Little Buyers’ Remorse For Law Grads

The authors of the research paper don’t contradict the critics’ findings. Instead, they paints a fuller picture by using data from the After the J.D. (AJD) study. This study follows 4,500 American lawyers who began practicing in the year 2000, evaluating everything from their debt to their happiness at work. There are three waves of data collection: in 2003, 2007, and 2012.
“The After the JD study, which is based on a nationally representative cohort of lawyers and which is tracking this cohort over time, is extremely unique,” says Ronit Dinovitzer, one of the article’s authors. Dinovitzer is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and a faculty fellow at the American Bar Foundation. “It is a rare opportunity to be able to work with such a well-designed study,” she says.
The data tells a number of surprising stories. Yes, graduates who took jobs in big law firms were more likely to be debt-free than those in other private practice settings—but graduates who worked in the federal government, public interest, and business (without practicing law) were just as likely to be debt-free within the same timeframe. “The percentage of debt being paid by all different jobs was, in fact, higher among some of the jobs that are considered less well-paying among graduates who did not graduate from the elite schools,” Garth says. “I think that was a little bit of a shocker to conventional wisdom.”
Even more surprisingly, graduates of lower ranked schools were more likely to eliminate their debt at a faster rate. Between 2003 and 2007, graduates of the top ten private schools reduced their debt-income ratio by 23%, while graduates of tier-three schools—who don’t have nearly the same access to lucrative corporate jobs—reduced it by 35%. Even tier-four graduates reduced it by much more: 32%.
And to what extent does debt impact fulfillment at work? The findings show that the impact is “quite inconsequential,” Dinovitzer says. The authors found no significant relationship between debt and career satisfaction. The idea that most lawyers were getting stuck in jobs they hated so they could pay off their student loans didn’t hold.
As for the low employment rates? “I’m a skeptic of the nine months, because you notice that all the schools that are bad in the nine months are almost always in California and New York, and those are the schools where the bar exam doesn’t give you results until seven months after graduation,” Garth says. “And graduates of schools that don’t primarily feed the corporate bar—many of them can’t look for jobs until they’ve passed the bar.”
He suggests that it’s more important to look at how well graduates do after a year and several months, along with a host of other factors. “I would go talk to career services,” he says. “You would want to know what the network of alumni is like—if it’s supportive, if they really support each other. Do they hire their own? These are issues that I think you need to worry about.” (Full disclosure: Garth is the former dean of Southwestern Law School, a tier-three school. “I have the underdog perspective in my mind,” he quips.)
The argument Garth and his colleagues raise isn’t without its weaknesses. “Buyers’ Remorse?” only uses data from the first two waves of collection, as the data from the third wave hadn’t been processed yet. That means the numbers, interviews and questionnaire responses come from before the Great Recession—a different universe, some people would contend.
But according to Garth, this isn’t the first time law schools have gotten this much negative attention. People echoed the same sentiments during the Great Depression—“the closest analogue to what happened right now during the last few years,” he notes. Back then, critics declared that the era of the law degree was over, that the law business was going to be outsourced, and that lawyers weren’t going to enjoy their high status any longer. Many decades later, these predictions haven’t come true.
Garth also points out more recent evidence that the recession hasn’t disproportionally hurt lawyers. For the third wave of data collection, Garth and an additional author have done 25 extended interviews with people in the profession. Notably, these aren’t recent graduates—they’ve had 13 years to build their careers—but they seem to be riding things out. “We’ve tried to get people in all kinds of practices, from solo practitioners to people who work for the government to people in large law firms,” Garth says. “So far, we’ve been just astounded by the stature people have developed, the self-confidence, the feeling that their degree was something that put them in a position they would not have been.” As anecdotal as this evidence is, it suggests that lawyers might not be as bitter as many people assume.
Not that any of the authors deny that law school is incredibly costly. It does, however, take a deeper look at how lawyers feel about their decision to get a J.D. Elite graduates might land the Big Law jobs, but that’s only one measure of success. “What we’ve found consistently is it’s the people who’ve come the farthest who are happiest with being lawyers,” Garth says. “It’s those who came from working-class backgrounds, didn’t have lawyers in the family. Even though they’re not making the most money, they’re the ones who are most content, because they know that they’ve really made a life change, that their children are going to have different lives than they had.”