How Is Law School Like the NFL Draft?


Here’s a smart take by Jonathan Tjarks on the current state of law schools — a rather depressing look at how the odds are similarly stacked against law-school grads and college football players. After opening with a reference to Sudhir Venkatesh‘s study of the economics of crack from Freakonomics, Tjarks’s piece boils down to the following analysis:

Admittance into a top-14 law school, like a scholarship from a top-10 college football program, is the culmination of a lifetime of striving. Of the over 100,000 high school seniors who play football, fewer than 3,000 sign Division I letters of intent. Similarly, the top 25% in Harvard Law’s 2009 class had an average GPA of 3.95 and a LSAT score of 175, which puts them in the 99th percentile of the over 100,000 test takers each year.

Yet, despite overcoming nearly impossible odds, each group still has the toughest test of their lives ahead of them — each other. NFL teams rarely draft players not at the top of the depth chart, even at powerhouses like Texas or Oklahoma. And even at Harvard or Columbia Law, “Big Law” firms — those with the coveted $160,000 starting salaries — don’t reach too far below the median class rank when selecting first-year associate.

As you go down the ranks, the odds only decrease. NFL players from non-BCS conferences were usually top-tier starters in college, while top-50 law schools typically send only 10-25% of each class to “Big Law”. And just as there are always a few DII and DIII players in the draft each year, students from tier 2 and tier 3 law schools occasionally beat out graduates of elite schools for jobs. But “small school” success stories are the best of the best — collegiate All-Americans, the top 1% of their class in law review.

Tjarks also compares the long term hidden costs of each profession:

The newest research on concussions indicates that the gravest threats to players are not the highlight-reel hits, but the trauma of endless low-impact collisions over years of practice. Football players, especially linemen, usually put on 30-40 pounds of muscle in college, locking themselves into eating habits that will become increasingly unhealthy when they no longer burn thousands of calories a day in practice.

Law students who miss out on “Big Law” in 2L OCI are often left with over $100,000 in non-dischargeable student loan debt that can take most of their professional lives to pay off. The high starting salaries of first-year New York City associates hide the bimodal distribution of law incomes — most lawyers earn modest middle-class salaries and have little opportunity to transfer into the “Big Law” salary structure, not when there are thousands of new students clamoring for spots coming in behind them each year.

At least the job market for NFL draftees has remained intact, pending of course the resolution of the NFL lockout. The same can’t be said for law school grads. According to a Northwestern Law study, some 15,000 jobs have been eliminated from the nation’s biggest law firms since 2008. Which was roughly the same number of newspaper jobs lost in 2009, according to another Northwestern study.

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  1. Marcus Kalka says:

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    • Brandon says:

      @Marcus – I generally agree with your comment, although I disagree with your assertion regarding the flexibility of a law degree. Before I went to law school, everybody I knew (at least the non-lawyers) told me over and over that a law degree is so broad that it can be used to get a job in almost any field, i.e. “government, teaching, management, finance, administration, banking, human resources.” Once I graduated from law school, I quickly realized that this is not the case at all.

      Most of the jobs in non-legal fields require some kind of pre-existing experience or a degree specific to that field to get that job. If I applied to a job in the finance sector with only a law degree, I would receive little consideration. So almost all of the law grads I know are stuck in positions in the legal field unless they had some kind of experience in other fields before law school.

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      • rageon says:

        Agreed. My wife and I (both lawyers) have both ran into problems with applying for jobs outside of the law. Despite what the law school career services people and all sorts of others tell you, a law degree is largely meaningless outside of a job as a attorney. Sure, there are exceptions, there always are. But I also find that those exceptions were either hired long ago (when a law degree was a lot more prestiguous than it is now) or were qualified as a result of their undergraduate degrees alone.

        In many cases, a law degree can actually hurt. I know law school grads who could not find even entry-level retail work (seriously) because of the “overqualified” factor. I’m thankful for my job, because it’s a bad, bad time to be a law school grad.

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      • Barry says:

        Adding on, a Master’s degree generally doesn’t cost $150-250K to get.

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    • john says:

      The NFL draft analogy and bimodal salary distribution is more telling than the article suggests. Most law grads either rely on their undergraduate backgrounds or become unemployable today. Many law grads attempt to erase the law degree from their resumes to avoid appearing “overqualified” for hour work.

      The suggestion that “a law degree is becoming what a Master’s degree once was” is uninformed at best and untrue even BEFORE the recession.

      Law degrees are so pervasive solely because the debt is non-dischargeable. So many students that graduate with humanities degrees and limited options go to law school because banks freely hand out loans knowing the debt is federally backed.

      It’s the same government subsidized moral hazard that fueled the housing market that’s caused law school tuition to outpace inflation for 30 years. The difference is that a student can walk away from a bad home loan or even a bad weekend in Las Vegas through bankruptcy.

      But that $150,000 for law school administrator salaries is there for the student’s lifetime garnishing any and all future income what-so-ever.

      This is another strong article from Freakonomics.

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      • Marcus Kalka says:

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      • Anonymous Coward says:

        Marcus, you have no clue what you are talking about. The arcane “knowledge” gained in law school is mostly useless in non-legal fields. It is mot even that useful in the practice of law itself! Most people learn to practice law on the job since legal education consists mainly of arcane legal case law study and theory which is mostly not useful in actual practice.

        And most law grads in fact have to LEAVE OUT their law degrees on their resumes to get non-legal jobs! A law degree does NOT open doors in other fields and is in many cases even a hindrance! Most non-legal employers do not want to hire lawyers for various reasons.

        The whole notion that a law degree is “versatile” is a myth that is not borne out by REALITY.

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      • Boof says:


        I have a law degree. I also have a top 5 MBA.
        Recruiters were extraordinarily wary of me because of the JD. Few wanted anything to do with me when they could have someone that instead of the degree had 3 years of experience.

        A JD is not some amazing door-opener. It is, in fact, a door-closer. The fact that people like you without experience here keep spouting the old line of “it’ll get you into anything!” is as incorrect as it gets. Worse is that you throw out banking. Yes, a JD can get you into banking, if you graduate in the top 5% of Harvard or NYU. In other words, if every door is already open for you.

        It’s moderately infuriating to see those that are ignorant to reality keep pushing myths. It’s like those that say “just get a job in the mailroom and work your way up, the current CEO did it!” Yes, in the past this was true, but no longer. Today mailrooms are dead-ends, and often not even entry-level; they want someone with previous mailroom experience! Yet people will continue to claim it’s a way in, much like Marcus will keep claiming a JD is a $180k way to open any door…

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    • Bevan says:

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  2. robyn ann goldstein says:

    Honestly, beating the odds was never my intention. And as far as where this leads- it already has led there. So new?

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  3. Sam Faycurry says:

    Facetious comment:

    Sooooo I guess I’ll just be a doctor then…..

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  4. ABH says:

    I love the NFL Draft analogy. I’m on the outside looking in at the industry and it’s hiring practices. I’m an MBA-type (and former student of frequent guest author Justin Wolfers), not a lawyer. Something interesting that I’ve yet to comprehend about Big Law is their strict discipline in sticking with academic achievement as the #1 indicator for success on the job. My MBA application experience draws close ties to this article, at least the first paragraph. But the analogy stops there. Once in school the hiring process was much different. I was never once asked my GPA or class rank. Potential employers used my acceptance into the MBA program as a proxy for intellectual ability, and didn’t care whether I ranked 1st or 701st. They spent the valuable interview time figuring out my aptitude for the job, ability to grow in the corporate culture, and general fit.

    Big Law’s process seems very one dimensional, but like I said, I’m only observing as an outsider.

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    • Br'er Rabbit says:

      Good points. You are right that Big Law cares a lot about the academic indicators at the application stage. Up until that point, the process is pretty one-dimensional. But that’s just the “getting in the door” phase. Once that has passed, the other indicators you mentioned (aptitude for job, fit, culture, etc) become more important. Big Law does nearly all their hiring through summer programs, during which applicants spend a number of weeks in the office. Big Law summer programs are designed to gauge those “other” factors and some programs do a fairly solid job of that. So it’s less one-dimensional than it looks at first glance.

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  5. Mike B says:

    Just think of the massive intellectual waste here. These elite minds could have chosen to do something productive with their lives, but instead they run up overhead on useful activities by mostly pushing paper around. Just like the NFL I find it amazing that so many bright people can get suckered into a profession with such a high variance in return. I guess the sort of person that aspires to be a top lawyer is the sort of person who feels they will beat out the competition.

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    • CPA says:

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  6. JPM says:

    You can still have a very nice career outside Biglaw, if you have little to no student loan debt. If you have $100,000+ in non-dischargeable debt it is difficult if not impossible to start your own practice, even after a few years of experience. Law is no different from any other business. You need seed money. In fact Jay Foonberg’s solo bible states that a solo should have a year’s worth of expenses saved before starting a solo business. How can you do that with a $45,000 a year job and huge student loans?
    At least players coming out of the NFL draft have no student loan debt! They get a free ride at college!

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  7. Bevan says:

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    • Mike R. says:

      Pro bono is all well and good, but it by it’s nature it doesn’t pay the bills. You wouldn’t ask a tailor to go and devote all his time to making clothes for the less-fortunate. As a recent (unemployed) law school graduate myself, I need a job that pays me enough money so that I can pay off my $100+ debt. Pro bono work is an aspirational goal that doesn’t really have a place in this discussion. To focus on that is immensely shortsighted.

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      • Bevan says:

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  8. Caleb b says:

    My wife graduated with a law degree last year. She spent 10 months unemployed and eventually got a job making exactly what I did with just an undergrad 3yrs earlier. With her 150k in student loans, we’ve pushed back starting a family until 2025.

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    • IBR says:

      Take your AGI together. Subtract 14,000. Take that number and multiply by 15%. Now divide by 12. That is the minimum you are expected to pay on both your loans under the new stimulus package enacted in 2009.

      You are welcome.

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