Are graduates of law schools—especially those who incur big debt on poorly-ranked schools—sorry they ever embarked on a legal career? "Yes" would seem to be the logical answer, given the grim job picture in recent years. But a new paper published by the the law school at University of California, Irvine undercuts that view.
According to a survey of 4,500 law graduates who started legal careers in 2000, graduates of lower-ranked schools "were only slightly less likely to feel they made a mistake" than those who went to elite law school, reports the ABA blog. This finding contradicts the popular view that graduates of lesser-ranked schools would eventually regret their legal education investment, once they face the reality of the job market:
Legal education critics have advanced the idea that students attend non-elite law schools because of optimism bias—they think they will get high-paying jobs to pay off their education loans, according to a summary of the findings at SSRN. When their optimism proves unjustified, the theory goes, they feel buyers’ remorse.
The authors (law professors Bryant Garth of the University of California and Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver, and sociology professor Ronit Dinovitzer of the University of Toronto) find that the majority of law grads—including those who went to third-tier law schools—to be quite satisfied with their choice. Here are some of their findings:
1. Law grads believe that a law degree is a good investment and would likely do law school all over again. On a 1 to 14 scale (14 being the highest satisfaction score), law grads from the top 10 schools gave an impressive 11.08 satisfaction score. But the scores for grads of lower ranked law schools weren't that much different: 10.11 for those who went to schools ranked 11 to 20; and 10.64 for the graduates of the third tier law schools.
2. Graduates of higher ranking law schools had less debt. They "were more likely to have no debt seven years after law school, and, if they did have remaining debt, the amount outstanding was less than those who graduated from lower-ranked schools," says the ABA Blog.
3. But grads of lower-ranked schools were more aggressive about paying off their school loans. Says the report: “We do not know exactly why graduates of relatively lower-ranked law schools are more aggressively paying off their debt but this phenomenon is consistent with the intuitive notion that elite graduates—who tend to come from relative privilege—are focused less on money issues and therefore more likely to take for granted that they will be able to handle the debt whenever they choose to.”
4. Lower-ranked grads tend to stay longer in Big Law than the elite grads. "Graduates of elite schools, who have easier access to large law firms, are less likely to stay," says the report. "On the other hand, we find that graduates from lower ranked schools who do secure positions in the large firms, are less likely to exit this setting by their seventh year of practice."
I'm not surprised that those who attended lower-ranked law schools might be relatively content. As I've written in the past, graduates of elite schools are sometimes a bit disdainful of the demands of the profession, while those with lesser pedigrees probably just appreciate the opportunity to work.
But we digress, because I doubt most grads have the choice to work in Big Law. As the report's authors remind us, the news flash here is that the size of law school debt doesn't significantly affect job satisfaction.
So what's the upshot of all this? Could it mean that those who go into law—particularly those who didn't land in the top 10 schools—are more directed about their career goals than we give them credit for? Or are they just trying to justify the choice they've made?