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Whittier Law School Graduates Most Challenged in Finding Work
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Whittier Law School Graduates Most Challenged in Finding Work

Summary: Whittier Law School, which has one of the lowest employment rates in the country, is taking steps to help its graduates find legal work.

Whittier Law School, located in Costa Mesa, California, suffers from one of the most abysmal employment records in the country, according to the Orange County Register. The school currently enrolls over 500 students, and tuition is $42,000 per year.


Associate dean Martin Pritikin said, “We are by no means satisfied with letting things be. We are working very hard to implement programs and changes that should help our graduates with employment.”

In the past three years, only one in every four Whittier students obtained full-time, long-term attorney jobs within nine months of graduation. The rate is below half of the national average and is one of the worst employment records in the nation. Using the most recent available data, only Golden Gate University in San Francisco had a lower employment rate in the state of California.

The grim statistics were pulled from an online American Bar Association database, which oversees over 200 accredited law schools in the United States. Whittier does not dispute the statistics, but they did argue that the data does not provide the full picture. Whittier said that it is confident that its employment rates will rise due to recent efforts it has implemented which aim to better prepare students for the job market.

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For example, in the fall, the law school applied an “experiential” curriculum that will help students gain real life skills and help them apply their education to their jobs. Pritikin commented, “We think the changes that we’ve made have been earlier, have been more dramatic, have been more comprehensive than what the typical school is doing. We think it puts us ahead.”

The school opened a model courtroom last year, and has made improvements to its career development office. It is also conducting more outreach to potential employers.

However, not all are optimistic about the changes at Whittier. Kyle McEntee is the executive director of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit advocacy organization. McEntee noted that most law schools already use experiential teaching methods in their curricula. “I don’t know of a single school that’s not doing that. What it amounts to is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It does show that they’re part of the reform crowd, but it’s not addressing the reasons that they’re struggling.”

Law School Transparency publishes employment data and other information about law schools on its website for the benefit of prospective students who are thinking about going to law school. Two years ago, it convinced the American Bar Association to require more detailed post-graduation data. Previously, law schools informed prospective students how often graduates found jobs. Now, law schools must disclose whether those jobs are full-time or part time, long-term or short-term, and whether they had to pass a state bar examination to obtain the position.

McEntee said, “This is the way we’re evaluating these schools these days. Our generation is thinking about college and education much different than our parents are.”

Other Orange County law schools have also suffered from low employment rates. In 2012, Eric Vera, a prospective law student at the time, decided not to attend Chapman University in Orange and Western State in Fullerton because he felt the risk of unemployment was too high. Vera had studied Law School Transparency’s website and discovered that these schools ranked poorly for employment. Much of the alumni were unemployed or working part-time jobs, and very likely burdened by significant student loan debt. Chapman’s annual tuition is $46,000, whereas Western State’s is $42,000. Roughly 38 percent of Chapman’s 2013 class had full-time, long-term attorney jobs within nine months of graduating, and for Western State, the number was 37 percent.

After Vera’s investigation of several law schools, he decided to attend UC Irvine, which, although it offered a new law program, it also gave scholarships to reduce the financial burden of its students. His decision to attend UC Irvine was largely due to employment data. UC Irvine disclosed that 64 percent of its 2013 class had full-time attorney jobs, which is higher than other accredited law schools located in Orange County. He said, “I think a lot more students are coming to terms with the legal market is really tough. It’s definitely a scary awakening when you’re a year or two in and you realize that your job prospects aren’t great and your debt is rising.”

Chapman, Western State, and UCI stated that they were not pleased with their employment data. These schools plan to expand current programs that will help their students network with employers. Some are hiring new career services staff as well. Western State interim dean Allen Easley said, “Is it where we want it to be? No, absolutely not. We want it to be higher, but we feel like we’re on the right path.”

Several of the California schools have argued that the employment statistics are biased against them. They argue that since California releases their bar exam results later than most other states, it gives their students less time to find work within the nine-month cutoff. Last year, California schools made up 12 of the 50 worst law schools as measured by employment data. In California, the data showed that 49 percent of graduates had full-time, long-term attorney jobs in nine months, whereas the national rate was 57 percent. According to Pritikin, “The problems with employment are not unique to this school. It’s nationwide and in particular it’s regional.” Pritikin explained that Whittier graduates do land jobs—they just may be after the nine-month window. For example, in 2011, the school examined employment data, and 70 percent of its students were employed after 15 months. “The numbers jump drastically when you give them a little more time to look for a job,” he explained.

McEntee said, however, that so many months without a paycheck is a major burden on graduates with student loans. In fact, without substantial scholarship money, many graduates may have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. “People are still paying a ton of money and they maybe expect to have a job lined up by the time they have to start repaying their loans, which is six months after graduation.”

McEntee noted that California is also the site of some of the country’s best law schools, like Stanford and UC Berkeley, which disclose some of the best employment rates in the country as well. “Almost every California school is competing for those same jobs. It is puzzling that (Whittier) struggles to the extent that it does, and that is substantially worse than other California schools.”

Next year, the ABA will add one month to its employment data. Statistics will include employment information for a 10-month period after graduation. California officials feel this will help level the competition.

Whittier’s students remain optimistic about their job prospects. Stephanie Caughlin, the president of the Student Bar Association, said it’s up to the students to do the work. “If you make the time and make the effort, and do what the school encourages us to do, you will get a job,” she explained. She added that Whittier offers on-campus interviews, connections to working alumni, and mock interviews.

Ben John Atienza, a third-year student, said, “The school gives us what we need. Wherever you go, you’re struggling to find jobs.” Dean Penelope Bryan states on Whittier’s website, “At Whittier you will not only learn the law, but you will learn how to do what lawyers actually do in practice. We are proud that Whittier Law School students graduate more ‘practice ready’ than students from many other law schools.” The school moved to Costa Mesa in 1997 when it noticed Orange County’s increasing population and increasing demand for legal services.

As far as the state bar exam goes, the school has improved its passage rates. Several years ago, the school nearly lost its accreditation due to the low number of graduates who passed the bar exam. Bar exam passage rates are closely linked to the American Bar Association’s accreditation standards. In response, Whittier expanded its bar exam training, and in February, 76 percent of the law school’s graduates passed the California bar on their first attempt. This was higher than many ABA-accredited schools in California.

Pritikin added that the school worked hard to improve employment prospects for its graduates once the recession hit. “It wasn’t until the recession that anyone saw there was a crisis with employment. As far as we were hearing, our graduates were getting jobs at rates similar to other schools in the area and those were by and large very, very good.”

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