Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Recently, two criticisms have been leveled against law schools. The first is an economic critique—law school is not worth it financially compared to a terminal bachelor’s degree. This critique is incorrect for the overwhelming majority of law school graduates.
The second is a moral critique—that law schools behaved unethically or even committed fraud (see here, here, and here) by presenting their employment statistics in a misleading way. (While at least one of the 200+ American Bar Association (ABA) approved law schools misreported LSAT scores and GPAs of incoming students, and a former career services employee at another alleges specific misreporting of unemployment data at that law school, I am focusing here not on the outliers, but on the critique against all law schools generally).
The moral critique against law schools comes down to this: The law schools used the same standard method of reporting data as the U.S. Government.
According to the critics’ line of reasoning, “employment” means only full-time permanent work as a lawyer. Anything else should count as either “unemployment” or some special category of pseudo-unemployment (i.e., underemployment) . (This is apparently based on an incorrect belief that law school only benefits the subset of graduates who practice law).
Employment and unemployment statistics are not meaningful in a vacuum. They only become useful when they can be compared across time, for different groups, or for a different set of choices. For example, prospective law students might want to know that law school graduates are generally less likely to be unemployed or disabled than similar bachelor’s degree holders. (Frank McIntyre and I combine the unemployment and disability rates whenever possible because of research showing that disability is often a mask for unemployment, although we’d generally get similar results for relative rates if we just used unemployment).
To avoid confusion and ensure that data are comparable, the standard definitions used by the U.S. Government should be used when reporting employment statistics, unless there is an indication that non-standard definitions are being used.
The standard government definitions of “employment” and “unemployment” are the way we all use these words in ordinary speech when we say things like “the unemployment rate went down this year.” These are not obscure definitions. Googling “unemployment definition” and checking the first few results—Investopedia , Wikipedia, About.com, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website —will get you to the right answer.
So how does the United States government define “employment”?
The most commonly reported and cited official government employment statistics include individuals as “employed” whether such individuals are employed full-time or part-time, whether in permanent or nonpermanent positions, whether in jobs that do or do not require the level of education they have obtained.*
In other words, the U.S. Government counts individuals as employed even if they are employed in part-time, temporary jobs that do not require their level of education. Indeed, individuals count as employed even if they are self-employed or worked without pay in a family-owned business.
When the government reports education-level-specific employment statistics** it uses the same definitions and does not restrict employment to those who are employed in jobs that require their education level. Employment includes any employment, whether full-time or part-time, whether temporary or permanent, whether in a job that requires a given level of education or not.
What about the standard definition of “unemployment”?
Unemployment is not the absence of employment. Instead, there are three categories—employed, not-in-labor-force, and unemployed. An individual only counts as “unemployed” if he or she “had no employment during the reference week”, was “available for work, except for temporary illness” and recently “made specific efforts to find employment.”
Those who are not working and are not actively seeking work for whatever reason—for example, caring for dependents, disability, pursuing additional education—are not counted as part of the labor force. Unemployed persons as defined by CPS are used to calculate the widely cited “unemployment rate.” The unemployment rate is defined as unemployed persons as a percent of the labor force--in other words, excluding those who are neither working nor seeking work.***
Some law school critics have claimed that anyone who fails to respond to a survey about their employment status should be assumed to be unemployed. The Census and BLS disagree, and instead weight the data to account for non-respondents.
In addition to top-level information about employment status, some data sources such as the CPS may also include fields with more detailed information about full- or part-time work-status, industry or sector, and occupation. Law schools have also historically provided a detailed breakdown of employment categories shortly after graduation in the ABA-LSAC Official Guide To ABA-Approved Law Schools. In the last few years, law schools have provided even more detail in ABA-required disclosures. (We’ve previously noted some of the problems with focusing on employment outcomes shortly after graduation rather than long-term value added; The ABA's new employment data protocols have additional problems with their definition of "unemployed" discussed below ****). The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) also provides high level data and a more detailed breakdown.
The inclusion or non-inclusion of more detailed information does not alter the meaning of top-level information about employment status: the meaning of “employed” is established and well understood by users of employment data. Commonly used and cited employment statistics have been reported by the BLS from 1948 through the present, and are widely understood by users of employment data.
Indeed, the BLS has noted for decades in its Occupational Outlook Handbook that many law school graduates do not work as lawyers. Law schools and bar examiners publish bar passage rate statistics which clearly show that many recent law school graduates cannot legally be working as lawyers (unless everyone who failed a bar exam in one state passed a bar exam in another).
Comparing apples to apples using standard definitions reveals that law school graduates are doing relatively well compared to similar bachelor’s degree holders. By contrast, critics of law schools and plaintiffs lawyers have used non-standard definitions and compared apples to oranges.
It is not surprising that the courts have dismissed the lawsuits against law schools. If only the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were as fair and judicious.
* The primary source of labor force statistics for the population of the United States is the Current Population Survey (CPS), sponsored jointly by the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics and the United States Census Bureau (Census). CPS is the source of numerous high-profile economic statistics, including the national unemployment rate. CPS defines "Employed persons"* to broadly include anyone who has done any paid work during the week when it is measured, who worked for themselves or a family member, or who was temporarily absent from work.
“Employed persons”* as defined by CPS are used to calculate the “Employment-population ratio”. The Employment Population Ratio resembles the “Percent Employed” statistics reported by law schools.
“Employed Persons” includes:
- 16 years and over
- in the
- noninstitutional population
- who, during the reference week,
- did any work at all (at least 1 hour) as paid employees;
- worked in their own business, profession, or on their own farm,
- worked 15 hours or more as unpaid workers in an enterprise operated by a member of the family;
- all those who were not working
- but who had jobs or businesses
- from which they were temporarily absent
- because of
- bad weather,
- childcare problems,
- maternity or paternity leave,
- labor-management dispute,
- job training,
- other family or personal reasons,
- whether or not they were paid for the time off or were seeking other jobs. . . . “
** The BLS also reports Employment Population Ratios for specific education levels and age groups such as bachelor’s degree holders and above ages 25 to 34. These statistics are also reported by the United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (To the extent economists have tried to define and measure “underemployment” (see here and here ), it appears to be as or more common among bachelor’s degree holders compared to similar law degree holders).
*** The “labor force” as defined by CPS consists only of persons who are either “employed” or “unemployed” under CPS definitions.
**** The ABA’s new data protocol counts individuals as “Unemployed” who would instead be considered “Not-in-labor-force” by the U.S. government. The ABA subcategory, “Unemployed—Seeking” is probably the closest to the standard definition of unemployment. This misalignment between ABA definitions and standard government definitions of unemployment could lead individuals comparing ABA data to standard and widely used government employment data to erroneously conclude that unemployment for law school graduates is higher relative to other groups than it really is.