Beware the law-school scam

Non-elite law schools are a scam, write unemployed law-school graduates on a growing number of web sites, including: Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor and Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition,.

Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at St. John’s University, is sympathetic.

Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years.

It’s been going on for years, Tamanaha writes. The recession just made it worse, spreading the pain into the lower reaches of elite schools.

The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures—96% employed—by counting as “employed” any job at all, legal or non-legal, including part time jobs, including unemployed graduates hired by the school as research assistants (or by excluding unemployed graduates “not currently seeking” a job, or by excluding graduates who do not supply employment information). They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page—“average starting salary $125,000 private full time employment”—are actually calculated based upon only about 25% of the graduating class (although you can’t easily figure this out from the information provided by the schools).

Law schools should be honest about the employment data for recent grads, he writes.

More crucially, law schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. . . .  This will be painful: smaller raises (perhaps even salary reductions), smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel, and conferences.

Instapundit, also a law professor, links to Tamanaha and runs a letter from a law graduate, who writes,  “There are simply no jobs.”

I myself graduated in May from a very competent, middle-of-the-road law school, and probably around 75% of my class is unemployed. . . .  they’re looking at 150-200k in student loans and no employment. When I say “no employment” I don’t mean a lack of big-law, 100k associate employment. I don’t even mean that we’re having trouble getting the clerkships and government jobs that the ivy league law schools so despise. I mean nothing – there are simply no jobs.

Four years ago, my daughter researched law schools — including reading sites by law grads who were temping — and concluded that she needed to go to a top-tier law school to make sure her degree would pay off.  As a 2009 graduate of University of Chicago Law School, she got one of the last seats on the gravy train.

About Joanne


  1. How is this substantively different than other institutions of higher education?

    What is the market for teachers like? What are the employment figures for recent college graduates? What about business schools?

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    How is this substantively different than other institutions of higher education?

    I think the claim is that the difference is that the Law Schools publish numbers on the employment rates of the graduates and average salaries that they *know* to be false [note that this is the claim … I’m not saying that I have verified it].

    What I find kinda interesting is that it seems that a number of these kids (young adults) agreed to take on up to $200K in non-dischargable debt without bothering to verify the claims. It seems very similar to going deeply into debt to buy a house because the *seller* claims that the house will appreciate at 10% per year forever. Without checking the claim yourself.


    -Mark Roulo

  3. For some interesting reality-based fiction along these lines, try reading John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker.” If it in any way mirrored Grisham’s own experience, then the decision to switch from practicing law to writing novels was a no-brainer.

  4. Dave The Professor says:

    Let’s be honest…really, this represents the “breaking” of the American dream. As we stop giving grades, using red pen, recognizing valedictorians, providing second and third chances at community colleges for life, and letting everyone go to some college somewhere – – especially those who are compassionate and sensitive and reconigze students’ life experiences for credit, we’ve broken our educational system, and as it stands today, it can not as in the past deliver on the promises of the American dream. You know, with grade inflation today, I feel sorry for all the kids out there with 4.0 averages who can’t move to the next step. I wonder if they will ever figure out how much SOCIETY has let them down by making everything easy and accessible. Sure, go ahead and get your Ph.D.! Yeah, let’s see how much that helps our society.

  5. What I find kinda interesting is that it seems that a number of these kids (young adults) agreed to take on up to $200K in non-dischargable debt without bothering to verify the claims.

    In any other endeavor, misrepresentation on that scale would be criminal fraud.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose money’s part of the reason to go into law. It would be like going into business except you don’t have to have inventory and a shop and so forth. But, it seems, you have the same expense in the form of school costs.
    IMO, there is more than money involved, which is why some supposedly sharp folks missed, or claim to have missed, the red-flagged, fire-works-spouting–bellowing eight hundred pound gorilla.
    In law, you find ways to make somebody else do what he most certainly doesn’t want to do. You have a position of power. You can bankrupt people, ruin their families, put them in jail, and there’s not a damned thing anybody can do about it. Because you have the law on your side, one way or another.
    I think money attracts, but it would be hard to convince me that there isn’t something else, and that is the prospect of power over people.

  7. So what’s new?

    This was true in the early 80s, when I was working as a legal assistant and paralegal/legal assistant was forecasted to be the hot new career of the future. Hrummph. Any inclination I had to go to law school quickly died when I figured out that most law school grads were amongst my competition for legal assistant/paralegal jobs. To my knowledge, it hasn’t changed since then–except for the inflated cost of law school.

    I paid for my legal assistant certification by working while I went to legal assistant classes–and earned back what I spent on the certificate. Fortunately, the same thing happened for me and the teaching certificate–I paid for my teaching program up front, no loans, and I earned back what we paid on it within two years. Don’t think I could have done that in law school, even if I’d gone in the 80s.

  8. Richard Aubrey…I think *some* people go into law because of the perceived power effect, I’ve known a couple..but more, I think, do it because (a)they can’t think of anything else equally profitable to do with their verbal skills, and/or (b)they perceive law as a continuation of the programmed nature of school: do these things to the teacher’s satisfaction and you will get that reward. That constrasts with business, in which the perception is that it’s wilder and woolier, that there’s more luck of the draw and a need to maneuver cunningly in the jungle.

  9. When I was in law school – 15 years ago – stories like this were also common. The numbers now are higher, of course, but the percentages were about the same – some people were graduating with three times their starting salaries in debt, and the people worst hit were those who went to private, but not very selective, law schools.

    If aren’t going to a top 14 law school, you need to pay close attention to the costs, as in anything else. I would also think hard about going to any school that’s not in the top third, too…although there are exceptions for schools with particular regional appeal.

    I’m not sure that there are any law school “bargains,” but my alma mater, a top-25 public law school with tuition of just under ~20k/year, isn’t a bad deal.

    So, yeah, if you’ve borrowed $200k to go to an average law school, you might be screwed, at least for a while. But the key is to not go so much in debt for an average education. Just as with undergrad education.

  10. Manouhar Prabakaran says:

    The reason law school is a scam is because IT DOES NOT PREPARE YOU TO BE A LAWYER.

    When a doctor graduates he is ready to practice medicine. A dentist knows how to drill/fill teeth, a surgeon knows how to operate.

    Not so with law school grads. You have to pass a bar exam and then find out that you do not know how to file a complaint, you do not know how to conduct yourself in court, law firms do not want to train you but expect you to make them $$$$.

    This is insane. Being a first generation immigrant I had no access to lawyer friends in the family. I was sitting in law school classes wondering when I was actually going to learn PRACTICAL SKILLS.

    I never did receive anything.

    The way to solve this mess is to close all law schools and require an old fashioned apprenticeship program as it is done in the rest of the world.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kriley19, Joanne Jacobs. Joanne Jacobs said: New blog post: Beware the law-school scam […]