Practice criticized as way to boost national ranking

The George Washington University Law School has started paying graduates to work in temporary jobs as more of them  can't find work, but the program is coming under fire as a way to inflate the school's national ranking.

Created two years ago as the number of unemployed graduates rose, the school's Pathways to Practice Fellowship Program gives graduates$15 an hour to work 35 hours a week for up to 48 weeks -- $25,200 total -- or until a graduate  secures full-time employment. Meanwhile, the law firms, nonprofits and government agencies where they work don't pay a cent.

The program and others like it have been criticized as a way to boost each school's national ranking, in which the percentage of students who get jobs after graduation is a major factor. That percentage has accounted for 18 percent of a law school's ranking by U.S. News & World Report, which places GW 20th, according to U.S. News Director of Data Research Robert Morse.

The class of 2011
American George Washington Georgetown University
  University University University of Virginia
Total graduates 467 518 644 377
Employed in job requiring law degree 204 438 411 361
Employed in job benefiting from law degree 115 38 145 5
Employed in other professional position 27 12 18 2
Employed in non-professional position 9 0 8 1
Other employed 0 6 9 0
Employed in university-funded job 27 81 84 64
Employed total 355 494 591 369
Unemployed total 82 14 47 2
Full-time students 26 10 2 5
Employment status unknown 4 0 4 1
U.S. News & World Report ranking 49 20 13 7
Note: These numbers include long-term and short-term positions, as well as both part-time and full-time positions.
Sources: American Bar Association, U.S. News & World Report

"To the extent that employers are free-riding on these programs rather than hiring people, it just sort of kicks the can down the road in terms of the imbalance between the number of law graduates and the number of law jobs," said University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, who runs a blog about law schools. "It's not leading to real jobs, and it's just a way to pump up your employment statistics."

While GW's former law school dean Paul Berman has boasted that Pathways is one of the "most generous" programs in the country, the endeavors have become so common -- especially among top schools looking to boost their postgraduation employment statistics -- that U.S. News is changing the weight it gives the data in its rankings. Morse would not reveal specifics about the changes to the ratings, scheduled for release Tuesday. Until now, all jobs -- full-time and part-time, school-funded and employer-funded -- were weighted equally.

The growth of the programs has led the American Bar Association to increase the level of detail schools are required to report in their employment data. Among the changes, schools now must disclose how many graduates are employed in university-funded positions.

High-ranking schools with similar programs include the University of Virginia and the University of California, Berkeley, tied for seventh by U.S. News; Duke University, ranked 11th; Georgetown University, 13th; Cornell University, 14th; and the University of California, Los Angeles, 15th.

Yale, Harvard and Columbia universities do not have such programs.

A recent survey by the National Association for Law Placement found that 46 of 84 schools had a "bridge-to-practice" program, and that the programs were more common among private institutions and schools with more than 750 law students.

Law school applicants should be wary of schools that have these programs, as they can be a sign that the school is not completely honest about postgraduation employment, law school admissions consultant Ann Levine warned.

Berman tried to shrink the program last year after he learned that graduates were leaning too heavily on it, turning down jobs they didn't like to look for better opportunities while being paid by the school.

Universities that offer these programs are "stuffing their unemployed graduates into these positions and then calling it something noble-sounding," said Campos.

"U.Va. would be sporting a 20 percent unemployment rate for their class, except they've got 17 percent of the class in these school-funded positions."

Still, students say they're grateful for the safety net.

"I was there for three weeks, I believe, and got some good experience, met some good people," said GW program participant Andrew Alberg, who graduated in May.

GW officials would not reveal details such as how many graduates from last year's class are in the program, but about 100 members of the class of 2011 -- 20 percent -- were in the program last year, according to email correspondence Campos obtained. Members of the class of 2012 say participation last year was similarly large.

"It was a lot more common than I anticipated," said Matt Lane, a 2012 graduate who enrolled in the fellowship but landed a job before starting. "Employment is pretty awful."