Monday, August 16, 2010

Pogo Goes To Law School

As reported at AboveTheLaw and originally reported in the Newark Star-Ledger, there is a great recent article entitled "Irate law school grads say they were misled about job prospects."  Now, I won't go so far as to call law school a scam, but the article does have a good point that prospective law students are not able to clearly evaluate the law school opportunity prior to attending (and usually graduating) from law school.  Also, it seems clear that the law schools are not being as transparent as they could be with regard to hiring information - even accounting for variations due to the recent economic crisis.

One striking disparity appears in the article itself, but is not necessarily pulled apart as clearly as it could be.  For example, the article includes language that is typical of how many law schools respond to inquiries with regard to their success in placing their graduates:
On its website, the school currently reports an employment rate of 94 percent for the 2009 class, but does not break that down into full-time, part-time or temporary work. The school also claims a starting salary of $145,000 in private practice, though it does not specify how many grads reported salaries in this area. 
Many law schools similarly slice-and-dice the statistics, as we have previously noted here, here, here, and here.  In contrast, let's take a look at the hiring information as reported by NALP and listed in the article:
The result: Unemployment among new law school grads nationwide has risen for two straight years, to a rate of 12 percent for the class of 2009, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Among the employed, one in four jobs were temporary, while one in 10 were part-time. One-fifth of those employed said they were searching for another job, twice as many as in the boom years a decade ago.
A propsective law student reading this article may initially read the "unemployment" information of 12% and think (either subconsciously or not) that their success ratio in obtaining the job as an attorney that they desire after law school would be 88%.  Now that most likely initially seems like pretty good odds to the mind of the prospective law student.

However, as the article further mentioned, of those employed, 25% of the jobs were temporary.  That means that the "success odds" of getting a desired, permanent lawyer job are actually 88%-88%*25 = 66%.  To a prospective law student, the odds are starting to look worse - but maybe still tenable.

Of course, let's not forget the additional 10% of the employed that are part-time (I'm going to round that to 9%).  Consequently, the "success odds" of the prospective law student have now dropped to 57%.

Finally, we note that 20% of those that are employed are searching for another job.  I think that we can interpret this to mean that it is highly likely that they are unsatisfied with their present job - either the pay is inadequate or they just took any job that they could find and are now trying to get a job in a more attractive area.  Regardless, if the goal of a law student is a decent paying job in the area of their choice, falling in this category can not be considered a "success" in terms of our "success odds".  Therefore, including the impat of this 20% lowers our success odds to 39%.

Let me repeat that for emphasis - 39% success odds for going to law school based on the NALP data.

Stated another way, 6 in 10 people that attended law school did NOT get a job they wanted based on the NALP information.  Also, they typically spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to law school and incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost opportunity costs to go to law school.  This situation stands in stark contrast with the hiring message that is constantly marketed by law schools across the board - and potential law students are not in a position to be able to evaluate the relative pros and cons of the law school value proposition, mostly due to information disparity.

That's absolutely terrible.  We need to do better for those that come after us.  If the students were taking out even $50K in mortgages, there would be extensive disclosures - and the slightest departure from the disclosures would result in allegations of fraud and improper coercion, as we have seen with the recent mortgage mess - and that's with regard to an asset that may be re-sold!

However, even though students may be taking out much more in loans - maybe as much as $250K- they are forced to do so in the absence of reliable information - and based on representations that quite plainly create an impression in the mind of the law student that is not in accord with the actuality of the situation.  For example, I have yet to see any law school telling its prospective students that 6 in 10 of them are not going to get the job that they want).

To the extent that a law school is creating such an inaccurate impression in the mind of a law student knowingly, recklessly, or negligently, especially considering the disparity in knowledge, experience, maturity, and the somewhat-fiduciary relationship that is typically inferred when a respected academic talks to a young student, then the situation is distasteful at the least, seemingly quite immoral at middle, and potentially quite similar to other aspects in our system of laws that have given rise to civil and in some cases criminal liability in the past - such as with regard to mortgages.

It is also very, very disappointing.  Law schools have long prided themselves on the "liberal" tradition of standing up for the little person.  Of combating injustice and institutionalized or corporate greed that operates to diminish the opportunities and lives of our most vulnerable citizens.

I hope that it won't be thought of as trite or maudlin, but the situation can't help but call to mind the immortal words of Walt Kelly's Pogo as seems applicable to law schools in this context:

"We have met the enemy and he is us."


  1. I think you're being way too generous in this post. You're forgetting that everything NALP reports is largely BS.

    The situation is actually worse than whatever they report.

  2. 11:06 - I certainly agree with you that as bad as the NALP numbers are, they most likely error on the side of being too generous. Like I am sure that you do, I note that: 1) NALP relies exclusively on law schools to provide the numbers, 2) law schools have a direct financial incentive to make the numbers look as rosy as possible, 3) NALP does not have any auditing process to verify the numbers, and 4) NALP has publically remarked that they are not interested in more aggressive verification of the numbers.

    It's been a while, but I discuss most of that in this post:

    I view the NALP numbers as a best-possible-case scenario and recognize that the actual numbers are likely worse - quite possibly by 5%-10%. I will try to be more clear that my point is - even if you use the most generous estimates provided by the industry (recognizing the industry's bias), then the prospective law student STILL only has a 40% chance of getting an acceptable job - and that 6 in 10 will be disappointed in the best case scenario.

  3. I think this is a well reasoned post, however I disagree.

    I think the odds you posted - whatever they actually are - depend on the school reputation, one's legal and non-legal experiences, and professional connections. This is not simply an equal roll of the dice for everyone.

    Should every law student's chances be equal? Well, why should a law student who has done nothing over three years enjoy the same job prospects as a law student who "made it happen?"

    To roughly analogize, not everyone who tries out for h.s. football will actually "make the team" - and probably for good reason. Some of it is naturally talent, but others have simply worked hard.

  4. 12:40 - I certainly agree that variables like the school's reputation and professional connections are going to influence the odds. I also like your football analogy about trying out for the team. However, if the coach was telling the players that they have a 90% chance of making the team (when it was really only 40%) and requiring the players to pay $200K to try out, I would have a problem with it.