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

Shrinking the Pie

It’s a tough time to be a recent graduate of, attending, or applying to law school. The job market stinks, law school is expensive, and everyone is eager to share the latest news. Kaplan Test Prep reported recently that “51% of law schools have cut the size of the entering class” due to the difficult job market. Whether this is bad news depends on where you sit. Reduced enrolment benefits current students and graduates seeking their first jobs while raising the bar (no pun intended) for prospective students.

Choking on the Law

LSAC.org–the LSAT and law-school application mothership’s website–has been unreachable all morning. I’ve been trying without success to log on since 6 am to submit a recommendation. It’s a small inconvenience to me; I’ll rely on Plan B, the U.S. Postal Service. I imagine, though, it is deeply frustrating for thousands of anxious law-school applicants. I’m curious about the cause–overload from those hoping to get their score for last Saturday’s exam? Or from those canceling their score?

Blind Certainty

Yeah, I know. I haven’t posted in weeks. The posting pump was primed, finally, by echoes of prior AFC  posts found in an Above the Law article: If Law Graduates Had to Do It All Over Again, They Wouldn’t Be So Stupid. What’s “it?”

The ability to learn from other people’s mistakes is a mark of intelligence, but it’s not a skill shared by your average prospective law student. Despite an internet full of information, they continue to make the same mistakes when it comes to choosing a law school.

ATL quotes from a Kaplan survey titled Advice from Law School Grads to Law School Applicants: Instead of Rankings, Focus on Law Schools’ Job Placement Rates and Affordability–which conveys, pretty much, the survey’s content:

In response to the question “What is most important to you when picking a law school to apply to?” nearly a third of respondents (32%) to a Kaplan survey of LSAT students* cited law school rankings as the most important evaluation factor, outdistancing all other factors. In fact, 86% said law school rankings are “very important” or “somewhat important” in deciding where to apply.

Apparently, though, three years of law school may cause aspiring lawyers to reprioritize. Among new law school graduates, only 17% of respondents . . . selected law school rankings as their top answer to “Which of the following factors would you tell prospective law students should be the most important when picking where to apply?” Instead, nearly half recommend prioritizing either a law school’s job placement rate or its affordability/tuition (each factor garnered 24%). Other factors, including geographic location and academic programming, trailed further back.

In stark contrast, only 13% of pre-law students cited affordability/tuition as their most important evaluation factor in deciding where to apply to law school, and even fewer, just 8%, considered schools’ job placement rates to be their top priority. (Emphasis added)

ATL notes that the “‘certainty score’ of new law students is through the roof. They believe they’re doing the right thing, and you can’t tell them otherwise.” The lead partner in my old firm touted that in the courtroom he was “sometimes wrong, but never uncertain.” Unquestioned self-certainty is not always an asset.

It’s Whimsy, Not Actual Math

Re: Parsing LSAT Stats: My fanciful point, unrelated to real-world arithmetic, is that future law school classes will be so heavily populated by underperformers that the bottom half won’t accommodate them. I do know that it is not actually possible for the bottom half of a class to contain more than 50% of its students–but law students can display fantastical perceptions of their chances of success relative to their peers: see Law–The Faith-Based Career Choice and Law: The Cuddly Profession (”In a recent survey of 330 prelaw student by Kaplan Test Prep, 52% felt “very confident” that they would land a legal job after graduation, although only 16% felt confident that most of their fellow graduates would be as successful.”

Parsing LSAT Stats

The latest indignity for those thinking of becoming lawyers: Are Smartest People Avoiding Law School? Stats Show Bigger Drop in High LSAT Applicants.

Are the wrong people losing interest in law school?

That’s the question posed by the Atlantic, which notes a 13.6 percent drop in applicants who scored highest on the Law School Admission Test, but only a 4.3 percent drop in applicants who scored the lowest.

The linked Atlantic article includes a chart of the year-to-date percentage changes in the those taking the for ranked by LSAT score, e.g. 140-144. The Atlantic characterizes the results:

The number of students applying who probably have no business going to law school has dropped the least. The number of students applying who probably should apply to law school has dropped the most . . .

[T]he smart kids got the memo. Law school is largely a losing game, and they’re not going to play, even though they can probably count on a better hand than most. Meanwhile, the number of laggards applying has barely budged.

Of course this means less competition at the top of the law school heap. Hmm . . . can more than 50% of law students land in the bottom half of their class?

The Bloom is Off the Law School Rose

This NYTimes headline is a grace note to yesterday’s post about being a lawyer: For 2nd Year, a Sharp Drop in Law School Entrance Tests.  The substance:

The Law School Admission Council reported that the LSAT was given 129,925 times in the 2011-12 academic year. That was well off the 155,050 of the year before and far from the peak of 171,514 in the year before that. In all, the number of test takers has fallen by nearly 25 percent in the last two years.

Is that all? As Mona Lisa Vito says in My Cousin Vinny, “No, dere’s more!”:

The decline reflects a spreading view that the legal market in the United States is in terrible shape and will have a hard time absorbing the roughly 45,000 students who are expected to graduate from law school in each of the next three years. And the problem may be deep and systemic.  Many lawyers and law professors have argued in recent years that the legal market will either stagnate or shrink as technology allows more low-end legal work to be handled overseas, and as corporations demand more cost-efficient fee arrangements from their firms.

I am not against becoming a lawyer. I am against becoming a lawyer without serious consideration of one’s prospects for a satisfying legal career.  Evidently others are concluding the same.

If You Are So Smart, Why Are You a Big-Firm Lawyer?

More cautionary news from the world Big Law. Dewey LeBoeuf–the mega-merger of venerable Dewey Ballentine and LeBoeuf Lamb–is in trouble:

Tens of millions of dollars in deferred compensation are owed to Dewey’s partners. Some have been told they are being paid a fraction of what they were promised. The firm is cutting 5 percent of its lawyers and 6 percent of its staff. Nineteen of its 300 partners have left Dewey since January, including heads of major practice areas. About a dozen more departures are expected.

Some of the blame goes to “financial missteps”–which is like saying heart stoppage was the cause of death. When was the last time a business failed because of wise financial decisions? The true problem is the profound change in the legal market, which

has yet to bounce back from a deep recession. Many of the lucrative practice areas that fueled growth during the market boom — securitizations, mergers and acquisitions and real estate — have failed to return to prefinancial crisis levels.

At the same time, expenses, which include the rising pay for young associates just out of law school, continue to accelerate. Further adding strain to firms’ finances are corporate clients who, operating in an uncertain environment, have become increasingly resistant to fee increases and are demanding discounts.

One recently published influential report on the state of the industry painted a grim picture.

“Since it is unlikely, based on overall economic conditions, that the demand for legal services will grow robustly for the foreseeable future, the legal industry will be forced to live with uncertainty for some time to come,” said the report, from Citi Private Bank and the Hildebrandt Institute.

Parse that second paragraph. “Rising pay for young associates just out of law school” and “corporate clients who . . . have become increasingly resistant to fee increases and are demanding discounts.” In other words, big law firms continue to pay big bucks to lure the highest-achieving law school graduates, while clients–those who pay the bills–demand discounts. One discount that the linked article does not mention is for hours billed by those high-paid young associates, who don’t actually know how to practice law. Some corporate clients refuse to pay anything for training young associates–they won’t allow them near their deals.  That’s an unsustainable business model, and partially explains the extraordinary attrition rate for those sought-after young associates:

Attrition of law firm associates has always been a blight on the profession. This attrition is financially painful as associates leave BigLaw in droves during their third or fourth years, at precisely the point when these associates become significant profit centers at the law firm. Attrition at these levels often reach the 60 – 80% level. The financial pain to law firms is compounded by the fact that law firms have by that point spent upwards of $500,000 to recruit and train each associate. In the current market, with clients by and large refusing to pay for the training of young associates, the financial burden to law firms caused by this attrition is further exacerbated.

Another explanation for associate attrition is inhospitable law-firm culture. Take a couple hundred Type-A young associates who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, compensate them more than their objective worth (if they were worth what firms billed for their time clients wouldn’t refuse to pay for them), add mundane legal work–because in this climate that’s all that mid- and upper-level associates are willing to give them–and not even enough of that to keep everyone busy, require them to bill 2,000 hours a year, and shake vigorously. “Inhospitable” doesn’t begin to describe it.

And it’s not like young associates can honestly say if I can make it through this in a few years I’ll be skipping through fields of clover. A big firm lawyer without his or her own book of business will forever be feeding at someone else’s table.

At many large law firms, including Dewey, the compensation system has become a two-tiered structure where the highest-paid partners can make more than 12 times as much as the lowest-paid ones. On the high end are Dewey’s so-called rainmakers, the star partners who make millions of dollars a year executing corporate mergers and handling high-stakes business litigations. [The article mentions one partner with guaranteed annual income of $6 million.] On the low end are the majority of Dewey partners who are known as service partners. These lawyers are not responsible for client relationships. Instead, they handle more tedious legal tasks like drafting briefs and executing merger documents. They are paid at the bottom tier, about $450,000 a year . . .

$450k/year is top 1% money, but many lawyers realize the game isn’t worth the cost of the ticket. If they are smart or lucky they so realize before chaining themselves to a lifestyle that requires $450k/year. If not–misery loves company.

Putting the J.D. to Good Use

Disgruntled law school graduates recently filed a fresh round of lawsuits claiming their schools misrepresented employment statistics for their graduates. (See this post about similar suits filed last summer.) The suits allege the law schools failed to disclose that the employment numbers for recent graduates included (1) jobs for which a law degree is not required (although venti half-caf mocha no whip almost sounds like Latin) and (2) temporary jobs–including jobs created by law schools–that lasted long enough to be included in the post-graduate employment statistics. They also claim the schools misrepresented recent graduates’ starting salaries, data on which I posted about here. According to the Wall Street Journal article linked above,

The employment rate for new graduates last year was 87.6%, the lowest it has been since 1996, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s report on employment and salary for the class of 2010. But only 68.4% had jobs that required passage of the bar exam, and nearly 27% of jobs reported were classified as temporary . . . The lawsuits allege the percentage of graduates working full-time in the legal profession may be as low as 60%. (emphasis mine)

Again according to the Journal, the defendant schools–“selected in part because of their location in large cities ‘with a massive oversupply of lawyers,’ where lower-tier graduates are less likely to be competitive in the job market–include:

  • Albany Law School
  • Brooklyn Law School
  • Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University
  • Widener University School of Law
  • Florida Coastal School of Law
  • Chicago-Kent College of Law
  • DePaul University College of Law
  • John Marshall Law School, and
  • Golden Gate University School of Law