I haven't been able to post for a while and I wanted my first post back to be up-beat and focus on something positive. In that regard, I want to give some props to the University of Chicago Law School and here is why:
First, the U of C actually tracks the employment information for each and every graduate at 9 months after graduation - and even makes the information publicly available. Check out the data provided at the link. Every single one of the graduates of each of the years of 2008, 2009, and 2009 has been individually tracked and is represented in the chart. For each year, the "employment status unknown" entry is zero. This means that the U of C's statistics are really representative - unlike most other schools that only report hiring statistics for the 30% or so of the class that actually reports them.
Additionally, the breakdown shows whether the job required bar passage - another frequently cited area where law schools play games.
They even provide real salary information that can be depended on to be accurate because of the complete student response. That is in great opposition to what seems to be the practice at many law schools where the career services office only wants to hear from the employed, high-salary law students because they can then pass on that information as representative of the graduates as a whole. Additionally, although the U of C declines to provide certain numbers when less than 5 graduates fall in a certain category, that seems understandable to preserve confidentiality - I would maybe prefer the cut off to be 3 graduates, but 5 seems close enough.
However, the biggest take-away that I have is that the U of C has been quietly doing for several years what many law schools claim is impossible - to track the employment information of all of their graduates. Props to the U of C. (Props also to Yale, who is also publishing its stats and following up with almost every student.)
The second thing that I take away from the U of C statistics is that the hiring situation at U of C is actually pretty good - although it has taken a hit lately. To take a look at this, check out their chart of "Full-time Salaries of Employed Graduates" where you can see that the mean of all employed graduates in 2010 was about $123K. That's really not bad at all. However, also note the steep decline from 2008 and 2009's means of $142K and $145K - that's a decrease of about $20K (or about 14%). This decrease would seem to indicate that even graduates at a school as illustrious as U of C are coming under pressure in the current rotten job market, but they are still overwhelmingly able to obtain jobs - albeit significantly lower paying jobs than just last year. Also look at the huge decrease in the 25th percentile numbers - from $160K in 2008 and 2009 to a mere $63K in 2010. Ouch. That's a $100K decrease in just one year.
Third, just to be clear that I have not flipped my wig and become a rabid shill of going to law school, one thing to mention here is the stark disparity between the U of C's statistics and the statistics of lower ranked schools. That is, although the hiring picture at U of C looks rosy, it looks pretty terrible before you even get out of the top 50 law schools (the top quarter). For example, the University of Colorado Law School is ranked 47, but as mentioned in this article, only 93 of 183 (50%) graduates had a full time long-term position requiring a law degree nine months after graduation. Additionally, they "were able to identify" only 36 (20%) of those graduates who had a salary of $56,000 or more.
Considering that $56K is not a sufficient salary to justify the financial investment of law school - but even then only one in five graduates was able to make $56K. A number that I would really like to see would be a calculation of a starting salary that would be sufficient to justify the investment in law school - and then see how many students made this "break-even" number. In one example, considering a Solid Performer would have to start out making $138K/year in order for law school to be a financial success, I would estimate that only about 5% of the University of Colorado grads make the grade.
So where does that leave us? Well, if you can graduate from the University of Chicago Law School, then your situation is actually looking pretty good. A median of $160K in private practice and mean of $122K for all law students should represent positive outcomes for the majority of law students. However, the fall-off is very quick. By the time you get to the 50th ranked law school, the odds have decreased drastically.
Where to draw the line? Well, as a ball park determination, if a law school is tracking every student and providing the information like U of C and the mean of all of its graduates exceeds $100K, then it would seem like a student would have a pretty decent chance of landing a job what would let them pay off their loans. (The selection of $100K here is a little arbitrary, but we go into more detail on other pages on this site). What law school ranking does this represent? I'm not quite sure, but the fall-off is really quick. I am familiar with law school numbers for law schools in the 20-30 range and they are not making this number. My gut feel is that the cutoff is really inside the top 10 - and maybe not even all of the top 10.
So what's the take-away? First, props to the U of C and Yale and any other law school that rejects the "We can't do it" excuse and rises the highest of ethical standards by following up with all of its graduates and making the information freely available. Second, if you can get into the U of C (which is pretty darn tough), then it is highly likely that you can get a job justifying the expense of law school. Third, as you go down the ranking tree from U of C, your chances get worse and worse - by the 20s, you are looking at probably a 1 in 5 chance of making the 100K/year "break-even" salary - and by 47 you are looking at probably 1 in 20. Consequently, don't bother going if you are admitted to a law school ranked worse than 30 - and those ranked 10-30 should be thoroughly scrutinized. Fourth, if a law school will not make information available to you on a student-by-student basis like the U of C does, then it would seem legitimate to ignore their protests of "they can't do it" and assume that the information is so bad that they don't want to provide it. In other words, if a law school won't give out student-by-student information, then you may want to reconsider going there.