Law schools release a decent amount of information about their graduates’ prospects, so it’s easy to think you’re getting the full story.
You’re probably not.
Schools fudge data in a variety of ways, but the most common approach is simply not to report unflattering information on graduates’ salaries.
How Law Schools Fudge Their Employment Numbers
For example, if a school reports a 98% employment rate nine months after graduation, and a median starting salary of $145,000, that looks pretty impressive, right? The average applicant might assume they were almost guaranteed a job paying around $145,000 within nine months of graduation.
Not so fast. Let’s read the fine print:
Employment statistics include full-time and part-time jobs. Salary statistics are full-time only for those who reported salary information.
Hum, what does this mean? Two things, both of which make the median staring salary data essentially worthless.
- First, only graduates with full-time jobs are included in the starting salary data. So, if you’ve managed to cobble together a part-time minimum wage job or two, or if you’re participating in a “post graduate fellowship” created by the school to provide 20 hours per week of work for a few months, the school is counting you as employed for the purposes of their 98% employment rate. However, they’re not letting your crummy salary drag down their median starting salary data.
- Second, the median starting salary data only includes people “who reported salary information.” This might seem like a harmless statement of the blindingly obvious, but it’s not. At school after school, the number of graduates reporting salary data is much lower than the number of people reporting employment information. So, the $145,000 median starting salary might be based on data from half, or fewer, of the graduates. Who do you think is more likely to report their starting salary — someone who’s working at a large firm for $160,000 and feels pretty pleased with themselves, or someone who’s doing contract work in a basement for $20/hour? Chances are good it’s the former, and rumor has it that schools aren’t exactly going out of their way to ensure 100% participation from less well-paid graduates.
Unless you know that a very high percentage of a school’s graduating class reported their salary information (and that it’s been audited for accuracy), it’s safe to assume that the actual median starting salary is lower than what the school’s reporting. (And, as you know, almost no one makes the median salary anyway.)
Similarly, unless the school provides the breakdown of part-time versus full-time positions, and provides the type of job, it’s safe to assume that not all of those “employed” are working full-time in jobs that require a law degree.
So What Should I Do?
Basically, you can’t trust the numbers. You have to actually talk to recent graduates and find out what their job prospects look like.
How do you find these people?
You could try asking the school, but they’re unlikely to refer you to anyone who will give you an objective opinion.
A better approach is to locate current students on your own, using the information on student groups that most schools post on their websites. Many of these organizations have their own web pages, with contact information. Voila! These student leaders probably have a pretty good handle on their employment prospects, and those of their classmates.
However you find your targets, a simple email saying you’re considering applying to the law school they attended and wanted to get some on-the-ground information about their experience is likely to yield useful feedback fairly quickly.
Keep in mind, however, that employment prospects are closely linked to the overall economy and tend to by cyclical. Someone who graduated in a booming economy will have a very different story to share than someone who graduated during a recession.
Gather information, but put it into context.
Finally, educate yourself. The Law School Transparency Project is a great starting point, but there’s tons of other information out there.
Do your research, and know what you’re getting into.
And trust no one. (Just kidding, sort of.)
More myths about law school, coming right up!
- Law School Myth #1: Lawyers Make a Lot of Money
- Law School Myth #2: Student Loan Debt is Good Debt
- Law School Myth #3: Law School Gives You Three More Years to Decide What to Do With Your Life
- Law School Myth #4: Life as a Lawyer is Exciting and Intellectually Challenging
- Law School Myth #5: Getting a Law Degree Opens Lots of Doors
- Law School Myth #6: You Can Trust a Law School’s Employment Numbers
Have stories about manipulated employment numbers? Leave them in the comments!
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