Saturday, March 16, 2013
Washington Lawyer (Mar. 2013): Price and Perils of JD: Is Law School Worth It?:
Rocked by a brutal job market and a huge and growing student debt, an increasing number of young lawyers have been asking themselves the same question: Is law school worth it?
The case against law school is regularly made in the national media and by Internet bloggers. An article in Forbes magazine last year went so far as to declare: Why Attending Law School Is the Worst Career Decision You’ll Ever Make. Even the ABA has weighed in with concerns. And the issue has obviously large implications for not only students, but law schools and the profession in general.
Based strictly on economics, investing in a legal education seems increasingly hard to justify. Only a fraction of graduates these days are finding full–time jobs that require a law degree, and salaries are declining. While there has been some recent improvement, the starting salary for a lawyer in private law practice has fallen 35% since 2009, according to a July 2012 report of the National Association for Law Placement. A select few graduates continue to make big money at large firms—as much as $160,000 a year—but those jobs also are getting scarcer as law firms have cut back.
Many more young lawyers work temporary positions doing document review or other contract work that, aside from lower pay, provides no job security or benefits. Public sector jobs are shrinking because of a federal hiring freeze and budget problems at the state and local level. Nonprofits are too cash–strapped to hire public interest lawyers. More and more graduates are taking jobs outside the law, not out of choice but of necessity to pay the bills.
Legal education costs have soared, meanwhile. Average tuition at a private law school has quadrupled in the lifetime of students graduating this spring, with even sharper increases at public institutions. Including living expenses, the cost of law school now averages between $150,000 and $250,000, much of which is debt-financed. The average debt for students who graduated from a private law school in 2011 was $142,565, which does not include loans they may have racked up as undergraduates. The upshot: Rising costs and declining earnings have many students approaching their very own fiscal cliff. ...
The changing economics of the marketplace is starting to shake a long–held belief that a law degree is a valuable credential, even for those not necessarily interested in practicing law. For years a legal education was touted as a versatile and marketable postgraduate experience for the undecided. Today, lawyers are finding that a law degree is closing rather than opening doors, especially in jobs in business. Employers are skeptical of unemployed lawyers who are not using their law degree in a traditional way. Some also are concerned that lawyers will bolt once they find a legal job. ...
Besides high fees, law schools have been accused of inflating their ability to place students in legal jobs after graduation. Even after the recession hit, many ABA–accredited law schools continued to report that more than 90% of their graduates were getting jobs soon after graduation. It turns out that they were including graduates holding down nonlegal jobs, even temporary ones. ... American University reported that more than 80% of its law school graduates in 2009 and 2010 had found jobs within nine months of graduation. Despite the recession, the school reported that 76% of the class of 2011 still found jobs, although the more detailed reporting required by the new ABA standards painted a much bleaker picture of the graduates’ experience. Just 167 of the 467 members of the class of 2011—about 36%—had permanent, full-time jobs where bar passage was required. Just 23—about 5%—had jobs with the biggest (and generally top–paying) law firms. ...
Employment Summary for 2011 Area Law School Graduates
School *Employed Total Graduates % Employed GW 421 518 81.2% Georgetown 403 644 62.5% George Mason 102 170 60.0% Howard 75 157 47.7% Catholic 114 261 43.6% American 167 467 35.7% UDC 16 78 20.5%
*Includes only graduates employed in full–time, long–term positions where bar passage is required within nine months of graduation. (Source: Law school reports to the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar)