March 21, 2023

Bucks Blog: A Tool for Comparing Post-Law School Prospects

Law schools have been getting a lot of attention lately, and not of the good kind. Too many law school graduates can’t find decent-paying, long-term legal jobs and are having trouble paying back their student loans.

To help prospective legal scholars sort out their options, the Web site NerdWallet has introduced an online law school comparison tool. The tool uses employment information provided to the American Bar Association by law schools, as well as salary information gleaned from the law schools themselves. The tool is part of the financial site’s new education-related offerings.

The tool allows users to choose up to four schools and — unlike other school ranking sites — lets them compare their stats side by side, said Joseph Audette, vice president of education and financial literacy at NerdWallet. Right now, the tool offers an analysis of 50 top schools, but it will eventually be expanded.

The goal is to help students choose a law school based on what they would like to do afterward, Mr. Audette said, “because the employment situation for law students is pretty challenging right now.”

With a few clicks, you can see the school’s average graduating class size; how many students have jobs; how many go to law firms, clerkships or graduate school; and where the graduates end up geographically.

Or users can click on preset headings to see, for instance, the “best” schools in terms of the highest starting salaries for graduates (the University of Michigan, at an average of $128,201 overall), or the school with the best record of placing graduates students in judicial clerkships (Yale, 34 percent of its graduating class).

The tool uses only long-term employment figures, and averages the numbers over two years (2010 and 2011; 2012 data isn’t available yet).

Are you considering law school? Take a look at NerdWallet’s tool and let us know what you think.

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Economix Blog: Answers to Reader Questions About Law School

On Sunday, The Times’s David Segal concluded a series of articles about the economics of law schools, with an article on the cover of Sunday Business, For Law Schools, a Price to Play the A.B.A.’s Way. The article notes that the American Bar Association’s rules for accreditation are a significant factor in the costs of legal education, which may in turn limit the availability of low-cost legal services.

Readers had plenty to say about the article, and others submitted questions for Mr. Segal to Economix. Below are his responses to a selection.

Most law students come to recognize that law is really a 1, or at most 2 year degree. The first year covers (ostensibly) essential, requisite material; the remaining 2 years are a sort of potpourri of electives, journals, practice groups, etc.

Some law schools now offer an accelerated, 2 year program. Given the ABA and the law schools exercise dominion over who is let into the profession, and given the training at these schools is at most fair, and at worst inadequate training for actual legal work, and real training takes place on the job, isn’t it problematic to require 3 years of questionable “training,” and 100K-200K tuition loads, as a sort of “cost of admission” to the profession, disconnected from actual value of training received, especially at lower tier schools, where the students cannot hope to ever pay off their debt?

I understand the ABA wishes to limit entry to the profession so they can artificially maintain an above-market wage at top firms… but isn’t this problematic (morally, economically, politically, socially, I’m not sure) when the poor have extremely limited access to legal assistance?

Mike, from Boston

Not only is three years of law school the standard, but in the United States, you need to attend college before you can become a law student. For nearly every new lawyer, that means seven years of school, for a degree that, as you and others have pointed out, could take two years and some apprentice work.

Is it crazy to train an 18-year-old to practice law? Must he or she first attend college? Well, the example of Britain is instructive. Law there is an undergraduate degree.

The point isn’t that all lawyers should take two or three years of legal training, and skip college. It’s that right now, there is just one option in this country — the A.B.A. accredited diploma, which requires seven years of school. No wonder so many grads enter the working world with a mountain of debt. And no wonder there aren’t a host of price points for people in need of legal services.

Can you explain in more detail the anti-trust concerns with the ABA scrutinizing career outcomes for law school graduates? Why are U.S. medical schools able to manage their class sizes to match the market demand for physicians? Surely the ABA has enough smart lawyers to help it craft and enforce a sustainable policy on the number of law schools and the number of slots within those schools. It’s laughable to believe that anti-trust concerns trump any attempt whatsover to address the problem.
Jonathan, from New York City

By anointing the A.B.A. as the regulator of law schools, the Department of Education put the organization in a bit of an awkward spot. It has been in the past, and always will be in the future, under the suspicion that it has, at minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest. One could always wonder: Was this decision or that decision about limiting the number of lawyers made because of concerns for current members. And if so, is that fair?

In effect, the A.B.A. is the legal profession’s version of a union. And when you ask a union, “How many others should be allowed into your trade?” the answer is clouded — or again, appears to be clouded — by the interests of those already in the business.

To your last question — Americans have a long-held distaste for regulated markets and central planning. And in a way, that is what you are asking: Why can’t this group just sensibly predict the size of the legal market, then tailor the number of graduates to the market’s size and fluctuations?

That’s a tricky business even for a disinterested party. But the A.B.A. is not a disinterested party. And it is unlikely to consider so-called access to justice issues as it makes that calculation. Look at New York City. Something like 1 percent of litigants in debt cases and foreclosure cases can afford a lawyer. In divorce cases, both husband and wife are typically unrepresented. Even middle-class consumers are unable to afford lawyers in many parts of the country.

That’s why the United States placed last among high-income nations when it comes to the affordability of lawyers, in the survey I cited in the piece.

So. How big is the market? How many lawyers do we need? That depends. By one measure — the number of unemployed lawyers today — the market seems oversaturated. By another — the number of people who need but don’t hire lawyers because they can’t afford them — the market seems desperately wanting.

What is Duncan Law’s scholarship renewal policy like? And if they are seeking ABA approval, won’t their graduates be just as unprepared to practice law as is the picture you paint in your previous articles? And just how many additional lawyers are presumed to be needed in rural Appalachia? Perhaps you took it for granted that Duncan’s founders’ intentions were genuine and gave them a pass on the issues you raised in the earlier articles this year.
Evan, from New York City

It is entirely possible that Duncan’s grads will face the same practical knowledge deficit that I described in an earlier story. As for the actual number of lawyers needed in the Appalachians of Tennessee and Kentucky, can’t help you there.

You’re raising good questions that I did not endeavor to answer. For practical reasons. When you write a series like this one, you try to avoid repeating yourself. Another way to put that is: You ask one question at a time, because you make one core point at a time. The story of Duncan teases out the the role of A.B.A. accreditation in the cost of tuition. But absolutely, the questions I raised in other stories can be asked of Duncan, too. It’s just that those questions can be asked of every law school. What makes Duncan singular and I think particularly interesting is that it is now knocking on the door of the A.B.A. and asking to be let in. Which neatly illuminates how much it costs for nothing more than the privilege of knocking.

I am a 1L at a (public) law school. I can attest that there are many law students who want to do the kind of law that is needed, whether it’s prosecution, defense, or legal aid — but we do need to put a roof over our heads after graduation. However, the focus on the ABA does not, need to be more lenient accreditation.

Having to hire a “brain surgeon” when what you need is a “plumber” is an example of the wrongs of the legal system, to paraphrase Professor Morris. But so is having to hire a plumber when what you need is a brain surgeon, especially if your adversary has a team of brain surgeons at the ready. Loosening the ABA regulations could also mean that poorer people in court are left with lawyers with less preparation than their adversaries. In addition, hiring — at legal aid agencies included — is still based on law school prestige. Expansion of ABA certifications might therefore not have the large effect the article hints.

The focus on ABA should instead be on (1) increasing funding from the government or other sources to legal services corporations—which are sorely in decline, as the Times pointed out back in August; and (2) increasing Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, so that the law students who do take these jobs can do so realistically – not with frills, but with roofs. Without these changes, law students will continue to look for only for the kind of work that is realistic to repay bills, not just the kind of law that is needed. The cycle will continue.

Beth, from Minnesota

I don’t agree. There isn’t enough government money to fund legal aid for the needs of the poor and middle class who now can’t afford lawyers. More manageable loan repayment is a fine idea, but again, not even close to sufficient.

Why? This gets to the other question of my story: who gets to define who practices law? The United States definition is now exceptionally narrow and limited to one species of student — one who has four years of college and three years of A.B.A.-approved training.

Until that definition is expanded, this country will lag far behind when it comes to access to justice. Prof. Morriss’s point is that you sometimes need a plumber. Not that you always need a plumber. By all means, let’s keep producing the brain surgeon version of an attorney. There will always be work for those graduates, though there is less of it these days.

But why not produce an attorney, or legal adviser, for lower-grade skirmishes? There are thousands that go un-lawyered every day in this country because most lawyers are simply priced out of that market.

…there is a living and viable alternative with great potential out there. In six states, including my jurisdiction of Vermont, one can become a lawyer via “reading for the law” or clerkship. I went to an Ivy League university as an undergraduate, and after some years, decided to become a lawyer, but I didn’t want to rack up the debt, didn’t want to go back to school, but knew absolutely that I could do it. I did my clerkship at a fabulous criminal defense and civil rights firm, “graduated,” took the bar exam and passed the first time, and was sworn in last week. I have more practical experience than virtually any law school graduate and I have no debt whatsoever…. Why aren’t we talking about strengthening and expanding the clerkships?

ellewilson, from Vermont

Good question.

Remove any government assurance on student loans and tuition prices would drop. Student loan debts should be dischargable in bankruptcy and not guaranteed by taxpayers.

Our housing bubble was formed from the same combination of private profit (incentive) and socialized cost (moral hazard).

A financial bubble forms when everyone is buying a good regardless of value and using debt to do so. The education bubble is still swelling, but it will burst.

J. Sweeney, from West Chester, Pa.

Another answer I’ve heard is to force schools to assume some of the risk of their graduates’ loans. Put some of their skin in the game. That might make them less willing to sign up students who are unlikely to find work. But as I say in the story, that measure, and the ones you describe, may help bring the cost down at some of the high-end schools. What interested me in the story of Duncan was the fee at the entry level — the price of gaining admission to the A.B.A.

There is no question that the high cost of legal education and legal services is a concern, but I find it hard to believe that the cure is cut-rate schools in poor Southern states. The current system will not be improved by abandoning standards, although it might be improved by a strong apprentice system similar to what doctors go through during their internships and residencies. If there is to be reform, let it be reform based on a desire to provide the highest and most demanding level of legal education in order to provide the American people with the best possible lawyers, not on a blanket hostility toward legal education and lawyers.

Bill Day, from Washington, D.C.

If you see blanket hostility to lawyers in my story, I am mystified as to where you found it.

But to your point. Consider the case of C.P.A.’s. If you’re a corporation and want a top-level accountant, by all means, spend a lot of money on a C.P.A. He or she has spent a lot of money getting trained, and you’ll pay serious money and get extremely good service.

What if you just need to go to a retail tax preparer, for a simple tax return? You can get an accountant at any number of national chains — I do — but but he or she won’t necessarily be a C.P.A. You’ll pay a fraction of the price, and you’ll get your taxes done.

… if the US News rankings took into consideration cost as part of their rankings formula, then schools would compete to keep costs down in order to get a higher ranking in comparison to other schools. The same solution would work in lowering tuition for all other types of education that are ranked by US News…

Lilly, from Indianapolis

It would help. Again, see above for my arguments about other types of legal degrees. But you’re right — U.S. News isn’t helping. Right now, its algorithm gives a school credit for spending more money on students. On one level this looks sensible — a school that spends on books and teachers, etc., may well be better than one that scrimps on same.

But as a professor I spoke to put it, a law school could literally burn a huge sum of money and, as long as the flames were meant to teach something to the students — the craziness of the U.S. News algorithm, perhaps? — the school would benefit in the rankings.

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Letters: Side Effects of Ever-Bigger Law Schools

Opinion »

The Thread: Scold Your Own

Conservatives turned to the founding fathers to urge Tea Party holdouts to take the long view on the debt crisis fight.

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