education -- one that prepares graduates for immediate employment as well as long-term success. ...
Washington & Lee’s employment outcomes are a puzzle that we all need to confront. Graduates from most law schools, even high-ranking
ones, are struggling to find good jobs. Experiential education can work pedagogic magic and prepare better lawyers, but it’s not a silver bullet for employment woes or heavy debt. On those two issues, we need to push much harder for remedies.