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IF there is ever a class in how to remain calm while trapped beneath $250,000 in loans, Michael Wallerstein ought to teach it.
Here he is, sitting one afternoon at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a tall, sandy-haired, 27-year-old radiating a kind of surfer-dude serenity. His secret, if that’s the right word, is to pretty much ignore all the calls and letters that he receives every day from the dozen or so creditors now hounding him for cash.
“And I don’t open the e-mail alerts with my credit score,” he adds. “I can’t look at my credit score any more.”
Mr. Wallerstein, who can’t afford to pay down interest and thus watches the outstanding loan balance grow, is in roughly the same financial hell as people who bought more home than they could afford during the real estate boom. But creditors can’t foreclose on him because he didn’t spend the money on a house.
He spent it on a law degree. And from every angle, this now looks like a catastrophic investment. Well, every angle except one: the view from law schools. To judge from data that law schools collect, and which is published in the closely parsed U.S. News and World Report annual rankings, the prospects of young doctors of jurisprudence are downright rosy.
In reality, and based on every other source of information, Mr. Wallerstein and a generation of J.D.’s face the grimmest job market in decades. Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. Associates have been laid off, partners nudged out the door and recruitment programs have been scaled back or eliminated.
And with corporations scrutinizing their legal expenses as never before, more entry-level legal work is now outsourced to contract temporary employees, both in the United States and in countries like India. It’s common to hear lawyers fret about the sort of tectonic shift that crushed the domestic steel industry decades ago.
But improbably enough, law schools have concluded that life for newly minted grads is getting sweeter, at least by one crucial measure. In 1997, when U.S. News first published a statistic called “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation,” law schools reported an average employment rate of 84 percent. In the most recent U.S. News rankings, 93 percent of grads were working — nearly a 10-point jump.
In the Wonderland of these statistics, a remarkable number of law school grads are not just busy — they are raking it in. Many schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000. That seems highly unlikely, given that Harvard and Yale, at the top of the pile, list the exact same figure.
How do law schools depict a feast amid so much famine?
“Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm,” says William Henderson of Indiana University, one of many exasperated law professors who are asking the American Bar Association to overhaul the way law schools assess themselves. “Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty.”
IT is an open secret, Professor Henderson and others say, that schools finesse survey information in dozens of ways. And the survey’s guidelines, which are established not by U.S. News but by the American Bar Association, in conjunction with an organization called the National Association for Law Placement, all but invite trimming.
A law grad, for instance, counts as “employed after nine months” even if he or she has a job that doesn’t require a law degree. Waiting tables at Applebee’s? You’re employed. Stocking aisles at Home Depot? You’re working, too.
Number-fudging games are endemic, professors and deans say, because the fortunes of law schools rise and fall on rankings, with reputations and huge sums of money hanging in the balance. You may think of law schools as training grounds for new lawyers, but that is just part of it.
Maybe 7-8 years ago, I met with a reporter from the Indiana Lawyer trying to get her to write an article on the bad attorney job market and how law schools lie about employment and salaries. I told her the attorney job market was completely saturated and there was no demand for attorneys. I even brought an example with me...an attorney who struggled for years to get any sort of job.
The reporter was flabbergasted. She was certain the attorney job market was good and that my friend was an exception. She claimed there was a high demand for many legal jobs, such as divorce attorneys. She had no clue what she was talking about.
During that time I also conversed with the placement offfice of the IU Law School at Indianapolis. I challenged the statistics they were touting to prospective students and even asked for the response forms from new graduates they said support their numbers. They refused to provide me with that documentation and IU faculty members ridiculed graduates complaining of the job market as having personal failures that would be overcome if they exerted more effort..
Since that meeting with the Indiana Lawyer reporter there has been a string of articles detailing the realities of the legal job market. Law school employment lies are also being finally exposed.
One wonders when the Indiana State Bar Association will finally get off its collective ass and do something on behalf of attorneys, i.e. call law schools out for their lies about employment prospects in the profession. When will the ISBA stop turning a deaf ear to the attorneys' complaints that the job market is completely saturated and that associate salaries have been stagnant for decades? By its own inaction, ISBA is defending a fraud perpetrated upon those who decide to go to law school.