Law School Decision Flowchart

Created by attorney Samuel Browning, based on Paul Campos’s book Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) (Amazon), and published initially on Matt Leichter’s Law School Tuition Bubble blog–this flowchart is the best one-stop presentation I’ve seen on the topic. It is must reading for every student considering whether to attend law school, and more efficient than locating and digesting my many blog posts over the years on the same topic. A discussion yesterday with a current student with a recent interest in law prompted me to break my half-year blog-posting sabbatical.

Law School Flowchart

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Squeezed

Last night I attended a student-faculty social event sponsored by the SMG senior class–beer (them), club soda (me), and nachos in a Kenmore Square bar.  (Had the Sox won the seventh game of the ALCS this bar and the rest of Kenmore Square would have been shoulder-to-shoulder with fans heading to Fenway, and I would have left shortly before 8:00 PM to take my seat in Box 86 Row G.  But the Sox didn’t win the seventh game and I drove home.)  The students attending, being seniors, are facing the worst employment market in recent memory.  Finance concentrators face drastically fewer jobs than existed two months ago when many completed Wall Street internships, marketing, operations, and IS concentrators face tightened hiring budgets, and accounting concentrators face–well, I don’t know what they face.  I haven’t talked to any recently.  Gallows humor and anxiety are the plat du jour.

Gallows humor, anxiety, and thoughts of graduate school.  It’s law-school application season, I’m working through my stack of LSAC recommendation letters (this weekend’s goal is to write four), and I’m talking about law school almost daily.  A number of students for whom law school was a possibility in a few years have penciled it in for September 2009, and others are seriously considering it for the first time.  Common sense says that the number of applications for next year’s 1L class will be up.  Competition, already intense, will be fierce, squeezing applicants from their reach schools.

Those who choose law school because the job market is bad are betting that they’ll graduate to better prospects in 2012.  As I’ve written many times the stratification in the legal profession means that a small number of law grads each year compete for well-paying BigLaw jobs while many struggle to earn enough to cover their student loans.  No one goes to law school expecting to finish in the bottom half of his or her class but, of course, the math dictates that every other law student will land there, where employers don’t recruit.  The legal profession is not recession proof.  In A Grim Verdicit Awaits Law Grads the National Law Journal reports “[t]he number of legal jobs nationwide is steadily declining . . . Jobs in the law sector shrank by 2,000 in September — the fifth consecutive month of losses. The legal work force of 1,165,100 was down by 1.15 percent from a year ago, when the industry employed 1,178,600 people.”  As I was writing this another headline (also from the National Law Journal) popped into my email inbox:  Grim Report Advises Law Firms to Prepare for a Long, Painful Slide.  Did the NLJ get a special on the word “grim?”

What to do?  Some prospective law students should consider an alternate course following graduation next May.  One student I spoke with last night is considering Teach for America.  It is already quite competitive and becoming more so, but it and similar programs allow one to defer law school, gain life experience, grow older (life experience and maturing being consistent with my mantra that there should be a gap between college and law school), and, most importantly, do something worthwhile for others. “Helping others” is not a career objective I hear often from my students but this economy may force some to re-evaluate their choices.  My decision to attend law school and my orientation to law were shaped by my college and post-college experience doing prisoner’s rights and legal services work.  It would not be a bad thing if more of our bright, ambitious students spent time in public service work.

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Shed a Tier

What Law School Rankings Don’t Say About Costly Choices by William D. Henderson and Andrew P. Morriss (The National Law Journal, 16-Apr-08) provides empirical data that reinforces the lessons I’ve learned from my anecdotal experience: “Some students should consider lower-ranked schools that offer more grants, better opportunities.”) (Aside: Today a student asked that I explain what I mean by anecdotal experience. Anecdotal here means “not based on objective research or systemic collection of facts but on what has happened to me.” In one sense “anecdotal experience” is redundant, because we learn most of life’s lessons from whatever events cross our path, not from double-blind surveys. My life experience tells me that white cats with blue eyes are deaf because I have personally known two and heard of other deaf, blue-eyed, all-white cats. I would (and probably have) assert at a dinner party that white cats with blue eyes are deaf. I would not assert this as fact to the International Conference of Cat Breeders and Genetic Biologists without conducting more conclusive research.) The authors summarize the role of U.S. News and World Report rankings on law school applicants, discusses the gap between the demand for “sophisticated corporate legal services” and bread-and-butter non-corporate work, and provide data on the “bimodal” income distribution of law graduates: [T]here is a heavy concentration of salaries in two distinct ranges . . . out of 22,684 starting salaries reported for 2006, 4,809, or 21.2 percent, were in the $125,000 to $145,000 range . . . In 2006, 8,577 reported salaries, or 37.8 percent, were in [the range of $40,000 to $55,000.] The payments on $100,000-plus worth of law school debt look quite different to someone earning $50,000 than they do to someone earning $160,000 a year.”

After discussing some of the reasons for the dramatic increase in corporate-firm associate salaries the authors concluded that “only the highest-ranked students at a broad swath of regional law schools can hope for access to these high-paying jobs. [By “regional law schools” the authors, who state that in their estimation there are fewer than 20 national law schools, mean “most law schools.”] Slavishly following the U.S. News rankings will not significantly increase one’s large-firm job prospects. And the excess debt that students incur is likely to undermine their career options.” They review hiring statistics for the top National Law Journal 250 feeder schools, noting that “[b]elow school No. 26 . . . a graduate has a less than one in five probability of starting his or her career at a large law firm. If 80 percent of law school applicants are convinced that they will make that 20 percent cutoff, three out of four are destined to be disappointed.” They conclude that prospective law students should attend a regional law school in the geographic area in which they want to work and “use their entering credentials to negotiate for a substantial tuition discount.”

Excellent advice. Read the entire article.

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PS:  If you are interested in this article you should read the others linked at The Blogosphere’s Advice for Current and Prospective Law Students.

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More on the Legal Divide

In anticipation of my Thursday evening participation in a panel discussion on law school and the legal profession (6:30 PM in the BU School of Management auditorium), I recommend a post from Carolyn Elefant of the Legal Blog Watch Alert that reiterates themes I’ve addressed many times on this blog. Titled “Still Two Sides of the Bar in the Legal Profession” the post argues that:

  • “the upper fourth of earners in the legal profession have continued to prosper, while the bottom three-fourths have lost ground”
  • “it’s harder for those who don’t find large-firm jobs to make a living because the rising cost of legal education means that smaller paychecks don’t stretch as far”
  • “at all ends of the spectrum, there’s dissatisfaction. Lower-earning lawyers stress about finances, while those earning big paychecks stress about long hours or lack of meaningful work”

Read her post if you are considering law school. It’s a decision one should make with eyes wide open.

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Law’s toll

I’ve posted about the legal profession a few times in the past year, focusing on economics for the most part. The personal cost of a legal career does not received the same attention, which is why I recommend Even Lawyers Get the Blues: Opening Up About Depression from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required). The money quotation:

That lawyers are among the most miserable of men — and women — is well-known. Some 19% of lawyers suffer depression at any given time, compared with 6.7% of the population as a whole . . . one in five lawyers is a problem drinker, twice the national rate. Escalating billable-hours quotas fuel chronic overload, and the ceaseless deadlines and adversarial nature of the work feed anxiety. Some 19% of associate attorneys quit law firms every year, research shows.

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The Purpose of Law School II

Recently, articles about law school and the legal profession have captured my attention more than is customary. I’m not certain why. There are obvious reasons: I’m nearing the bottom of my pile of to-be-written LSAC recommendation letters, I’m talking often about law school, I’ve had retrospective discussions about law careers, and Damages recently concluded its initial season. Uncanny how that show captured the essence of my first year of practice in the municipal finance department. Murder, intrigue, double crosses, nights at the financial printer’s proofreading offering statements . . .

This time I’ll point to Legal Blog Watch, where Carolyn Elefant has done all of the heaving lifting in a post titled Law School Rankings to Students: Don’t Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want. The entire post and its linked materials (except the Spice Girls’ lyrics) are worthwhile to those interested in law school. Briefly, law students rank “quality of teaching, bar passage rate, placement rate at nine months, practical skills training and faculty-student relations” as most important in evaluating law schools. The U.S. News law-school rankings don’t “consider quality of teaching, practical skills training or faculty-student relations” and give less weight to bar passage rates and placements. U.S. News bases 25% of its rankings on reputation among law professors and deans, 15% on reputation among lawyers and judges, and other factors declining in significance.

Trying to put the U.S. News Rankings into perspective for prospective law students can be frustrating. The rankings promise to impose order on the difficult choice of selecting a law school but like many analytic tools, people wield them without understanding how to do so or try to make them do more than they can. There’s just something irresistible, atavistic even, about numbered lists. I recall a student deciding between two schools who was convinced that a school ranked 63rd by U.S. News would provide him with a materially better education and job prospects than one ranked in the mid-70s. That’s nonsense. Finish at the top of your class in either school and you’ll have excellent job prospects in their markets. Finish in the bottom half of your class and it won’t matter if your school is ranked in U.S. News’s top 20. Many wanna-be law students forget that half of them will finish in the bottom half of their class, at least until Lake Wobegon Law School opens its doors.

The disconnect between law students’ wants and the U.S. News ranking factors reflects the yin and yang of law school education. Does law school introduce students into analytic thinking that is the backbone of legal problem-solving or does it teach a trade? Which is more important for a law school graduate, sophisticated understanding of legal principles or knowing how to search a title? This should not be binary question; lawyers should know the how and the why of law. There are extremely smart attorneys who are flummoxed by law’s mundane, boring, and necessary details and law mill practitioners churning out form documents who can’t see the forest for the trees. Elefant agrees with a blogger who “wonders whether law student[s] are sufficiently qualified to evaluate the quality of a law school, or to know what aspects of legal education are important.” She says “the most important skills that law school teaches are (1) writing ability and (2) analytical thinking.”

I think the answer is more complicated. Recent posts have discussed the difficulties some law graduates have finding jobs that pay enough to cover their law-school loans. Many students enter law school without any clear understanding of what lawyers actually do only to discover that (1) they don’t like doing it, (2), they aren’t good at it, and/or (3) it is not at all what they expected. The practice of law is stratified, with the handful of top graduates (not all of whom graduated from the U.S. News top-ranked schools) landing the best paying jobs at corporate firms and everyone else finding their niche along the continuum from “interesting and challenging” to “mind-numbingly and soul-suckingly dull.” Learn to analyze, learn to write, but if you are in the bottom half of your class at a lower-ranked school and $150,000+ in debt, you had better come out of law school knowing how to do something besides spot issues.

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Legal Careers

A comment on my post Not Covered by LSAT Prep takes exception–quite respectful exception–to my statement that “If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a law degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.”  The poster writes “such a statement may be easier to make in retrospect than prospectively. According to your bio, you graduated in 1981.”  His point is that in the century since I graduated from law school the cost of legal education has risen faster than wages and inflation, and it is much more difficult to pay back student loans on a law graduate’s average salary now than it was then.

I’m sure that’s true.  I see that reality in the pressures facing my oldest son, who is a 3L, and in students I’ve mentored over the years.  A friend who graduated law school six years ago owed more in student loans for college and law school than the outstanding balance of my home mortgage.  She is one of the fortunates who landed a BigLaw job at what was then the highest starting salary in Boston because she is smart, talented, incredibly hard-working, and proved herself  while working as a law student.

The increasingly-skewed relationship between the cost and economic benefit of law school education only reinforces my point about doing due diligence.  My mantra for the dozens of prospective law students I mentor each year is get life experience, investigate whether law is a good choice for you, and consider the enormous commitment of time and financial, psychological, and emotional resources law school requires.  The profession is filled with unhappy lawyers.  They can be unhappy because they don’t make enough money, or their practices are stultifying, or they are worn down from years of arguing, or they don’t like their clients, or they think they would be happier raising goats in Maine.  The legal profession suffers disproportionately from alcohol abuse.  Why would any sensible person enter this profession without assessing honestly how well it fits them?

And why would any sensible person enter law school without assessing honestly their chances of success?  The Wall Street Journal article that prompted my prior post discusses the tiered nature of the legal profession.  There are the few who finish at the top of their classes and garner BigLaw offers, but they are the exception.  The income gap between the high and and low-paying poles is enormous.  If financial necessity dictates that you start at $160,000/year when you graduate and your historic academic performance suggests that you won’t be among that top ten percent (or fewer) of the Type A personalities who will dominate your class, you need to ask “what am I doing?”  You need to revisit your expectations.   Note that I’m not saying don’t go–that admonition applies to those who don’t do the due diligence and make the risk/reward calculation.  But don’t count on a payoff and define success on terms that are likely to be unattainable.

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