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Not Every New Grad Earns $160k

With most of the media outlets focusing on the stratospheric $160,000 salaries for this year's crop of first-year associates, it's easy to forget that the majority of law firm graduates don't earn anywhere near that much. This National Law Journal article, Most law grads face lower pay and debt (7/9/07), discusses the plight of law school graduates from non-top-tier schools, many of whom are saddled with debt and can find only lower-paying jobs. The article suggests that the problem is one of expectation: With so much focus on "eye-popping salaries," many students come to expect them as the norm. From the article:

[Students]do not have an accurate perception of the job market," said Emily Spieler, dean of Northeastern University School of Law. "They have very restricted views." A big challenge — and responsibility — for law schools is to dispel the notion that six-figure salaries at megafirms are the norm, she said. "They perceive those jobs as having high status and high pay and do not understand what they entail."

The article reports that in reality, about 80 percent of law graduates work at firms with fewer than 100 attorneys and, thus, are making far lower salaries that those in the news.

Students don't find much help from career offices, as they often focus their efforts on top-tier firm placement. After all, top firm placement is one factor that drives high rankings in U.S. News and other ratings systems.

I agree that law schools need to do more to manage expectations and help teach students who aren't getting Biglaw interviews how to find jobs. For example, consider this experience of a top student at Ohio State College of Law:

Currently working for an in-house department at a large insurance company in Chicago, she graduated in the top third of her class, was a member of law review and participated in the school's moot court competition. She has $70,000 in student loan debt, she said, and makes about $50,000 annually. She sent out more than 100 résumés and letters before and after she graduated, she said. "I could get in the door; I just couldn't land the job."

Perhaps this woman's law school should have told her that networking and relationship building are usually far more effective than sending resumes blindly. And since this woman was "getting in the door," apparently, she needed more assistance on how to sell herself effectively. Many of the commenters at Above the Law agreed, pointing out that interview skills can make a considerable difference in landing a position.

But even more, why would a law school -- or anyone, for that matter -- consider this woman's situation unfortunate? Granted, she's earning one third what a Biglaw associate makes, but I'm guessing that she works half the hours. Moreover, as an in-house member of an insurance company, this woman's future employment opportunities are unlimited: Depending on the types of matters she's handling, she can move to a law firm that handles insurance defense or personal injury or tort work -- and get the job on her own terms. Of course, that's after her $160,000 peers have burned out and left in search of jobs like the one she has now.

A career in the law is a marathon, not a sprint. Those with the drive, persistence and the ingenuity to find a winning strategy midcourse or even in the last stretches will always find some form of success. Why don't law schools teach that?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 11, 2007 at 05:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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