The jury’s out on law schools

Misguided statistics in recruitment inflate both employment and income levels.

Julian Switala

Last week University of Minnesota Student Legal Service held its annual Careers in Law Forum. The packed forum provided interested students with a thorough idea of what employment opportunities are available in the legal sector.

This yearâÄôs forum offered access to a variety of informative representatives.

Mark Karon, director of USLS and an attorney, stated that in addition to the 15 law schools in attendance, there were also 35 other agencies represented, including from law enforcement and politiciansâÄô offices.

The forum couldnâÄôt have happened at a more appropriate time. Currently there is a nationwide debate over allegedly erroneous data in law recruitment.

The problem is that law schools are accepting students while broadcasting the myth that job prospects for newly minted Juris Doctor degrees are incredibly optimistic.

In reality, when “The Great Recession” hit, the bottom fell out of the legal market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the legal industry has shed more than 55,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010.

This bleak state of affairs has left students with an enormous load of debt and very little chance of being able to pay it off. According to Forbes, the average law graduate owes $100,000 in student loans.

This is in addition to the opportunity cost of attending school for three years, which includes not being able to hold a job throughout the school year and having to work low-paying internships during the summer.

Even for those lucky enough to find a job in their desired field, thereâÄôs still no guarantee that it will pay well enough. Paralegal Today, an independent magazine about the paralegal profession, noted that lawyers, legal assistants, paralegals and others employed in the legal industry have been “required to take a hack in their earnings, renounce their bonuses or were just laid off because of funding cuts and a low order for work.”

For the past several years, the blogosphere has been full of legal blogs written by disgruntled law students and graduates attempting to dissuade others from attending law school.

Blog names such as First Tier Toilet, The Jobless Juris Doctor, Subprime JD, and Sallie MaeâÄôs Bitch reveal the decrepit state of the legal industry and how poorly law schools treat their students.

However, the problem isnâÄôt merely limited to law schools overstating post-graduation opportunities.

Law schools have been manipulatively playing with their graduate statistics. For instance, a graduate is counted as employed even if sheâÄôs working in a job that doesnâÄôt mandate a JD, such as waiting tables at Olive Garden or knitting hats for a local co-op.

Additionally, the starting salaries of law school graduates are similarly inflated. For first-year graduates who become associates at large law firms in major cities, $160,000 is the norm.

While that is definitely a sum most would consider being worth pursuing, thatâÄôs nowhere near the median salary in the legal industry.

While this sly display of dishonesty is incredibly corrupt, law schools are vying for the top spots in US News rankings which directly influence school reputation, job prospects and the size of the applicant pool.

When millions of dollars of tuition are on the line, there is a strong incentive to fudge some numbers and not accurately portray all the facts to incoming students.

Fortunately it seems as though thousands of students are finally paying attention. Wendy Margolis, director of communications for the Law School Admission Council, released statistics claiming that the total number of law school applicants is down 12.5 percent from a year ago. This is in addition to the total number of people taking the Law School Admission Test, which is down 16.5 percent compared to last year.

Of course, not every single law school student is doomed to a life paying off debt and fighting for limited jobs. For those who are able to attend a top-tier law school, the best 14 schools in the country, or receive a full ride to a decent school, law school may be a good bet.

As Scott Lemieux of The American Prospect states, “A debt-financed degree from a lower-tier school, conversely, is much more likely than not to be a bad investment in terms of both money and time.”

Considering that tuition can climb to more than $50,000 a year, that the majority of the legal industry is shrinking and that legal jobs are now moving offshore, it has simply become unaffordable for most to study law as either a professional or personal investment.

Yet, for those who canâÄôt see themselves in any other profession, thereâÄôs nothing wrong with hedging oneâÄôs bets.

At the Careers in Law Forum, Karon added that participation increased from last year, noting that “probably somewhere between 500 to 600 students” attended the event.

Then again, not all hope may be lost, added Karon, claiming that “just like the economy is starting to turn around, the job opportunity market in the legal profession is also turning around. It bottomed out two years ago. It very much mirrors the economy. If business is slow, there isnâÄôt as much need for people who do business law.”

It may be a decade before the economy returns to pre-recession conditions. For all the current lawyers and prospective law students who are embittered about this: ItâÄôs time to read the fine print and do your due diligence.


Julian Switala welcomes comments at [email protected].