Late last month the ABA released employment data for the law school graduating class of 2012. While much of the commentary the data generated focused on the paltry 56 percent of graduates working full-time in "employed bar passage required" jobs, one significant change has so far gone unnoticed: For the first time in three years, the ABA was able to provide complete employment data for all three of Puerto Rico’s nationally accredited law schools. The results are shocking: A scant 9 percent of the three schools’ graduates were employed full-time, long-term in bar passage–required positions. More than a third of those graduates were unemployed, and 14 percent couldn’t be reached.
One obvious explanation for these scandalously low employment numbers is Puerto Rico’s sputtering economy. In 2010 the per capita GDP of the United States stood at more than $46,000. Puerto Rico’s, by comparison, was just $26,000, but because the commonwealth’s large financial and service sectors send much of the island’s domestic product abroad, the national income was actually closer to $17,000 per capita. Puerto Rico also has a high unemployment rate, and it’s often criticized for the large federal transfer payments it receives that allegedly discourage the employable from taking jobs. These factors help explain why Puerto Rico’s population has fallen by 100,000 people total since 2004 due to emigration. It’s possible that Puerto Rico is to the United States what Cyprus is to the European Union, but milder.
Amid this economic mess, Puerto Rico’s three ABA law schools (its fourth is not ABA–accredited) produced 678 graduates in 2011, even though there were already 2,760 wage-and-salary lawyers employed on the island. While this graduate to wage-and-salary lawyer ratio (25 percent) is far higher than anywhere else in the United States, Puerto Rico’s low bar passage rate weeds out a surprising number of those who take the test as well. According to the National Conference on Bar Examiners, only 37 percent of the 1,197 ABA law school graduates who sat for the commonwealth’s bar in 2012 passed. Fewer than half passed on their first try. Nevertheless, between 2008 and 2012, Puerto Rico admitted nearly 2,500 lawyers by examination.
The surplus has accumulated quite rapidly. According to ABA data, there were nearly 12,500 active and resident lawyers in Puerto Rico in 2008, yet only 4,180—some of them self-employed—were working. Nearly two-thirds of the commonwealth’s registered lawyers were not working in the profession, a far higher proportion than exists in any of the 50 states. Although the figures haven’t been updated recently, the Puerto Rican government’s most recent projections indicate that only 100 new lawyer jobs would open per year between 2008 and 2018.
The tuition costs at Puerto Rico’s two private law schools have not increased at the same rate as the tuition at the 117 other private law schools in the United States. In recent years, though the University of Puerto Rico’s tuition did rise from $2,000 in 2004 to nearly $8,000 in 2011. Because of the island’s relatively low standard of living, however, those costs are much higher in real terms than they appear. To their credit, none of the three law schools play the U.S. News rankings game, but it’s not like they need to: There appears to be an endless supply of people applying to these law schools who don’t seem to know that they will have a minute chance of using their legal educations fruitfully. Even as applications to all other law schools dropped by 11 percent in 2011, those to Puerto Rico increased by 14 percent.
One would think that Puerto Rico would have been the legal education bellwether for the rest of the country. The relatively high costs, awful job prospects, and nondischargeable debt burdens faced by the island’s law school students should have sparked protests by now. Instead, the first people to sound the alarm about the dire fate awaiting law school graduates came from the northeast U.S., such as the bloggers behind such sites as Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition and Big Debt, Small Law. The only explanation I can think of is that the Puerto Rican law schools’ applicants either don’t know or don’t care that their odds of getting any kind of job once they leave law school are appallingly low.
Regardless, at the very least the lesson of the three Puerto Rican law schools [ PDF] is that the ABA’s bar passage rules are far too lax. To retain accreditation, law schools must show one of two things.
• Prove that 75 percent of the school’s graduates who took a bar exam within the past five calendar years passed it or that 75 percent of the graduates in three of the previous five calendar years who took a bar exam passed it. Also, 70 percent of the school’s graduates for each year must be accounted for.
• Prove that in three of the previous five calendar years, the school’s first-time bar passage rate was not more than 15 percent below the average first-time bar passage rate for ABA law school graduates taking the same bar exams. Again, at least 70 percent of the school’s graduates for each year must be accounted for.
Convoluted? Yes. Easy to pass under most circumstances? Certainly. Law schools that can’t pass the first test, which generously requires only 52.5 percent of all graduates to pass a bar exam, will almost always pass the second. In practice, though, the second test allows for schools in one jurisdiction to retain their accreditation by collectively creating an overall low bar passage rate. So long as their rates are close together, they will remain in good standing. At least in California, elite schools like Stanford and UC-Berkeley raise the average first-time bar passage rate high enough that schools like the University of La Verne end up losing their accreditation (not that it stopped the ABA from subsequently renewing La Verne’s accreditation for unspecified reasons).
Denying accreditation to law schools that admit applicants who they should know won’t work as lawyers, much less pass a bar exam, won’t necessarily force them to close or prevent people from applying to them. It can, however, signal to applicants that such schools do not sufficiently prepare students for the rigorous examination hurdles imposed by bar authorities, which is the entire point of having accreditation requirements in the first place. Obviously, loss of accreditation will also bar schools from access to Title IV student loan funding, which—given the employment prospects of Puerto Rico’s law school graduates—wouldn’t be a bad thing either.
The remaining question is whether the same irrationality causing people to apply to Puerto Rico’s three ABA law schools affects applicants in the rest of the country. The only guidance available for those seeking an answer is a Kaplan Test Prep survey released on April 11 that asked 228 Kaplan customers about their motivations for applying to law school. Half the respondents said they were applying to law school to pursue a "nontraditional" legal career, while 43 percent indicated that they wanted a J.D. to help them find work in the business world. Questions about why these individuals thought nontraditional legal jobs would be open to them, and why a law degree opens doors in business (an argument that’s been thoroughly discredited), were not asked. Although the number of applicants has dropped sharply thanks to better information on what they can expect after exiting law school, it appears that like law school applicants in Puerto Rico, irrationality thrives among the remaining applicants.
Matt Leichter is a writer and attorney licensed in Wisconsin and New York, and he holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Marquette University. He operates The Law School Tuition Bubble, which archives, chronicles, and analyzes the deteriorating American legal education system. It is also a platform for higher education and student debt reform.