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Law Schools Run Like Puppy Mills

Vivia Chen

July 20, 2010

Fotolia_614465_XS I've been feeling guilty about blaming the victims for the insane spike in law school applications. They are the suckers who still think there's a pot of gold at the end of the three-year ordeal, despite all evidence of a shrinking legal market.  Reading "Hope Drives Rise in Law School Applications" in the National Law Journal, I thought it should have been dubbed "Stupidity Drives Rise . . ."

The savvier recent college grads, as I blogged last week, aren't rushing to law schools, but exploring other options. It seems you really have to be dense to go to law school now--especially the bottom-scraping schools--unless you're absolutely sure that's what you want to do.

But let me apologize to those poor aspiring lawyers. Most are just babes in the woods.

Who are the real culprits in this disaster? The law schools, because they know how awful the job market is, and they're acting like it's still 2006. If an investment is risky, the SEC requires disclosure language, right? So shouldn't law schools tell students that their $100,000-plus investment might not pay off?

Truth is that law schools don't have to disclose employment information about their graduates. Or if they do, the information is not wholly accurate. "In an environment where there's no police force, crime will proliferate," says University of Indiana law professor William Henderson, who's been studying jobs in the legal market. "No law school will level with students when their competitor isn't; it'd be suicide." He adds, "If there's transparency, a lot of law schools would go under."

Funny thing, though: Law schools don't seem to go under. Instead, they seem to be proliferating like puppy mills. Think of all the recent schools that have opened or plan to open, despite the dismal lawyer market: University of Massachusetts Law School, University of California at Irvine Law School, Phoenix Law School, and UNT at Dallas College of Law--to name just a few.

Maybe those particular schools will serve a greater societal good, but you have to wonder if profit isn't the primary driving force at a lot of schools.

"As a business model, having a law school isn't bad," says Henderson. "They are magnets for donors, because law connotes justice, so it's attractive for a university." They also generate steady revenue, adds Henderson, because "applications keep going up." The only hitch is that "they graduate kids with a lot of debt, and the demand for lawyers isn't what it was in the heyday."

For better or worse, there seems to be a law school to accommodate anyone who wants to go these days. But even for those who go to first-tier schools, the job picture has been shaky. I've been covering the layoffs and deferrals at the big firms, and it's depressing.

But what about those who go to a third- or fourth-tier school? I suspect many feel they've been taken for the ride of their lives.

Alexander Call, a 2005 graduate of third-tier Michigan State College of Law, says, "Law schools play into the belief system that lawyers make money." When he graduated from law school, he says, "I was under the impression that all my career uncertainties would suddenly come to an abrupt halt. False! Instead, I am now saddled with an insane amount of debt without the salary to afford reasonable repayment terms."

Though Call landed on his feet (he's now working for a company that sells litigation support services in Florida), he gives this advice to prospective law students: "Think of the worst-case scenario--not the best one. Ask yourself if you have a backup plan."

The best backup plan might be not to go to law school at all, unless being a lawyer is your life's dream. Maybe that's why a die-hard lawyer wanna-be like Albie Manzo, the son in  Real Housewives of New Jersey, is so despondent about flunking out of Seton Hall Law School.

But, really, don't you think Manzo ought to get a grip and apply instead for the management training program at Wal-Mart or KFC?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo: Steven Pepple - Fotolia.com


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The point is NOT that JDs are elitist and do not wish to stoop to jobs they feel are "beneath" them. The point is that we should not HAVE to make that choice at all! There are WAY too many lawyers, especially in the NY market. In addition, MANY jobs which are advertised specifically cut attorneys out of their pool in their descriptions saying "no JDs" for paralegal etc. support type jobs. By the way, this is not correct and I flag these regularly on craigslist when I see them. This type of attitude means that those among us who cannot get a job as an attorney and WOULD welcome any opportunity to do any kind of legal work at all are not even being considered because companies believe we would demand too much compensation. For those in my class who I know are struggling to find any work at all, I know they are NOT looking to pull in more than their fair share. Most of us are not even getting what we would be "worth" if these jobs were subject to the type of compensation levels required by for example, gov't agencies. For example, and this is really sad, I am currently being considered for a gov't-subsidized rental apartment because yes I am THAT poor and by the way I AM working as a lawyer. I owe 105k if anyone is interested...pretty typical.

"Utterly unemployable" is an overbroad characterization of employment opportunities for law school grads. The problem is that law students are not encouraged to actually explore career tracks other than the practice of law. It sounds counterintuitive because, after all, why waste the time and money to earn a J.D. if the ultimate objective is to do something other than to be an attorney?
I guess it depends on whether the priority is arrogant entitlement, "I have a J.D. ergo I am too good to stoop to any other kind of work," versus, survival, "I must work to eat and meet my financial obligations." In the end it's an individual choice. Myself, I'd rather eat.

At least 75% of all U.S. law schools need to close down immediately. They are fed only by federal student loans, there is absolutely no demand for more lawyers, and their students are being led astray and end up embittered and utterly unemployable. Stop this scam.

There is certainly a disconnect between law school and the "real world". However, I doubt there's an easy fix like some like to envision (not here).

Law school employment statistics can be misleading for the following reasons:

1) Law schools only count graduates who report their status as employed or unemployed to the school. Unemployed graduates have less incentive to report bad news, and law school career centers have less incentive to track down these graduates.

2) Law schools will count almost any type of work as employed, regardless of whether the work is law-related or not, and regardless of whether it pays a reasonable wage relative to the cost of law school tuition. Some law graduates working in retail jobs find themselves counted as "employed" in their schools' employment statistics.

3) Law schools will count graduate who are volunteering for law firms or sometimes non-profits as employed. The school pays the students a stipend for 2 to 3 months, typically to cover the "employed at graduation" or "employed at 9 months" markers. Other times the student will receive a temporary "fellowship" from another agency, again being counted as employed. The programs often do not lead to employment at the firm or agency benefiting from the volunteers, as they have no positions for new graduates.

Law schools note that they are trying to help their graduates. There is nothing wrong with that, but to count those graduates as fully employed in their statistics can mislead prospective students. Law schools across the board are using this strategy. Here are two confirmed cases:



Law school applicants taking on such substantial debt see the high employment statistics and assume that these are professional-track positions paying reasonable wages, not $10-15 per hour temporary stipends. Law schools need to correct this situation they have helped create.

I couldn't agree more that the employment data that law schools offer is relatively paltry. If you're planning to go to law school, there are things you can do to get the data you need to better assess what career opportunities law schools provide. See the recent post at http://advisein.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/transparent-law-school-employment-data-while-you%e2%80%99re-waiting-what-entering-law-students-can-do/

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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