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Are You Better Off at a Regional Law School?

Vivia Chen

April 1, 2013

Magnify©Pixinoo_FotoliaNews flash: The legal job market has improved! Fine print: It went up 1 percent. Ho-hum.

We've become so used to bad job stats that it's no longer shocking that only 56.2 percent of 2012 graduates land full-time lawyer jobs (click here for ABA report). Thank goodness our friends at the Law School Transparency are keeping us grounded. LST reminds us:

A devastating 27.7 percent were either underemployed (short-term or part-time job, or nonprofessional) or not employed (unemployed or pursuing an additional degree).

Repeat: Almost a third of law grads (that "devastating 27.7 percent") just wasted three years of their lives plus a boatload of money.

So how should you assess whether law school is worth the risk? Luckily, LST has sifted through the job data and costs of 200 ABA–approved schools and put it all in a clear, user-friendly form. If you're in the law school market, you must check out LST's compilation right now. It will give you an inkling of which schools are worth considering and which ones you should avoid like STDs.

Schools on the "good" (I define that as schools that get at least 80 percent or more of their graduates into full-time legal jobs) list are a predictable bunch. According to LST, they include Chicago; Virginia; Penn; Columbia; Stanford; NYU; Harvard; UC–Berkeley, Cornell; Duke; Michigan; UC–Irvine; Yale; and GW.

But did you notice something unusual in that list? UC–Irvine Law School, which only got established in 2008, is now one of the big boys! In fact, Irvine, which pulled a 80.1 percent employment score, is beating out heavyweights like Northwestern (75.1 percent employment score); University of Texas (75.3 percent); Georgetown (73.2 percent); and UCLA (72.1 percent).

Not too shabby for a law school that's not even ranked. But before you spurn more prestigious schools for Irvine, LST founder Kyle McEntee warns that it's still too early to call Irvine a good bet. "The faculty and Dean Chemerinsky used their connections well," says McEntee about the school's first graduating class, in which all students were awarded full scholarships. "I remain skeptical and will wait for a few years of consistent performance to say the school is likely to produce good job outcomes."

Other surprises on the LST chart: Some regional law schools that don't appear anywhere near the top of the U.S. World News & Report rankings actually do reasonably well (scoring in the 70th percentile) for getting graduates real legal jobs. These regional underdogs include:

1. University of Kentucky
2. Louisiana State University
3. Southern Methodist University
4. Mercer
5. William & Mary
6. West Virginia
7. Iowa
8. Alabama

"The top 100 schools by U.S. News are not the same schools that are top performers on job placement," says McEntee. "This is because jobs and schools are local phenomena."

That said, McEntee cautions that you can't compare a law school like Mercer [ranked 105] with Northwestern [ranked 12].  "Mercer put many graduates into firms of two to ten attorneys. . . . The outcomes of Northwestern and Mercer are quite different though their rates look similar. Northwestern does well in big law and Mercer grads do small law."

Though you could debate those stats, it's clearly insanity to go to a school where the underemployed and nonemployed rates for graduates outnumber the long-term, full-time legal job rate. Twenty-four schools belong in that rarefied hall of shame, according to LST. We won't list all 24 here, but here are the top five of the rock-bottom list:

Golden Gate University - 59.7 percent underemployment rate
University of San Francisco - 57.9 percent
Florida Coastal School of Law - 51.8 percent
University of the Pacific - 49 percent
Thomas Jefferson School of Law - 48.8 percent

The general lesson, according to McEntee, is that "law school is too expensive relative to job outcomes. . . . For the vast majority of prospective law students who have not received a sizable scholarship, it makes sense to wait for prices to drop.”

Wait for prices to drop? I have a better solution: Just chuck the whole idea. Unless you have an incurable desire to be a lawyer and are confident of doing extremely well in law school, you're better off playing blackjack.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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About The Careerist

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: VChen@alm.com

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