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

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.

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?

Risk of Merit Scholarships

Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win is required reading for any prospective law student who is weighing whether to accept a merit scholarship.  Most merit scholarships come with minimum GPA requirements.  If the recipient’s first- or second-year GPA falls below the threshold–3.0, 3.2, whatever–then they lose the scholarship.  Their choice is either to borrow money to continue or to drop out of law school.  GPA stipulations are not unusual, and not a problem in themselves.  Problems arise when schools that grade on a curve give out more merit scholarships than can, numerically, be eligible to keep them.

This year at Golden Gate, for instance, 57 percent of first-year students — more than 150 in a class of 268 — have merit scholarships. But in recent years, only the top third of students at Golden Gate wound up with a 3.0 or better, according to Ms. Ramey, the dean. If past patterns hold, dozens of first-year Golden Gate scholarships are about to vanish.

With merit scholarships “[law] schools are buying smarter students to enhance their cachet and rise in the rankings. “

The algorithm used by U.S. News puts a heavy emphasis on college grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores. Together, those two numbers determine about 22 percent of a school’s ranking. The bar passage rate, which correlates strongly with undergraduate G.P.A.’s and LSAT scores, is worth an additional two points in the algorithm. In short, students’ academic credentials determine close to a quarter of a school’s rank — the largest factor that schools can directly control.

This by itself isn’t news.  For years I’ve advised students of the possibility that they can receive a scholarship from a lower-rated school and graduate with less of a debt burden. (See, for instance, Shed a Tier.) That scholarships come with strings attached is not a surprise.  I am surprised, though, that school grading policies may make it impossible for one who receives a merit scholarship to maintain the requisite GPA to keep it.

The problem is not that this is unfair, but that most students are not aware of it.  Golden Gate’s dean responded to questions about this practice by saying “[s]tudents who have done well in college assume they will do well in law school.  [They would know better] if they read our materials, if they listen to anything we told them in our admission process, or read our course catalog.”  As the Times reports “it takes a bit of forensic accounting to figure out how hard it is to keep a 3.0 at Golden Gate.”  Many schools do not clearly disclose this specific risk. The congratulations-on-your-scholarship letter does not report the grading-curve risk.

The problem is also that law students are delusional.  (The Times put this more gently, saying that law school applicants manifest the “very human tendency to overestimate one’s talents.”)  In a post exactly one year ago titled Law:  The Cuddly Profession I noted the results of a Kaplan Test Prep survey on pre-law students:  “52 percent are ‘very confident’ of finding a legal job after graduating from law school and passing the bar exam. However, only 16 percent are ‘very confident’ that most of their classmates will achieve the same success.”

I’ll be adding this article’s lessons to my law-school-advising mantra.

ABA Warns of Law School Economics

Getting Schooled in Law Loans begins with these two sentences:

The American Bar Association has officially issued a warning on its website. The ABA is now making the case to persuade college students not to go to law school.

The “warning” is a paper titled The Value Proposition of Attending Law School.  It’s opening paragraph states

a proper understanding of the economic cost of a legal education is vital for making an educated decision. Far too many law students expect that earning a law degree will solve their financial problems for life. In reality, however, attending law school can become a financial burden for law students who fail to consider carefully the financial implications of their decision.

My executive summary of the paper:

  • “An average student considering enrolling in law school now should thus expect to graduate with debt well in excess of $100,000.”
  • “[T]hese costs often exceed the expected return on their investment in the job market . . . only 23% of the graduates of the class of 2008 started with such a high salary [$160,000], including only 37% of those who went into private practice. Shockingly, most of the rest of the graduates, about 42%, started with an annual salary of less than $65,000.”
  • “This year, the employment picture is even more bleak.”
  • “[T]o make a positive return on the investment of going to law school, given the current costs, the average law student must earn an average annual salary of at least $65,315. As the data above show, however, over 40% of law school graduates have starting salaries below this threshold. Thus, many students start out in a position from which it may be difficult to recoup their investment in legal education.”

No student entering law school expects to be in the “shocking” 42%.  Everyone thinks it will happen to someone else.  Two out of five are wrong.

Must-Reads for Prospective Law Students

Everyone interested in talking with me about attending law school should read this New York Times article–in addition to all of my posts about law school and legal careers:  Is Law School a Losing Game? It states

[A] generation of J.D.’s face the grimmest job market in decades. Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. Associates have been laid off, partners nudged out the door and recruitment programs have been scaled back or eliminated.  And with corporations scrutinizing their legal expenses as never before, more entry-level legal work is now outsourced to contract temporary employees, both in the United States and in countries like India. It’s common to hear lawyers fret about the sort of tectonic shift that crushed the domestic steel industry decades ago.

So why do law schools continue to thrive?  Creative, “Enron-type accounting standards.”  Law schools report 93% of recent grades are employed–which may technically be true, if one counts jobs as baristas and sales clerks.  Law schools include such jobs in their post-graduation employment statistics.  Similarly misleading, “[m]any schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000.”  That’s bullshit, to be blunt.  It is just not true.  The article calls the figure “highly unlikely” noting that Harvard and Yale report the same median salary for their grads.  The National Association for Law Placement’s May 2010 employment report states the  correct figure for 2009 grads is about $93,000, and even that’s misleading. Starting salaries for new lawyers follow a barbell-shaped distribution–big at the ends, small in the middle–not a bell curve.  New lawyers who land insanely-competitive jobs at big firms start at $160,000 a year, while about one-third of 2009 new-lawyer salaries distribute along a mini bell curve between $45-60,000.  As I noted in the linked post last July, adjusted for unreported income and for the more complete data at the high end of the scale, the adjusted mean salary for 2009 grads is closer to $85,000.

The post from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Law Schools: Tournaments or Lotteries? comments critically on the Times article:

Everyone applying to law school takes the same standardized test. Classes are graded on a curve and class rank is relative to other students who took the same classes. It’s not perfect—nothing is—but law school is about as close to a fully transparent pure meritocracy as you’ll find in American education.

One thing all of this means:  if you’ve always been a B student, you will likely be no better than a B student in law school, and you will get the jobs available to law students with 3.00 GPS–which do not start anywhere close to $160,000 a year.

Screw the Rankings

Anyone who has read my blog posts or asked my advice about law school has heard my pitch:  it’s better for one’s prospects to get high grades than to go to a high-ranked school.  A recent study shows I didn’t make this up.  As reported in the WSJ Law Blog article “New Study:  Forget the Rankings, Just Bring Home Straight A’s,” research by law professors Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz found that

performance in law school – as measured by law school grades – is the most important predictor of career success. It is decisively more important than law school “eliteness.” . . . Since the dominant conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all?important, and since students who “trade?up” in school prestige generally take a hit to their school performance, we think prospective students are getting the wrong message.

I’ll repeat long passage from the report, quoted in the Law Blog:

As an illustrative hypothetical, imagine an average student (GPA 3.25?3.5) at 47th ranked University of Florida . . . [W]e can predict how her earnings would be affected under various counterfactuals. If she had attended 20th ranked George Washington University, her grades likely would have slipped to the 2.75?3.0 range, and her salary would drop considerably (by 22%, all other factors held constant.) Even if she had managed to get a spot at 7th ranked UC Berkeley, where the tier premiums are highest, her grades likely would have fallen into the 2.5?2.75 range, and her salary would be 7% lower. On the other hand, if she had attended 80th ranked Rutgers, she probably could have improved her grades to land in the 3.5?3.75 range, and earned a 13% higher salary.

Why is this so?  Sander and Yakowitz didn’t study the cause and speculate about the relationship between improved academic performance and self-confidence.  A more plausible explanation to me is that every legal job market is filled with lawyers who did not attend “elite” schools.  They know from personal experience that a student who graduates at the top of their class from a lower-ranked school is hard-working and smart, two ingredients in the recipe for a damn good lawyer.