Jobs Scarce for Lawyers With the Lesser Degree

law degreesLike many law students, Nadia M. thought it went like this: You graduate, then you practice law.

But two years after earning a degree from Loyola University School of Law in Chicago and passing the bar exam, she's yet to land steady work with benefits. Despite networking aggressively, hunting for jobs constantly, and sending out endless resumes, Nadia hasn't had an interview for a full-time law position in more than a year.

In that time, she's drained her savings, watched the approximately $110,000 that she took out in student loans sprout more interest, and put any plans of buying a house or car, or of settling down with her boyfriend, on indefinite deferment. She's beginning to think that law school was a catastrophic mistake.Nadia even asked that Money College not use her full name, out of concern that a prospective employer might Google it and read about her long struggle to find lucrative work. "I will admit it's shameful and a bit embarrassing for me," she said.

"I thought I did everything right," Nadia said. "I worked summer law clerk positions, got good grades, was an editor on the law journal, an academic tutor, participated in the business law clinic. And yet nothing. I was completely unprepared to come up against nothing. I thought I would at least find something."

Nadia isn't alone. Last month, The New York Times published an epic-length -- and controversial -- article that described law schools as, among other things, deploying "Enron-type accounting standards" in measuring the success of their graduates. Law schools, the Times reported, are producing far greater numbers of Juris Doctor degrees than the market can employ, thus saddling students with excessive debt in service of degrees that won't pay off.

The Times story also said that law schools overstate the employment prospects of their graduates in order to attract more students and increase their stature in the prestigious U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. More students mean more JDs -- and even more dismal job prospects for the majority of law students, as ever-greater numbers of grads flood the market. It's a complex feedback loop that almost everyone involved helps to perpetuate, in what the Times dubbed the "Big Law sweepstakes": a growing field of law graduates vying for a shrinking number of high-paying positions at big law firms.

So what can law students and graduates do to break the cycle? Professional law school admissions counselor Shawn O'Connor, writing for Fortune magazine, argued in response to The New York Times piece that law students still face a bright future -- as long as they pass through the hallowed halls of one of the nation's top 35 law schools.

"Contrary to the hyperbole," O'Connor wrote, "law school is not a route to financial ruin -- as long as you attend a law school with sufficient brand equity to land the "Big Law" position you want. It's not a question of winning the "Big Law sweepstakes," but of winning the Law School sweepstakes."

One problem, though: The majority of law schools in the four-tiered U.S. News rankings, by definition, won't fall into the top tier. Top-tier schools like Yale and Harvard only have so much capacity, which means that if more students set their sights on those upper-echelon schools, the schools will simply have to turn more students away. Going banzai on the LSAT or transferring to a top-tier school later on, as O'Connor suggests, might work for some industrious students, but it certainly won't provide a large-scale solution for the current law school quagmire.

"Sure, the capacity at top-tier law schools is limited; that's what makes them so attractive to employers," O'Connor told Money College. "But there's a lot students can do to gain entry to those schools. If you decide to go to law school, you have to work hard, often without professional guidance, to get into the very best school you can."

"While we can debate the virtues of such a system," he added, "this is the reality of the law school sweepstakes today."

Not everyone, though, agrees that the large body of law schools that comprise the lower tiers essentially offer students a money-pit and a worthless degree. According to former attorney and professional law school admissions consultant Ann Levine, students can mine value out of a less-prestigious law school that offers them a superior financial aid package -- assuming that they hold realistic ideas about the sort of career they want.

"I am not a 'school snob,' " Levine said. "I have seen the value of a fourth-tier legal education, and many people with very successful and lucrative careers from that background work alongside people who went to Tier 1 and Top 15 law schools."

While Levine said that marquee positions in international law firms or landmark legal institutions might require a degree from a top-tier school, she also said that she sees no reason why the majority of lawyers practicing in fields like insurance defense, medical malpractice and general civil litigation would need a costly degree from one of the nation's highest-ranking law schools.

"If you want to do international law, work for the U.N., clerk for the Supreme Court, OK, I get it," she said. "But I think people should seriously consider what they plan to do with their careers before spending $200,000 and going into debt to attend [a top-tier law school]. To go on a scholarship to a reasonably-priced school and be able to practice law when you get out of it -- I see nothing wrong with that."

For her part, though, Nadia M. understands the chain reaction of the "Law School sweepstakes" all too well -- and she doubts that the majority of new law school graduates with degrees from lower-tier schools can leverage those diplomas into fulfilling careers through simple optimism and hard work.

"I attended a second-rate legal institution," Nadia said, "and although I got a scholarship, my loan debt is still astronomically high.... I should have given myself a better chance by attending one of the higher-ranked law schools I got into, that didn't give me scholarships."

"The law these days," she said, "is purely a game of prestige and rank, and to those at the top, opportunities are still open. For all the rest of us, the diploma isn't even worth the paper it's written on."

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