“Quid Pro Quo?”: Is There Really an ROI for your J.D.?

19 Feb, 2012 | by

Several years ago, I was chatting with a friend who was laboring under an almost six-figure undergraduate debt after attending a prestigious, top-tier university and then becoming a public school teacher.  We had both paid particularly close attention when our most trusted high school mentor, an alumnus of such illustrious schools as Holy Cross and Brown University, told us sagely that when it comes to college, “You get what you pay for.”  The schools we chose to grace with our attendance were both pricey, well-regarded institutions of higher learning, but the difference between us was that my education was almost entirely paid for with scholarships and grants.  My friend, on the other hand, had to finance his degree.  He had reached the end of his deferment eligibility on some of his student loans, and he was feeling the pressure.  I could see that he was beginning to panic.

“I need to make more money,” he insisted.  “I just can’t afford to keep teaching.”

We were having a brain-storming dinner.  He had just written an abysmal admissions essay and was begging me to help him “revise” it (by which I understood him to mean that he needed me to rewrite it).  I was in the thick of law school, and he had gotten it into his head that he should follow me into that viper’s den.  I felt duty-bound to warn him off the foolhardy path he was threatening to take.  I argued that it was a complete failure of imagination to see nothing in the vast plain of professional possibilities between teaching and lawyering, that doubling his already crippling student debt in order to pursue a degree in a field that was saturated with equally motivated (i.e. indebted), young lawyers was financially irresponsible.  When he responded by asking me why, then, if the career prospects were so dim, had I decided to go to law school, I thought I had a sensible response:  My undergraduate degree, in Classics with a concentration in Latin and ancient Greek, wasn’t practical or particularly marketable.  A juris doctor would be my “practical” degree.  I had no interest in actually becoming an attorney.  Nor did I have more than a negligible amount of student debt from my undergraduate degree.  I could afford to pursue a law degree, a degree I envisioned as being infinitely useful, foundational and easily marketable.

You see, unlike my friend, I wasn’t worried about getting out of law school and competing with my blood-thirsty classmates for those plum six-figure legal jobs; I didn’t have to.  I could make less initially, but that handy-dandy law degree would help me advance in my career down the road.  The sky would be the limit.  In hindsight, it appears that someone should have sat me down for a brutally candid conversation like the one I was trying, and which I ultimately failed, to have with my misguided friend, who barreled senselessly into law school, ran up his debt even more and then flamed out spectacularly.  As it happens, neither one of us is an attorney today, and we’re both paying for an educational experience that might never yield any dividends.

I sometimes joke that the only thing becoming more ubiquitous than an MBA these days is a J.D.  There are about two hundred  ABA-accredited law schools in the United States today and several more seeking accreditation, dumping thousands of potential lawyers every year into a market that scarcely needs or wants them.  Is a law degree still a good investment?  Do law schools make good lawyers?  If you choose not to practice, like I did, will a J.D. help you on another career path?  While the market will likely always have a place for those who come out of the elite law schools, like Yale or Harvard or Stanford, and firms will continue to swoop onto most law school campuses to recruit the top quintile, that description doesn’t fit the vast majority of juris doctor recipients.  If you scored a 177 on the dreadful LSAT and have your Yale acceptance letter in your hot little hands, you can probably stop reading.  If you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us, please continue.

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus

The law today is a business that is sometimes still referred to as a profession.  Historically, legal training was not a part of academia but operated as an apprenticeship system.  One became a lawyer by “reading law,” studying the likes of Coke and Blackstone while learning the ins and outs of the profession as an apprentice to an established member of the Bar.  By the twentieth century, the American Bar Association had succeeded in persuading most jurisdictions to standardize their Bar membership requirements to mandate a degree from a specialized law school.  In a few jurisdictions today, something approximating the old route of membership through an apprenticeship arrangement is still possible, and though rare the “country lawyer” does still exist.  For the vast majority of practitioners in the vast majority of American jurisdictions, however, the model has become four years of undergraduate work, three years of law school and then the Bar exam.  Does this make better lawyers?  Well, the most famous country lawyer in American history was called Abraham Lincoln, and the last Supreme Court justice without a law degree was appointed as late as 1941; the quality of legal minds prior to the twentieth century mitigates against the idea that the legal profession has somehow been improved by the newer standards.    While one can debate whether or not attorneys, their clients or the abstract entity called “the law” have benefited from the relatively modern emphasis on obtaining a juris doctor as a prerequisite to membership in a State’s Bar, there is no debate that American law schools have.

According to David Segal of the New York Times, at even mediocre law schools which languish in the lower tiers of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, tuition is astonishingly high: As much as $48,000 per year or even higher.  Law school professors remain some of the highest paid in all of academia, and law schools, with large class sizes and no labs or expensive equipment to maintain, have low costs outside of faculty salaries.  Law schools continue to tout rosy statistics about their graduates’ prospects, citing employment rates of 97% and six-figure salaries, a veritable siren’s call in a time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, even though such numbers have prompted some, like Indiana University law professor William Henderson, to observe, “Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm.”  No doubt many, like my friend who toiled as a poorly-paid public school teacher, ignore the unsavory Enron comparisons, sharpen their tunnel vision and focus on the optimistic data instead.

It should hardly be a surprise, then, that while the legal jobs available to their graduates continue to dry up, new law schools continue to open and encounter no dearth of applicants.  There are about 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States today, as well as a large number without ABA accreditation.  The UC Irvine School of Law opened as recently as 2009, after the economic collapse that ushered in the Great Recession.  In June, 2009, Governor Rick Perry signed SB 956, which authorized the UNT Dallas College of Law, which is set to open in Downtown Dallas in August 2014.  According to one article, while Texas contemplates closing four community colleges due to budget concerns, some Texas legislators continue to press for the establishment of one or two new public law schools.  While parts of rural Texas continue to be under-served as attorneys cluster in the metropolitan areas (a common scenario in many states), Charles Cantu, dean of St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, observes: “On the average, (Texas) licenses about 2,000 new lawyers every year, and all of our economic indicators at this point indicate the market is not absorbing all of those people.”  His observation is supported by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which concluded that new lawyers outnumber opportunities in the state and that no new law schools are needed.  When it comes to law schools, however, it appears that the rules of supply and demand are more like gentle suggestions.

Since the 2008 economic collapse, the bleak outlook for those pouring out of law schools has given pause to the conventional wisdom that a juris doctor, while expensive to obtain, is worth the cost.  Citing my own experience again, I remember a conversation I had with a well-meaning classmate after my first semester.  I had just survived my first round of final exams, an experience whose awfulness is of mythic proportions and difficult to describe to those members of the public smart enough to have avoided law school.  I had done well in terms of my grades, but something peculiar was starting to happen to my mental health and general happiness.  Perhaps this wasn’t for me, after all?  I had emerged from my expensive undergraduate education with very few debts and was starting to feel anxious about the projected cost of finishing my law degree.

“Don’t worry so much about the cost,” my friend said with the brash self-assurance that must be peculiar to twenty-five-year-old Tufts University graduates who grew up in one of the most affluent communities in Connecticut.  “In the long run, it will pay for itself!”

This was an oft-repeated argument, and, coupled with those “first lawyer in the family” speeches my parents would occasionally trot out while I was at my most unsure, it proved to be a powerful one.  I wasn’t worried like most of my classmates about finding the perfect summer internship that would hopefully yield a job offer after law school (I didn’t want to practice, remember?), and at the end of the experience my student debt would only be about half of many of my classmate’s.  I was just bored with the coursework and tired of the deadlines.  I just needed to get over it, I told myself.  At the end, there was that “marketable” degree waiting for me, along with the pot of gold that comes standard with each juris doctor.  I could hack it and had no good reason not to.  In hindsight, it’s perplexing and a little astonishing that the small mortgage I was committing myself to paying back didn’t strike me as a “good reason.”

In a January 8, 2011 article appearing in the New York Times, David Segal lays out several tales of woe which, even a year later, appear as fresh and timely as ever.  There is, for an egregious example, the barely employable Mr. Wallerstein and his quarter million dollar law school-generated debt.  Toiling in temporary, low-paying legal work whenever he can find it, Mr. Wallerstein’s experience is most troubling for its not being rare.  Reading that made me think of an email I got recently, where a friend described how some recent law school grads who had just passed the Bar exam were accepting work as paralegals because it was all they could find.  It’s surreal to contemplate this particular circumstance when I think back on the rousing lectures delivered at my own law school orientation day:  “Every aspect of life is governed by law,” we were told.  “If you want to make a difference, this is where you can have the greatest impact.”  Make a difference?  On orientation day, some of us were probably still idealistic enough to nod our heads in approval (this was, of course, before classes began and we were told things like, “The legal profession is not about justice, necessarily.  It’s about being an advocate for your client.”), but most of our brains got stuck on the first part.  Every aspect of life is governed by the law.  We’re a litigious society, after all, and that statement sounded like “job security” to my ears, and to the ears of many of my classmates.

Veritas vos liberabit

Prior to the Great Recession a J.D. was seen as a sound investment:  Attorney salaries were high, jobs were stable and plentiful, and there is something rather magical about saying, “I am an attorney.”  This conjures images of affluence and prestige in the heads of many people.  In Mr. Segal’s article, he describes how his hapless subject still relishes being able to tell acquaintances that he is an attorney.  This made me remember a conversation I once had with a friend:  While helping a trial attorney former classmate work on an article he was hoping to submit for publication, I was amused by his laundry list of work-related complaints.  Since he loves working out and occasionally competes in body builder competitions, I wasn’t surprised when he moaned about how he wished he had skipped law school altogether and become a personal trainer.  Knowing that he wasn’t one of the many doctors of jurisprudence saddled with crippling education-related debt, I said, “Why don’t you just take some time off and do that?”  His immediate and earnest response?  “Ah, I can’t tell chicks I’m a personal trainer.  I get a certain reaction when I say that I’m a lawyer, you know?”  Well, no, I didn’t really know, since I’ve never personally been compelled to mesmerize potential conquests with this announcement, but his response didn’t surprise me.  Perhaps this is a symptom of having grown up in an era where there were far too many law-themed, night-time soap operas glamorizing the legal profession and those who toil in it?  If Boston Legal focused not on the cigar-smoking fat cat partners but on the enslaved associates worked to exhaustion for seven years, haunted by billable hours and student loans, and then dismissed, the aura hanging over the profession in the minds of lay people and my friend’s club-hopping “chicks” might more closely approximate the less dazzling reality.

The current economy seems to have fueled the increase in law school applications.  While job prospects are dim and tuition continues to climb, applications at some schools have increased by as much as fifty percent.  According to David Segal, about 43,000 J.D.’s were awarded in 2009, 11% more than a decade earlier.  As Mr. Segal astutely observes, “Apparently, there is no shortage of 22-year-olds who think that law school is the perfect place to wait out a lousy economy and the gasoline that fuels this system — federally backed student loans — is still widely available.”  Even more astutely, and unfortunately, he also observes, “But the legal market has always been obsessed with academic credentials, and today, few students except those with strong grade-point averages at top national and regional schools can expect a come-hither from a deep-pocketed firm. Nearly everyone else is in for a struggle.”  This makes me recall my teacher friend again, and how comforting the idea of retreating back into academia must have seemed after two years of toiling for low wages to pay back high debts.  For those sheltered from life’s struggles to some degree by their academic prowess, there must be something comforting and irresistible, given the realities of this economy and this bleak job market, about barricading himself behind the strong parapets of academia.  For those for whom school is seldom a struggle, there is an allure to the idea of accumulating more and more education to insulate himself against the devastation experienced by the less charmed and less fortunate, like those in the manufacturing field who have seen their jobs exported to low-wage workers overseas.  You can’t outsource legal expertise, can you?

The large number of J.D.s awarded in recent years lays bare a certain reality:  There is no longer anything exclusive about having a law degree.  You are not given membership into a small circle.  You join a giant network of competitors clawing for the same dwindling opportunities.  The seriousness and duration of the recent recession impacted the legal profession as much as any other, and law firms that were unprepared for the downturn found themselves with too many associates and too many summer associates, forcing them into layoffs that dumped rising young attorneys back into the job market to compete with recent and future graduates.  The reality that faces those entering America’s numerous law schools today is disheartening:  They’re paying more than ever for their law degrees and then facing greater competition from a greater number of peers for fewer and fewer opportunities.  In other words, they’re getting a lot less quid for their quo, and the sources most accessible to young people considering law school aren’t necessarily the most accurate when it comes to employment rates and average salaries.

While some of the most egregious inaccuracies in the numbers reported to the U.S. News & World Report have been corrected or clarified, there is still plenty of criticism that they misrepresent the reality facing law school graduates.  According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), 88.2 % of all law school graduates are “employed” within nine months of graduation. If people employed in non-legal jobs are excluded, as well as those doing part-time work, the NALP number drops to 62.9%.  Even that lower number is disputable, but let’s just pause for a moment and ponder that term “non-legal jobs.”  Wait, you say.  Quoi?  Yes, it’s a seldom discussed fact that many, many of those who obtain a law degree never practice, either by design or circumstance.  There are some like me, those brave rebels who proudly raised our hands on orientation day when the question was posed, “So, who among you doesn’t plan on ever practicing?”  (Not that I gave much serious thought to what it was, exactly, I was actually planning on doing with myself and my glamorous, expensive J.D., mind you.)  And then there are those who found the experience of law school so vile that it turns them off to the profession forever.  There are also those who didn’t obtain a median class ranking and find their job prospects non-existent.  There are also those who ventured into a BarBri class in preparation for the Bar exam, decided that the process of studying and then sitting for the Bar exam is an only slight improvement over being flayed alive and set on fire, and then beat a hasty retreat, declaring a firm, “No, thanks.”  Well, whatever the circumstances, there are plenty of newly minted doctors of jurisprudence who will never practice law.  For those, the question then becomes, “Is it worth spending between $120,000 and a quarter of a million dollars to obtain a juris doctor when I might never use it for its intended purpose?”  While seeing the rare and magical words “J.D. preferred” on a job posting makes the hearts of such folks beat faster with joy and anticipation, I have seen no data which suggests that employers are chomping at the bit to hire law school graduates not to practice law.  Young people facing the reality of today’s job market should instead ponder whether it doesn’t make more sense to invest in degrees that will help them break into more robust professions, like health care, actuary science and accounting.

Now back to that 62.9% full-time employment rate for law school graduates within nine months of completion of their degrees.  Abysmal though it is, it may not tell the whole depressing tale.  According to University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, a number which suggests that fully a third of recent law school graduates are either unemployed, employed only part-time or not doing legal work is still too high.  That 62.9% figure, he explains, does not exclude those who are working in only temporary positions, like David Segal’s heavily indebted Mr. Wallerstein.  In reaching the conclusion that an abysmal 45% of graduates from a top 50 law school reported having real, full-time legal jobs, Mr. Campos explains:

“In order to calculate this figure, I used employment data drawn from 183 individual NALP forms, in which graduates of one top 50 school self-reported their employment status nine months after graduation. This data suggests that fully one-third of those graduates who report they are working in full-time jobs that require a law degree are in temporary, rather than permanent, positions …  When we take temporary employment into account, it appears that approximately 45 percent of 2010 graduates of this particular top-50 law school had real legal jobs nine months after graduation. And the overall number is likely lower, since it seems probable that the temporary employment figures for the graduates of almost any top 50 school would be better than the average outcome for the graduates of the 198 ABA-accredited law schools as a whole.”

Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim …

There has been a lot of talk about how to “fix” the problem, and proposed solutions range from limiting the number of accredited law schools, halting the opening of new law schools, expanding loan forgiveness programs, and even (my personal favorite) eliminating the last year of law school altogether, which would save the average J.D. candidate between $25,000 and $50,000.   I would go a little further and suggest eliminating the last year of law school and replacing it with an apprenticeship and intensive bar exam preparation rather than requiring law students to shell out thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for Bar Bri courses, since, to be honest, no matter how much I rack my brain I can’t think of a single good reason to extend law school beyond the first two intensive years, have never heard anyone advance a convincing argument for doing so and remain dubious that the academic model now in place actually prepares anyone to be an attorney, or even to pass the bar.  (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone joke, “Yeah, law school is totally unnecessary.  All you needed to pass the Bar exam is a good BarBri course.”  Hilarious.)  Unfortunately, my solution wouldn’t reduce the number of law school graduates glutting the market.  For that, you would need the impossible:  Eliminate law schools, bringing the number of ABA-accredited institutions down to a number that more realistically represents the job opportunities out there.

Thankfully, this article isn’t an attempt to find a solution.  It’s just a gentle caveat to any wild-eyed 22- or 23-year-old who is currently contemplating law school.  Sure, every over-achiever who has just completed a dazzling undergraduate career believes that he or she will beat the odds and find a slot in Big Law waiting for him or her after obtaining that sparkling JD.  For many even in Big Law, that will translate into several years of sacrifice, with unimaginably long hours and a poor work-life balance, only to end up an attrition statistic. And sure, there will always be a place in the law for the truly exceptional or the insanely motivated.  Rural communities in particular tend to be perennially short on lawyers, and if you don’t mind spending $200,000 on your education to make less than what a public school teacher makes for the first ten years of your career, the first ten years of your wage-earning, asset-accumulating professional life, you can enter the Loan Forgiveness sweepstakes and toil in some low-paying government or public interest job.  My point is simply this:  Look at it realistically, crunch some numbers, assume that you’ll achieve a median class ranking (because that’s precisely what the vast majority of those contemplating law school will achieve), and do some research.  Unfortunately, those who are best situated to give the highest quality information and the most honest statistics on law school graduates’ job prospects are the law schools themselves, and they don’t seem to feel ethically bound to candor.  Even still, information is out there for those who truly want to seek it.  Do a realistic cost-benefit analysis of going to law school, and then do a bit more research to find out which careers are actually thriving out there, which professions will be hiring now or in the near future, and then never watch a prime time legal drama on television ever again.  I assure you, most lawyers don’t dress that well, they aren’t nearly that attractive, and they can’t afford those palatial Manhattan apartments.  As for anyone who has stumbled across this article who has already fallen into the insidious law school honey trap, I’ll remind you of these wise words, which may or may not actually be true: “Be tough and endure; someday this pain will benefit you.”

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