by Eric Garneau
Hard Times for Lawyers
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are currently 200 accredited law schools in the United States. The American Bar Association (ABA) reported that 49,082 students entered those schools in 2007, and of the graduating 44,004 only 64% held a full-time position requiring their degree within nine months of leaving school. Further, median starting salaries for those graduates dropped 13% from the year prior. For students, that equates to roughly a two-thirds chance of securing a job you paid a lot to be educated for, and then likely not getting paid enough to do it.
Of course, the job market's tough for many professions right now. In May 2011 The New York Times reported that only 56% of bachelor's degree-holding college graduates from the class of 2010 had found a job by the spring after their graduation, down from 90% from the classes of 2006-2007. Worse, only about half those jobs required a degree in the first place. But then, those are undergraduate degrees - people who continue their schooling beyond their first four years often do so to obtain a measure of job security.
But that purported security may be part of the problem. In a bad economy, admissions to law schools and various graduate programs tend to jump as people look for dependable, high-paying jobs, and the past few years have been no exception. Unfortunately, it seems the job market that greets graduates of these programs isn't much more favorable than the one they'd be dealing with sans advanced degrees.
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Bar Association Under Fire
However, the ABA - the accrediting body responsible for essentially determining the value of a school's law degree - has other problems on its hands. In June 2011, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity seriously questioned the association's competence in presiding over law schools. The committee found 17 areas where the ABA fails to comply with accrediting body standards, mostly related to their inability to track student loan default rates, to consider third-party criticisms and, yes, to hold a sufficiently decent standard of job placement.
The advisory committee, a branch of the federal government that reports to the Secretary of Education, has given the ABA a year to submit a report showing it's corrected or correcting their 17 missteps. Yet some within the committee advocated for taking away the ABA's accreditation recognition already, arguing that 17 errors is a lot to fix within one year. So although the Bar Association's free to continue its work for now, it's not quite business as usual - they'll have to tread carefully and fix some serious problems if they wish their authority to continue.
And so the ABA has taken steps towards tightening up its own accreditation standards. They hope to elicit a better performance out of their schools, which should calm some of their critics. Among the proposed changes: making school administrators keep better records of their graduates' careers and raising the required percentage of students passing the bar exam on their first attempt (The Chronicle reports that that number currently sits at 75%, but the ABA may raise it to 80%).
Some law professionals feel that it's only a matter of time before the job market corrects itself - these things tend to move in cycles, after all. Victor Gold, dean of Loyola's law school, told The Chronicle that we're currently facing the 'worst job market' he's seen, and that 'those jobs will come back.' But that doesn't necessarily let the ABA's accrediting standards off the hook. Even with more jobs available for their charges, their other errors would still exist - and the next time the labor market experiences a downturn, they'll again be in a position to do their students a serious disservice. If nothing else, the ABA holding their institutions to tougher reporting and academic standards will produce stronger law schools, which should produce stronger lawyers. In any job market, that's a positive.
How are the demands of the job market changing the law profession?