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An early Christmas present for the prospective law school class of 2015

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I’ve been looking at some of the discussion threads at Top-Law-Schools.com, which advertises itself as “created to provide you with the necessary information to successfully navigate you through the law school application process and find the ideal law school, so that your next three years can be as rewarding and enjoyable as possible.” This seems like a useful public service, to which in this season of giving I’d like to add my own contribution.

First, most of you are still in the midst of the application process, and are understandably swept up by the excitement of it all. This is a problem. To understand why, read this. Since few of you will have the luxury my correspondent had of stepping back from the situation and taking an extra year to consider whether going to law school actually makes sense for you, you’re going to have to make a major intellectual and – especially — emotional effort to pull yourself out of your current frame of mind in the short time left to you before you dump your first $30,000 into this venture (that figure is a rough estimate of what the average law student spends, in both direct costs and opportunity costs, during the first semester – not year – of law school).

To help you along that path, I ask you to take the following into consideration:

(1) The employment situation isn’t as bad as you’ve been led to believe by the scary articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc. It’s quite a bit worse. As bad as things were for the class of 2009, they got worse for the class of 2010, and worse still for the class that graduated in May. The preliminary numbers I’ve seen for last spring’s class are simply mind-boggling. I really cannot emphasize this point enough: The employment “statistics” you read on law school web sites, and on the various school profiles available at Top Law Schools, are worthless. They’re worthless because they tell you next to nothing about what sorts of jobs law graduates are getting. All they tell you is that very few law graduates are literally unemployable. Ask yourself this: are you literally unemployable right now? Of course you’re not – if you had to get a job of some kind, you could. (Indeed you may already have a job, maybe even a good one. I get emails all the time from people who are making $70,000 a year but are “bored” with their work and want to know if they should quit and go to law school. Short answer: if these people could see the real data they would realize the question they’re asking is basically insane).

Here’s an example from the law school profile featured on Top Law Schools’ front page at this moment: “The ultimate goal of nearly every law student is establishing their career upon graduation. Ninety-five percent of the University at Buffalo Law School graduates find positions or enter advanced degree programs within months of their graduation.” (SUNY Buffalo’s web page features a similar statement. By the way I’m not singling out Buffalo here – despite being excoriated for doing so, the vast majority of law schools continue to advertise similarly meaningless “employment” rates).

The quoted sentence strongly encourages you to assume that 95% of SUNY Buffalo grads have real legal jobs nine months after graduation. A real legal job is a full-time long-term position that requires a law degree. It does not include part-time jobs, temporary jobs, or jobs that you don’t have to have a law degree to get. Listen to me now and believe me later: a huge percentage of the law graduates schools list as “employed” nine months out do not have real legal jobs. How huge is that percentage? Nationally, only 68.4% of 2010 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools whose employment status was known reported being in a job requiring a law degree nine months after graduation. And that’s just the start of the bad news: 11% of employed graduates reported being in part time positions, and 27% reported being in temporary jobs. You do the math.

But maybe you’re going to law school because you’re bad at math. OK, what this means is that less than half of the class of 2010 had a real legal job nine months after graduation (Real legal jobs, by the way, now include quite a few jobs that pay $35,000 per year while requiring 60 hours of work per week). And if you think things have gotten better since then, think again. With every passing year, the market for law jobs becomes ever-more saturated with currently unemployed attorneys who, unlike new law graduates, already know how to practice law. This situation is likely to be even worse in 2015, when an employer will ask, do I want to spend X to hire Y (that’s you), who needs to be trained to do this jobs, or do I want to hire Z, who can be paid the same salary as X, but who will cost nothing to train? Guess which one of you is going to get that job?

(2) The salary “statistics” advertised by law schools are if anything even more meaningless than the employment numbers. More than half of all law graduates don’t provide any salary information at all to their schools (at some schools the proportion is much higher). When you see a claim that the median salary for graduates from this school employed by law firms is $107,000, keep in mind this means the median salary of graduates employed by law firms who reported their salaries – which in many cases means that “median” salary is something that less than ten per cent of the class is actually earning. (Example: 54% of the class is working for law firms. One third of that group reported their salaries. This means the reported median is actually the median salary for only 18% of the class. That in turn means 9% of the class reports making $107K or above in private practice nine months after graduation).

(3) Let’s say you end up being one of the 10% of every entering law school class (on the national level) who ends up getting a Big Law job. Why wouldn’t you be one of those people? After all you’re Gifted and Talented. At least that’s what your parents and teachers have been telling you for about 15 years now. But here’s a conundrum: what if everyone around you is also Gifted and Talented? (Little known fact: the last non-gifted white child in America was born in 1962). Well you’ll just work harder than your equally gifted and talented classmates, which will guarantee you better results as a matter of constitutional right. (I’m pretty sure that’s in the Constitution somewhere. Maybe toward the back). Except even if we assume this potentially problematic plan is going to pan out, getting a Big Law job these days “guarantees” you very little, beyond a high paying entry level position that you are almost certain to lose within a few years. At which point you will be unemployed and competing for jobs with — given the “training” Big Law associates (don’t) get — other lawyers who are a lot more competent and a lot more used to practicing law for vastly lower salaries than those to which you’ve become accustomed.

(4) When trying to calculate how much law school will cost you, keep in mind that most law schools continue to raise tuition much faster than inflation, so that median private law school tuition (currently about $39,000 per year) is likely to be around $50,000 per year in 2015, while average public school resident tuition (now around $18,500) is, due to governmental cutbacks, rising even faster, and should be around $32,000 per year four years down the road.

(5) Very large numbers of lawyers hate their jobs, which they find simultaneously boring and stressful (This is, in the world of work, an unusual and particularly invidious combination. Boring jobs tend not to be stressful, and stressful jobs are usually not too boring, but the legal profession has somehow managed to combine both features in a large proportion of its jobs).

What follows from all this? I have three practical suggestions.

First, enrolling at a law school without first ascertaining the core employment rate of its graduates is an extremely reckless thing to do. The core employment rate is the percentage of graduates who, nine months after graduation, have full-time (not part-time) long-term (not temporary) jobs that require a law degree (this excludes jobs that are categorized as “JD preferred,” or “other professional,” or “other non-professional.”) Do not even consider enrolling in any school that refuses to supply you the core employment rate, in writing, of the most recent graduating class for which it has that data. Right now, that’s the class of 2010, but by mid-February all law schools will have this data for their 2011 classes. Again, at most law schools this number is going to be drastically lower than –indeed often less than half of – the school’s reported “employment” rate. If a school hems and haws about providing this number, by for example claiming that it’s unfair not to count “prestigious” judicial clerkships in the core employment rate, tell them you would like their clerkship data listed separately. (Keep in mind that anything other than a federal or state supreme court clerkship is not substantially different, for the purposes of future employment, than an ordinary temp job).

Second, insist on being given comprehensive salary data for the most recent class. Comprehensive data will include, most crucially, the total percentage of graduates who reported their salaries in each category of employment. Again, consider that people with high salaries are far more likely to report them, so that any “median” salary figure that doesn’t include a large percentage of the class (which is the case at most law schools) is actually telling you that most graduates have low to non-existent salaries.

Third, go talk to some lawyers who are doing the kind of work you think you would like to do after you graduate. (If you don’t know what kind of work you think you want to do you have no business applying to law school in the first place, especially under present conditions). This may sound daunting, but most people like to talk about themselves, and many people will give candid advice to someone who seems to be taking the trouble to seek it out. Try to get a sense of what these peoples’ jobs are actually like – of the extent to which they’re happy with their career choices. Ask them what they know now that they wished they had known when they were in your shoes.

Most of all, keep in mind that for the foreseeable future going to law school will continue to be, for most people, a very risky thing to do. Indeed, for the typical law student now enrolled at a typical ABA law school there’s little doubt that law school will end up being a losing proposition. The most reasonable thing to assume about your own career prospects, if you choose to go to law school, is that they will turn out to be no different than those of other people who most recently faced the same choices you now face. At the very least, find out what actually happened to those people. Law schools certainly won’t tell you unless you insist they give you a good deal of crucial information that they continue to choose not to make public. Remember, law schools need you (or more precisely your tuition money) more than you need them. Don’t give them what they want unless and until they give you what you need in order to make a truly informed choice.

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