There's an somewhat misleading article and accompanying editor commentary at the National Jurist. In the article, they assert that recent law grads enjoy a better standard of living than 10 years ago. More specifically, they assert that graduates employed by law firms have seen their "standard of living" rise by 59% since 1999, while those in public interest have seen their "standard of living" rise by 6%. They also assert that the impact of the recent income-based repayment options is to further increase this advantage. While the editor commentary appears to temper that assertion a great deal (although why they did not include the commentary in the article for fairless' sake, I don't know) it still doesn't paint an accurate picture of the changes in standard of living for a person contemplating law school. Let's take a tough look at the numbers below.
First, the article admits that the standard of living (which I will henceforth abbreviate as "SOL" with a touch of irony) has declined for the unemployed, underemployed, and those employed by small law firms of 2-10 attorneys. Woah. When we dig beneath the numbers, that's a pretty sizable percentage of law school graduates.
However, for firms of 11-100, the article states a growth in SOL of 6-15% from 1999 to 2009. Reading between the lines, the article admits that it is really the students employed by the firms having more than 100 attorneys that skews the SOL numbers - and that only 22% of attorneys (in 2009) got such jobs.
Additionally, from the editor's commentary we learn that only 9.3% of the law school graduates were employed in firms of 11-100 (those having a small positive growth). More importantly, this means that only about 31% of the law school graduates in 2009 experienced higher SOL than in 1999. Thus, even by the National Jurist's own numbers (which appears to be in part based on the very-inflated NALP numbers) 69% of law school graduates experienced a lower SOL in 2009 than in 1999.
That's the number that people considering law school should focus on - even in 2009 (when hiring was a LOT better than it is now) law school was a worse choice for the vast majority of law students (69%) than it was in 1999. Returning now to the title of the National Jurist article, they assert that "Recent Law Grads Enjoy A Better Standard Of Living than 10 Years Ago" - however, that is just not true for the overwhelming majority of law students. While it may be true for 31% or them and that 31% may skew the average higher, the title of the article may give the casual reader (or undergrad considering law school) the impression that all law grads are better off now then in 1999.
Which leads to a second, extremely important factor that is not mentioned in the article and is also very important to those considering law school - the performance of the class of 2010. I'll even use the National Jurist's own article about the 2010 results - in short, median (not average) private starting salaries are down from $125K in 2008 to $104K for the class of 2010 (a 16.8% decline). That's a huge decrease - and yet there's no "Update" connected with the previous "pro-going to law school" article - there's no revision of the 2009 article to reflect the 2010 data. Further, while the first article is tagged "breaking news", the second article is tagged "critical issues in legal education", and thus the second article won't be displayed when a potential law student is looking for breaking news about law school. Potential law students are left with a very pro-law school article that was just written and erroneously seems to reflect current data.
Further, the most recent article mentions that the number of law students employed by big firms - the only real "winners" in the SOL increase mentioned in the first article have decreased to the lowest level in 13 years, and that hiring at big law firms is off by 35%. Let's take a look at what this likely does to the percentage of law school graduates that experienced an increase in SOL. First, for those employed by firms of 11-100, their 2008 SOL increase was 6-15% - that's now completely wiped out by the 16.8% decrease in salary - all of them are likely now experiencing a decrease in SOL. Further, applying a 35% hiring decrease to the 22% of attorneys that previously got jobs at large firms leaves us with about 14%. Thus, even if you swallow the over-inflated, self-reported (by law schools who have an incentive to inflate) employment and salary numbers reported by NALP and integrated into the National Jurist numbers, I would submit that a reasonable conclusion to draw is that using the 2009 numbers that only about 14% of law school graduates in 2009 experienced an increase SOL from law school graduates in 1999.
Consequently, for about 86% of law students, graduating from law school in 2010 was a worse deal than graduating from law school in 1999.
Lastly, I want to applaud the National Jurist for some honesty and urge them to be more forthright. They mention that when they first did their SOL living study in 1999 that graduates that entered private practice at six law schools had a lower standard of living than they did as students (after loan payments and taxes). However - where is that information for 2009 grads? For 2010 grads? Which specific law schools were these? This type of information would be very important to a potential law student and would be very helpful in holding law schools responsible so that legal education may be changed for the better.