Research Job Prospects Before Investing in Your Education

You may want to know how many grads work in the legal profession, but schools don't have to say.

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If you are thinking of attending law school, you should pay attention to a relatively obscure decision by the American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. On September 23, the Section decided it will not require law schools to reveal the percentage of 2010 graduates working in the legal profession or in part-time legal jobs. In previous years, law schools have had to report separately the percentage of recent graduates in jobs that required bar passage, jobs for which a J.D. was preferred, and jobs that did not require a J.D.

Art Gaudio, chairman of the ABA's questionnaire committee, informed The National Law Journal that the question was dropped this year because members were uncomfortable with the way the jobs were defined. The question, he noted, will be included in the 2011 survey. Gaudio also said that job placement data will be collected on an accelerated schedule in the future so prospective law students will be able to base their decisions on more up-to-date information.

[Read U.S. News's stance about law school employment data standards.]

This year, the ABA did add a question asking whether graduates are in jobs paid for by their law school in order to uncover a tactic some schools have used to improve job placement figures. This addition has been widely lauded.

But the decision not to require reporting on the percentage of 2010 graduates working in the legal profession or in part-time legal jobs has been just as widely excoriated.

Why the uproar? Law school is not cheap but as long as graduates can find post-graduate employment, they generally feel it is worth the price. If they aren't able to find employment in the legal field, however, students question the cost of a degree they are not able to utilize.

[See how law graduates are employed outside of legal work.]

Many students incur large amounts of debt to cover the costs associated with earning a law degree. According to ABA statistics, the average amount borrowed for law school by 2009-2010 graduates was $106,249 for private schools and $68,827 for public schools. Being employed as an attorney after law school play a large role in students' ability to repay this debt.

Perhaps the most high profile opposition came from Sen. Barbara Boxer, who sent a letter to William T. Robinson III, the current ABA president, taking the Section to task. In a scathing rebuke, Boxer noted that the previous president's apparent agreement with the importance of truthful and transparent post-graduation employment data was "difficult to square" with the Section's decision.

Boxer points out that while most law schools report that nearly all of their students have jobs shortly after graduation there are indications that actual employment for law students is far different. This troubling discrepancy should motivate the ABA to require immediate and full disclosure from law schools.

[See highlights of letters from Sen. Boxer and U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly.]

In fact, as pointed out in The National Law Journal article cited above, Brian Tamanaha, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, has determined that for the Class of 2009, at least 30 ABA-accredited law schools had 50 percent or fewer of their graduates in jobs that required a law degree after nine months. The employment situation for law graduates was even worse in 2010 than it was in 2009, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).

Whether or not this is a long-term problem (just two-thirds of all ABA-approved law school graduates have obtained jobs requiring bar passage within nine months of graduation since 2001, according to Kyle McEntee and Patrick J. Lynch of Law School Transparency), it is unfortunate that the Section's decision means law schools will not have to reveal just how badly 2010 law graduates fared.

Given the high educational debt that will burden almost everyone who goes to law school (U.S. News has a good chart on the average indebtedness of 2010 graduates who incurred law school debt broken down by law school), it is imperative that you think long and hard before investing in a law school education. NALP has information on starting salaries and employment for the class of 2010 and for previous classes; review that information and make an informed cost/benefit analysis based on your desire to be an attorney, the likelihood of getting the job you want, and the salary you will need to repay your loans.

[Get information on how to pay for graduate school.]

And that's good advice for any degree that is going to cause you to incur significant debt. Educate yourself about the job prospects in your chosen field, and make an informed cost/benefit analysis. Then, if you do decide to pursue that degree, make sure you apply for scholarships and grants (and read the fine print) and take out only federal loans so you will be eligible for federal debt relief programs like Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.