Job, Tuition Woes A Drain On Law Schools

The American Bar Association has changed how law schools report their post-graduation employment stats. The bottom line: Job prospects are worse than previously thought for newly minted lawyers. But while the number of recent law school grads with jobs is falling, tuition is not.

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We imagine high-powered lawyers making plenty of money, and surely many do, but the American Bar Association has revealed a bit of a secret. A huge number of new law school graduates cannot find jobs as lawyers. The weak job outlook, coupled with high tuition, is prompting many students to think twice about law school. Enrollments are falling. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: For years, law schools have had to report employment data, and schools routinely said that 90 percent or more of their graduates had jobs nine months after graduation. It turns out they were including barista positions, low-level marketing gigs, or just about anything else you could call a job. Now, says Scott Norberg of the Bar Association, schools have to be specific about what jobs their grads are getting.

SCOTT NORBERG: Whether those jobs are full time or part time, whether it's a law firm, a business, academia.

KAUFMAN: And overall, the picture that emerges isn't very pretty.

KYLE MCENTEE: The numbers are jarring. They put into perspective just how poorly graduates are doing.

KAUFMAN: That's Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency, a non-profit organization.

MCENTEE: At some schools, less than a third of their graduating class were obtaining long-term, full-time legal jobs.

KAUFMAN: Historically, getting a law degree was often a ticket to a high-paying job, or at least financial security, with the most sought-after new grads getting starting salaries of $150,000 or more. But those days may be over. A new study reveals that since 2009, the median starting salary in private practice has fallen 35 percent. But while salaries and placement rates are declining, law school tuition is not. And with annual fees often in the 30 or $40,000 range, students are taking on enormous debt.

Professor Paul Karen, who writes a popular law blog, recalls a recent evening out with a new law school grad.

PAUL KAREN: And his fiancee was talking about how concerned she was that he was coming into the marriage with well over six figures of debt. And he's one of the lucky ones because, I mean, he at least has a good job.

KAUFMAN: Taking on that kind of debt might have made sense when job prospects were rosy. Now, it's a tougher proposition. So why does law school cost so much? Some point to generous student loan programs that made it easier for schools to raise tuition. They note high faculty salaries, and they point to the Bar Association's accrediting standards. Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency puts it this way.

MCENTEE: The ABA requires that every school be the Lexus of law schools. It's very difficult for a school to become an affordable car or an affordable school.

JOHN O'BRIEN: I don't buy that at all.

KAUFMAN: John O'Brien is the dean at New England Law, Boston, and he's chair of the Bar Association's group on legal education. And he points to a 2009 federal report that suggests a much bigger factor is the quest for a high ranking.

O'BRIEN: The more money you spend per student, the higher your ranking is going to be.

KAUFMAN: And so, he says, at many schools...

O'BRIEN: There is a tendency to spend money that really, I think, doesn't need to be spent.

KAUFMAN: Whatever the reason, there's increasing pressure on schools to hold the line on tuition. Students themselves are voting with their feet. First year enrollments were down more than 7 percent last year, and are expected to be down again this year. Law professor Karen says the competition for students is now keener than ever.

KAREN: It's like used car lot.

KAUFMAN: Prospective law students are haggling for scholarship money, and schools are doing whatever it takes to close the deal. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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