KU law school’s employment numbers rebound strongly for class of 2012

How KU compares

How the KU School of Law stacks up against similarly ranked law schools in the Midwest, plus the only other law school in Kansas, at Washburn University:

Percentage of 2012 graduates with a full-time, long-term job for which a law degree is at least preferred:

• University of Nebraska-Lincoln: 82 percent, No. 22 nationally

• University of Tulsa: 79.1 percent, No. 28

• University of Missouri-Columbia: 78.9 percent, No. 31

• University of Oklahoma: 77.7 percent, No. 37

• KU: 75.3 percent, No. 51

• University of Missouri-Kansas City: 75.2 percent, No. 55

• Washburn: 75 percent, No. 57

• St. Louis University: 73.19 percent, No. 61

Percentage of 2012 graduates working for law firms with 251 or more lawyers:

• KU: 8.4 percent

• Missouri: 7.5 percent

• UMKC: 5.9 percent

• St. Louis: 3.3 percent

• Oklahoma: 2.7 percent

• Washburn: 2.6 percent

• Nebraska: none

• Tulsa: none

2013 U.S. News rankings:

• Nebraska: No. 61

• Oklahoma: No. 68

• Missouri: No. 76

• KU and Tulsa: No. 86 (tied)

• St. Louis: No. 102

• UMKC: No. 109

• Washburn: No. 140

Cooking the books?

The data on law school job placement is self-reported by the schools. This can allow the numbers to be, well, skewed. Some law schools or their affiliated universities hire their own graduates in significant numbers, and those jobs count in the ABA statistics.

In a 2011 investigative story on how law schools massage their rankings, The New York Times reported that some schools hire graduates for jobs that just happen to open up a few weeks before the “magical date,” Feb. 15, from when the ABA collects data.

“When you look through it, the students are paying for their own employment,” KU Law School Dean Stephen Mazza said. “It makes little sense to me.”

KU hired three of its 2012 law graduates, all to full-time, long-term jobs for which a law degree was at least preferred. That was 2.3 percent of the graduates who found jobs. That’s small potatoes compared with some other schools.

Take the University of Denver, which ranked No. 64 in the most recent U.S. News rankings. The overall employment rate for its 2012 graduates was 89.77 percent, outpacing KU and ranking No. 52 in the country.

But 33 of those graduates — 11.7 percent of the ones who found jobs — are working in jobs funded by the university. And 32 of those jobs are part-time and temporary.

“You shouldn’t be calling that the same thing as full-time, long-term employment outside of the school,” Arturo Thompson, the law school’s assistant dean for career services, said of such arrangements.

Only 58.7 percent of Denver’s graduates found full-time jobs for which a J.D. is at least preferred — well below KU’s rate, and No. 140 nationally.

George Washington University, No. 21 according to U.S. News, was the national leader in hiring its own 2012 law graduates, according to the ABA data. Among the 95 percent of its graduates who found jobs, 130 were working in jobs funded by the university. That accounts for 23.8 percent of the jobs found.

GWU’s student newspaper reported in February that 109 of the law school’s 2012 grads were part of an internship program run by the law school, with the stated goal of providing them experience, that pays them $15 per hour, 35 hours per week. That’s also the number of hours per week required for a job to be classified as “full-time” in the ABA survey.

“If we could factor out those university-funded positions, then we would look even better,” Mazza said.

After years of declining numbers, 2012 graduates of the Kansas University School of Law have found jobs at a rate not seen since before the economic downturn.

And for the most part, those jobs are ones where they can actually put their law degrees to good use.

“We’re happy, but we’re looking for even greater things going forward,” said Stephen Mazza, dean of the law school, about employment data released by the American Bar Association last month.

The data, based on survey responses as of Feb. 15, show that 85.6 percent of the KU law school’s 2012 graduates had found jobs as of nine months after graduation. That number is better than it’s been at KU in five years, since it rose past 90 percent in the mid-2000s as the legal-market bubble swelled before bursting around 2008. KU ranks No. 95 in the country in graduate job placement.

Only 80.5 percent of the law school’s class of 2011 had found jobs at the same point, a mark that ranked No. 151.

Quick payoff

Mazza credited Arturo Thompson, the law school’s assistant dean for career services, and other newly hired career services staff for increasing the school’s focus on finding jobs for graduates by reaching out to alumni and potential employers. Thompson came aboard in fall 2011, a few months after Mazza became the law school’s permanent dean.

“I knew it was going to pay off,” Mazza said. “I didn’t realize it was going to pay off so quickly.”

Thompson arrived as the law school’s class of 2012 began its third and final year. Christopher Nelson, one member of the class, said that’s when he saw a serious improvement in the school’s career services.

Going into his third year, Nelson said he was growing concerned about what would happen after he finished. “I was worried,” Nelson said. “You hear all through law school how tough the market is, and that did not turn out to be a false warning.”

The path that had been traditional for law students back in the days before the market sunk — get an an internship with a law firm after your second year, with the hope you’re invited back full-time about a year later — was no longer the norm. But Thompson, a KU Law alumnus who came back after working for a large law firm in Phoenix, used his connections to help get him a job with a small firm in downtown Kansas City, Mo., where Nelson says he’s happy.

Thompson’s recent experience working at a firm was important, Nelson said.

“He’s been in those shoes,” he said. “He knows what they want to hear.”

Anna Smith, another 2012 law graduate, also found a job she likes, serving as a clerk for a Kansas Court of Appeals judge in Topeka. She, too, had been worried as she heard warnings of a dire job market through law school. But Thompson spent one-on-one time with her to help as she sent resumes out to state and federal judges in search of a clerkship during her third year.

“They do work really hard to get us jobs,” Smith said.

Nelson said Thompson focused a lot of attention on students just below the top tier of the class. Any class’s top 10 percent or so won’t tend to have much trouble finding jobs at larger firms, he said, but it’s the students in the middle who need help finding a spot somewhere that fits.

Thompson said the graduates, too, deserved credit for their efforts. But he and Mazza both said they want more KU law graduates to be finding jobs in the future. And a boost may come with the class of 2014, the first to be affected by a decision to reduce class sizes by about 20 percent.

“We’re happy with these numbers,” Thompson said. “We’re going to do a lot better.”

Breaking down the numbers

KU looks even better when the ABA numbers are broken down in ways that more closely reflect what law students are hoping for when they graduate, law school leaders said.

Of KU’s 2012 law graduates, 62.3 percent had found a full-time, long-term job that requires the passage of a bar exam — that is, one that requires a license to practice law. That ranked No. 70 in the country and surpassed the national average of 56.2 percent.

For the class of 2011, KU’s figure was 52.4 percent, No. 104 in the country and below the national average of 54.9 percent.

When the results are expanded to include all full-time, long-term jobs for which a law degree is required or preferred, even if practicing law is not involved, KU’s figure is 75.3 percent: No. 51 in the country. That’s a jump from the 2011 figure: 61.9 percent, or No. 100.

That “J.D. Advantage” metric is believed to be a big factor in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings, according to Thompson. “Believed” is a key word there, though: No one knows for sure exactly how the rankings are formed, Mazza said.

“When it comes down to U.S. News and the employment metrics, we don’t know what the heck they’re doing anymore,” Mazza said.

KU rose three spots to No. 86 in the most recent U.S. News law rankings, which used employment data from the 2011 class. Before that, it had fallen a total of 22 spots in two years.

The class of 2012 job stats place KU much closer to several other Midwestern law schools ranked above it on the U.S. News list, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (No. 61), University of Oklahoma (No. 68), and University of Missouri-Columbia (No. 76).

Mazza and Thompson also pointed to the number of KU law graduates who landed at big law firms, which typically offer the highest-paying jobs.

In the 2012 class, 13 graduates were hired by firms with at least 250 lawyers. That’s 8.44 percent of the class, which ranks No. 47 nationally and outpaces all three of those other universities. No Nebraska law graduates ended up at a firm with more than 100 lawyers.

“If I were a prospective student, I would want to know that,” Mazza said.