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Dean of Besieged Law School Says Grads Are Fine—Generally

Vivia Chen

December 7, 2011

Cooley Law School-© Adam Schultz_WikipediaIf you regularly read The Careerist, you know I think it's ridiculous to go to a bottom-ranked law school. In fact, I've coined the term "puppy mills" to describe how these schools pump out loan-laden graduates with bleak futures.

So I was surprised that the dean of Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Grand Rapids campus, Nelson Miller, contacted me about posting his editorial on the health of the legal market.

As you might recall, Cooley and New York Law School have been sued by disgruntled students for allegedly posting false employment data about graduates (both schools have low rankings under US News and World Reports). Cooley has also been quite aggressive in suing former students for defamation when they aired criticisms about the school. 

Miller told me that he thought some of the "apocalyptic" views about the legal market were "overblown,"and that he wanted to present a view that's "data-based." In any case, I'll let you judge for yourself. Here is Miller's editorial in its entirety:

Lawyer Employment Remains Strong

by Nelson Miller, dean of Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Grand Rapids campus

Recessions are never easy, especially sudden and deep recessions like the last one. Yet despite what critics of the law profession and legal education say, data shows that the recession affected lawyers less than others, and that lawyer employment prospects remain strong.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyer unemployment rose from 1.1 percent in 2007 to 1.9 percent in 2008 and 2.3 percent in 2009 but fell to 1.5 percent in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of unemployed lawyers grew from 9,000 to 16,000, but only from 12,000 to 16,000 between 2007 and 2010 during the depth of the recession. Contrast these small numbers to 1,040,000 employed lawyers and to much greater job losses in other fields. New law jobs arose even in the teeth of recession. From 2000 to 2010, the economy created another 123,000 lawyer jobs while adding only 7,000 unemployed lawyers. Employed lawyers grew by 39,000 from 2007 to 2010 across the recession.

Lawyers’ 2010 1.5 percent unemployment rate was fourth-lowest among 53 management and professional occupations tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, higher only than dentists, doctors, and veterinarians. Teachers at all levels had higher unemployment rates than lawyers. Software engineers had more than three times and environmental engineers more than four times the unemployment rate of lawyers. News analysts, reporters, and correspondents had a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, over five times that of lawyers. Try making it as an artist, author, journalist, entertainer, athlete, musician, designer, decorator, restaurateur, entrepreneur, or even public administrator, software engineer, or day laborer, where employment rates are significantly higher and risks far greater.

Despite the recession and current job-market conditions, employment of recent law graduates has been relatively strong. Over the past ten years, recent graduates who are unemployed but not seeking employment has run between 1.7 percent and 3.2 percent, with a median of 2.2 percent. When calculating unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics excludes those not seeking employment. Using the BLS approach and data, unemployment rates of recent law graduates were 5.3 percent in 2001 and 6.1 percent in 2002. Those rates then declined to 2.7 percent in 2006 before rising in 2007 to 4.1 percent.  In 2008, the rate rose to 5.4 percent and then to 6.0 percent in 2009 and 6.2 percent in 2010.

These figures are all well below the national unemployment rate that reached 9.6 percent in 2010.  They are also figures for the most recent entrants into the law field. Keep in mind that lawyer unemployment in 2010 was just 1.5 percent. Probably, no field of recent college graduates fares significantly better than law graduates do. Critics assert that recent law graduates find more work in nonprofessional fields. Yet in 2010, only 1.9 percent of 2010 graduates with known employment status reported nonprofessional employment, up by only 0.6 percent from 2007. Nonprofessional employment varied little in the past ten years, starting at 1.5 percent in 2001 and never exceeding 1.9 percent.

Critics also assert that part-time employment is now widespread among recent law graduates. Part-time employment increased in the recession but still represents only a modest portion of total employment. For 2010 grads employed in positions requiring bar passage, 92.9 percent found full-time jobs. For all recent graduates employed in professional positions, 90.4 percent found full-time jobs.

The national economic downturn hurt the legal profession, but lawyers clearly fared well compared to the general population and other management and professional occupations.  Recent law graduates have not fared as well as more experienced lawyers, but they still fare better than the general population.

Lawsuits have challenged how law schools report placement data. The American Bar Association accredits law schools under U.S. Department of Education authority. The ABA has precise standards for how law schools must report placement data. Those standards follow National Association for Law Placement practices. Whether the ABA and NALP should establish different reporting standards has no effect on the above numbers.

Negative media has discouraged applicants from pursuing a law career path that holds good employment prospects. Law school applications usually increase during economic downturns and decrease in periods of economic growth. Indeed, during the recession, applications rose 3.8 percent for the fall of 2009 and 1.5 percent for the fall of 2010. However, with a recent onslaught of negative publicity, national applications for the fall of 2011 nosedived. The preliminary figure is down 9.9 percent.

Another media focus has been on whether law schools prepare graduates adequately for practice. Some schools like mine do. Practice preparation has been my school’s mission since its founding. Our board and faculty members are experienced judges and leading practitioners, several of whom have won bar awards or recognition as superlawyers. My school has the most extensive externship program in the country. It also won an ABA award for professionalism programs.

Yet the core question is not what is good for lawyers or new law graduates. Lawyers are enormously responsible social and economic agents. Lawyers grow the American pie. They form, advise, finance, and govern for-profit and nonprofit corporations, minimizing unwise risk, complying with regulation, paying taxes, and satisfying treaty, custom, and trade law.  Lawyers manage the orderly migration of labor. They restore broken families and promote orderly transfer of intergenerational wealth.

Lawyers do hundreds of other productive things for their clients, while lawyers and their firms contribute substantially on their own to the national and global economies. So, let’s stop killing all the lawyers. I strongly suspect that we will continue to need them in a world that every day grows more complex, sophisticated, challenging, and uncertain.  The common law that lawyers enable and administer is history’s most powerful engine of peace, prosperity, and productivity.

Readers, what do you think? Did Miller make a convincing case?

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Regardless of how "easy" it is to get accepted at Cooley, you still need to graduate and then pass the bar exam to be a practicing attorney. I graduated from Cooley in 2010, and while it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to find a legal job, it wasn't impossible, and my friends who graduated from Tier I schools had the same difficulties I did.

I also realized, through conversations with these same people, that while they may know the theory and reasons behind the law better than I did, I was extremely better prepared on how to apply that law in practical situations. It is rare (unless you are dealing with very specific areas of the law) that knowing the theory or reason behind a law has any real bearing on your client's problem.

Another problem is a lot of law school graduates who go back to their prior careers instead of practicing law. Law school is great for teaching certain reasoning that no other academic area can teach. This is very handy for compliance managers in a variety of fields. But it's not legal employment. If you filter these (relatively high paying) jobs out of the statistics, you may find that average legal pay is even less than what the publica perceives.

For the sake of argument and using Mr. Miller's own numbers, is he willing to represent that only 1.5% of Cooley graduates are not employed as lawyers? If not, then what is the percentage of *all cooley grads* who are employed as lawyers?

How about for the 2010 graduating class?

Obviously the number won't be anywhere near 99% of cooley grads being employed as lawyers (nor is it anywhere near that for most law schools), but I think that makes the absurdity of his argument plain as day.

Cooley is just a one of many pieces of the employment problems within the legal profession. A very close friend of mine works for a very large law firm in Atlanta, where she is just one of 200 underemployed attorneys working at a "discovery" center (read document review). The sad thing is that these attorneys graduated from some of the best law schools in the country: Emory, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn, NYU, and Georgia. And they are all underemployed, most without benefits and many struggling to make ends meet, and struggling to pay back student loans. This problem with Cooley is not unique to just this school but nearly all the schools, they all fudge their employment numbers and starting salary just so that the next class of prospective students buy into their expensive law program. BUYER BEWARE. My advise to all aspiring attorneys is run the other way.

While not a perfect predictor of an individuals's future success as an attorney, LSAT scores do reflect one's ability to perform critical analysis and linear reasoning. If your LSAT scores are so low that Cooley is an option....maybe you aren't in a position to accurately assess the return on investment of a JD from there. Unless you just need to check a box to join the family practice...

And if Cooley can afford expensive countersuits, couldn't they hire a copy editor to review the dean's letter? So very poorly written. Doesn't bode well for the legal writing skills of Cooley grads if the dean himself is being held to such a low standard.

Finally, is anyone else struck by his reference to the school as "his" and "my"? Yikes. This guy should have kept his mouth shut - this letter can only generate further embarassment for both him and the law school.

As an underemployed lawyer who has not been adequately employed in six years, I can say this has more to do with the information revolution than it does with the recession. Information technology makes it possible for me to produce in 30 minutes what used to take 8 days in the library. Law firms don't need 30 associates to review discovery when they use computer technology for "relevance." I have 25 years and a BIG law partnership under my belt. Law schools like mine are reducing the number of students accepted. That is the only ethical way to keep lawyers employed.

This guy is such a hack. And for the commentor who wants us to "leave Cooley alone": Ma'am, that would be a lot easier if your dean refrained from commentary like this. The "Cooley ranking" and this article go to show that Dean Miller is either drinking the Cooley Kool-Aid or is FIRMLY of the school that "all publicity is good publicity." Additionally, this isn't about Cooley or any other third tier toilet, this is about an industry that is overstaffed and overpriced for what it offers. I am a recent EMPLOYED grad of a mid-ranked T1 and, although most of us with the fortune to be ranked over 33% are employed, very few under the 50% percentile are.This is not a free service, it is a product being SOLD. Cooley and other law schools, like any company advertising its services, must provide TRUTHFUL AND NON-MISLEADING information regarding the product that it offers. It has not done that. This is distinctly illustrated in Dean Miller's missive, which ignores these issues completely and provides a clear representation of the problems in the industry. His decision to "estimate" figures on legal employment, gloss over clear market trends and refuse to address the real issue, which is reporting of accurate legal employment and salary information is clear evidence of a clear disconnect b/w legal faculty and the real world. He's still selling a product that is seriously defective. That is precisely why Cooley, and other law schools, are being "picked on."

In response to Natalie at 9:03:

According to you, Cooley was great, but you had to transfer because of its bad reputation. However, you then assert that Cooley is competition to highly-ranked schools, and people are unhappy about it. So, it's a school with a terrible reputation, that is competition to highly-ranked schools? I shudder to think what kind of lawyer you turned out to be with these kinds of reasoning skills. And it gave you a great education after you transferred? When did you transfer? What did you actually learn at Cooley? My guess is nothing that you can't learn at a much better school for the same or less money.

You left Cooley because it is a plainly bad law school, and the numbers bear it out, as do their practices. Moreover, you assert that Cooley gives people a chance to become lawyers, and if they can't hack it, they're out. Cooley enrolls almost 4,000 JD students, about as many as 5 law schools at once. Looks to me like everyone can hack it there, and that's what many of them end up being. Hacks, who had no business in law school in the first place.

No one is complaining that they can't get a Biglaw job. That is ludicrous. They are complaining that they can't get ANY legal job, and Cooley clogging the nation with law school grads is a big problem.

People will lay off when Cooley is exposed for what it is, a diploma mill for generally unqualified aspiring law students.

Does anyone know where Miller got the "1,040,000 employed lawyers" statistic?

I checked on the BLS website and it lists 561,350

Does anyone know of another source putting the number at 1,040,000? That's a pretty big discrepancy.

"Employed lawyers grew by 39,000 from 2007 to 2010 across the recession."

Law schools graduate 50,000 students per year.

Can anyone explain to me how 200,000 lawyers can enter the job market and all get jobs (remember, Mr. Milldoff claims essentially a 100% employment rate) when the total number of lawyers only grew by 39,000?

Is Mr. Milldoff claiming that 161,000 lawyers voluntarily retired in those four years? That would explain it, 200,000 lawyers enter, 161,000 retire, 39,000 new jobs are created and so thsoe 200,000 get jobs.

But if 161,000 lawyers retired that would mean that 30% of the lawyers working in 2007 retired between 2007-2010 (there were about 550,000 lawyers working in 2007 and 161,000 is 30% of that number).

Ms. Chen, can you please take the opportunity to follow up with Mr. Milldoff and have him explain these and other discrepancies? A good reporter - an you are one - does not allow people to say what they want without asking follow up questions.

Also please ask him why he is trying to get the lawsuits against his school dismissed before discovery can audit his job placement numbers.

Cooley is currently being sued for publishing misleading and fraudulent job placement statistics. While the plaintiffs have only asked for an independent audit of the numbers, Cooley won't even give them that. Cooley filed a very expensive motion to dismiss in the hopes of preventing even discovery of the data.

The numbers that Milldoff sites above are just as fraudulent as Cooley's numbers. For example, he claims that about 1% of lawyers are unemployed. But the BLS definition of lawyer is not the same thing as "law school graduate." The BLS statistics state that there are only 550,000 lawyers in the country. However law schools graduate that many students every ten years. I don't know how the BLS calculates its number but it is obviously not to be used as a measure of law school employment.

That's what Cooley is about. It's a group of about 20 high paid Deans and Professors who profit by tricking students into taking out huge loans, so that these 20 can earn $250,000 to $500,000 salaries.

There is an insufferable amount of such dishonest rhetoric coming out of Cooley law school, and this has practical significance because such attitudes lead to Enrons and Madoffs. For the sake of our profession I pray the Judge does the right thing in the lawsuit against them.

As a Michigan attorney, I can tell you that most bar members think Cooley is a joke.

This is just so far out of hand! Everyone needs to leave Cooley alone! Yes... I did go there for a year and transfer. The only reason I did transfer was because of their reputation, not the education I was receiving! I received an incredible legal education there. They gave me a chance when no one else would! I knew I had what it took to be a lawyer and proved it with my grades. I actually went to the Grand Rapids Campus and Dean Miller is a very intelligent person, not to mention an exceptional Dean. The truth is... Cooley is competition to these highly ranked law schools and these students are not liking it very much. As a result, they are bashing this school and chipping away at its reputation. They are just disgruntled law students who are mad because they cannot get what they want...a BIG law job. So everyone lay off already!! Cooley gives students a chance and if you can't hack it....your out!!! If law school was easy....everyone would do it. I thank Cooley for giving me a chance to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer. It is just a shame that I had to transfer because of the reputation they have. I really did receive a GREAT education.

Sure, he made a good argument if you completely neglect the fact that the debt burden can exceed 100K. Getting a job out of law school is not the issue - it's getting a well paying job. Graduates can get jobs, but what they can't get are the 75-100+ jobs that are necessary to re-pay 100+ loans. If this guy thinks his article makes a good argument for going to law school, he should be sued because he is purposely misleading these candidates.

Huh. I guess that means that as a graduate of a mid-ranked law school, I haven't been unemployed - not underemployed - for the last four freaking years after all. Thanks for the clarification.

Unfortunately, I cannot agree. I graduated from a very good law school in 2009 and got sworn into the bar in my state in 2010. There are no jobs where i live, and the ones that do exist for lawyers are not seeking young lawyers or new graduates. They in fact, are only hiring people with a lot of experience. I spent 1 1/2 years substitute teaching while I was trying to prepare for the bar and find a job. I eventually just decided to open my own practice. That is what most new lawyers are doing. Yes, technically I am employed, but right now I couldn't pay back my student loans with what is coming into my practice. Law schools are all about the Socratic method and teaching you the principles of the law. My law school really did not do anything in order to help us understand the "how" of practicing law, and I don't believe many law schools actually do that. Law school is a "good ole boy" system that has not changed much in the last 100 years. I am glad I became a lawyer, but I do not want to associate with people who think that everything is fine out there in the land of law school and employment for lawyers.

Nelson- I presume (even using non-Cooley math) that you are counting those with JDs working at McDonalds as "employed"?

Shame on this man for luring the young and idealistic into a crushing debt burden that they have little hope of repaying.

Double shame on this man for foisting those unpayable debts onto the US taxpayer (cooley might as well be a for-profit school with its default rates).

Triple shame for wasting that money on naming rights to baseball parks, "library square footage" and other useless things.

Does Nelson sit on the board of any for-profit student lenders like that leach Matasar from NYLS?

I'm not fine. And I went to a school that's high in the Cooley rankings.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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