Deciding on Law School: Get the Info Before You Apply & Use It!

Not to be confused with business school itself, the business of law schoolhas been getting a fair share of attention lately:

•  Just last weekend, in an article in The New York Times, Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!, David Segal wrote that “[l]egal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history. . . In short, law schools have the power to raise prices and expand in ways that would make any company drool. And when a business has that power, it is apparently difficult to resist.”

•  Commenting on a May 2011 NYT article, Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Law Schools Win, the WSJ Law Blog posted that “some schools lure top students with offers of merit scholarships that pay thousands of dollars annually. The schools bolster their U.S. News rankings by attracting academic overachievers, but there’s a catch: the students must maintain high GPAs to retain their scholarships, which students often are unable to do partly because schools grade on a curve, thus ensuring that only a small percentage of student will earn the sort of grades needed to retain their scholarship money, according to the Times.”

•  Last year, two Vanderbilt law students started an effort — Law School Transparency — to collect more accurate employment data from law schools.

•  The ABA Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has taken steps to approve new standards to report law school placement data.  The new reporting rules, which have been reported on extensively by Law School Transparency, will require schools to report jobs data on whether a new J.D. grad is employed in a job requiring bar passage, in a job for which a J.D. is preferred, in another professional job, in a nonprofessional job, or in a job of unknown type. For those that are not employed, the categories of possible responses are will be pursuing a graduate degree, unemployed not seeking, unemployed seeking, or status unknown. In addition, the schools will have to report if the jobs are full time or part time and long term or short term. Schools will also need to indicate the number of jobs that are funded by the law school or university. Jobs will be broken down further in law firms of various sizes, business and industry, government, public interest, judicial clerkships, academia, and employer type unknown.

•  At least for the first year with these new standards, the ABA will be partnering with the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) to try to get accurate post-graduate employment data to prospective law students.  Now let’s hope they use it.

•  In June 2011, Robert Morse, Director of Data Research for U.S.News & World Report and Editor of the US News Rankings, posted the following on the magazine’s website:  “[t]here is a very strong likelihood that U.S. News will change the way it computes “at graduation” and “nine months after graduation” legal placement rates that will be used in the methodology for the upcoming 2013 edition of the Best Law Schools rankings, as a result of recent action taken by the American Bar Association.”

For those considering law school and for those about to apply this fall, the take-away here remains the same.  Placement rates matter.  A lot (especially if you’re going to borrow money to pay for school).  Look closely at the placement data of the law schools you apply to, weigh carefully the risk of taking on six-figure educational debt, especially given the uncertainty of a challenging legal job market and read the fine print of any merit scholarship award.  In deciding which school you’ll attend, think about what you want to do with your law degree, and be realistic about your chances to service that debt on graduation.  We covered this topic back in December 2009 in our post, Due Diligence and Reasonable Expectations Before You Go to Law School and in posts since then.

Treat the decision of where you go to law school as you would any investment of your time and money.  In our podcast Financing Your JD: How to Pay For Law School, Assistant Dean of Enrollment Services at Fordham School of Law, Stephen Brown, says law school is an investment and you should treat it as such. “It can be a good or bad investment, depending on what you’re looking to do with your life, depending on your choices. So pay attention to this as you would at any other investment. You find people to do more research on cars than law school, so that’s important.”