If that's pouring ice water on your dreams, I'm sorry. I'm just trying to save you $150,000, three years of drudgery, and the anxiety of passing a bar exam. Not to mention dreadful job prospects.
Even without the shrinking legal market, bottom-tier law school graduates have always had a hard time getting a decent job. You don't have to be an economics major to know that it makes no sense to incur $150,000 in debt for a job that pays less than half of that amount. Unless you're fascinated with case law, you really have no business at a bottom-tier school.
That's obvious to me, but not so obvious to the throngs who still long to be lawyers, which is why third-tier New York Law School (it ranks 135 out of 200 law schools in US News and World Report) is thriving. This week, The New York Times has a scathing profile about NYLS and its outgoing dean Richard Matasar, a passionate advocate for legal education reform, who often exhorts fellow deans to put the interests of students first.
Matasar says all the right things, but here's the reality, reports the NYT:
Given his scathing critiques, you might expect that during Mr. Matasar’s 11 years as dean, he has reshaped New York Law School to conform with his reformist agenda. But he hasn’t. Instead, the school seems to be benefitting from many of legal education’s assorted perversities.
NYLS is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation-- even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.
Ouch. The NYT piece doesn't call Matasar a liar, but focuses on the competing interests of being a reformer and a business executive at the same time. And guess what? The business side wins. In the law school biz, where there's little overhead besides the classroom, bodies translate quickly into revenue. For instance, when NYLS admitted 171 more students in 2009 (Matasar told the NYT it was due to an unexpectedly high number of those who accepted admission), the school got a $6.7 million boost in revenue. Like magic.
You can argue about the ethics of enticing innocents to take on debt, and about the veracity of NYLS's employment data. (NYLS told US News that "the median private-sector salary of alums who graduated in 2009 . . . was $160,000," though Matasar admitted to the Times that most graduates made between $35,000 and $75,000.) But frankly, the NYT article confirms what a lot of us already know: that law schools fudge--a lot.
Which brings up the role of law school applicants in the whole scheme. Arguably, they're also complicit. Elie Mystal at Above the Law nails this issue:
But while the Times takes a critical look at law school deans and university presidents and even U.S. News, one constituency escapes the Times’s glare: law students themselves.
Whether law students at bottom-ranked schools honestly believe they are, as Mystal puts it, "God’s special little snowflake" is anyone's guess. But to me, so much has been written, blogged, and litigated there's no longer any excuse to plead ignorance of market reality.
Which goes back to my starting point: Why plunk down ungodly sums of money to go to a low-ranking law school? Unless you're pretty sure that you'll be at the top of your class, or you're dying to be a lawyer, why bother?
Maybe that sounds snotty. But law is a pretty snotty profession, no?
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