Law Schools:  A Time to Discourage, A Time to Disclose

 

Jason M. Dolin, Esq.

Columbus, Ohio Bar Association Newsletter

May 2009

 

            More Students, More Applications

            Recent data from the Law School Admission Council shows that the number of students applying to law school for fall 2009 has increased 3.8 percent over last year and that the number of law school applications filed by those applicants is up 6 percent.[1]  That’s good news for law schools.  It’s doubtful, however, that it’s good news for the profession or for many of those applicants who decide to attend law school.

            Given the dismal economy, substantial layoffs in the legal profession, and the very real prospect of significant firm downsizing in the future, the increase in applications defies logic.  A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions of more than 1,000 pre-law students who sat for the February 2009 LSAT provides some disheartening answers. 

In its survey Kaplan found that 40% of those taking the February LSAT were applying to law school, at least in part, to avoid looking for employment in the current economic environment.  In addition, Kaplan found that 67% of the applicants listed the potential earning power of being a lawyer as affecting their decision to apply to law school.[2]  Based on these survey results, a significant number of prospective law students see law school as a safe harbor during a rough economy.  Others see it as a road to riches.  Both may be disappointed.

If those applicants decide to attend law school they will learn, perhaps too late, that attending law school is no safe harbor unless they define a “safe harbor” as foregoing three years of income while simultaneously accruing over $83,000 in debt.[3]  They will also learn that the practice of law is a predominantly middle class profession and that most lawyers do not get rich.  They will learn that, according to the ABA, 48% of all private practitioners are in solo practice and that 70% of all private practitioners practice either solo or in groups of up to 10 attorneys.[4]  These are hardly the practice contexts in which one gets wealthy.  Finally, they will learn, as have many dissatisfied and depressed lawyers before them, that for those who choose a legal career for reasons other than a true desire to serve the public, practicing law is often not a very satisfying way to make a living. 

The Kaplan findings lend further support to what we, and the law schools, already know: that law school has become the graduate school of default for far too many bright college graduates who are uncertain about their career interests but can’t stand the sight of blood.  Once more, we see large numbers of “default applicants” deciding to attend law school without reconciling their true interests with the realities of law school and law practice.

Choosing law school is a huge personal and financial commitment.  Like any other significant life decision – buying a house, getting married, starting a family - it should be an affirmative choice driven by a conscious and thoughtful decision process.  In the case of choosing a legal career, it should be a conscious and thoughtful choice to serve the public.  The Kaplan survey reaffirms that for far too many college graduates – particularly the default applicants - the decision to attend law school is not an affirmance but an avoidance; an avoidance of searching for employment in a difficult market, an avoidance of taking a self-inventory and making searching and sometimes difficult decisions about one’s true personal and career interests. 

Practicing law in any context, even by those who intrinsically love doing it, can be difficult and often frustrating.  Our profession is flooded with attorneys[5], too many of whom are dissatisfied, depressed, and unhappy.[6]  But the lawyers I’ve known over the years who seem most satisfied in their work and in their lives are not those who practice to get wealthy, but those who practice to help their clients get healthy.  Once they encounter the realities of law practice, the default applicants are prime candidates for a world of career dissatisfaction and financial struggle.

            Reality for the current crop of LSAT applicants, and particularly for the default applicants, will hit a few years from now - too late to be helpful - after they’ve made the life-changing financial decision to attend law school.  Somewhere in the third year of law school if not before, most students suffer an OMG moment when they begin to truly understand that their employment prospects are limited, that they are about to enter an unwelcoming job market, that their Boston Legal-fueled earnings expectations were unrealistic, and that their high five figure debt payments are about to come due.  As an adjunct law professor, teaching third and fourth year evening students, I’ve seen this too many times to recount.  By then, it’s too late.

These default applicants should be discouraged from attending law school.[7]  The cost of a legal education is too high, the job prospects for most law graduates too limited, and the career/life satisfaction prospects for those entering law (or any career) for the wrong reasons too low, to encourage those who are not primarily motivated by service to the public to enter into such a significant life choice.  Both the organized bar and the law schools have a role to play and should be active in discouraging the marginally committed, and particularly the default applicants, from attending law school.  We practitioners have, too often, seen the end result.  We don’t need more disappointed, unhappy, underemployed attorneys.

Moreover, we are looking at a coming train wreck in legal employment.  The Class of 2008 suffered significant layoffs.  The evidence indicates that the placement rate for the just-graduated Class of 2009 is nothing short of dire, and predictions for placement of the Class of 2010 are no better.  Landing a good legal job has never been easy, even in the best of economies.  But even if we assume that legal hiring picks up in 2010, when many predict the recession will end, the classes that graduate in 2011 and 2012 will be competing for jobs not only against their own classmates but against the underemployed or still unemployed members of the classes of 2008 through 2010.  It is hard to conceive of even the most robust recovery from the recession being able to absorb and fully employ all of the unemployed and underemployed attorneys that will then be on the market.

This is not to discourage those who are truly committed to serving the public through law.  If, in the face of this, there are committed students who are willing to endure the financial and other hardships they will encounter in entering this field, we welcome them to the profession with open arms.  The profession needs more dedicated and enthusiastic young attorneys. 

But to those whose primary motivation in applying to law school is to find a place to hide during the recession or to get wealthy: choose another career.  Too many college graduates - to avoid the recession, to get rich, because they don’t know what else to do, because their friends have done it - enter into this life changing decision for the wrong reasons without giving it the sustained and serious thought it deserves. There are easier ways to get rich and you won’t incur the crushing debt load for a career choice that you may find less than satisfying.  Finally, to those aren’t sure about attending law school: wait.  Work for a few years and gain experience in law related or other work.  If law is still your interest after that, reapply.  The law schools will still be there and with enhanced employment experience you’ll be a more attractive candidate for admission.

A Time to Disclose

Unfortunately, many students entering law school – bright as they are - are not sophisticated purchasers of a legal education.  Many of the law students I encounter are the first in their families to attend law school, having had little knowledgeable guidance at the time they applied about the realities of legal practice, their most probable employment prospects, or their coming debt obligations.  Many base their decision on incomplete information or carefully designed law school marketing materials.  Even if many of these default applicants have doubts about their choice or are not keen on practicing law, they assuage these concerns by buying into the law-school propagated view that a Juris Doctor is a flexible multipurpose degree  that can be used in other careers. [8]  How many times have we heard default applicants, or their parents, mouth the hackneyed notion that going to law school “keeps your options open.[9]

By being the graduate school of default, law schools have benefited handsomely from the substantial tuition dollars paid by default applicants.  The law schools have no financial incentive, and have shown no inclination, to discourage these applicants.  As a result, they have done little at the front end of the application process to counsel default applicants to seriously explore other career options, to delay their law school decision, or to take a hard look at their most likely financial prospects once they graduate from law school. 

            The payment of law school tuition is one of the largest financial investments that any of us will ever make and at the time of application it may be the largest investment that prospective law students have ever made.  Whatever may be said of the merits of a legal education one thing is beyond debate: for most law students it will take years of significant personal and financial sacrifice to pay off their law school loans. 

            As attorneys we spend a good deal of time trying to find the most cost effective solutions to our client’s problems, even if pursuing other avenues would be more financially remunerative to us.  At a minimum, we owe our clients the best information available about the probable cost of the engagement and the most probable range of results.  The client comes first.  It is part of our fiduciary responsibility.  Law schools owe no less to their prospective students.

In this regard, at a minimum law schools should be required to inform their applicants at the time of application and prior to the time they have made their decision to attend about their most probable post graduation employment prospects and debt obligations. Such disclosure not only comports with the values of transparency and full disclosure taught and touted in our law schools, but with the pro-consumer disclosures required of other industries that sell costly goods and services (ie: automobiles).  In addition, the five Ohio public law schools have a particular disclosure obligation.  Not only are they funded with public dollars, but the financial records they maintain are public records and would be required to be disclosed pursuant to a public records request under Ohio’s Public Records Law (RC 149.43). 

Accordingly, I urge all Ohio law schools to post on their websites, IN A CONSPICUOUS, WELL MARKED, AND EASY TO FIND LOCATION uniform data (discussed below) about law student debt and post-graduation employment.  If such data can’t be located on the law school’s actual home page, it should be located on their “Admissions” or “Prospective Students” home pages.  This is the information that applicants want, need, and are entitled to see in order to make an informed choice.  Using this format, it would be no more than one click away from the law school’s home page.  You can be certain that such locations will be amongst the most visited sites by prospective students visiting the law school’s website.

I have reviewed a number of the websites of Ohio law schools and while some have provided valuable data (ie: Akron and Ohio State provide the best break down of post-graduation employment) others have provided very little.  Significantly, however, most of the schools did not post median debt loads (Cleveland State was the exception).  In general, there is no uniformity of format in the information provided (which would be helpful to prospective students seeking to compare this data across schools) and the quality and quantity of information varied significantly from site to site. 

In this regard, I would recommend that the following information be set forth on each law school’s website on a single webpage for at least the three immediately preceding graduating classes.

DEBT

·         Average law school debt upon graduation

EMPLOYMENT AND SALARY

·         Percentage of graduating and actual number of graduating students employed at time of graduation

·         Percentage of graduating class and actual number employed 9 months after graduation

·         Average starting salary of all graduates

·         Median starting salary of all graduates

·         Percentage of graduating class and actual number employed (at graduation and 9 months out) in the following categories: private practice, government, judicial clerkship, business and industry, public interest, academic, other

·         Average starting salary by category of employment

·         Median starting salary by category of employment

·         Actual number and percentage of graduates working in the following categories and median salary in each: solo, firms of 2-10; 11-25; 26-50; 51-100; 101-250; 251-500; 501 and up

Most, if not all, of this data is already being collected by law schools and reported annually to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), so posting it on their websites would impose little burden or cost.

            A Time for the Whole Truth

            It is not by accident that since time immemorial the law has required witnesses under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth.  As lawyers, and as a society, we value the whole truth, not the half truth. 

            The whole truth about law school and a legal education involves both sides of the post-graduation ledger: debt and income.  Those contemplating attendance at law school are entitled to up front, clear, conspicuous, and complete disclosure of their most likely debt and employment prospects upon graduation.  This disclosure comports with our societal values of openness and transparency and will better inform those who are committed to the idea of a legal career.  Simultaneously, it will perhaps deter those default applicants who are not committed to a legal career but are looking for a place to hide. 

            Our profession needs enthusiastic practitioners who are happy and healthy in what they do.  That’s good for the practitioners and its good for their clients.  This disclosure requirement will go a long way towards helping prospective law students make a more informed, intelligent choice, for what may be one of the major decisions of their life.  In that regard, it may well play a significant part in helping to reduce the too many recent law graduates who are unhappy, depressed, and dissatisfied with their career choice.

 

Copyright 2009 © Jason M. Dolin

All Rights Reserved.

 

           


 



[1] See ABA Journal at http://www.abajournal.com/news/number_of_students_applying_to_law_school_jumps_3.8_percent, last visited on May 6, 2009.

 

[2] See ABA Journal at http://www.abajournal.com/news/40_of_law_school_applicants_riding_out_recession, last visited on May 6, 2009.

[3] See, amongst others, the July 2008 article by Professors Andrew P. Morriss and William Henderson, The New Math of Legal Education, at http://www.abanet.org/yld/tyl/july08/morriss.html, and http://www.abanet.org/poladv/priorities/student_loan/prosdefrepay07.pdf.

 

[4] See the most recent ABA Lawyer Demographics for the year 2000 at http://www.abanet.org/marketresearch/Lawyer_Demographics_2008.pdf.

 

[5] According to the American Bar Foundation, in 1951 there was 1 lawyer for every 695 Americans. In 2000 there was one lawyer for every 264 Americans.  See Clara N. Carson & Barbara A. Curran, Growth and Gender Diversit: A Statistical Profile of the Legal Profession in 2000, RESEARCH L., WINTER 2005 at 1.  At that rate of growth, in the year 2050 there will be 1 lawyer for every 100 Americans.

 

[6] The studies and anecdotal evidence on this point are legion, too numerous to list here.  But see, for example, Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhapp, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 VAND. L. REV. 871 (1999).

[7] If not discouraged, at a minimum law schools should counsel these students to delay their decision to enter law school to give them more time and life experience to draw upon in making their career choices. 

[8] That may or may not be true, but the question is: At what cost?  Is a multipurpose degree really worth foregoing three years of income coupled with $83,000 in debt?  Moreover, if the purpose of attending law school is to obtain a multipurpose degree, rather than to learn how to be a lawyer, there are cheaper alternatives.  An MBA is a multipurpose degree as is a masters in public administration.  Both can help a college graduate succeed in a broad range of business, government, and other careers as can undergraduate or masters degrees in engineering, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, to name a few.  If a multipurpose degree is the goal, it’s overpriced at law school.  These other multipurpose degrees have the added benefit of usually requiring only one or two years of graduate school – making them less expensive than a law degree - and being in fields where there might be greater employment opportunities.

 

[9] In fact, the exact opposite may be true.  By incurring high five figure debt in a difficult employment market, these debt burdened students may be limiting their career options to only those jobs or careers that can service that debt.  The ABA has raised significant concern that as a result of large law student debt, many law students do not even consider legal careers in government, nonprofit, or other less remunerative areas.  See Lifting the Burden:  Law Student Debt as a Barrier to Public Service – The Final Report of the ABA Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness, American Bar Association, 2003.