Feast or Famine for Law School Grads

Readers of the Ivey Files and also my book (The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions) know that I've been discouraging people from attending all but the top law schools in the country [updated to clarify: AT FULL PRICE], mainly because of simple math. As I wrote in The Ivey Guide:

You need to think of your legal education as an investment, and you should calculate your expected return on that investment. That's why it's so important to think about your career options coming out of various schools. If you have to pay $1,000 a month in after-tax dollars to cover your student loans, you'd better be sure you will be able to find work at a well-paying law firm after you graduate. If you graduate $100,000 in the hole, don't assume for as second you can run off and work for a public-interest legal clinic. And until you've paid off your debt, or unless you attend a law school with a generous loan-forgiveness program..., you won't have the freedom to go sit on a beach and stare at your belly button while you contemplate what you really want to do with your life. Think of it this way: Lots of people rush off to law school on the assumption that a law degree gives them freedom, but you don't really have freedom when you've mortgaged the next ten -- or thirty -- years of your life. (Law school graduates who join big firms don't have much trouble repaying their loans on the ten-year payment plan, but most law school graduates don't end up joining big firms, and many end up extending their loan-repayment schedules to thirty years.)


The top fifteen [law schools] also offer a level of job security that other law schools can't. People at the top schools who find themselves in the middle of the pack or even below still do just fine on the job market, even at the highest levels of the job market. The further down the food chain you go, though, the less of a safety net you have. Once you get to the second tier and below, you need to be at or near the top of your class to end up at a top firm in your region or with a top judge in your region (the national market is a much more difficult proposition), and people in the bottom half of the class often face grim hiring prospects.

Law school applicants fight me on this all the time, but I stick to my guns. Most ABA-approved law schools are not worth the investment. It's painful for people to hear, and most insist on learning this truth the hard way.

Now comes an article in today's Wall Street Journal, front page and above-the-fold no less, making the same argument:

A law degree isn't necessarily a license to print money these days. For graduates of elite law schools, prospects have never been better. Big law firms this year boosted their starting salaries to as high as $160,000. But the majority of law-school graduates are suffering from a supply-and-demand imbalance that's suppressing pay and job growth. The result: Graduates who don't score at the top of their class are struggling to find well-paying jobs to make payments on law-school debts that can exceed $100,000. Some are taking temporary contract work, reviewing documents for as little as $20 an hour, without benefits. And many are blaming their law schools for failing to warn them about the dark side of the job market.

The article gives some harrowing examples (all bullets in this posting are verbatim):

  • The law degree that Scott Bullock gained in 2005 from Seton Hall University -- where he says he ranked in the top third of his class -- is a "waste," he says. Some former high-school friends are earning considerably more as plumbers and electricians than the $50,000-a-year Mr. Bullock is making as a personal-injury attorney in Manhattan. To boot, he is paying off $118,000 in law-school debt.
  • A 2005 graduate of Brooklyn Law School, [Israel Meth] earns about $30 an hour as a contract attorney reviewing legal documents for big firms. He says he uses 60% of his paycheck to pay off student loans -- $100,000 for law school on top of $100,000 for the bachelor's degree he received from Columbia University.
  • Sue Clark... this year received her degree from second-tier Chicago-Kent College of Law, one of six law schools in the Chicago area. Despite graduating near the top half of her class, she has been unable to find a job and is doing temp work "essentially as a paralegal," she says. "A lot of people, including myself, feel frustrated about the lack of jobs," she says.
  • Mike Altmann, 29, a graduate of New York University who went to Brooklyn Law School, says he accumulated $130,000 in student-loan debt and graduated in 2002 with no meaningful employment opportunities -- one offer was a $33,000 job with no benefits. So Mr. Altmann became a contract attorney, reviewing electronic documents for big firms for around $20 to $30 an hour, and hasn't been able to find higher-paying work since.
  • Matthew Fox Curl graduated in 2004 from second-tier University of Houston in the bottom quarter of his class. After months of job hunting, he took his first job working for a sole practitioner focused on personal injury in the Houston area and made $32,000 in his first year. He quickly found that tort-reform legislation has been "brutal" to Texas plaintiffs' lawyers and last year left the firm to open up his own criminal-defense private practice. He's making less money than at his last job and has thought about moving back to his parents' house. "I didn't think three years out I'd be uninsured, thinking it's a great day when a crackhead brings me $500.

Are there some law schools that are honest about their graduates' job prospects? Refreshingly, yes:

  • Many students "simply cannot earn enough income after graduation to support the debt they incur," wrote Richard Matasar, dean of New York Law School, in 2005, concluding that, "We may be reaching the end of a golden era for law schools."
  • The University of Richmond School of Law in the last couple of years started to be more open about its employment statistics; it now breaks out how many of its grads work as contract attorneys. Of 57 2006 graduates working in private practice, for example, seven were contract employees nine months after graduation. Schools "should be sharing more information than they are now," says Joshua Burstein, associate dean for career services who put the changes in place. "Most people graduating from law school," he says, "are not going to be earning big salaries."

More typical are the dodgy (and some would argue fraudulent) recruiting practices of many law schools. As the article points out, "students entering law school have little way of knowing how tight a job market they might face. The only employment data that many prospective students see comes from school-promoted surveys that provide a far-from-complete portrait of graduate experiences." Examples:

  • Tulane University... reports to U.S. News & World Report magazine, which publishes widely watched annual law-school rankings, that its law-school graduates entering the job market in 2005 had a median salary of $135,000. But that is based on a survey that only 24% of that year's graduates completed, and those who did so likely represent the cream of the class, a Tulane official concedes. On its Web site, the school currently reports an average starting salary of $96,356 for graduates in private practice but doesn't include what percentage of graduates reported salaries for the survey.
  • A glossy admissions brochure for Brooklyn Law School, considered second-tier, reports a median salary for recent graduates at law firms of well above $100,000. But that figure doesn't reflect all incomes of graduates at firms; fewer than half of graduates at firms responded to the survey, the school reported to U.S. News. On its Web site, the school reports that 41% of last year's graduates work for firms of more than 100 lawyers, but it fails to mention that that percentage includes temporary attorneys, often working for hourly wages without benefits, Joan King, director of the school's career center, concedes. Ms. King says she believes the figures for her school accurately represent the broader graduating class. She says the number of contract attorneys is "minimal" but declined to give a number.

Declined to give a number? When annual tuition for full-time students at Brooklyn hovers around $40,000 before expenses (which tack on another $20,000)? That says it all. If these were for-profit companies trying to raise funds from clueless investors and publishing questionable data in their prospectuses, the SEC would be all over them. Universities get away with a lot, so buyer beware.

And note that the US News rankings do not provide information you can necessarily rely on. Their data is self-reported by the schools, and schools have huge incentives to fudge the numbers.

Finally, note that tuition and expenses are about the same to attend Brooklyn Law School as to attend Columbia Law School, even though graduates face wildly different job and income prospects during law school and afterwards. It is simply not rational to pay Columbia-level tuition to attend Brooklyn Law School. That's just one example, but you get my point.

Udate: here.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).