On Oct. 13, two United States senators sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education inspector general, requesting an analysis of American law schools. U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., asked the DOE to take a closer look at growing enrollments, increasing tuition and poor job placement.
In the past year, the American Bar Association has become the target of increasing complaints that it has not done enough to ensure students are making informed decisions about attending law school. This year, the National Association for Law Placement released key findings stating 2010 was the worst job market for law school graduates since the mid-1990s. But even knowing that, some law students say the dismal post-graduate job market had little bearing on their desire to attend law school.
A glass half full
Sharon Cruz Nichols, a 2L student at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, said she’s an idealist who realized her hopes of changing the world might require stronger credentials than her sociology degree.
“I vaguely knew that the economy was bad, but I didn’t know the statistics of post-graduate data for JDs were as dismal as they are,” she said. “At the same time, I can honestly say that the available pay rates for those graduating with a bachelor of arts in sociology were pretty dismal too, so grad school was inevitable, and, frankly, I’m grateful I chose law school.”
Alicia Ivy, a 2L student at Valparaiso University School of Law, said her aunt – who had been the director of the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center – was the person who sparked her interest in becoming a lawyer. So she had planned to attend law school all along, regardless of the job market.
“When I decided to go to law school, I had already done one year of interning at the Lake County prosecutor’s office, so that helped a little bit, but I hadn’t really looked into employment or anything before I applied.” She said that even if she had been aware of the poor post-graduation employment numbers, she still would have pursued her dream.
“I sort of look on the brighter side and hope for the best, so it wouldn’t have deterred me from going to law school,” Ivy said.
Lance Ladendorf, a 3L student at IU School of Law – Indianapolis, said that when he applied to law school, he was more interested in law school rankings than employment data. Even so, he said he thinks that numbers rarely tell the whole story. As an example, he said that while his school may rank lower than some others, he knows that he has access to some of the best clinics and externships in the Midwest.
Of his peers, Ladendorf said, “There is always a ‘glass-half-empty’ subset that don’t expect anything to go their way, but most of them I find to be cautiously optimistic. The majority feel their law school clerkships or associateships will materialize into something to do after receiving the degree and (presumably) passing the bar exam, if not with those firms then with others through the power of references.”
J. Brock Herr is hoping to land in a non-traditional legal career when he graduates from the IU School of Law – Indianapolis in 2012. He turned down a full-time paid position with Teach for America before enrolling in law school – a decision that he says would have been harder to make, had he known about job prospects for law school graduates.
Herr said he had hoped the economy would rebound before he graduated. But during his first semester, as he began searching for summer internships, he began to realize just how bad the job market was.
“Through conversations with personal attorney contacts and the law school’s Office of Professional Development staff, I learned that many firms in the wake of the 2008 collapse were bloated with associate attorneys and sought to trim down. … Unfortunately, this same trend trickled down to the summer intern and first-year associate levels also.”
Loan debt a top concern
Like many of her peers, Ashley Murray said she had always been determined to study law. “However, I will say that many lawyers that I knew discouraged me repeatedly from attending law school.”
Murray, a 2L student at Valparaiso University School of Law, said practicing lawyers warned her that she would accumulate a lot of debt going to law school – about $40,000 in annual tuition at the private university. She researched in advance what the placement rate was for law grads at Valparaiso, which at the time was 85 percent within nine months of graduation.
“Looking back on the confidence I had in those statistics only just over a year ago, I have to admit I feel silly putting so much stock in them,” she said. If she had known how difficult it is to find a law job, she would have considered attending school part time to reduce the financial burden.
“When I graduate, I’ll have over $150,000 in student loans just from law school – that doesn’t include my undergraduate loans or the law study abroad I did.”
Murray said she thinks the ABA needs to present a more realistic picture to students.
“As I said, many law students like myself would still have attended law school, we would have just taken a different, more fiscally responsible route to achieve our ultimate goal of completing law school.”
Ellen Winterheimer, a 3L student at IU School of Law – Indianapolis, said many students worry about how they will manage their student loan debt.
“People are freaking out,” she said. “I think people are more concerned about paying off their loans, because at this point, we’re overqualified for certain jobs, but underqualified for a lot of legal jobs that are requiring three years of experience.”
Looking for guidance
Valparaiso law student Charles Bush said he would like to see students getting more input about how to search for jobs. “A lot of that you have to learn for yourself,” he said.
Bush missed job application deadlines as he waited for his fall grades, unaware that many firms stop accepting applications in January. He said any advice would be helpful for students. “Maybe just something that says: apply first semester, and send your grades after you get them.”
Cruz Nichols said that she has been working for the Marion County prosecutor’s office for more than a year – for free – and while she hopes that experience will lead to full-time employment, she’s not sure how she will manage her loan debt, working in public interest law.
“I’d like there to be more information about how law students are supposed to repay our student loan debts,” she said. “I hear that there is a public interest repayment program – pay back what you can for 10 years and the rest of it is forgiven, so long as you stay in public interest – but such programs are threatened by the government budget cutting.”
Ladendorf said he has few regrets about attending law school, and he has some advice for prospective students.
“… I would advise prospective law students today to not only weigh job-related statistics that schools report when deciding on a law school, but also to read the growing body of news exposés on exaggerated (and according to some, allegedly fraudulent) employment data in order to critically assess whether any particular law school is worth the considerable cost of a modern legal education.”•