Tipping the Scales

Little Buyers’ Remorse For Law Grads

by Maya Itah on

law school gradsWhat if someone told you that you don’t need to work at a huge firm to pay off your law school loans? What if someone told you that for the most part, lawyers of all stripes are satisfied with their degrees?

If you’ve been following the relentless anti-law school coverage, you might blink for a second and wonder if these statements could possibly be true. “It’s more of a surprise to conventional wisdom, and not a big surprise to us,” says Bryant Garth, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. By “us” he means the authors of an article that recently appeared in the Journal of Legal Education: “Buyers’ Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career.”

With an arsenal of data, the authors challenge the main argument against law school, one that blogs, websites, and national newspapers have been pushing with gusto in recent years. “I think there’s always a ready market to knock law off its perch as the degree that talented, ambitious people want to get,” Garth says. The narrative typically goes like this: most people at non-elite law schools bet on getting lucrative corporate jobs, fail to do so, and wind up buried beneath a pile of debt and regret.

“Buyers’ Remorse?” pokes holes in that narrative. Garth argues that it discourages people from considering law school—and not in the way critics might hope. “I think the debt issue is a very real one and you have to warn people about the possibility of debt,” he says. But he doesn’t believe in telling applicants who can’t get into top schools to forgo law altogether; he explains that if someone only has access to tier-three and tier-four schools, it’s highly likely that they’re not at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

“So, what you’re telling somebody who worked their way through college or whatever, maybe didn’t do it at the top of the class, maybe doesn’t do especially well on the LSAT—you’re telling somebody like that they shouldn’t even give themselves the opportunity to really excel in a very unequal world, and that they should simply opt out of a possibility that could make an absolute huge difference for them,” Garth says.

Bryant Garth

Bryant Garth who teaches law at UC-Irvine

The authors assert that law school critics underestimate non-elite graduates’ odds of success and fulfillment. Generally, critics only look at the comparison between graduates’ debt and starting salaries. Admittedly, even Garth and his colleagues acknowledge that side by side, these numbers make law school look like an insane investment: in 2011, only 14% of graduates landed $160,000 starting salaries, while 52% started out in the $40,000 to $65,000 range.

Ultimately, the median starting salary was $60,000—which isn’t bad, except that plenty of law students have to pay off $100,000 or more in loans. Another thing critics point out is the low percentage of graduates who find jobs soon after leaving law school. The numbers at lower-tier schools look especially bad: to give just one example, U.S. News reports that at Albany Law School, a tier-three institution, only 55.9% of the Class of 2011 found jobs within nine months of graduation.

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  • Joe Valentine

    A few points I would like to comment here on an interesting topic:

    One is that we cannot view a financial analysis in isolation but have to compare it with alternative opportunities/projects. What else you could have done with 3 years of your time and what return would that have earned? Further when you are looking at a longer term view, absolute numbers may not paint the real picture but you need to discount future earnings to the present value when comparing with the present value of an investment. The specific discount rate that you choose can also skew your analysis so the assumptions have to be made carefully in any financial analysis.

    Secondly consider the value of the intangibles that cannot be measured in purely financial terms. The people that you interact with, the relationships that you build in law school can last a lifetime and give you access to opportunities that others do not have access to. Also consider the type of structured logical and analytical thinking that you do over and over again in law school which enables you to take apart a problem, analyze it and reach a conclusion – that ability is valuable in all spheres of life regardless of what you do.

    Thirdly, measuring the success of your career in purely financial terms is missing the forest for the trees. Basically you have to do what you are passionate about. If you are going to spend your lifetime doing certain work, it is better to do something that you are passionate about and enjoy doing. That is the best way to reach excellence and the money usually follows not the other way round. Never choose a career just for money. What use is money if you are unhappy with your career and that can cost you your health and peace of mind?

    Fourthly, while there is currently a relative lack of career opportunities for new lawyers, there is still strong demand for lawyers who are trained and specialized in specific areas that industry badly needs. While in law school figure out what you like to do and would like to specialize in and work towards obtaining certifications and work experience in those areas of your interest. Do not follow the herd blindly but chalk out your own path and it will be a wise investment that will pay off in the long run not just in monetary terms but also in terms of self actualization (remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

    • JohnAByrne

      Joe,

      Thanks so very much for your thoughtful comments. Our readers will find your perspective invaluable.

    • Beau

      Great. So there is demand for people trained in specialized areas. So how are those of us who would still be considered “new” going to get trained? The lack of jobs is not new, but the great recession accelerated an ongoing trend. So a “new lawyer” is searching but can show 15 years of experience in doc review, because there weren’t any other jobs. And still 60K in debt from law school.

  • David Hattery

    Big shocker – law school professor defends the status quo. The real story is that the demand for legal services has leveled off. Lawyers, law firms and yes – law schools – need to get better, be faster and deliver superior service in order to compete. A law degree per se, even from a fancy name brand – means little by itself. Those days are gone.

  • GoogleLawSchoolDebt

    No conflict of interest here at all. I know plenty of people whose lives have been absolutely destroyed by law school after being lured in by promises of 98% employment and $120,000 average salaries. Law schools prey upon the young and naive.

    If you’re part of the 80% not in the top 20%, you’re going to be $150-250,000 in non-dischargeable debt. You can only expect to make $40-60,000 in an entry-level lawyer job. You will have a VERY hard time finding that entry level job. When you can’t find a job, the law school career service office’s advice will be: “start your own law firm!” Is it worth spending $150-250,000 on a degree that gives you an 80% chance at a VERY poor economic outcome?

    Other things that should be noted:
    1. Law degrees are not versatile and not in demand by employers. Employers will wonder why you’re not making bundles of money as a lawyer and think you’re a loser. The general public is still mostly unaware of what a horrible economic choice law school is for most students. They will also think you’ll jump ship at the first offer from a law firm.

    2. It’s very hard to be successful as a solo. Law school will not teach you how to run a law firm or attract client. You’ll essentially be in sales. Want to go to the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce and drum up business in the hopes you can make your loan payment? Many lawyers over the age of 35 live this miserable existence. Know that when you go to law school, there’s a very good chance this could be you.

    In short, the law professor who wrote this article just doesn’t want the gravy train to end. He’s probably angry at the Internet for letting the general public know that law school financially destroys people and ruins many lives. Don’t listen to him. He only wants your loan money and doesn’t care about your future.

  • iljames989@gmail.com

    Year 2000 graduates? That’s hardly relevant today. We’re in the 21st century now. Since 2000, has tuition stayed the same, or has it gone basically gone up at double the rate of inflation? Hmm? Has the number of graduates dropped, or has the field become completely saturated? Were we outsourcing then at the rate we are today?

    I’ve sat in doc review rooms with hundreds of disgruntled and unhappy lawyers. From my class, a T1 class, a good 50% of the people I kept in touch with never got a legal job (outside of solo practice which they were forced to start).

    Law school was the worst decision of my life. I am six figures in debt and do not make nearly enough to make ends meet, buy a house, have kids. This is reality. If this is the outcome for even 25% of your graduates, you are not doing society a service, you are just ruining people’s lives for your own pecuniary gain.

  • Red Beard

    LOL. Wow. What a loser boomer. Essentially, he just wants more law students to boost his boomer salary enough that he can retire and yell at people to get off his lawn in a few years.

  • Arthur L.

    Wait wait.. This study follows people who began practice in 2000? LOL. So you start your data set by limiting to those that actually got jobs? HAHA. OK. That’s rich.

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