LETR II: Employability may not be what employers really want

One of the favoured ideas in the legal education debate is that students do not emerge (from degrees and professional courses in particular) work-ready. There are various responses to that depending upon which bit of the educational continuum one is talking about: degrees, LPC/BPTC, training contract and pupillage. The assumption is that practitioners want students that have practical skills, and that – were such students available, they would recruit those in place of the philosopher kings (or queens) which otherwise emerge. Imagine a law school takes serious steps to persuade the profession that it takes its needs seriously, marking itself out as distinctive in the market. That law school might expect to reap the rewards in terms of its students employability. And this, they could use to improve both the quality and quantity of its students. It’s a win-win strategy right? And with league tables increasingly emphasising employability, that law school could not only do the right thing, it could climb the law school rankings, couldn’t it?

Well such an experiment is being tried by a law school in the United States, Washington and Lee. There’s a very interesting blog on how it has been working out so far. I urge everyone interested to read it, it is fascinating, but the central point is captured here:

“Washington and 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.”

I t is not a slam-dunk against more experiential and skills-based education, something I tend to favour, but it is an important tale of caution. Employers may care much more about other things than practical skills when making employment decisions (and with a two year apprenticeship for solicitors, they may be right to care more about some of those other things).

There is some extra detail and interesting comment on the issue here: http://www.legalethicsforum.com/blog/2013/06/does-skills-innovation-hurt-law-graduates-in-the-job-market.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LegalEthicsForum+%28Legal+Ethics+Forum%29

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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