Cameron Stracher, author of Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair, writes the following in today's Wall Street Journal (free link), which is the only time I've ever seen a mainstream publication tell the real truth about law school:
The legal profession is really two professions: the elite lawyers and everyone else. Most of the former start out at big law firms. Many of the latter never find gainful legal employment. Instead, they work at jobs that might be characterized as "quasi-legal": paralegals, clerks, administrators, doing work for which they probably never needed a J.D.
Although hard data about the nature of these jobs is difficult to come by (and relies on self-reporting, which is inherently unreliable), the mean salary for graduates of top 10 law schools is $135,000 while it is $60,000 for "tier three" schools. It's certainly possible that tier-three graduates tend to gravitate toward lower-paying public-interest and government jobs, but this lower salary may also reflect the nonlegal nature of many of these jobs and the fact that these graduates are settling for anything that will pay the bills.
At $38,000 a year for law school, plus living expenses, law-school graduates certainly have a lot of debt ($60,000 on average, upon graduation). For this price, college students and their parents should be thinking harder about their choices. When I went to law school, nearly everyone tried to convince me that doing so would "keep my options open." All this really means is: "You can still be a lawyer."
If I wanted to be a screenwriter, waiting tables would have kept my options open, too. In fact, many wannabe screenwriters find themselves going to law school, misled by adults into thinking that it will help them get into the movie business. It won't. Sure, you can be a talent agent or a movie producer with a law degree, but you can be one without a degree, too. Most of the skills you learn in law school (and legal practice) won't help you make a movie, and the few that will may not be worth the cost (more than $120,000, including tuition, living expenses, as well as three years of forgone experience and salary). Rather than keeping options open, the crushing debt of law school often slams doors shut, pushing law students to find the highest-paying job they can and forever deferring dreams of anything else.
It's time those of us inside the profession did a better job of telling others outside the profession that most of us don't earn $160,000 a year, that we can't afford expensive suits, flashy cars, sexy apartments. We don't lunch with rock stars or produce movies. Every year I'm surprised by the number of my students who think a J.D. degree is a ticket to fame, fortune and the envy of one's peers -- a sure ticket to the upper middle class. Even for the select few for whom it is, not many last long enough at their law firms to really enjoy it.
There's something wrong with a system that makes a whole lot of people pay a whole lot of money for jobs that are not worth it, or that have no future. If we wanted to be honest, we would inform students that law school doesn't keep their options open. Instead, we should say that if they work hard and do well, they can become lawyers.
This is the same thing I explained in my famous blog post, Law school, the big lie.
The only thing I'd disagree with is that alleged $60,000 mean salary for tier three schools, because the law schools employ sneaky use of statistics to inflate salaries. Arizona State University reported the salary of "graduates who had jobs at private law firms at graduation," which is basically reporting the salaries of the luckiest 10% of the graduating class. We see public companies getting caught lying on their financial results all the time; I wouldn't be surprised if the law schools aren't also doing some outright lying--their results aren't even audited by CPAs like the financial results of public companies.