Is law school worth it? A dean looks behind the numbers

By Robert Ackerman: The economic downturn has brought with it an escalation of concern regarding the value of a legal education. Law school tuition (and with it, student indebtedness) continues to increase, even as jobs at big firms are not nearly as prevalent as they once were, or appeared to be.

(By Robert M. Ackerman, Dean and Professor of Law, Wayne State University Law School)

A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a multi-page article, featuring a law school graduate who had racked up some $250,000 in debt, and had yet to find permanent employment. The term “return on investment” has finally made its way from the business world into academia. Yet despite all the hand-wringing, I believe that prospective law students have far more control over the accumulation of debt and their career prospects than many people suppose. And even in a challenging economy law school can be a winning proposition.

When our Career Services office reported an employment rate of 90.8 percent for 2009 graduates as of nine months after graduation, I considered it a good showing in light of the economic downturn. Then I learned that other law schools were reporting employment rates approaching 100 percent.

The problem is not that law school deans lie about employment data; the problem is that law schools have gone to great lengths to adapt to the criteria of U.S. News & World Report, a publication that has become the de facto arbiter of academic quality. One can claim (as another dean did in the Times article) that “a dean who pays attention to the U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; he’s making the school better,” but that is true only if you really believe that the U.S. News criteria represent the best standards in legal education.

When I arrived at Wayne State University Law School, the dean’s office was in need of a paint job. I was upset about the bill, until I realized that the expense would increase our expenditures-per-student, a factor in the U.S. News rankings. Indeed, were I to repaint my office each month, Wayne Law would be a better law school in the eyes of U.S. News.

True, any dean who ignores U.S. News does so at his/her peril. At Wayne Law, however, we have resisted the temptation to distort our academic program to enhance our U.S. News data, notwithstanding my interior decorating efforts. We refused to dilute the quality of our part-time program by admitting students with weaker credentials than our full-time students. We have yet to hire our own graduates into temporary, dead-end jobs to bolster our employment statistics. You will not find employment-at-graduation figures for Wayne Law in U.S. News, because we believe that the figures we and many other law schools have available at that time are inaccurate and unstable.

Like all law schools, we use LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs as major factors in admissions. Unlike U.S. News, we do not use these numbers as the sole determinants of student qualifications.

U.S. News understandably endeavors to use objective, measurable data. The problem is that academic quality cannot be measured solely by the numbers. The adage is true: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Our students at Wayne are remarkable for their maturity and altruism (a rare combination), but no measure employed by U.S. News accounts for these characteristics. And the shaping of law school admission standards to conform to U.S News criteria has had a disturbing impact on racial and economic diversity in American law schools.

Even Wayne Law’s 90.8 percent overall employment figure requires analysis. Actually, 83.1 percent of our 2009 graduates had jobs at the nine-month mark. U.S. News arrives at its 90.8 percent figure by adding those pursuing other degrees to the numerator and subtracting those not seeking work from the denominator.

About two-thirds of our graduates work in private law firms. For the class graduating in 2009, 71 percent of our graduates obtained jobs for which bar passage was required or preferred, with an additional 9.3 percent in other professional positions. Five graduates are in “non-professional” positions. At the nine-month mark, 10 of our recent graduates had hung out their own shingles, about twice as many as in non-recession years. Several of these people have now obtained jobs at law firms.

U.S. News lists median salaries, but again we should examine the underlying data. Of Wayne Law’s 126 graduates from the Class of 2009 reporting employment in the private sector, only 45 have reported their salaries to us. I suspect that those with higher salaries are more likely to report this data than their lower salaried peers, so I do not put too much stock in our $100,000 median salary figure for those employed in the private sector. This suggests that notwithstanding earnest efforts to collect data, the U.S. News employment figures (and the rankings based on them) should not be taken at face value.

The average salary (public and private employers) of recent Wayne Law grads ($77,900) remains higher than the average debt at graduation ($67,029). While significant, this debt would appear manageable. Of course, averages are just that. They mean little to a graduate who is unemployed or who has incurred six-figure debt, from law school or prior undergraduate studies.

In light of this, I advise prospective law students as follows:

  • Do not apply to law school if money is your primary motivation. There are easier ways to make money. The law is a profession requiring hard work, intellectual ability and the desire to serve others. Apply to law school if you are intellectually curious about the law, if you have a passion for justice, and if you want to help people.

  • Apply to a range of law schools. One benign consequence of the rankings scramble is that lower-ranked law schools offer substantial scholarships to candidates who will improve the schools’ LSAT and GPA medians. So a good student who is not in thrall to the rankings is likely to find a law school that will allow her to obtain a good legal education without incurring crippling debt.

  • When in law school, maintain control over your expenditures. A student who tries to live the lifestyle of a lawyer while in law school may find herself living the lifestyle of a student after graduation.  Avoid extravagant travel; maintain a healthy but inexpensive diet; stay in shape by running instead of skiing. Enjoy the simple pleasures, and save the big-ticket items for later.

  • While a Big Law firm paying six-figure starting salaries may be your cup of tea, don’t obligate yourself to obtain this type of employment if you were motivated to study law for other reasons. Many lawyers find fulfillment working in smaller law firms, in government or for public interest organizations. Some find their degrees useful in business or education. The advantage of a professional degree is that it makes you the master of your own fate, and expands your career options. The idea is to make a living, not a killing, and to make a contribution along the way.

In short, proper motivation, prudent choice of law school, careful debt management and conscious career choices can make law school a winning proposition. It’s not for everybody, but our profession continues to welcome motivated, altruistic, intelligent men and women. Our society requires no less.