What 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.
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.