Puerto Rico’s Law Schools Come Under Fire

Puerto Rico’s Law Schools Come Under Fire

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Earlier this week, Matt Leichter of The AmLaw Daily published a scathing report on the (seemingly) shocking low employment rate for law graduates from the four Puerto Rico law schools. In the article, Leichter stated:

“For the first time in three years, the ABA was able to provide complete employment data for all three of Puerto Rico’s nationally accredited law schools. The results are shocking: A scant 9 percent of the three schools’ graduates were employed full-time, long-term in bar passage–required positions. More than a third of those graduates were unemployed, and 14 percent couldn’t be reached.”

Leichter’s added his observations on the surplus of lawyers on the island, adding:

“The surplus has accumulated quite rapidly. According to ABA data, there were nearly 12,500 active and resident lawyers in Puerto Rico in 2008, yet only 4,180—some of them self-employed—were working. Nearly two-thirds of the commonwealth’s registered lawyers were not working in the profession, a far higher proportion than exists in any of the 50 states. Although the figures haven’t been updated recently, the Puerto Rican government’s most recent projections indicate that only 100 new lawyer jobs would open per year between 2008 and 2018.”

As a lawyer (thankfully) employed on the Island, Leichter’s article has many rings of truth to it. On the one hand, Puerto Rico bar exam rates are notoriously low (40% passing rate would be a phenomenal year, while a 60% passing rate is entirely unheard of) and close t0 1,000 graduates sat for the most recent bar exam. As a matter of contrast, the California bar exam, which is reputed to be one of the most difficult exams, has seen 70% pass rates on certain occasions. On the other hand, there are only so many law firms in the San Juan (metropolitan area) to employ the ever-growing number of law graduates that the four schools on the Island produce every year, without taking into account those Puerto Ricans who go to US law schools and decide to seek employment on the Island.

However, a fierce response to Leichter’s article was quickly published via Luis Aviles, an associate dean at the University of Puerto Rico and Harvard Alum. Taking to his Facebook page, Aviles wrote:

“I am the Associate Dean of the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. I am not going to comment on the derogatory tone of your entry, except to say that, for a moment, I thought I was reading a yellow press paper. Now, I would like to give you some facts. You seem to be lumping together the results of Puerto Rico’s four law schools. Perhaps you assume that all these schools are equally bad and they do not distinguish from each other. My School is the only public school in Puerto Rico and this year we celebrate our 100th anniversary. We are the only School in Puerto Rico that has both the ABA and AALS accreditations [sic]. Puerto Rico is a civil law jurisdiction (like Louisiana, Spain and Germany), thus you should compare our bar exam passage rate with say, that of Louisiana students who take the civil law bar. You are right, the Puerto Rico Bar Exam is awfully difficult and contains more subjects than most bars in the US. Most students in Puerto Rico do not look for jobs ONLY after they know they passed the Bar Exam, usually in early December after graduation. Therefore, the data collected by the ABA (employment status after 9 months out of law school) does not take into account that idiosyncratic behavior. Despite that fact, over 33% of our students report on a consistent basis that they are employed by February after graduation. Finally, we “do not play” the US News ranking game, because we educate our students in the Spanish language at a level that not even bilingual students in the US can cope with. We are a public school that serves the needs of Puerto Rico, even though our curricular offer prepares our students to pass the bar exam in the US jurisdiction of their choice. I invite you to visit with us in warm Puerto Rico before you embark in a scathing report based on cold Chicago numbers.”

Aviles is well respected among the legal community on the Island, and his argument merits consideration. While students in the 50 states (and D.C.) receive a legal education solely in English, Puerto Ricans must learn case law and statutes in both English and Spanish. Further, while the employment data is damning at first, a more detailed analysis of the employment reality in the Island could bear a different result.

That said, readers should take note of the reality of the legal market in Puerto Rico. While tuition is not as high as in many U.S. schools, salaries are much lower than in the 50 states. I know for a fact that some law firms in the San Juan area have paid salaries as low as $24,000.00 to licensed attorneys for full time work, while salaries of $38,000.00 a year are easily accepted amongst recent graduates. A law graduate who receives an offer from the “Big Law” firms in San Juan could stand to receive a very high salary of $60,000.00 a year, but those are but a scant minority of those entering the legal market any given year.

Leichter is right in pointing the surplus and stagnant legal employment market in Puerto Rico, as Aviles is to point out the differences between the Puerto Rico market and the stateside market. That said, Puerto Rico has an unemployment situation that would make the national unemployment figures seem like a holiday. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a more serious conversation on the future of legal education in Puerto Rico.

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