Don’t Believe Everything You Read…

Transparency and accuracy in reporting employment statistics of new lawyers has been much in the news of late.  Just last week, Senator Boxer wrote the ABA to demand that it require law schools to provide accurate post-graduate salary information—prompted, she said, by recent news stories alleging that law schools were publishing misleading information.  Among the stories that may have provoked Senator Boxer’s intervention is a recent Forbes blog post reporting that Forbes pulled data from and discovered that a number of top law schools, including Stanford, had misstated what their graduates in the private sector were earning nine months after graduation.

The blogger does not actually use the word “lie,” but that’s clearly the thrust of his story.  This is unfortunate because the story is not just wrong, but based on misleading analysis.   The blogger says he used information on 8,500 private sector lawyers out of a total of 28,000.  He does not say how the 8,500 were chosen or whether there is any reason to believe it is a representative sample.  He does not say how many graduates from any given law school were in the sample or whether the sample for any given law school is broad enough to be accurate.  He does not even indicate what year or years these lawyers graduated, other than to note that the sample included graduates from the five years leading up to 2009.

These omissions are telling, because he is reporting a median not a mean, and because salaries at private firms rose steadily in those years.  Keep in mind that the blogger is saying that our current data, as reported to NALP (the National Association of Legal Professionals) and U.S. News is inaccurate.  One is simply left to assume that his chart reflects the most current year that data was made available, which of course it doesn’t.

The Forbes’ blogger’s chart says that SLS graduates had a median starting salary of $125,000.  When we look at our internal records, we see that we did indeed report a median starting salary of $125,000—back in 2004 and 2005.  Could it be that the Forbes’ blogger’s data is simply not up-to-date?  That too many of the necessarily small number of SLS lawyers in his sample graduated in these years?  It’s provocative to say that law schools are selling a bill of goods to students.  It’s just not responsible—not when even a little serious research would reveal the truth.

Just to be an open book, here is what Stanford has reported to NALP and U.S. News over the past six years.  Remember, these reports are of median salaries for graduates who take jobs in the private sector.  The real data for SLS is as follows:

Class of 2009: $160,000
Class of 2008: $160,000
Class of 2007: $160,000
Class of 2006: $135,000
Class of 2005: $125,000
Class of 2004: $125,000

The difference between our data and the data in the Forbes story is that ours is comprehensive and reported annually.  We conduct a survey each year in which students self-report their employment and salary information.  We keep track of our students, working individually with each of them to help secure employment.  We fill in the few gaps for our graduates in the private sector with salary information provided by law firm recruiters and the NALP website.  Our data encompasses virtually every Stanford graduate, and we report the data for each given year.  These are the real numbers.

So what lesson do we learn—or relearn—from this incident?  Don’t believe everything you read.

(There’s more to employment statistics than just median private sector starting salary.  I’ll be posting a more detailed chart of our salary breakdown for 2010, so stay tuned.  The chart will show not just private sector salaries, but also clerkship, public interest and government salaries. )