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Law schools take hits in NYT; how are local four doing?

Reporting a story a few weeks back, I called several faculty members at local law schools to ask them a question that was equal parts law and philosophy: To whom did a private, for-profit institution of higher education owe its first allegiance, its students or its shareholders?

The for-profits, the shorthand descriptor the programs have acquired during the controversies of recent months, have been under fire for any number of questionable recruiting practices. The gist, congressional investigators and others charge: When talking to potential students, recruiters often overstate graduates’ job prospects and inflate the salaries grads can expect to command. For some schools, the ugly headlines have meant a dip in stock prices and, inevitably, shareholder lawsuits — the impetus for my question.

In the process of explaining my curiosity to a business law instructor who was not quoted in the resulting blog post, I made one of those quips that falls really, really flat. When it came to admitting prospects that were unlikely to get good enough jobs to pay off their student loans, what was the difference between XYZ School of Indentured Servitude and his law school?

The ensuing silence lasted just long enough to be painful, and then he muttered something about being pushed out onto a skinny limb and went back to talking about the laws governing shareholder lawsuits.

Statistical 'Wonderland'
I bring this up because the New York Times last week devoted a full three pages to a story entitled, “Is Law School a Losing Game?” There were, of course, anecdotes about recent grads who can’t get jobs, can’t begin chipping away at debt-loads that range well into the six figures and can’t figure out where their best laid plans went awry.

“Improbably enough,” the Times reported, after introducing us to one such unfortunate, “law schools have concluded that life for newly minted grads is getting sweeter, at least by one crucial measure. In 1997, when U.S. News [and World Report] first published a statistic called ‘graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation,’ law schools reported an average employment rate of 84 percent. In the most recent U.S. News rankings, 93 percent of grads were working — nearly a 10-point jump.”

“In the Wonderland of these statistics,” the paper continued, “a remarkable number of law school grads are not just busy — they are raking it in. Many schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000. That seems highly unlikely, given that Harvard and Yale, at the top of the pile, list the exact same figure.”

I can’t cut and paste the entire story here, and there’s enough fine print to confound even the most zealous barrister-to-be, but I will tell you that the next paragraph contains the phrase “Enron-type accounting.” In a desperate race to stay at the front of the pack, and with 15,000 U.S. legal jobs having disappeared over the last three years, schools count waiters with JDs as employed, it seems.

The final takeaway: The “oversaturation” of new lawyers won’t be resolved until some — presumably bottom-tier — schools are closed. Ouch.

In Twin Cities, four schools
Double-ouch here in Minnesota, where nine years ago the opening of a fourth law school, by the University of St. Thomassparked all kinds of speculation about a pre-recession job market awash in unemployable JDs.

Alas, things are every bit as bad for new Twin Cities lawyers as all of this might imply. But are they as bad for the law schools? Turns out that’s not such an easy question to answer. In the middle of the upcoming admissions season, none of our local law schools was willing to say whether applications are up or down.

They did, however, say some interesting things suggesting that those rankings are more important than ever, but even prospects savvy enough to sift the fine print often have trouble believing that a law degree isn’t a ticket to easy street.

The University of Minnesota Law School last year enjoyed its fourth straight year of increased applications, receiving 3,865 applications for 260 seats, according to Nick Wallace, director of admissions. Applications for the 2010-2011 academic year were up 7½ percent over the year before; 2009-2010 saw an increase of 19 percent over 2008-2009.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens this year,” Wallace said. “More students are now applying to law schools, but more than that, many are applying to more law schools.”

Some apply to 20 schools or more
Prospective applicants bid for seats at an average of six schools, “but I’ve heard of students applying to 20 schools or more,” said Wallace. Not only is competition to get into top schools increased, but online application processes have made it easier for candidates to play the field.

Does this mean applicants are more choosy or ambitious? Good question, said Wallace. “It’s still surprising to me how many students are guided by what they see in terms of media glamorization of lawyers,” he said. “Many see it as a way to make a lot of money quickly.”

Wallace said recruiters at the U, which occasionally gets edged out of the top 20 only to toddle back in (its current U.S. News rating is No. 22), caution applicants that they are making a big investment in time, money and other resources and need to think carefully. Still, he’s amazed by the number of prospects he talks to who are interested in sports or entertainment law — niches that are particularly hard to get into.

Admissions representatives at William Mitchell College of Law (U.S. News No. 98) were unable to respond to MinnPost’s requests for information by deadline, but their counterparts at St. Thomas (U.S. News tier three and Hamline University (U.S. News tier four) both noted right off the bat that applications at two-thirds of the law schools accredited by the American Bar Association are down about 10 percent.

This time last year, applications were down, but by the time the current 160-member class was chosen, St. Thomas had received a record 1,801 applications, said spokesman Chato Hazelbaker.

Numbers difficult to interpret
Admissions reps at Hamline declined to provide hard numbers, arguing that interpreting them can end up an exercise not unlike the proverbial blind men describing the elephant. There are simply too many caveats to make the numbers meaningful, said Admissions Director Robin Ingli.

For instance, some schools now accept some applicants via a binding early decision process, artificially inflating the number of applications floating around each year beyond even the multiple-school applications mentioned by the U.

Nor is the number of students taking the Law School Admissions Test each year a reliable predictor, she said. The number taking the LSAT here in December was down, but because of the big pre-Christmas blizzard, so was the number of open testing centers.

Will the next round of tests show a corresponding bump? Who knows.

Still, information about the current Hamline class can be found here. And an interesting snapshot of national application, admission and graduation trends can be found here.

Not noted: How much the grads will need to earn to service their debt, and how much those who don’t immediately land a berth as an NBA contract negotiator or a big-firm intellectual property prodigy can expect to pull down elsewhere. There are simply too many of these numbers to report, but it’s fair to say there are new Twin Cities lawyers earning as little as $35,000 practicing law. 

Is it a case of caveat emptor, in the end, or of a competitive academic recruiting field? We’re certainly not able to cut through all of the lawyerly fine print to tell you, but the question is grist for dozens of big-brained, un- and underemployed talents chiming in on Minnesota Lawyer’s blog for new lawyers, JDs Rising.

Good luck to them all, we say.

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Comments (1)

As a self-employed attorney of 30+ years experience who has never earned over $100,000/year and has earned less than $50,000 each of the past 4 years, I wish the students of the future all the luck in the world entering this field. A law degree gives you an entry into a profession that can be fascinating, diverse, challenging and gratifying, as a professional problem solver.

However, it is not a profession that guarantees anyone a living, much less a rich and lucrative career. With the large number of lawyers that I know in public service, working for non-profit organizations, doing volunteer work, working to survive in private practice, or have left the field to pursue other opportunities, I would wager that the mean annual salary of my contemporaries from the University of Minnesota Law School is less than $100,000 a year, (though there is a substantial minority who would be subject to Governor Dayton's proposed tax increase on wealthy income-earners.)

Today a law degree is not a guaranty to riches, and it probably hasn't been for 30 or more years. However, it continues to be a great profession if your goal is to help people.