Alas, a law degree is no longer a guarantee of lifetime employment and Caribbean vacations. These days, it’s hard enough to find temp work proofing contracts. Law school may have saved your dad from selling insurance, but it seems to be a giant financial albatross these days. Let’s face it: Lawyers write all the rules. Couldn’t they throw in some make-work jobs for their unemployed peers?
If you’ve been job hunting, you’ve probably figured out that the highest-ranked law schools often have the highest placement rates. Sure, you’ll find schools outside the top 20 – such as the University of Alabama, the University of Washington, and the College of William & Mary with placement rates near the top schools. Otherwise, your school is a good indicator of your employment destiny.
So you’re probably thinking the same principle applies to starting salaries, right? Well, not exactly. That was the finding of Forbes’ Susan Adams. Recently, Adams partnered with PayScale, a salary listing website, to determine the true earning power of law graduates. Here is the process they used:
“[PayScale] combed through the profiles of its 40 million unique users who report compensation information about their jobs. Payscale looked at starting salaries of graduates from 97 popular law schools and found 29,800 of them in their database who had reported salary information. We’re reporting the top 25 here.”
And surprise! The highest starting salaries they uncovered didn’t necessarily correspond with school rank. According to Adams, the figures include lawyers who’d graduated within the past five years. They also cover a five-year span, as students can jump from a low-paying clerkship to a higher-paying firm job over that period.
And you’ll find even bigger discrepancies from graduates with more than five years of experience. This sample included 11,900 lawyers, with a median work experience of 15 years and a median age of 46.
So how much are graduates from various schools earning? Here are Forbes’ findings:
2015 Employed 9 Months After Graduation
Annual Tuition and Fees (Out of State)
|University of Chicago|
|University of Virginia|
|University of Michigan|
|University of California-Berkeley|
|University of Utah|
|University of Houston|
|University of San Francisco|
|University of Colorado (Boulder)|
|University of Texas-Austin|
|New York University|
|University of San Diego|
|Santa Clara University|
$1500 Per Credit
Salary information was provided by Forbes. Rankings, placement rates, and tuition costs were provided by U.S. News and World Report.
For new graduates, the big salary winner is Columbia, which also has the second-highest nine-month placement rate (97%), according to U.S. News and World Report. Columbia grads averaged a whopping $146,500 to start, nearly $20,000 more than Harvard, which also ranked second in U.S. News’ latest law school rankings.
Despite ranking eight spots lower than the University of Chicago, Northwestern actually edged out its cross-town rival in annual starting salary by $5,700 By mid-career, Northwestern grads earned $32,500 more per year than their University of Chicago counterparts.
Surprisingly, the University of California-Hastings is nearly a top 10 school when it comes to starting salaries, with graduates earning $83,900 … despite a 51.7% placement rate. The University of Utah and the University of Houston, which are ranked #49 and #58 respectively by U.S. News, have produced much higher starting salaries than “big-name” programs like George Washington, Vanderbilt, and the University of Iowa. The same applies to the Catholic University and Santa Clara University, which aren’t even ranked by U.S. News in their top 100.
Most surprising is the inclusion of the University of San Francisco, where graduates average a $79,300 starting wage, despite a 32.1% placement rate.
Among mid-career earners, Stanford made up lost ground, with graduates earning $217,300 annually. They are followed by Northwestern ($210,000) and Duke, with Blue Devil grads increasing their pay by $119,200 from the start to the middle of their careers. Ironically, Columbia grads start strong and then stagnate, with wages only increasing from $146,900 to $176,200 from the start to the mid-point of their careers.
In addition, a number of top 20 schools didn’t even crack Forbes’ salary list, most notably #7 ranked University of Pennsylvania.
Of course, you could pick apart these numbers from many angles. Graduates coalescing in certain locations, such as New York City and San Francisco, have higher costs of living (and higher wages). Schools where students gravitate toward public sector work (i.e. Yale) are likely to see lower salaries over the continuum. The specialties chosen by graduates (tax law, etc.) can certainly impact earning power, particularly for schools that emphasize higher end law like litigation. Most important, these salaries are derived from a sample of 41,700 attorneys across a large swath of schools; a few big earners can skew each institution’s average.
That said, numbers may lie, but patterns don’t. If you see a high starting salary with a high placement rate and a high U.S. News ranking, you’ve found the right slot machine. So start dropping your tokens and pulling the lever because that school should eventually pay out.