By Harrison Howe
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A 'Legal Recession'
In June 2011, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reported that fewer law school graduates are landing jobs in law firms. A study by Northwestern Law showed that in the past few years about 15,000 attorney and other legal jobs have been lost at large firms alone. NALP also reported that those who are landing jobs are making less than those who came before them. The reason? It's simply that the largest firms that usually offer the highest salaries aren't hiring.
Some are referring to the current situation as a 'legal recession'. The New York Times recently called it 'the worst recession in the legal profession's history.' Astonishingly, these references and the aforementioned statistics are having little to no impact on law school enrollment despite the fact that tuitions at these schools continue to climb (a mind-boggling 317% rise between 1989 and 2009, as compared to 71% for college tuition).
So how are law schools doing it? How are they charging more and hitting to what amounts to record enrollment numbers (49,700 matriculated in 2010) and growing requests for the LSAT, the prelaw standardized test? You might, rightly so, be shocked to find out their secret.
Objection! Law Schools Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fantasy
A 93% employment rate? A median starting salary of $160,000? These are the sorts of numbers law schools are throwing around. For a 22-year-old student facing grim job prospects after majoring in many other areas of study, law school would certainly seem like a no-brainer. A very promising and potentially ludicrous no-brainer.
The only problem is that there seems to be little truth to it. Some law schools may be misleading students into a false sense of security by reporting job growth rates and salary figures that are exaggerated or simply not true. For instance, some lower-ranking schools are reporting starting salaries equaling those of Yale and Harvard Law School graduates! 'Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty,' Indiana University law professor William Henderson told The New York Times in January, 2011.
Glorified information, some say, is the norm due largely to the fact that law schools live and die by rankings. The better the figures, the higher the ranking. The higher the ranking, the better the reputation. The better the reputation, the higher the enrollment. The higher the enrollment. . .yes, you guessed it. The more money made. And many colleges and universities rely on the money brought in by their law schools. At least ten percent and in some cases as much as 30% of law school earnings are used to fund less profitable programs.
And earning so much money is what allows law schools to wield the type of power they do. Raise costs? No problem. Build more schools? No problem there, either. Fordham Law School, University of Michigan Law School and University of Baltimore Law School are just a few of the schools that have begun construction on new and expensive buildings. Make the numbers look grand in assessment surveys to climb the ranks? That's okay, too.
Law Students Still Going for the Best
So how much of an effect does ranking have on incoming students? Just ask Oriana Pietrangelo, who turned down a full scholarship at a lower-ranked school and took on more debt to attend the highly-ranked University of Notre Dame Law School. The perception by most students is that they will get a better job and make more money by graduating from a top-ranked school. And the sort of skewed numbers being published by law schools is fueling that perception.
But the reality in the current job market, according to Professor Henderson, is that such a degree does not at all guarantee any job, let alone a high-paying one in a top law firm. Just ask Michael Wallerstein, who accrued $250,000 in loans to earn a law degree and has thus far only been able to find jobs as a legal temp. In the current economy, Wallerstein's story is unfortunately all too familiar.
But students remain stubbornly undeterred, generally resigned to the high cost of law school. Law school admissions consultant Ann Levine told U.S. News in 2010, 'I had thought people would be more. . .willing to let go of ranking a little bit. I was wrong. People want to generally go to the best law school they can get into, regardless of costs.'
What's more, some mid- and lower-ranked schools still cost a lot of money, in some cases nearly as much as higher-ranked ones. Annual tuition at some of these schools can still be $43,000. New York Law School is ranked in the bottom third, yet charges $47,800 a year (more than Harvard!) and enrollment there is skyrocketing.
Finally, there does not seem to be an end in sight. Basically, law schools will keep hiking tuitions, students will keep coming and it's likely that graduates will continue to have a hard time finding jobs, at least for the foreseeable future. It seems like a recipe for disaster. . .but given the overall power that law schools tend to yield, not one that's going to change any time soon.
To some law schools grads lower pay in permanent associate positions is an attractive opportunity, and just the kind of opportunity being offered by a growing number of top law firms across the country.