Law Life: With law degree's luster dimmed, a look at how data supports our new view of the JD

David Donovan, The Daily Record Newswire

The news concerning the job prospects of law school graduates has been relentlessly downbeat, filled with horror stories suggesting that grads at some schools are more likely to get jobs as store clerks than law clerks. But law schools take stock of the career fortunes of alumni only one time, nine months after graduation. After that, you’ll get plenty of anecdotes, but a paucity of hard numbers — and, given the state of the economy, law schools have little incentive to go looking for any.

So we set out to gather this data, focusing on one graduating class at one law school — the 2007 class of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the help of information provided by the school, and a lot of legwork, we tracked down as many graduates as we could and asked them to complete our survey of satisfaction and job outcomes. Of 239 living alumni, we heard back from 126, a little more than half and enough to give us a picture of how the class has fared.

Of course, this picture may not be representative of all law school grads. UNC is a top-tier law school, and the fortunes of its graduates may differ from those who graduated from lower-tier schools. Also, this is only one graduating class, one that at least got its foot in the job market door before the Great Recession hit. Finally, our results may be affected by how easy it is to track down classmates who work at big law firms; ones who no longer practice may be tougher to find. But even for UNC, the numbers may be a little cheerier than the reality.

So what did we learn? In a nutshell, the numbers on employment rates and salary were better than one might have expected, and the majority of employed respondents have jobs that require bar passage. But even with that, barely half said they were very satisfied with the value they received from law school, and less than a third said that law school prepared them very well to find a good job.
Why were reservations about the wisdom of law school as a career investment so widespread? One answer may be law school debt. It was the biggest factor grads cited when answering questions about their satisfaction with law school. Debt burdens varied wildly among graduates, with some grads free and clear and others practically indentured to their degree. Another may be the odysseys some grads took in getting to their current jobs.

No long queues for unemployment

The conventional wisdom then: A law degree is a sure ticket to a six-figure salary.

The conventional wisdom now: Breadlines are filled with new JDs willing to review documents for food.

What we found: The news here was actually rather good. Of the graduates who responded, 115 of them, or 91 percent, reported having a full time job. Most crucially, 109 graduates, or 86.5 percent, reported having jobs that require state bar passage. About half of the rest reported having jobs where a JD was preferred but not required.

The data on salaries was even more upbeat (see chart, above), as 84 students, a little more than two-thirds of those surveyed, reported making $80,000 a year or more. That’s almost certainly higher than the figure for the class as a whole — salary usually correlates with a person’s likelihood of completing such a survey — but that figure represents more than a third of all 2007 graduates. More
than half of respondents, and more than a quarter of the full class, reported making $100,000 a year or more.

“For me, it was an enormous value. In retrospect, I look at money a little more carefully now and would have been more careful about what I borrowed, but it’s been a great value. There’s no way I could have had the same standard of living and be blessed financially the way I am now if I hadn’t gone to law school,” said 2007 grad Ryan Rich. Rich practices business litigation for Hunton & Williams in Charlotte, where he has worked since graduation.

Despite those numbers, many graduates posted lukewarm feelings about law school itself. When asked how satisfied they were with the value they received from law school, considering both the costs and the benefits, only 57 percent said they were “very satisfied.” Another 27 percent said they were only “somewhat satisfied,” and 15 percent said they somewhat or very dissatisfied.

When asked how well law school prepared them to find a good job, only 28 percent said it prepared them very well. A little less than half said it prepared them somewhat well, and just under a quarter said it prepared them somewhat poorly or very poorly, or they weren’t sure.

Robert Rountree, who practices real estate law with Narron & Holdford in Wilson, said he had mixed emotions about his law school experience. On one hand, he said, he always looks back fondly on his time there and that being part of the Carolina law network was helpful in his job search. But he also thought that the school could have done a better job preparing students for the real-life practice of law and helping them find jobs.

“I had very little faith in our [Career Services Office],” Rountree said. “I feel at that time they were geared more toward providing the top-tier students with jobs at large firms in [Washington] D.C., Raleigh, Atlanta, Charlotte and New York. That was the perception that I had.”

Perhaps the most revealing question was when graduates were asked whether, if they had it do over again knowing what they know now, they would still go to law school. (Given that so many law school grads met their spouses in law school, we asked them to consider it strictly from a financial and career perspective.)

Just 58.4 percent of respondents answered with an unqualified yes. Another four percent said yes but that they might have preferred to go to another school — suggesting that the problem wasn’t with UNC specifically — and another three percent said yes, but that they might have preferred to wait until they had more work experience. Over 34 percent said that if they had it to do over again, they either wouldn’t have gone to law school or weren’t sure about it.

The cost of borrowing

The conventional wisdom then: There’s nothing to worry about, because you’ll pay those loans off in no time with all that money you’ll be making.

The conventional wisdom now: Law school debt is a financial death trap from which many students will never escape.

What we found: For many students, the debt they acquired getting their education was a major factor in whether they would do it over again. In some ways, their responses turn the conventional wisdom about law school grads — hit-or-miss career outcomes and huge average debt loans — on its head. The greatest disparity among graduates was in debt burdens rather than annual salaries.

Over a third of students said that they were now law school debt-free, although some credited that to a high-earning spouse or the good fortune not to have to borrow in the first place. In addition, as a
public institution, UNC had a much lower tuition in those days for in-state residents than the typical top-tier law school did.

Despite that, more than a quarter of survey respondents reported carrying debt loans of $50,000 or more, just for law school, more than six years after graduation. Some spoke of being “stuck” in their current positions because of it. Multiple graduates used the word “crushing” to describe their debt burdens, stories that become even more harrowing considering that students then had it far better than today’s students in terms of student loan debt.

In 2004-2005, the first year of school for most respondents, in-state tuition was $11,118.52 for two semesters, and $23,036.52 for out-of state students. In comparison, students who completed their first year at UNC this May paid a sticker price of $21,555.98 for in-state students and $37,065.98 for out-of-state students — so it’s not hard to do the multiplication and figure that many of today’s students will still be carrying $100,000 or more in debt years after graduation.

Jen Wagner, a solo practitioner in Pennsylvania, said that she loved UNC and received a great education there and doesn’t regret her decision to attend. But she also said it was “the worst financial decision I could have made.” Law firms where she’s applied don’t view her solo practice as ideal experience, and her JD has actually made it more difficult to find work in the field where she has her PhD. Meanwhile, the debt burden from law school makes it difficult to qualify for small business loans.

“I think that any degree that costs you $100,000 — that law schools need to take a hard look at themselves,” Wagner said.

Several respondents said that they could have gotten their current job with just their bachelor’s degree and not incurred all the debt from law school.

“I feel like it was just luxury education that I paid a very high price for that has very little career opportunity compared to the cost,” said one graduate who declined to be identified.

Clearly, many graduates were making the same cost-benefit analysis, with plenty of voices on each side. Many studies of law school graduates, including this one, have focused on their earning power, but salary is obviously not everything — nor is the encouraging finding that most graduates now have jobs in which they are practicing law. UNC and other top law schools draw from a very promising pool of candidates. The question is whether the salaries graduates are earning are high enough to justify the high cost of earning a law degree—particularly once things like job security and career satisfaction are accounted for.

Again, these results can only be extrapolated so far. Response bias may inflate the numbers just a touch, and because of rising tuition bills and the economic carnage of the Great Recession, they may not even be applicable to more recent alumni of the same school. But given the near-total absence of data about what’s been happening to law school graduates beyond their first year after graduation, they provide some sorely needed answers — and some important new questions.

Other interesting findings

As a proxy for job satisfaction, we asked whether alumni were currently seeking a job other than the one they had now. Only 15.3 percent said that they were.

Two-thirds of all respondents said they were working at a law firm. Their responses illustrate the increasingly bimodal nature of law firm size. Nine percent were working as solo practitioners and another 27 percent were working in firms of 2 to 10 attorneys. On the other end of the spectrum, another 27 percent were working for firms with more than 500 attorneys. Only 36 percent were working for firms with anywhere from 11 to 500 attorneys.

Sixteen percent of all respondents were working in government, with exactly half of those working at the state level.

A note about our motivation

There’s a reason we chose the 2007 graduating class at UNC for this survey: It’s the class that I graduated with. Our idea was that my personal connections with my classmates, along with social media like Facebook and LinkedIn, would help us get a more inclusive picture of that class. Our hope was to hear from everyone, not just the graduates who went on to become practicing attorneys.