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Caveat Emptor

Vivia Chen

July 18, 2011

Looking_job If you're thinking of going to a third- or fourth-tier law school, and you're not absolutely confident that you'll end up at the tippy-top of your class, I have a bit of advice for you: Don't go.

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?

Related post: Lost Generation is Now Forgotten Generation; Jaded Puppy Love; Law School Puppy Mills, Part 2.


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Although clients rarely ask where you earned your law degree, going to a bottom tier law school is a virtual deal-killer for getting a decent job out of law school. It won't be held against you by fellow alumni but most of them aren't running the firms that pay the big bucks to first-year associates. You're more than likely going to end up in a solo or small firm practice. That's perfectly fine. Just don't expect large law firms to be searching bottom tier firms to fill their clerkships and associate slots.

I graduated top 5% from a third-tier school. I got a job at a regional law firm when I got out of law school. They treated me like dirt, so I left. I haven't been able to find a comparable job. Luckily I had a career before law school and was able to get a mostly non-legal job in that field. Going to law school is a giant mistake for a very large number of people....I agree with what the writer said, but I would remove the qualifier about being at the top of your class at a third of fourth-tier school. It is still a giant gamble even if you are at the top of your class at one of these schools.

I tied for last in my class with another student at an ABA school at the bottom of the fourth tier. I make 6 figures working for the federal govt. and spend my day having all the "Big Law" lawyers kissing my kneecaps hoping I'll give them a favorable ruling. I work 8 hour days and have all the free time I want. So, remember that when someone tells you not to go to a 3rd or 4th tier school. Life is full of nay-sayers. Life is also what you make it.

I don't understand why SO MANY people are still flocking to law schools. If applicants are doing any research at all, they'll see that prospects for young lawyers are not good these days. Maybe they just lack general focus and law school seems like a "good" way to go?

My best friend went to an "unranked" law school as I was attending a top ranked medical school. Night classes, employed during the day.I can barely pay very modest bills. He and a 50% financial partner purchased a business for $6 million, sold it 4 years later for $150 million and retired. The purchaser ran it in the ground, he purchased back for $20 million, sold off $10 million of acquired European assets, net $10 million. Built it back in 3 years, sold 1/1/11 for $150 million, all his. So much for 4th tier law schools.

thanks. well said

As a recruiter who has worked with candidates from a variety of law schools over the years, I am sorry to say that the basic premise of this article is correct - certainly in respect of those who enter the legal profession in order to earn a higher income. Firms generally are picky about credentials. They are willing to look at candidates from second or third tier schools, but only if those candidates are at the very top of their class. Rightly or wrongly, those are just the realities of the market. My advice to students is:
- go to the highest-ranked law school you can get into;
- focus on the ranking for the school overall, as opposed to rankings in any one subject (few employers care about those - they just want to see the brand name on your resume);
- get the very best grades that you can get. If that means taking on more debt so you can study and forgoing that part-time job, it is a worthwhile investment. Honors and/or law review are what employers want to see because it shows commitment to and interest in law;
- your first year grades DO count... a lot!
- start out at the biggest brand name firm you can get an offer at. You can always 'downsize' or go 'boutique' later, but you won't go wrong getting solid experience and formal training at a larger firm as a new associate starting out.

I also encourage students at tier 1 and 2 schools to attend law career fairs where at all possible, as these often give access to firms which won't go to those law schools to do interviews. Just get out there and meet those firms however you can.

Being savvy about the market in which they work is an important part of any lawyer's job, and is the first hurdle to building a successful career.

I think what the elitist article and all the commenters missed is that what law school you go to does not matter. It is what you make of yourself as a lawyer that matters. Not all lawyers, I included, want to work at firms. I distain firms and the lawyers who work for them because they are money-grubbing, fee-churning, billable hour creating blood suckers. After 33 years of litigating against them, I should know. I may not make as much money as the senior partners in five-name law firms, but my quality of life is wonderful and my education paid off for me. Stick that up your Yale or Harvard ass.

You are right Vivia, these low tier law schools should never have been given a charter to award J.D. Too many law schools have churned out too many grads which flood the jog market and create unecessary unemployment among lawyers. But these schools themselves don't care about that, they are only concerned with building their own little empires and feathering their own nests: they get all the money and the student gets all the risk.

Wow, what a terrible article and a ridiculous premise. It assumes that there is only one way to go, school-wise, job-wise, career-wise. You should be ashamed of yourself, Vivian, for writing an article that looks down on so many people who attend a variety of law schools and will enter the profession of law, or use their law degree in other ways, doing a wide variety of types of work that do not require attendance at one of those fine tier one academic institutions to perform their jobs.

"[T]he opportunities to enter public interest fields are strong these days."

The naivete of law students never fails to amaze. Thanks for the reminder, Zachary.

I teach at NYLS. The NYT article contained many distortions and a fair amount of misinformation - some by omission of details, as one might expect from mass media. The size of the entering class in 2009 was a surprise to all of us; we offered admission to many fewer students that year than the previous year, anticipating a jump in the yield rate due to the recession. Virtually every law school in the NY metro area was caught by surprise that year with the unanticipated size of the yield rate jump. We did a lot of last-minute scrambling to cover all the required first year courses. This was not a planned increase in the size of the class.

Furthermore, the article misrepresents the employment stats reporting process. What a school reports to the ABA is based on attempts to survey the employment status of a graduating class 9 months after graduation. The data we present are survey results based on low return rates, because despite significant efforts to track them down, few recent grads respond to surveys and even fewer are willing to disclose their salaries. Anybody who reads the materials submitted with care would know that, and there is no assertion by NYLS that its recent grads employed in the private sector have the same median salaries as grads of the Ivy law schools. The Dean's estimated range of what most of our grads make is undoubtedly closer to the mark.

Perhaps commenters critical of so-called "3rd and 4th tier" schools (based on a highly disputed rating system devised by a news magazine) for admitting large numbers of students would prefer the system of higher education in totalitarian countries where the state dictates what people can study.

I think the focus of this article is directed too much at obtaining a job, as opposed to getting what you can out of life. I am not trying to down play the stress of living with debt. But some schools offer partial scholarships for good grades. You can start at a bottom ranked law school and eventually "make it". Like me.

I started at a bottom ranked school, not knowing how I would do, and I did exceptionally well. I ended up transferring to a much better law school. In my last year, I clerked for a small firm, then worked for a mid-size firm, and eventually obtained a job at the prestigious Weil Gotshal. Now I have my own business law firm and I am living my dream (which I would not have had if I followed the advice of this article). I may be an exceptional case. But one should consider all their options before deciding not to go to law school. I am glad I did.

This seems like an obvious case of market failure: Why are people behaving in ways that seem irrational?

I wrote about my own thoughts on how exactly this market is broken--and what it would take to fix it-- here: http://www.adamsmithesq.com/archives/2011/07/-by-this-time-everyone.html

Law schools are also missing the boat in connection with teaching the skills now required for a law firm and its lawyers to succeed, as I noted at http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2011/05/19/it-takes-a-village-to-build-a-successful-law-firm-fewer-residents-of-that-village-are-actually-lawyers/

Add to this calculus the fact that law firms no longer have a monopoly to provide legal services: http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2011/06/21/grabbing-slices-of-the-diminishing-legal-spend-pie-legal-project-outsourcing-downsourcing-and-insourcing/

But, as I said elsewhere, with the demand for lawyers decreasing regularly, the anomaly of increasing enrollment, skyrocketing tuition and the creation of even more law schools is a by-product of the hype and hucksterism of law school academia, as David Seagal has covered so well in the Times. The blatant deceptive reporting by law schools of the employment results of graduates is an ignominious stain on the profession and borders on criminality, illegality and certainly is completely inconsistent with the high ethical standards the profession purports to profess. See more at http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2010/07/25/what-if-they-built-a-new-law-school-and-nobody-came/

The failure by law schools to educate students in the new skills required in the market only adds to their ignominy.

I think a lower ranked school may not make sense unless you can go without a debt burden, either through scholarships or outside generosity (but scholarship winners beware scholarships contingent on grades based on a forced curve!).

But for someone not interested in corporate law and who can find a way to finance it, it may make sense. Law is fun work, and even low-paid lawyers make enough to live on (sans debt payments).

So reality is good medicine, but we should not forget that our work can be very fun and worthwhile, if we have the right foundation.

Don't go to a t14 school, either. But where was this advice for the lost classes of 2009-2011?

I may not be in a place to talk since my law school is a first-tier institution, but I disagree with the notion that it is economically irrational to go to a lower-tier school. Being at a third or forth tier definitely hurts one’s ability to gain a position in a high-paying, BigLaw firm. That conceded, the opportunities to enter public interest fields are strong these days. Moreover, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act makes doing so highly affordable for lawyers willing to stick with public interest for ten years. For me, that was the way to go because, frankly, corporate law is not in nearly as much need for young talent.

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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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