prospective student

A Lexus or a Lemon, or: How to Pick Your Law School

It’s a question I tend to get on occasion: “I’m planning to go to law school, I’m thinking of going to X, Y, and Z law schools . . .” OR “I’ve applied to law school and gotten into X, Y, Z law schools, what should I do?”

For the civilian turning law student, the decision is obviously one that is personally important, and certainly important for professional development reasons, too. Picking a loser of a law school can result in all of the nightmare scenarios that appear in the news almost daily (e.g., poor job prospects, high debt, and plenty of regret and buyer’s remorse to go around).

Of course, picking a “winner” of a law school these days can still conceivably leave you in the same spot, but it will make your odds a whole lot better.

You’d think that with the rigors of getting through undergrad, studying for and taking the LSAT, and making sure you perfect your law school applications, picking the law school of your dreams should be the easy part. It isn’t. The advice provided below isn’t the only way to go about picking your law school, but hopefully it will show you where your priorities should be. This advice also assumes you’re going to law school for legitimate reasons (i.e., to practice law).

First, a couple preliminary points. The law school that is sending you shiny brochures and acceptance letters is not on your side. They are trying to sell you something. Therefore, treat the information you get directly from the law school with the same scrutiny you would treat statements from a used car salesman.

Yeah, this education ain’t the best in its class, but it’ll getcha from A to B. “A” may be a promising future and “B” may be un(der)employment and insurmountable debt … but yeah, she’ll getcha from A to B.

In fact, it is my hope that after you get the acceptance letter, you put the rest of the materials they sent to the side, and look at their sales pitch last.

Second, the U.S. News & World Report Rankings aren’t going to help you. Law schools have gamed them in the past, playing fuzzy math (perhaps to the threshold of fraud) and will continue to do so in the future. As such, the starting salaries and average employed nine months after graduation numbers are illusory at best, an outright lie at worst. Here’s how you handle U.S. News & World: after you buy it, take a black Sharpie and black out the salary and employment figures. Better yet, get a friend to do it for you so you don’t unintentionally consider the value of those numbers as you black them out. If you’re going to U.S. News & World at all, you shouldn’t let the elements of the rankings that are utter horse-hooey enter into your decisionmaking.

NOTE: While it may be true that U.S. News & World report is encouraging more candid disclosures from participating law schools, law schools are still self-reporting institutions. Expect the numbers on employment and starting salaries to remain disingenuous for some time to come. Sen. Barbara Boxer is also beginning to put the heat on the ABA to compel a change to disclosure requirements, but until the ABA takes a more active regulatory stance on law schools, or until the USG subsumes the ABA’s role as a regulator, you’re not going to see any clearer transparency in law school disclosures or the publications that distribute them.

With that out of the way, here’s my preferred way to go about picking your law school. Assume for the purpose of this exercise you’ve already received a few acceptance letters (or wait-list letters for that matter). Where should you go from there?

(1) Prepare a list of questions you seriously want to know about the law schools to which you are admitted. These questions should be regarding issues you consider to be of high-priority, e.g.: (a) How well will the law school’s strengths correspond with your strengths or interests?; (b) How many people at this law school practice the kind of law you are interested in practicing?; (c) How does the social and academic atmosphere at the law school measure up to your expectations?; and so on. The more detailed understanding you have for your expectations (both academically and professionally) from law school, the more pointed questions you can prepare.

(2) Track down actual students actually attending the law schools you are considering, and reach out to them. Unlike the law school that is trying to get you to throw $100k plus at them for the privilege of attending, current law school students have no vested interest in whether you attend or not. They’re also going to be able to give you a more candid perspective of what law school is all about and, more importantly, what the specific law school you are considering attending is all about. They have to live with their decision to attend that law school every single day, for better or for worse. Of course, some students are going to have extreme views about their law school on both sides of the spectrum. Some will be virtual mouthpieces for school administration (if they start rambling on about the “versatility” of the J.D. degree, they may very well be in this group). Some will be bitter at their law school experience to the point that their claims will be highly suspect (their response may will likely be laced with profanity). Many should respond somewhere in the middle.

With the vastness of social networking (think Facebook groups, Linkedin, law school student forums) and the fact that many law schools post photos of students involved in student groups, you should be able to find a handful of law students from each school you’ve been admitted to, and (respectfully) request them to answer your questions.

NOTE: Law students are busy as hell, so if you don’t hear from them for awhile, don’t hold it against them.

(3) Track down lawyers in the family, lawyers who are your friends, lawyers who are doing the kind of thing you want to do.

Everyone knows a lawyer. You can’t swing a dead cat in this country without hitting a lawyer (and subsequently getting sued for aggravated assault with a kitteh).

Assault wit kitteh is strikt liability.

These friend and family lawyers may not be in the midst of law school, but they still operate in the legal marketplace, and they are still informed by their law school experiences. Any friends who are recent grads can spell out their job hunt experience, and hopefully help you set proper expectations as you head to law school. If any of these friends are alums of a school you are considering, seek out school-specific information. If they are school alums AND are practicing the kind of law that interests you, pry them for school-specific and career-specific guidance. For friends who aren’t recent grads: they’re advice may be less helpful, but they will have the perspective of what older, hiring lawyers might be looking for in a candidate. They should also be aware of the state of the legal market, and can tell you how many cold calls and resume letters they’re getting each month from unemployed law grads and attorneys. They can clue you in on the type of candidate getting hired, and the kind of money those candidates might be getting for their background and experience.

Most importantly, if you are finding that lawyers don’t do the kind of thing you want to do, please ask yourself why you are committing yourself to law school, and reevaluate your approach to your career. Please.

4. Visit the “scam” blogs. Seriously.

The financial collapse in 2008 had lots of unintended consequences for the market in legal education. Perhaps the least intended for law schools was that many of their brightest students, students who had worked themselves to exhaustion while in law school, were now facing unemployment. And some of them were  a little angry about it. The angriest have launched themselves into the blogosphere, playing a “Paul Revere”-type figure to prospective students, and often falling on deaf ears.

If they have something bad to say about a school you’re considering, they’ll say it.

And you owe it to yourself to investigate the worst things that can be said about the institution you are considering to call your alma mater. Start be looking for your school in a blog the likes of Third Tier Reality, a few other “scam” blogs, and if anything you read significantly concerns you, run it by the law students and friend lawyers you reached out to above. If anyone is in a position to put perspective on an angry blogger, it’s them.

The scam bloggers are the appropriate counterbalance for your prospective law school’s admissions brochures. Just like the law schools, you know what the scam blogger’s slant is going to be before you get started. The only difference is that the scam blogger isn’t asking for $100k and three years of your time.

5. Google the shit out of your law school.

Law schools make the news all the time: find out the reasons your prospective law school is making the news. Skip this step at your own peril. Skipping this step would leave you in the dark that Thomas Jefferson School of Law is getting hit with a class action suit for fraud, that “beloved” professors at Emory think the student body should be happy enough to “move to Nebraska” and join a firm where they “won’t make the big bucks”, and that George Mason’s School of Law has announced to the world that receiving an A on their transcript is completely F#$%ing meaningless.

Keep in mind, this is only news within the last couple weeks.

6. Now (and only now) should you give that glossy brochure from the law school that admitted you a good look.

Look at what the law school is promising you with a heightened degree of scrutiny, and compare it to everything you’ve heard from steps 1-5. How close does the school’s sales pitch match what you heard from their students? From family/friend lawyers? From their sworn enemies? How does the law school look in light of any recent news on it? Be skeptical. Be demanding. Remember: look at them like you’d look at a used car salesmen: if something sounds strange or doesn’t add up, you’re best not to ignore it. You will likely have an admissions contact once you get your acceptance letter– seek a reasonable explanation from them. Don’t disclose the sources who prompted your concern, especially if those sources are current students: just approach the admissions office out of position of legitimate curiosity.

Gauge any answers you get. Are they direct? Dodgy? Did they even answer your question? If the line sounds fishy and you established friendly relationship with a current student of the school, run it by them. The administrator may tout the school’s programs/clinics/fellowships, and so on– find out how easy they are to get, and how helpful they really are. They may try to show off the numerous law journals and moot court teams– take the same approach. They may brag about their curriculum in a specific area of the law– take the same approach. If that school’s  particular strength area of the law doesn’t interest you, ask about the area of the law that does. Who are the professors that teach that area of the law? What did they do prior to becoming a law professor? What do your current student contacts have to say about them? You get the idea.

I hope.

7. Are they giving you money?

If the answer is no, and their appearance is lackluster, send them to the bottom of your priorities list. If the answer is yes, and they’re providing the kind of education that matches your personal objectives, move them up. If they’re somewhere in the middle, you’ll have to use your own personal discretion.

8. Are they a regional law school, or do they have national reach?

You may or may not care about this. If you plan living in Toledo, Ohio the rest of your life, maybe you’ll be happy with the University of Toledo. But if you want to move out and get a job under the California sun, your “Made in Toledo” J.D. isn’t going to get you any special favors. Plus, even in Toledo, you’re going to be competing against lawyers from law schools that are nationally recognized.

Unless the money and quality of education are REALLY good, and you REALLY want to stay in your area, prefer the nationally recognized law schools to the regional ones.

9. Look at where you list stands, think about it really hard, sleep on it. If you wake up without any new questions or reservations, you will know the law school that is right for you.

And make sure you do all of this within the deadlines needed for you to issue a final acceptance. Naturally, you can start steps 1-4 before you’re even accepted.

Of course, this isn’t the only way go about picking a law school, it’s just one way. But, the steps here should put the right kind of information in your hands, and keep you from being led astray or entering the school-house gates with the wrong expectations.

Regardless of how you go about picking a law school, I encourage you to do so in a way that keeps your eyes open, your expectations realistic, and your concern for your own future and career development very real.

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What’s up with the legal market?

For JET alums trying to make out what exactly is up with legal education and the legal market: the Economist just had a great article that lays it all out. For frequent readers, this should be nothing you haven’t heard before: the financial crisis killed a lot of jobs, and the delay in a legal market recovery is hampered by outsourcing and clients clinging a little closer to their pocketbooks and not wanting to pay young associates.

20110507_bbp002The article, in full, is here.

[UPDATED: Things are looking better for 2016]

 

Yes, the Situation Really Can Be That Bad

This site is as much about giving prospective students a clear picture of the legal market landscape as much as it is about anything else.  And, when it comes to law school (or any other graduate level education), knowing what your end game is going to be is critical.  That’s because law school is nothing like your undergraduate years.  It’s three years of high-intensity, high-cost study — and if you don’t know what you’re going to do after that, it can be the road to ruin.

Especially now.

Even with the recession bottoming out, going to law school is more akin to playing the lottery than it is to educating yourself into prosperity.  Of course, if you lose the lottery, you don’t wind up in triple-figure debt.  If you lose out in law school, different story.

Although the economic collapse hit in late 2008, the legal market remains in the doldrums.  June’s employment numbers were again in the negative, after May added as few as 300 jobs for the pool of unemployed attorneys and law graduates from 2008-2010 to fight over.

The point in all this is simple: the legal market really doesn’t know what it is at the moment.  It doesn’t make job finding impossible — but it does mean that, more than ever before, luck is playing just as significant a role as skill, hard-work, and networking.

If you are considering law school, realize that the moment you sign up you are making a bet.  You are gambling that in three years time the employment market for legal jobs will have reached some sense of balance, and that that balance will be in your favor to get a job.

And while there are plenty of voices out there still lauding the value of a legal education, you need to recognize that if you are coming to law school, you are still taking a gamble.  And there is still the chance that you will roll snake eyes.

[UPDATED: Things are looking better for 2016]

Law School as an Investment

While the following article makes an interesting analogy to the law school investment as a Rule 10b-5 securities violation, this article is just as important to prospective students because it has all of the numbers of the current legal employment market, including: the number of graduating law students landing jobs, starting salaries, and the number of firms hiring out there to help make an informed decision on whether or not the trials, tribulations, and tremendous cost of law school are worthwhile.  Definitely worth a look.

The article can be found at AdamSmithEsq.com

Prospectives, “You may want to reconsider.”

A newly published article out of the American Bar Association features ABA Chariman for the commission studying the impact of the economic downturn on the legal profession entreating potential law students to think twice before going after a law degree.

ABA Journal article found here.

Full WSJ article found here.

Prospectives Beware: Post-Grad Employment Numbers Aren’t What They Seem

And currently two law students at Vanderbilt Law School are suggesting a way to fix that problem.

The farce of law school provided post-grad employment statistics is more than well-known, but every year plenty of prospective students flip through U.S. World & News rankings, see loads of law schools with post-grad employment in the 90% – 98% range, and convince themselves into law school without much further thought.  It’s an interesting phenomenon, as lawyers are known for being terrible with two things: mathematics, and the truth.  The result is that if you give any credence to the employment numbers law schools claim, you’re probably too much of a sucker to be a lawyer or to consider law school.

Needless to say, two law students are currently pushing a non-profit initiative to hopefully increase the flow of information to prospective students, so there are fewer people making the decision to incur the serious amount of debt and loss of time necessary to go to law school in the haze of unreliable law school provided statistics.

Their current organization is called Law School Transparency, and is can be found here.

For further reading, see the Above the Law column on the pair.

For further reading on law school statistic manipulation, see Lies, Damn Lies and Law School Employment Statistics

Updated to add:  The ABA has also taken note of the effort for increased transparency in post-grad employment numbers.

Presentation to Returnees : Taking the JET Experience into the Legal Field

Certainly this site isn’t the only one looking to help JETs take their time in Japan and segue into the legal marketplace.  Last month, there was a presentation at the Tokyo Returnee’s Conference specifically aimed at JETs considering legal careers.

The slides are posted here, and have some great information, including:

  • A list of foreign law firms that employ in Tokyo;
  • A list of possible legal careers, and;
  • A list of the qualifications necessary for a legal career in the various JET participating countries.

Happy reading!

$0.02 for the Prospective Student

So you graduated from a great school, and are now off on you adventure in Japan.  Teaching tomorrow’s English speakers, mingling with an eclectic blend of newly minted (or maybe not so newly minted) college grads, and being the recipient of a unique and deep cultural experience are what joining JET is all about.  And now, your time on JET is winding down, and you find yourself wondering: What’s next?

After a pause, you think, perhaps, a law degree is a way to go.  After all, you’re international, intelligent, and adaptable– and now, you’re intercultural!   What better use of your time than to take that and turn it all into a law degree?  Well, much like the prior to joining the JET experience, when you didn’t know you’d be sorting your garbage into eight different categories, dealing with frozen pipes, or fending off mukade the size of your arm, the expectations you bring with you to a possible legal career can conflict starkly with reality.

This post isn’t designed to discourage you from going to law school, but to make sure that, if doing law after JET is a choice you are entertaining, that that decision should be an informed one.

First of all, a couple words of encouragement — You Can Get Into Law School.

Especially if you start early.  As a JET, you have the time and the potential flexibility to make a committed, concentrated effort to study for the LSATs, to look through school rankings, to contact current and past law students and get a read on exactly where you want to study, what you might want to practice, and where your law school education might take you.  This is true even if you’re a one-shot (as I was).  With a few months of concentrated study, you can handle the LSAT, get an account set up on LSAC, and start applying to law schools.  You even have the time and ability to go through your applications several times, consider what you want to highlight in your personal statements, and contact the right people to submit letters of recommendation for you.

The benefit of being on JET and looking to get into law school is time.  While your fellow law school applicants may be hard at work, or trying to multi-task a law school application with married life, children, and keeping down a job– you have, conceivably, less on your plate to distract you, and that will pay off for you in the end.

Secondly, You Can Do Law School.  That is, if you want to.

The nature of the work in law school won’t kill you.  If you can read and do some critical reasoning, you can handle law school.  I promise.  Moreover, law school will turn you into stronger writer and a more efficient reader within a matter of a few weeks.  Perhaps spending the last two years singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in front of small children has also removed any apprehensions you might have of being called on in a classroom environment– which is sure to happen in law school, and what’s more on a regular basis.

Unless you make intentional and deliberate effort to ignore your classroom obligations and impending exams, you can make law school work for you.

The question that remains, then, is do you really want to?  Do you really want to do law school?

Before signing on to my law school career, I made an effort to seek out every friend I’d ever had that had ever gone through the law school experience.  I had already gone through LSATs, the application process, and was receiving my offers from the schools I had applied to, and wanted to tap into their law school experience and insight, to help inform my ultimate decision on a school.  I even received one email from a law student I had not met before, with what seemed to me to be a fairly direct admonition:

First, a threshold matter: Are you REALLY sure you want to go through with this? Law school is not for the faint of heart. This is an ugly, unglamorous profession. Do not come to law school because you think you might want to do “something” with a law degree. That is delusional. Come to law school because you want to come out and become a practicing attorney. Before you think of accepting any of those offers, I STRONGLY URGE–INSIST– that you get in touch with a family friend who is an attorney and talk to him about the profession.

My obvious answer to this question was: “Yes.”  I’d already jumped through all the hoops to go into law school.  I’d already turned in my “will not renew” contract slip to the Board of Education.  My course was set, and I wasn’t changing it.  Nor do I regret my decision to come to law school.  My uninvited messenger, however, did raise a good point: unlike JET, law school is a hard, three year commitment.  Unlike JET, law school is going to push you, and hard, for all three of those years.  Unlike JET, you may have to…

Treat law school like a job. Go to work in the morning. Put in a full, honest days’ work. Go home, and rest. The fact that you’ve been out “in the world” for a while is a huge benefit. Your sectionmates (who may not even really want to be in law school, but are using it as a way to escape the real world for a few years) will not have the coping skills that you will have developed outside school.

Unlike JET, you will have some feedback on your performance, and that feedback will have a direct impact on whether or not your J.D. will land you a legal job after law school.  What’s worse, your grades are not necessarily a reflection of how much you know, but how much more you know compared to your classmates.  As my unsolicited informer put it:

Law school evaluation is un-American. Not only are examinations terminal assessments–your whole grade is in a single exam– but the grades themselves are awarded on a fairly inflexible curve. No matter how good you feel about your exam, no matter how well you think you know the law–that doesn’t matter nearly as well as how well or poorly your section-mates did on the same exam. Like it or not, you are going to be ranked according to your performance on a single arbitrary problem that will test your ability to apply “the law” to a ridiculous set of hypothetical facts.

If you are in Japan, talk to your Japanese colleagues about “exam hell” and their experiences with juku. That is the world you are about to inhabit. Be warned.

Of course, the irony of the law school grading curve is that no one ever fails law school.  With minimal half-assed good faith effort, even the lowest scorer will likely end up with C, unless they deliberately try to derail their own education.  The only catch is that employers know this, too.

Which brings me to precisely why I’m writing this post, and why you should really ask yourself whether or not you want to go through this law school experience.  Everything prior to this is nothing more than a fair warning, that yes, law school is challenging and frightful mess, but also doable and potentially vastly rewarding.  The real thing you need to ask yourself is, if I do this– if I go through law school, what is waiting for me on the other side?

This is where I found myself three years ago, as I was scheduling for the LSAT, reading U.S. News & World Rankings, and being confronted with law school website language like:

Each year more than 98 percent of graduates report employment within nine months after graduation. We have one of the highest placement rates in the country. And you can connect with our more than 9,000 alumni who are working in all 50 states and around the world.

You won’t be buried up to your eyebrows in debt upon graduation… a large percentage of students receive scholarships from the College.

The above language is taken from one of many law schools out there, but it’s overall representative of the whole.  The sales pitch is undeniably good – High placement? Low debt? Moving into a career and getting paid more?  Where do I sign?

It wasn’t until I entered law school that I realized I had forgotten the conventional knowledge that lawyers, by their very nature, are sketchy on two things: mathematics, and the truth.  The reality is, the law degree does less to set the one who holds it apart than you might think, and when it comes to the job search, you’re about as visible as a rain drop in the ocean.  Add to that, the economic collapse and subsequent lay-offs that went with it mean you’re not just a raindrop in the ocean, but the ocean is also getting flooded by melting ice caps.  The law student now not only has to compete with a crowded and choked legal market, but now also has to deal with a market crowded with actual attorneys, laid-off and looking for work.  This year, my school’s class of 200-some 3Ls has 20 students employed in a legal position, and only five weeks of their law school careers remain.  This isn’t because these 3Ls did not do their homework, did not seek out legal employment, or are somehow unqualified.  The jobs just simply aren’t there.

I write this not as a complaint- but as a word of caution.  If you’re really thinking about law school, know that it’s going to be a challenge — not just while you’re there — but after you graduate.  Law school is no longer the golden ticket to a stable career that it once was.  Graduating law school with the coveted $100k salary and big firm position is becoming an increasingly rare, increasingly unstable phenomenon.  What’s worse, some places may seek to compensate you an amount akin to a high school employee’s wage.

So, if you’re going to go after a law degree, I sincerely wish you the best of luck.  Law school is an intensely rewarding experience that will work you to your limits, should you choose to go for it.  But, more importantly, should you choose to do it, your hard work will not end in the classroom, in those long nights in the library, or odds are, even after you graduate.

But, as a former JET, you have an incredible community out there you can tap– and both the coping mechanisms and network waiting to help you make your legal education into something you can enjoy.  And that’s precisely why this blog is here.