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The law school employment crisis

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I have a piece in TNR that tries to answer what ought to be a straightforward question: What percentage of graduates of the 198 ABA-accredited law schools are getting real legal jobs within nine months of graduation?

If a real legal job is defined as a permanent full-time job that requires a law degree, the answer appears to be something on the order of 30% to 35%. Of course this figure will vary enormously between schools, but given that the overall “employment” rate for their graduates reported by law schools is over 90%, it’s safe to say that the real rate is drastically lower than what individual schools are claiming it is, wherever they may be in the hierarchy.

The real rate is a problem for several reasons, the two most pressing being skyrocketing tuition and declining legal salaries. In constant inflation adjusted dollars, media annual law school tuition since 1985 has gone from $3582 at public schools to $17,757, and from $14,762 to $37,950 at private schools. (In other words public law schools cost more now than private ones did 25 years ago). The median law school debt incurred by students (not overall educational debt, let alone overall debt) is approaching six figures, and is above that already among private school grads (60% of ABA law schools are private).

Then there’s the salary situation. Legal services are being rationalized in ways that are driving down salaries, especially entry-level salaries. Accurate entry level salary information is very difficult to obtain (less than half of graduates report any salary information at all, and those that do are not anything like a representative sample), but it appears that only a minority of the perhaps one-third of law graduates who are getting real legal jobs are getting jobs with salaries that would allow a person to service a six-figure law school debt amortized over ten years (the traditional period) and still eat and pay rent.

Then there’s the matter of how many of the few legal graduates who are getting high paying real legal jobs are doing the kind of work they wanted to do when they went to law school. There’s a lot of data suggesting that associates at big law firms are currently even more miserable than usual, as firms increase billable hour requirements, as they attempt to maintain profits while under increasing pressure from cost-conscious clients.

One obvious question all this should raise is: Why does law school cost so much more than it did just a few years ago? It’s a question to which legal academics haven’t paid nearly enough attention.

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