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If you ask James Leipold, the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), he’ll tell you there are many job opportunities for law school graduates.

Commenting on his organization’s findings for the class of 2013′s employment outcomes (pdf), he writes: “The variety and diversity of jobs that law grads take now is greater than ever. In general, the picture that emerges is one of slow growth, and growth that is a blend of continued shrinkage and downsizing in some areas offset by growth in other areas.”

Are these “other areas” good law school outcomes? Analysis of NALP’s data says no.

First of all, the class of 2013′s unemployment rate—whether graduates were seeking jobs or not—edged up to 12.9 percent, from 12.8 percent the previous year. (NALP and others have noted that the record high was 14.6 percent in 1993.) NALP emphasizes that the class of 2013 was the largest graduating class in law school history, so it’s understandable that many graduates were unemployed in the slack market.

Second, the jobs many graduates found weren’t so hot. The proportion of graduates who found full-time, long-term bar-passage-required jobs didn’t budge this year, and it’s still depressed compared with 2007. Strikingly, though, the percentage of graduates who have found their way into jobs classified as “J.D. Advantage” has reached a record 13.8 percent. Indeed, the J.D. Advantage category (which was formerly called “J.D. Preferred” but was renamed starting with the class of 2011) has doubled in size compared with 2003.

If you’re wondering whether J.D. Advantage jobs substitute for those requiring bar passage when the economy is depressed, the answer is a clear yes.

For the statistically inclined, the percent of J.D. Advantage jobs for the graduating classes from 2001 to 2013 has a very strong -0.94 correlation with the percent of bar-passage-required jobs, and J.D. Advantage has a 0.85 correlation with graduates who aren’t working. This means that when bar-passage-required jobs drop and unemployment rises, the proportion of graduates finding themselves in J.D. Advantage positions is likely to increase and vice versa. Although correlation is not causation, the standard explanation is that slack demand for new lawyers leaves many graduates scrounging for work, and graduates will take jobs that arguably make some use of their law school backgrounds.

It’s here that J.D. Advantage’s meaning becomes fuzzy, particularly because NALP argues in a series of videos that the growing prominence of J.D. Advantage jobs means, “You can do almost anything with a law degree!” So what is a J.D. Advantage job?

According to a 2012 NALP analysis of such positions:

Jobs in this category are those for which the employer sought an individual with a J.D., and perhaps even required a J.D., or for which the J.D. provided a demonstrable advantage in obtaining or performing the job, but are jobs that do not require bar passage, an active law license or involve practicing law. [Emphasis added]

Superficially, this is understood to mean that an employer who seeks someone with a J.D. or even requires it—but not a law license—is offering a J.D. Advantage position. Whether the job requires the skills and knowledge obtained in law school is a different issue. However, the definition of J.D. Advantage leads one to ask how much of a “demonstrable advantage” the law degree needs to provide for a job to be worthy of J.D. Advantage-hood. If the answer is “any amount,” then jobs requiring a tiny measurable quantity of the skills and knowledge obtained in law school probably aren’t worth the price of legal education. In those cases, it’s hard to side with Leipold and conclude that the loss in bar-passage-required jobs since the Great Recession is offset by growth in “other areas.” More likely, it means that the graduates are taking what they can get.

The aforementioned 2012 NALP analysis gives the following examples of J.D. Advantage jobs that class of 2011 graduates obtained but in my opinion likely either underuse or don’t really benefit from much law school instruction:

  • Law school research assistant or fellow – 4.7 percent
  • Legal temp agency – 4.2 percent
  • Other business settings not specifically tracked – 19.7 percent
  • Law clerks – 12.3 percent
  • Paralegals – 3.0 percent

These examples already add up to 43.9 percent, and while the remaining job categories looked like better fits for law school graduates, they only accounted for another 36.5 percent of J.D. Advantage jobs. The “other business settings not specifically tracked” subcategory is particularly troubling because of its vagueness. It’s pretty hard to use the J.D. Advantage category as evidence of good law school outcomes when nearly one in five jobs can’t even be described with any specificity beyond saying they’re in the business sector.

As for the earnings of the class of 2013 graduates employed in J.D. Advantage jobs full time, NALP’s estimate of their median salary was $59,000. As always with NALP salary figures, that number must be taken with skepticism, because fewer than half of full-time employees report their salaries to the NALP, and the salary report is not a random sample. In other words, graduates who are dissatisfied with their earnings don’t report their incomes. By comparison, the Census Bureau found that in 2012, the median bachelor’s-degree holder between the ages of 25 and 34 working full time made about $48,000 per year after adjusting for inflation. Additionally, over the last seven years the 25th percentile J.D. Advantage worker has typically earned less than the median young college graduate working full time, which implies that better alternatives to law school were available to graduates in such jobs. It doesn’t help Leipold’s case that for the class of 2013, as many as 41 percent of graduates in J.D. Advantage positions were looking for other jobs.

While the skills and knowledge imparted in law school are sometimes necessary for graduates to obtain some positions that don’t require a law license, the J.D. Advantage category is overbroad because it includes positions for which law school coursework contributes too little to workplace performance to justify the cost. J.D. Advantage is the “everything else” that’s left over after the bar-passage-required, “other professional” and “nonprofessional” jobs have been classified—if they were properly classified to begin with. For example, occupations such as accountants really belong in the “other professional” jobs category rather than J.D. Advantage, because it can be obtained independently without legal education.

A better definition for the realm of jobs that exists between law practice and other professional work that require absolutely no legal education would consider the extent to which the occupation potentially offers the graduate opportunities for exercising professional judgment while using their legal skills and knowledge. Professional judgment isn’t a clearly defined term, but it hints at the kind of trust that clients place in lawyers on the basis of lawyers’ specialized knowledge. With this type of definition, it would be clear that paralegals don’t exercise professional judgment, but a communications director for a congressman—a J.D. Advantage job obtained by a law graduate in one of the NALP’s videos—would.

A category distinction focusing on professional judgment isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely better than asserting that the J.D. is versatile based on a post hoc rationalization of graduate job outcomes that doesn’t bother to quantify the degree to which legal education makes a demonstrable difference to graduates or embraces positions that could have been obtained without a law degree. I certainly hope J.D. Advantage excludes the roughly 5 percent of graduates each year who list their “source of job” as “return to prior job.” Unfortunately, even there the law degree can allegedly improve job performance, making it appear that law school made a significant difference in improving graduates’ outcomes when it did not.

Employment outcomes are a bellwether for the kinds of careers law school graduates (and future students) will have. Graduates who accept jobs that offer little opportunity for professional development and decision-making responsibility will probably not have the kinds of careers they went to law school to obtain. As the proportion of J.D. Advantage jobs grows, it becomes harder to believe NALP’s assurances that law school leads to positive outcomes in “other areas.”

Matt Leichter is a writer living in St. Paul. He received his dual degree in law and 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, student debt and fiscal reform.