Comparing Law School Rankings? Read The Fine Print

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When students go to law school, they make a bunch of calculations. A big one is cost: top schools charge more than $50,000 a year, and graduate-student debt is on the rise. Another key calculation: The likelihood of getting a good job after graduation.

Each spring, US News & World Report releases its ranking of law schools. One of the factors that goes into the rankings: the percentage of students employed nine months after graduation.

But the US News rankings don't consider who employs the graduates, so long as they're employed in a professional position. Some schools have been hiring their own students, and rising in the rankings.

These students get a stipend from the school to work for nonprofits or in public service. That stipend can come out of the school's budget or sometimes alumni donations. And when a school hires its own students, it can bump up its ranking. William and Mary Law School, for example, jumped nine spots this year. It employs 20 percent of its students on a fellowship program.

The school's dean says the program helps students succeed by showing potential employers what they're capable of.

But Kyle McEntee, who graduated from law school in 2011 and runs a group called Law School Transparency, says students can't make an informed choice about their return on investment if they can't tell from a school's rankings how many of its jobs are permanent and how many are temporary.

Law schools say it's easy to see a breakdown of employment numbers on their websites. And the students and former students we spoke to love the programs. Brian Daner is now working as counsel on Capitol Hill, which he describes as a dream job. He was able to try out on the Hill thanks to a University of Virginia Law School fellowship. After five months, he was hired.

Andrew Beyda is in his final year at George Washington University Law School. He has a job lined up after graduation. But he says if he didn't, he'd be a candidate for his school's employment program. "It's a tough legal market," he says. "Frankly, lawyers aren't retiring or dying nearly fast enough for us to fill their spots."

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