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The Job Market

"Is Law School a Losing Game?"

This headline from a New York Times article, published January 8 and amended January 11, is so far off mark that I feel compelled to comment.

US News publishes accurate and easily accessible data. It is listed on their web page under "careers." It shows the percentage of people working in law firms and the percentage reporting.

All you have to do are three things:

  1. Pay fifteen bucks;
  2. Click on the clearly labeled "Careers" link;
  3. Take the time to understand the numbers.

For instance, if two schools list a median salary of $100,000, and both show 62% working at law firms, but one has 70% reporting and the other has 30%, the margin for error is much lower at the school with 70% reporting. And if a third school lists a salary of $85,000 with 80% reporting, it might or might not equal the higher of the first two schools (and looking at the 25th percentile salary, which is also published, will help you figure this out), but its graduates almost certainly are making more than at the school with only 30% reporting.

If that math is too complicated for you to understand or figure out for yourself, you're going to have a really hard time in law school. If you expect someone else to do all that thinking for you and hand you the result, ditto.

"Are law schools "gaming" the numbers? Of course. They're hiring unemployed grads as recruiters. They MAY (and I emphasize this because I know of no school that's actually doing it, but it makes sense that some would) decline to ask the salary in an exit interview if they know you're working for a lower-paying firm. They may encourage unemployed grads to take on even more debt by staying in school.

But some of the accusations border on the absurd.
For instance, the article says:

"A number of law schools hire their own graduates, some in hourly temp jobs that, as it turns out, coincide with the magical date. Last year, for instance, Georgetown Law sent an e-mail to alums who were still seeking employment. It announced three newly created jobs in admissions, paying $20 an hour. The jobs just happened to start on Feb. 1 and lasted six weeks."

What difference do three jobs make to a graduating class of 600?  And the period from Feb. 1 for six weeks does EXACTLY correspond to the time when GT has to review 8,000 of their 11,000 applications.  Ugly yellow journalism; ugly. 

But let's face it, folks: you want to be a lawyer.
Therefore, you're supposed to be skilled at thinking, questioning, and analyzing. If you let glittering dollar signs get in the way of your neural synapses (i.e., ability to think), you walked into that quicksand all by yourself. And you might have heard that people who walk into quicksand often sink.

Broader Job Opportunities

Back in October, The National Jurist, a magazine devoted to issues concerning law students, focused on the switch in the legal market. They feel that the "Top Ten" game is getting stale, as law firms focus more on experience and less on credentials that may bear no relationship to performance. According to Nikolai, my reader and researcher, fewer than half of all "top 100 Law Firm" hires were from the big-name schools in 2007-8 and only a third of legal counsel hires at Fortune 500 businesses were from the 14 schools in the top ten. Here's the full cite. And thank you, Nikolai, for your always-incisive summaries.

  • What this means to you is that a person from, say, William Mitchell, with five years' work experience before entering law school, could snatch away a job from that 22-year-old 3L at Penn.
  • It also means that the two co-op law schools, Northeastern and Drexel, could find themselves well-situated in the new economy. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go look!

In a Better Economy

According to our local newspaper, the economy may finish re-shuffling itself. Banks may merge but not fail, meaning that dislocation will be less acute. Real estate is selling, although at much lower prices than it had been. Stability at a lower level may not feel like improvement, but look at it this way: would you rather have a legal job for $85k or no job at all?

And don't kid yourself: a legal job, even at $50k or $60k, is better than flipping burgers. And ten years from now, you may be a partner, or a stellar litigator, while the kids flipping burgers will be assistant managers of kids flipping burgers.

So my answer to all those "angry graduates" who feel cheated because they're not making $160k a year is, why don't you stop by McD's on your way home, then re-evaluate your anger? Life may not feel quite like champagne and fireworks just yet, but compared to last year, it should be a much happier New Year!

Where are the Jobs?

Conventional wisdom says that the higher a school's reputation, the broader its job market.  As with most generalizations, it's true sometimes, but not nearly as often as you might think. Before we dive into the data, however, I feel that some caveats are in order:  

  • All the data here was printed in the 2009 USNews, published in April 2008.  I have not verified the pattern over multiple years.  
  • Some placement is self-selecting. It's not a coincidence that Berkeley, Texas, and NYU have a higher-than-average number of grads who stay local. Texans, Californians, and New Yorkers are the three most loyal groups of residents I know of.  
  • Defining a job market is tricky: is Pittsburgh best counted as "Atlantic," or should it be grouped with the Midwest? Is Connecticut part of New England's or New York's placement range? And should DC be counted as the South Atlantic or Middle Atlantic?

There is no easy answer to these questions, and I've used my judgment, departing from the reported data whenever I felt that doing so would give a more accurate picture. Here is the resulting list of:  

Schools placing more than half their graduates outside of the school's surrounding region

School rank School rank School rank
Yale 1 Harvard 2 Stanford 2
Chicago 7 Michigan 9 Duke 12
Georgetown 14 Vanderbilt 15 Wash. U. 19
Boston U. 21 Notre Dame 22 Iowa 27
Tulane 44 Franklin Pierce 3rd tier Ohio Northern 3rd tier
Vermont 3rd tier Ave Maria 4th tier Thomas Cooley 4th tier

As you can see, about half the expected "national" schools place more graduates out of region than they do in the home region.  But a number of lower-ranked schools also share this honor, while a number of top schools don't.  

Schools that place between 50% and 75% of their class in the home region are still sending a substantial portion out of the area.  At most state schools, 75% in state and 25% out will closely mirrors the preference of the student body, many of whom chose that school precisely because it was in the state where they want to find a career.  As with the group above, many of these schools are surprises.

Schools that place more than 25% of their graduating class outside of the school's surrounding region

School Rank School Rank School Rank
Columbia 4 NYU 5 Cal-Berkeley 6
Penn 7 Northwestern 9 Virginia 9
Cornell 12 Texas 16 Emory 22
Minnesota 22 Wash. & Lee 25 Boston College 26
Illinois 27 William & Mary 30 Alabama 32
Ohio St. 32 Indiana-Bloom 36 Wisconsin 36
Arizona 38 Wake Forest 42 Brigham Young 46
Tennessee 52 Case Western 63 Kansas 73
Pittsburgh 73 Penn St/Dickinson 77 Miami 82
Northeastern 88 Hofstra 99 Syracuse 100
Creighton 3rd tier Drake 3rd tier Howard 3rd tier
Idaho 3rd tier Loyola N.Orleans 3rd tier Maine 3rd tier
MSU-Detroit Coll. 3rd tier Pace 3rd tier Samford 3rd tier
Appalachian 4th tier Dayton 4th tier Detroit Mercy 4th tier
New England 4th tier Regent 4th tier Thomas Jeff. 4th tier
Tulsa 4th tier Valparaiso 4th tier W. New England 4th tier

In this "substantially regional and arguably national" group, there is again representation from the top to the bottom of the USNews rankings.  One can argue that New Yorkers want to stay where they grew up; but so do the graduates of Washington & Lee, most of whom would hate living in New York.  Conversely, who would expect Tulsa or Valparaiso to place a substantial number of graduates out of region?  

The two charts above list 66 law schools, or about one-third of all ABA-approved law schools; but it is not the top third.  So if you're worried about where you can work after you graduate, bookmark this page.

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