Research shows plunge in those high-paying jobs
In a development that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, some law schools around the country are shrinking. A few are even laying off faculty. The cause, as The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, is fewer law school applications and declining overall enrollment.
To say that University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos saw this coming would be an understatement. He's been sounding the alarm for years about the financial risk of attending law school in a glutted legal market. He even wrote a book on the topic: "Don't Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor's Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk" (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).
Apparently such warnings are finally having an effect — although Campos would argue, as I learned when speaking to him recently, that many more prospective students still need to get the word.
Carroll: So what is the problem that prompted you to write the book?
Campos: Starting in 2010, I started to get indications that the employment numbers being published by law schools gave a very distorted picture of the actual situation for law graduates. This was a product of my own research into the published data but also a series of anecdotal experiences with graduates who couldn't get legal work, or at least decently paying legal work.
So that prompted a research project that resulted in my doing a lot a writing on the subject and also a blog for 19 months, Inside the Law School Scam. Eventually I decided to write an accessible, non-academic guide of the kind that would be useful to people considering law school.
Carroll: Many people seem to believe that going to law school is a ticket to a high-paying job. But you say the legal profession has been hit by the digital revolution just like other professions.
Campos: The perception that going to law school is a ticket to great wealth or at least very solidly upper middle-class status was always somewhat exaggerated, but over the past 15 years the disjunction between myth and reality has widened because the information technology revolution has hit the legal services market very hard. That has led to a sharp decline in the portion of GDP that goes to legal services, from about 2 percent 35 years ago to 1.37 percent in 2009 and probably more since then. That's a decline of a third, which is an enormous relative decline.
Carroll: I take it another motive for you was the number of law school graduates who don't end up practicing law at all.
Campos: Right. Or who only end up practicing law in a very tenuous or temporary fashion. We have some pretty good data on what happens to people, say, nine months after graduation. But our data are not as good for what happens to people five and 10 years later. What we do know is that there are about twice as many people of working age with law degrees as there are practicing attorneys. We also know that barely even half of all law graduates are getting real legal jobs within nine months after graduation.
So you have a sort of double whammy. Many graduates aren't getting into the profession at all, and a number of those who do survive for a few years then wash out because of a tremendous oversaturation in the market. Unless you are in certain elite sectors of the law, practicing law is a continual struggle as opposed to a stable and predictable career.
Carroll: And hanging over many graduates is a heavy debt load.
Campos: Everybody knows in a vague way that the price of higher education has been outstripping inflation for a long time, but when you focus on actual numbers it's utterly astounding. In inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars, Harvard Law School in the 1950s cost $5,000 per year in tuition. By 1970, it was about $12,500 a year. By 1980, it was $16,000. By 1990, it was $27,000. By 2000, it was $35,000, and [in 2012 it was] $53,000. And Harvard Law School is completely typical because law schools, especially elite law schools, all tend to charge the same tuition. So Harvard Law School costs 10 times more in real dollars than it did 50 years ago.
And the change at public universities is even more drastic. Basically, the cost of going to law school 30 years ago at a public school was the opportunity cost. You were taking yourself out of the workforce for three years. You could go to the University of Colorado Law School 30 years ago for $2,500 a year in current dollars — basically like a cable bill with a couple of premium channels today. And CU Law School is typical in that regard in that we have essentially privatized, and we cost now as much as Harvard did a dozen years ago, again adjusting for inflation.
Carroll: With the upshot being large debt?
Campos: Yes, although here the figures are misleading because when law schools report debt, they report the number of loans people have taken out during law school. But that's not the same thing as the actual debt, because interest accrues on those loans from the time they are taken out. So law school debt alone six months after graduation, when the grace period expires, for people graduating from private law schools is about $150,000 on average. That's just law school debt, not education debt in general.
There was a study recently that showed college graduates had an average college debt of $35,000. So it may be no exaggeration to say that somewhere close to half of all law school graduates are graduating with $200,000 or more of educational debt. And this debt has an average interest rate of 7.5 percent.
Now if these people were making $150,000 a year as junior associates at law firms, the debt would still be quite significant. But median salary of people who graduated from law schools last year was around $45,000. There is absolutely no way it makes sense economically to incur $150,000 in debt and end up with a $45,000-a-year job. That's what economists call negative net present value in terms of the value of the degree. That means the degree is not worthless, but worse than worthless.
Carroll: You say there are so few jobs for new graduates in local government as public defenders or prosecutors and at non-profits that prospective students need to look at how successful law schools are at placing graduates in law firms. And you say the surest path to long-term success are jobs with firms with 100 or more attorneys or federal clerkships. How many law schools place, say, half their graduates in those two categories?
Campos: Maybe a dozen out of about 200 ABA-accredited schools. Even placing a quarter of students in jobs like that includes maybe 20 to 25 schools. From there, you quickly drop to schools where 10 percent or fewer graduates are securing jobs with a reasonable prospect of getting sufficient return in the near future on the degree to justify the debt load. What we're seeing is massive market failure.
Let's remember that most lawyers do not make huge incomes. A relatively small number do. And there is another subset that makes large incomes, solidly into six figures. But especially now, most lawyers make incomes that do not in any way make it reasonable to incur the kind of debt.
Carroll: What about the argument that a law degree is valuable because it enhances your ability to do so many other things?
Campos: There is no real evidence for that at all. It's true that there are jobs other than being a lawyer for which a law degree can be beneficial, such as being a compliance officer with a corporation where your job is to check whether the corporation is breaking laws or not. But there aren't a lot of those jobs, and there is a much larger category of jobs ... for which a law degree is of no benefit or is even an active detriment.
Many employers do not want to hire someone who has a law degree because they don't want someone who a) they think is going to leave for one of these mythical high-paying jobs as soon as one becomes available, and b) may have something wrong with them because why are they trying to get a job as an X when they could be a lawyer, and c) may be more prone to sue them, and d) belongs to a professional group that most Americans don't necessarily have warm and fuzzy feelings about.
It is absolutely irresponsible for law school administrators to claim that a J.D. has positive value for purposes other than practicing law.
Carroll: What should students do in considering law school?
Campos: They should not consider even applying without getting the granular information they need to analyze what is happening to graduates. And that means getting the full and complete information these schools submit every year to the National Association of Law Placement and the ABA. Just say, "I want to see your long NALP form, because that will show me without any names what the outcomes are for your graduates and will include salary information." And if a school won't give it to you, then don't apply .
Then make a rational calculation of what the odds are that you will be able to do what you want to do if you go to this school. Don't go to law school unless you have a very clear idea of what you want to do. "Being a lawyer" is not a clear idea of what you want to do.
Carroll: What should law schools do to address these problems?
Campos: Law schools need to tremendously reduce their cost of operation and the number of people who are graduating from law school. We should be graduating about half as many people. Students should be paying at most half as much as they're paying now. To get there, there absolutely has to be reform at the level of federal educational loans. That's the original sin here. Anyone who is admitted to law school can borrow 100 percent of the total cost of attendance as calculated by the law school from the federal government, no questions asked. And that has had completely predictable effects in terms of the price structure of legal education.
E-mail Vincent Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org.
High hopes, dismal outcomes
• Only about half of current law school graduates are acquiring jobs as lawyers, even if we define what counts as working as a lawyer in the most generous possible terms.
• The median salary for the national law school Class of 2011 nine months after graduation was around $45,000.
• Some law schools, including some very highly ranked institutions, are putting 20 percent or more of their graduates into short-term, low-paying, school-funded "jobs" to boost the schools' reported graduate employment rates.
• Despite such shenanigans, one in every seven law school graduates in 2011 was completely unemployed nine months after graduation.
• The average educational debt of new law school graduates is close to $150,000 and rising rapidly.
• If everyone who graduated from law school over the past 35 years were working as a lawyer today, there would be an estimated 1.5 million practicing attorneys in America. The actual number: 728,000.
• Columbia Law School estimates the cost of attending the 2012-13 academic year at $79,950 (tuition, fees and living expenses).
• Only 23 percent of Columbia grads finish law school with no school debt whatsoever.
Read more: Carroll: Many law school degrees "worse than worthless" - The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/carroll/ci_23733599/carroll-many-law-school-degrees-worse-than-worthless#ixzz2aI7rUw00
Follow us: @Denverpost on Twitter | Denverpost on Facebook