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Law School Starts to Provide Real Education on Realities of Legal Job Market

Over on The New York Times DealBook blog, former Wall Street Journal Law Blog author Dan Slater takes the American Bar Association and law schools to task for failing to put a cap on school admissions at a time when law firms are slashing jobs, cutting salaries and canceling summer programs. Slater argues that both the ABA and law schools share some of the blame for the plight of many current law students and recent graduates who assumed significant debt on the belief that they'd be earning six-figure salaries but can't find employment.

Slater writes that:

The American Bar Association, which continues to approve law schools with impunity and with no end in sight, bears complicity in creating this mess. Yet a spokeswoman, citing antitrust concerns, says the A.B.A. takes no position on the optimal number of lawyers or law schools.

Slater also argues that the law schools haven't been forthright about post-graduation employment prospects.

Take, for instance, the employment statistics posted on the Web sites of three low-ranked law schools in New York City, the country’s biggest market for legal employment. All three advertise that 45 to 60 percent of their 2008 graduates who reported salary information are making a median salary of $150,000 to $160,000.

Now, of course there must be some way of slicing and dicing the numbers to yield that magic result. But what happens, in practice, is that prospective degree-purchasers enroll in these $43,000-a-year programs believing their chances of landing that Big Law job are about one in two. Tempting odds.

Now, however, some law schools are stepping up to the plate in warning students about the economic realities that they face. Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami School of Law, advised prospective students not to "look to law school as a safe harbor" to wait out the current economic storm, and even offered incentives to students willing to defer admission for a year. Another law school, Southwestern Law in Los Angeles, is up front about salary prospects. Bryant Garth, Southwestern's dean tells students that they're in for a huge disappointment if they counted on starting salaries of $160,000 per year.

It remains to be seen whether these cautionary messages make any difference. Six months ago, I pointed out that students continued to apply to law school even at a time when massive law firm layoffs made headlines on law blogs and the mainstream press. And while I agree with Slater that law schools should be more straightforward with their post-graduation employment statistics (perhaps oversight by the FTC or state AG offices is in order to penalize schools for misleading information), at the same time, it doesn't take much effort for a student at a third- or fourth-tier school to go to any Am Law 200 Web site and notice that they don't have many lawyers from below top-level schools working in those coveted $160,000/year jobs.

So it remains to be seen whether incoming law students will, as Slater puts it, heed these signs. At least one thing is certain. With access to full information, students who take on debt with the thought that they'll pay it back with a six-figure salary will have no one to blame but themselves if that doesn't happen.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on September 2, 2009 at 04:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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