Law school: the big lie
Every year tens of thousands of wannabe lawyers enter law school. The majority will be extremely disappointed by their career opportunities.
Thus the title of this essay: law school is a big lie. People enter law school with the idea that a law degree is their ticket to a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle. In fact, just the opposite, law school for most is a ticket to a worse financial state than if they had not attended at all.
This news is hard for people to accept, because “everyone knows” that lawyers make a lot of money. Right? Well look at the salaries for government lawyers in your area. They probably start in the 30s. Why would anyone take a job paying in the 30s if law jobs pay six figures? They wouldn’t. After a decade or more of service to the state, you salary will most likely max out in the five figures. That’s a pretty lousy salary for a job that requires three years of graduate school education. There are plenty of people without any graduate education earning six figures, and they don’t have to pay back the student loans that lawyers have to take out in order to pay for law school. Bill Gates is the richest man in the world and he doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree.
There are some lawyers who start out with a good salary. They work for what they call “BIGLAW” on the internet message boards. Big law firms pay their associates a starting salary in the six figures. But here’s the sad news: only a tiny percentage of law school graduates will ever get these six figure jobs at big law firms. Unless you go to a top law school, the six figure big law firm job will most likely not be yours.
There are only 14 top law schools. That’s right. Not 10, not 15, but 14. They are, in descending order of prestige: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Virginia, Duke, Northwestern, Cornell, UC Berkeley, and Georgetown. And that’s it. Go to any other law school, and your chances of getting a big law firm job will be slim to none.
There are also distinct levels of prestige within the top 14. Yale, Harvard, and Stanford are head and shoulders above the rest. Then Columbia, NYU and maybe Chicago round out the top 6. Attending one of these top top law schools will vastly improve your odds. The guy graduating at the bottom of the class at Harvard will have better career opportunities than the guy graduating at the top of the class at an ordinary law school.
Outside of the top law schools, the only law school graduates having decent job opportunities will be those who graduated in the top ten percent of the class and who made law review. Law review and top ten percent are usually the same people because at most law schools the law review members are selected from those whose grades are in the top ten percent at the end of the first year. If like me, your grades weren’t in the top ten percent at the end of the first year, but you managed to graduate in the top ten percent, you are screwed because you weren’t on law review. Furthermore, most big law firms make offers to their summer associates, who get interviewed and hired during the second half of the second year, thus it’s mostly your grades during the first three semesters of law school that determine your entire legal future.
If you are reading this, and you’re a law student who already received your first semester grades, and they aren’t top ten percent, then my advice is to drop out now instead of throwing more money down the law school black hole.
Despite being warned that the only way to get a decent job in law if one attends a non-top 14 school is to make law review and the top ten percent, tens of thousands of suckers will enroll anyway. They think “I will be the one who makes the top ten percent” or “even if I don’t make the top ten percent, things will work out.” Let’s state the odds clearly: 90% of the class will not make the top 10%. You are not the only person in law school thinking they are going to bust their ass to make the top ten percent. 80% of the people start out thinking they are going to bust their ass. And some people from the 20% who are slackers are going to wind up in the top 10% too, because law school grades have a huge random element. One of the biggest slacker/party girls in my first year law school class made the top 10%. She wound up getting a high paying job at a big law firm because the law school gods decided to randomly grace her during her first semester.
The law schools will trick prospective students with bogus statistics about the great career opportunities available to graduates. Don’t believe everything you read. First of all, there are the documented lies, like the admissions brochure for my law school alma mater, Arizona State University College of Law (ASU), which listed the average starting salary for graduates with job offers at graduation from private law firms. But what percentage of the class graduates with a job offer in hand from a private law firm? About 10%? Trumpeting the average salary for 10% of the class is damned deceptive.
I further suspect that some law schools outright lie on their reported career placement statistics. Think about public companies. They have a strong incentive to lie on their financial statements, so that is why they have to prepare their statements in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles, and the accounting has to be audited by an independent public accounting firm. Despite these safeguards, companies like Enron are still caught lying on their financial statements.
Law school career placement statistics do not have to be prepared in accordance with generally accepted principles, and they aren’t audited by independent public accountants. Therefore they can’t be trusted. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because they are “non-profit” they can be trusted, or that they are run only for the benefit of the public. There’s no such thing as no one making a profit. “Non-profit” only means that no one owns the residual profits from the law school, there are plenty of stakeholders making out like bandits. Law schools are run for the benefit of the law professors who have cushy six figure jobs, and the money for their salaries comes from the gullible suckers called law students.
How cushy is a job as a law professor? Law professors earn six figures and only have to work six hours a week. And they get summers off too. How much better can it get? That’s right, law professors are only allowed to teach six hours of classes a week. If they taught more than six hours a week, the law school would lose its accreditation. Maybe some of the new law professors have to spend some time preparing for class, but by the time the law professor has a few years under his belt, he knows the material cold. Some of the older law professors were able to recite the entire textbook without ever even looking at it. In class one day, all the students looked quizzically at the law professor while he recited the exact details of a case that wasn’t in the textbook. Finally this was brought to his attention. It turns out that he was reciting from the last edition of the book. He didn’t even bother to look at the textbook in front of him to see that the case wasn’t in there.
The only time that law professors have to do any real work is when they grade exams. And law school exams are only given once at the end of the semester. So we are talking about two weeks of real work at the end of each semester. And in one case, a law professor at ASU, Dale Furnish, was apparently too lazy to even put in his two weeks of work and he made up fake grades for the students in his class. When his deception was discovered, all he got was a temporary suspension, and a short time later he was back at law school teaching law.
So we see, law professors have cushy jobs, therefore they have a strong incentive to lie on the career placement statistics because those are equivalent to a for-profit company’s financial statements, and it’s what the prospective law students look at to decide if they want to “invest” in the law school education.
Another fallacy that prospective law students hold onto is that the law degree has some kind of value outside of law. They think, “if I don’t practice law, at least it’s a prestigious degree that will help my non-law career.” This is completely false. Having a law degree hurts your chances of getting non-law jobs. No one wants to hire you if you have a law degree. Because “everyone knows” that lawyers make so much money, they can’t understand why someone with a law degree would want to do anything else but practice law. If you say “I couldn’t find a job practicing law.” which is probably the truth, they will think “this person is a loser because everyone know how easy it is to find a job practicing law, and we don’t hire losers around here.” If you say “I was just exploring my options but decided I didn’t want to practice law,” then they will think “this person has no idea what he wants to do, we want to hire people who know where their career is going.” There is absolutely no way to spin the law degree in a way that it helps you get a non-law job. Hiring managers are looking for cookie cutter resumes, not resumes where people have education unrelated to the job. From their perspective, they’re not hiring a lawyer so they don’t give a crap if you know how to synthesize appellate cases (assuming they even know what “synthesize appellate cases” means, which is unlikely). The only way I have been able to find any jobs outside of law is to leave the law degree off my resume. Whenever the law degree has been on my resume, it has been the kiss of death that prevents me from finding a job.
Finally, this essay would be incomplete if it didn’t discuss the burden of student loans. Whatever salary you make after graduating from law school has to be discounted by the cost of your student loan repayments. The student loan payments are not tax deductible (except to a very limited extent which will likely not apply to you). Your marginal tax rate will probably be around 45%, which means that for every $100/month in student loan payments, you need to have a stated additional salary of $182/month to cover the student loan payments. This means that if your law school education adds $500/month in student loan payments, you are paying $6,000/year in student loans and you need to earn an extra $10,910/year to cover the payments. This means that a $40,000/year job as a law school graduate gives you the equivalent disposable income of a $29,090/year job if you didn’t have a law degree. And it’s a lot easier to find a $29,000/year job with a bachelor’s degree than it is to find a $40,000/year job with a law degree.
Even if you are one of the rare and lucky law school graduates who can obtain a six figure job at a big law firm, those jobs are rumored to suck. I can’t say much about this because I never worked at a big law firm, but according to what I’ve been told, a large percentage of the partners at big law firms are assholes who treat their associates like crap and make them work ridiculously long hours. Some of this may be unjustified whining, because I was treated like crap at a job where I was making $9/hour. Nevertheless, one needs to consider that the ultimate goal of law school, a big law firm job, attained by only a small percentage of law school graduates, may not be the great reward it’s supposed to be.
I predict that some prospective law students will find this essay, read it, and not believe it. Because no matter how much you try to tell a prospective law student the truth about law, they don’t believe it. “Everyone knows” that lawyers make a lot of money, how can this be true? Believe me, it’s true, and if you attend law school you will learn this the hard way. Don’t waste three years of your life and go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt that can never be discharged in bankruptcy to find out that your career opportunities suck after all that. For the love of God, learn the truth now.
Links to related essays:
Mike Davis aka Walter Waldhauser - Mike Davis was a student in my law school class at ASU who we later learned had been convicted of murdering three people. Not to be confused with James Hamm, another convicted murderer who attended law school at ASU.
Do companies really want to hire the best employees? - A contrarian perspective on hiring practices in corporate America.
posted Sunday, August 29, 2004