Monday, July 18, 2011

Law Graduates Today Vs. 10 Years Ago

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.


  1. I work in the admissions office at a law school, and I want to improve the message that we send to our students about scholarships, the law school experience, job prospects, and the profession. Do you think that if all law schools published stats that look like this:

    that prospective law students would have enough information to make an intelligent decision? Does this go far enough?

    I'm not a law school apologist, and I'm not the type of administrator that looks at a blog like this and dismisses it as whining. I genuinely think that there's a lot wrong with the system of legal education in our country and I want to do my part - however small - to make it better. So I appreciate any honest criticism you have on this type of a report.

  2. Dear Admissions Guy, (Long reply - had to break it in two)
    First, I wish to applaud you for recognizing an issue and trying to do something about it. I took a look at your site and the specific post that you reference and I had a couple of thoughts.

    First, I applaud you for making more granular salary information available. However, I note that the information only includes data from 57 grads - less than half the class. Now, with a random distribution, that would be an OK response rate to typify the distribution as a whole. However, I think that 1) there is a very serious self-selection process in reporting which causes the reported results to be less representative of the true distribution, and 2) unfortunately, I think that when an average person considering law school looks at an "average starting salary" chart, then they would think that the chart illustrates the result for ALL law grads, not just those who have been able to find a job (which may only be about 60% of grads).

    One way to get potential law students to really stop and think would be to include an entry in the chart entitled "Seeking employment" or even "unreported" - or both of them broken out. Both of those bars would likely dwarf the results that you have shown and would be an immediate, visual cue that the potential law students should not take the "average salary" as representative of the salary outcome for all law school grads (which is a subtle difference/mistake that I have seen just about all of them make). I have seen some law schools put a little notice that "this data only pertains to x% reporting", but I think that has less of an immediately-perceivable impact - it's kind of like "fine print" and people ignore it.

    Second, I know that there is an issue with self-reporting and you don't have a good mechanism to make people report - and I sympathize with that difficulty. One aspect that I have seen in this regard and I think is open to manipulation by unethical law schools is the student reporting methodology. If the law school makes students report their hiring result in person (or e-mail using personally identifable information), then there is a "shame factor" that comes into play and people with poor results may be less likely to report, which in turn skews your distribution. Of course, if you do truly anonymous reporting, you open the door to inaccuracy. However, there are e-mail applications that allow an e-mail with a verifiable code to be sent to each law student's address and then have them complete an anonymous (to you), but identity-verified-due-to-email-address survey, which should be great for your purposes.

    In general, the law schools have a disincentive to gather the lower-level data because it will likely lower the average. Shunning more effective means of gathering this data is one subtle way of maintaining the status quo.

    Now, I salute you and your quest to deliver better data, but your Dean may act to block you due to the likely adverse impact on the law school's data and potential reduction in applicants. However, he or she can't "look" like they are trying to influence the data (usually). In this regard, the "fig leaf" of "cost" or "confidentiality" is sometimes used.
    In order to counter that, here are links that would allow you to set up free, online surveys.

  3. Second part of reply
    Third, with regard to increasing reporting, when I visit law schools, I usually see signs all over the place about what percentage of the graduating class contributed to the class gift or how much has been collected - or some other message that the law school wishes to induce the law students to do. Further, somehow (even though the law students are on average dirt poor with massive loans) I often see participation rates exceeding 80%. Needless to say, I think that if the law school backed the message that law students need to report their hiring results anwhere near as much as they backed this other message, then the reporting ratio would be much higher. In short, the message needs to get backing from the law school - post a poster with percentages, try to drive the message home with e-mail, etc.

    Finally, I wanted to mention something that I saw on your site that I really liked - it's the chart at the bottom of the page with average indebtedness, starting salary, and tuition and fees plotted on the same graph. That's a very powerful graph that I think makes your point very well - as you mention "we are asking prospective law student to pay more -a lot more - for an education that leads to a career with dramatically declining prospects." I hope that it would be OK with you if I linked to it and did a post on it.

    In conclusion, I salute your efforts. You obviously care about the students you see and you represent the finest tradition of service to the students. Keep it up!