The barren job market for law school grads has become a familiar reality by now. But here’s something that tends to get lost in the story: The problem isn’t just about no-name law schools churning out JD’s nobody wants to hire. Even graduates at some of the country’s top programs are struggling.
At this point, it seems, there are only a small handful of schools that could reasonably be called safe bets.
The American Bar Association recently released its annual collection of jobs placement data from all 202 accredited law schools, and the big picture was, as expected, dreadful. Nine months after graduation, just 56 percent of the class of 2012 had found stable jobs in law — meaning full-time, long-term employment in a position requiring bar passage, or a judicial clerkship, i.e. the sorts of jobs people go to law school for in the first place. The figure had improved just 1 percent compared to the class of 2011.
Meanwhile, a full 27.7 percent were underemployed, meaning they were either in short-term or part-time jobs, jobless and hunting for work, or enrolled (read: burning cash) in another degree program.
At some of the most prestigious law schools in the country, the numbers were only marginally better. Below, I’ve listed the top 25 programs in the U.S. News rankings,* along with their underemployment score as calculated by Law School Transparency. Past the top 9, underemployment hits double digits. Outside of the top 15, it mostly hovers around 20 percent.*
Could this just be a sign the U.S. News rankings are way off and don’t really reflect the job market? In part, yes. The magazine’s annual list does incorporate employment outcomes as part of its formula, and some law firms pay an absurd amount of attention to it. But after going back through the data and ranking the 25 schools with the lowest underemployment, I found that only 15 of them could be found in the U.S. News Top 25. The other 10 included schools like number #76 LSU and number #126 Campbell University.
In the end, though, the numbers are still bad no matter how you define the “good schools.” Only 31 institutions had an underemployment rate under 15 percent. Just 66, or less than a third, have an underemployment rate below 20 percent.* And in some cases, the numbers actually obscure just how tough the market is. Many schools have taken to hiring their own graduates, or funding fellowships for them to help smooth their transition into the working world. One of the big reasons the University of Virginia has the lowest underemployment ranking is that 15 percent of its graduates are in jobs funded by the school. That’s a heck of a lot better than leaving them out to dry, and some of those fellowships, which include jobs on Capitol Hill and with nonprofits, will likely lead to bigger and better opportunities. But it gives you a sense of the challenges grads — and their schools — are facing.
If we were talking about undergraduate students, these numbers wouldn’t seem quite as awful. But JD’s consistently dive six figures into debt and give up three years of other opportunities for an education that prepares them with a very specific, not-so-easily transferred skill set (please forget the old saw that “you can do anything with a law degree”). There are some schools where the investment practically always pays off — a Harvard or University of Virginia degree is still looking good these days — but at many schools, reputation trumps results.
*With a little free time and some basic excel skills, you can find play with the list yourself by downloading the data here. And for more fun with the numbers, be sure to check out the National Law Journal’s extensive breakdown.