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10 Things Law Schools Won't Tell You

We reveal why the Juris Doctor isn't what it used to be.

1. "Lawyers are a dime a dozen."

After graduating from California Western School of Law in 2005, Kathryn Tokarska sent dozens of resumes to law firms. Prior to attending law school, she worked at investment firms, so she was hoping to land a job at a securities law firm or another related field that could use her experience. Instead, says Tokarska, the only position she was offered after graduating was a $10 per hour part-time clerkship. Knee deep in debt and unable to find a decent job, she opened her own law office in San Diego in 2008. "I thought if I got a higher degree, I'd have a better chance to get a job, but that's not what happened," she says.

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Tokarska isn't alone. This year, around 45,000 students are graduating law school -- the highest number ever, according to the American Bar Association. But there are only about 28,000 positions for lawyers that are available, according to Economic Modeling Specialists, a labor market analysis firm. The latest survey data available by the National Association for Law Placement shows that about 88% of law students who graduated in 2010 were employed by February 2011 -- the lowest rate since 1996 and down from a peak of 92% in 2007. And almost a third of the graduates known to be employed were not working in a legal position that required passing the Bar exam.

Meanwhile, big law firms made an average of 22 offers to second-year students for internships this summer, compared to a ten-year peak of 39 in 2007, according to NALP. These positions often lead to permanent jobs after graduation. The number of students firms take on in the summer is largely based on the amount of work firms expect to have going forward, says Judy Collins, research director at NALP. One small piece of good news: The number of offers made is up slightly from the fall 2010 average of 19, according to NALP numbers.

2. "We're being sued by former students."

Since 2011, a total of 15 lawsuits have been filed against law schools, including New York Law School, DePaul University College of Law and Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, Mich., claiming, among other things, that the schools inflate job placement numbers. Specifically, the lawsuits allege that job placement rates don't specify how many students are actually working as lawyers or other legal positions versus graduates who are employed in fields that don't require a law degree. "Law schools count working at a Starbucks as employed," says Frank Raimond, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers on the case. The lawsuits also allege that schools inflate graduate salary data by basing it on a small group of intentionally-selected students.

The schools named in the suit deny the allegations. James Thelen, general counsel at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, says the institution follows the American Bar Association and NALP's rules when reporting job placement rates, and its web site lists the sectors its graduates have been hired to work in. Separately, he says, colleges can't predict how an economic downturn will impact job openings. "No reasonable person could look at the accurate data we report about graduate employment today and believe that it is a guarantee that the very same percentage of job opportunities will be available when he or she graduates," says Thelen. For its part, DePaul's College of Law says it provides students with a high-quality, legal education and that its career services office is dedicated to helping students find careers that are right for them.

Plaintiffs were dealt a setback in March when the New York State Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit against New York Law School in Manhattan on the grounds that students are capable of sifting through the job placement data and realizing that not all law school graduates end up with successful careers. Raimond says the plaintiffs have filed their appeal, and will be submitting the brief shortly. "We are very confident the judge's decision will be affirmed," says Michael Volpe, counsel to NYLS. He adds that a law school graduate's success can't be evaluated nine months or even two years after graduation but more like 10 years later. Meanwhile, Raimond and the other plaintiffs' lawyers are preparing to file suit against another 40 schools.

3. "Salaries are shrinking ..."

While public service and government attorneys don't expect to make the big bucks, corporate law positions have traditionally paid some of the highest salaries of any industry. But even these lofty positions aren't recession-proof. Law school students who graduated in 2010 earn $84,111 on average during their first year, down 10% from 2009, according to the most recent available data from NALP.

And fewer graduates are landing six figure jobs. Eighteen percent of 2010 graduates earned $160,000 compared to 25% in each of the previous two years. Nearly half of 2010 graduates made between $40,000 and $65,000, up from about 40% for the prior two classes. In some cases, starting pay is even lower: Last week, Boston-based civil practice law firm Gilbert & O'Bryan posted a full-time associate position that pays $10,000 annually. Larry O'Bryan, a partner with the firm, says it has just two lawyers, hires when it receives extra cases, and that the salary is based on the amount of work billed and collected. So far, he says, the firm has received around 35 applications, mostly from recent law graduates.

In March, an ABA council struck down a proposal requiring schools to report detailed graduate salary data on their web sites. In a statement at the time, the ABA said that "fewer than 45% of law graduates contacted by their law schools report their salaries" and that the council felt that collection of this data is "unreliable and produces distorted information." Some members of Congress had asked the ABA last year to take more steps to prevent law schools from overstating job prospects and salaries. "I am very concerned that the ABA appears to be backing away from its commitment to provide prospective law school students with the critical information they need to make the best decision for their future," said Senator Barbara Boxer in a statement after the council's decision to reject the proposal.

For its part, the ABA council did vote in favor of proposals that would require law schools to disclose more information on their web sites about their admissions data, Bar passage rates and job placement figures. An ABA spokesman says the revised standards are up for review and the council will recommend that the ABA's House of Delegates approve its recommendations at an August meeting.

4. " ... while tuition is soaring"

The slowdown in jobs and salaries hasn't stopped law schools from raising their fees. Tuition has jumped 5% to 10% a year since 2008. The cost of attending a private university averaged $39,184 for the academic year that ended this May, up 21% from the 2007-08 academic year and up 71% from a decade ago, according to the ABA.

Tuition at public schools for in-state students is much less than private schools, but those costs are rising, too: It averaged $22,116 this past year, up 43% from 2007-08 and up 163% from a decade ago. For context, tuition for in-state undergrads at public colleges rose 33% and 119% over the same periods, according to the College Board. It seems prospective law students are taking notice. For the first time since the recession, first-year enrollment in law school has declined, falling 7% in the 2011-12 school year compared to the year before, according to ABA numbers.

No one at the ABA was available to comment on this issue, but in past statements on tuition costs, the organization has said the increases are largely due to a more hands-on approach and more competition between the schools for higher rankings.

5. "You'll be paying off your student loans for years."

When Laurie Jaffee graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York in 2001 with $95,000 in student loans, she never imagined she'd be stuck with that debt more than a decade later. But, Jaffee never found a job as an attorney.

Nine out of ten 2012 law school graduates (about 48,000 total) will leave school with student loan debt, according to FinAid.org. That's the highest percentage of any undergraduate or advanced degree programs, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, which tracks student debt. What's more, the projected average debt owed by law school students is now roughly $91,100, up 14% from four years ago.

Law students have few options for debt relief. Employers rarely pay a portion of tuition costs the way they do for, say, MBA students. Federal grants don't exist for law school and scholarships don't reach many students, says Kantrowitz. There's no official data, but Kantrowitz observes that parents often end up footing some of the bill. In fact, some law schools ask applicants as old as 30 to submit their parents' financial statements in addition to their own. "If you don't have a trust fund or parents who can afford to pay, your only choice is to borrow," says Kantrowitz.

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