How Is Law School Like the NFL Draft?

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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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COMMENTS: 38


  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:

        Marcus,

        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…..

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  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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  9. Loyola LA 2008 grad says:

    Fuck you Loyola Law School.

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  10. JohnforAmerica says:

    It surprises me that an article with this much research would completely ignore Public Service Loan Forgiveness from the federal government and LRAP (Loan Repayment Assistance Programs) from the school’s themselves. By no means am I claiming that these are a panacea for everyone or for all situations, but it would be nice to be presented with a more complete picture…

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 13
    • john says:

      So the government overloads law schools with taxpayer money, so much taxpayer money that most students lose 3 years of their lives to get a degree in unemployment or non-legal employment .

      Now the government should get “credit” for using even more taxpayer money to paper over these degrees that could not exist but for the government’s original misuse of taxpayer money??

      Did Suzanne research this? Sounds like a recipe for a recession, America.

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      • anon says:

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      • Mike R. says:

        “Lawyers in their first year out on their own are certainly capable of $100k income and can probably match biglaw within a couple years.”

        This is hyperbolic at best. Starting your own firm is just like starting your own business: it takes start-up capital, and it’s not rare to run at a loss or, if you’re luckier, to break even your first couple of years. Being a lawyer requires clients, and those don’t instantly appear once your hang your shingle. I’d say the actual legal work is the easy part; it’s getting clients (aka customers) that’s much more difficult.

        Also, TTT grads in the top 15% aren’t getting BigLaw jobs, except in perhaps a few extraordinary circumstances. Lower half T1 grads in the top 15% aren’t even getting BigLaw jobs in the traditional sense, at least not any more. They get jobs at the firms in their region paying market (most likely well below $160K). The rest of the class is left scrambling for the dwindling amount of mid- to small-sized firms and government jobs. I’d take the Canadian Football League over that scenario any day.

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      • anon says:

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      • anon says:

        I meant to add that TTTs vary widely. Mine was in a big city/major market. Some TTT in the middle of nowhere that isn’t accredited is going to do worse than a school that isn’t really a TTT and has a great reputation in its local market. However to say (as the article does) that it’s extremely rare for any TTT grad to get biglaw is incorrect.

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      • Anonymous Coward says:

        The idea that a brand new solo can make a good living from being on the “panel list” is completely absurd. A newly licensed, inexperienced attorney will not get on the “list”. It is very difficult to qualify for the list and usually only older, experienced attorneys get on. And even if you get on this list, you won’t get much work from it.

        Most brand new public defenders make very little money and start out in most cases at less than $60k. Yet somehow, you are claiming that being essentially a “substitute PD”, you can make as much if not more than the PD himself??? Think about how ridiculous that sounds because it is!

        The idea that a brand new licensed solo can make $60k – $100k is very much a BIG exaggeration. Because in the final analysis there is a GLUT of experienced attorney trying to get work and get clients. For the most part, clients (especially the ones who actually have money to pay you!) aren’t going to go to some fresh out of law school SOLO lawyer from a TTT law school when they could easily go to an experienced attorney. With the HUGE GLUT of attorneys, including experienced ones, getting clients is going to be a BIG struggle.

        A brand new solo will only get the worse clients who the experienced attorneys don’t want and trying to make a living as a solo from such clients who pay little or only via “contingency” or who bring in fruitless cases is not going to get you very far. Many attorneys who can’t get a job have tried to go solo. Many such attorneys barely manage to scrape by and usually take second menial jobs as there is not enough money in their solo practice. It is a great disservice to suggest that a brand new TTT attorney can make it as a solo because that is simply not the REALITY.

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    • JohnforAmerica says:

      Wow, I didn’t even offer my personal opinion, but only suggested that readers be presented with all (or at least more of) the relevant information. I even hedged my comment so that I didn’t just look like an apologist. And THAT garnered twice the “thumbs down” as “thumbs up”. Amazing…long live the interwebz…

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      • anon says:

        “The idea that a brand new solo can make a good living from being on the “panel list” is completely absurd. A newly licensed, inexperienced attorney will not get on the “list”. It is very difficult to qualify for the list and usually only older, experienced attorneys get on. And even if you get on this list, you won’t get much work from it.”

        Obviously this varies a lot by state. Especially in states that don’t have strong PD systems. Like the southern U.S. Again, I know people who are fresh out, and on the panel list in southern states.

        “Most brand new public defenders make very little money and start out in most cases at less than $60k. Yet somehow, you are claiming that being essentially a “substitute PD”, you can make as much if not more than the PD himself??? Think about how ridiculous that sounds because it is!”

        60k+ benefits that a solo doesn’t get (like health insurance).

        But yeah, that’s basically what I’m saying. Why do you think the PD’s office has such high turnover in most places (and prosecutor’s offices). After a few years, many of them go start their own firms. Granted they have a few years of experience and can probably charge more per hour than your fresh grad, that’s what happens.

        At least in the criminal defense world, my friends who are solos get a lot of their business just hanging around the courthouse or when they show up for a hearing. The average person on the street with a weed charge isn’t going to care about getting the best attorney, they often want the cheapest. It’s “sh*tlaw”, but you can make good money from it starting out.

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      • Anonymous Coward says:

        I am not from the South but I can say that what you are suggesting is simply not true or not true to the extent that it matters for most fresh law grads. There is a huge glut of attorneys, especially new inexperienced grads. You are implying that all of these unemployed and inexperienced grads simply need to get on the “panel” list and hang out around the courthouse and they can all easily make “good money”. This is simply not true.

        I have heard of new solos trying to get work in this way. In no way do they make “good money” as you suggest.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Why did this comment get 10 dislikes? The IBR (Income Based Repayment) Program will make it so that a low wage earning lawyer cannot be crippled by debt.

      I would really like to see the cowards come out and show themselves.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Ted says:

      No, no, no.

      LRAP is a pittance at best and only is available from the top ( most endowed) law schools. Also, any job now that offers loan forgiveness is insanely competitive. The once super hard to get positions JAG, AUSA ect are now simply out of the reach of many due to their non- straight a’s.

      The lay offs at big law in Chi/NY have basically sent others elite grads out of these markets to gobble up the Biglaw jobs in secondary cities. Thus leaving a top in-state school with fewer jobs, which effects the schools below them. The other hardship is the freeze on federal hiring, the DOJ hires the most lawyers in the country, with fewer of those jobs …. Well you get it now.

      Also, to the post below, we are not the brightest. The majority of us are simply not good at math and science, it’s not like we would be creating new things anyway. The main thing we want is intellectually stimulating work (theories, ideas, writing) at our law onset; on the outset all we want is a job.

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  11. M says:

    Thank you for the great post. I identify personally with the situation you describe.

    For what it’s worth, I graduated from a top 14 law school a few years ago with grades just above the median. Our law school quietly puts out a interview guide listing the GPA range of past students who have received offers from each firm (the identity of those students is not included) First year course grades are required to have a median of 3.3, yet the GPA of offerees was typically at least 3.5. There were of course a few students who had lower GPAs; most of them had some particular experience that somehow didn’t create a conflict.

    In summary, even at the top 14 law schools, less than half of students are eligible for these positions. Everyone else completes 7 years of education to earn a nurse’s salary. Given the staggering tuition of around $48k per year, (not even including other mandatory expenses), law school is a losing proposition for most students. The New York Times has run some stories recently on this situation, including the questionable employment statistics pushed by law schools including mine.

    Thanks again for the great post. Perhaps posts like yours will help correct the current social misperception that all law school graduates are members of some lucky privileged class.

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  12. M says:

    I realize that the author and many posters have done a good job describing a problem; here is one solution I’m proposing. In the long run, the market would partially take care of the high tuition and overabundance of lawyers if applicants had better information.

    We need better data on after-graduation employment. Perhaps there should be a non-profit or government agency outside of the law schools that would collect employment data. It would list the income distribution of graduates by quartile (e.g. 25%, 50%, etc). For any graduate where a salary was unavailable, they would list zero. Currently law schools benefit from those who don’t report because they tend to be unemployed or making lower salaries, and listing zero for them would fix that bad incentive and might even be more accurate (at least for unemployed lawyers). Law schools would then have an incentive to help the agency find these people.

    Most “big law” firms post the names of their attorneys on their website, and they publish their starting salaries through organizations like NALP. Thus any law school career office can find these students and their salaries with a simple Google search. On the other hand, the graduates who are in small or solo practices typically don’t advertise their salaries, so it’s currently easy for a law school that doesn’t want to find them to not include them. For example, I was never sent a salary form, even though I was in regular contact with the career office after graduation.

    A more comprehensive salary survey would also include a “control” group of people who considered law school and took the LSAT, but decided to go directly into the workforce. They could be compared based on LSAT and undergrad GPA with law graduates, thus helping to determine how much the degree helped (or hurt) career prospects of those who attended law school. My thinking is that at most good law schools, almost all law students had fairly good incoming credentials, and thus probably would have done quite well in other lines of work. It may be that law school looks like an even less attractive proposition once a person controls for the qualifications of the incoming students.

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  13. HH4 says:

    Why is it that no accountability is ever placed on the students themselves. Yes, the government should stop guaranteeing the debts of its students, and yes, the situation is strikingly similar to the mortgage crisis. Non-creditworthy borrowers (students) are getting subprime loans on the assumption that their investment will constantly increase in value (ie they will get great jobs). This assumption is proving to be empirically false. However, these students are college educated and should be capable of a simple cost-benefit analysis of legal education. I am stunned by the amount of students who did seemingly no research into the value of their education before investing so much money into it. I applied to one school, my state university. My tuition is roughly $8,000 per semester, as I am in-state. While I will not likely find a job in “Big Law” (NY, SF, Chicago, etc), my school places quite well in its region. More important than this is that I will graduate debt free. Those without savings will graduate without savings from my school can generally keep their debt under $40,000. Anyone who takes on $150,000 in student debt is completely financially irresponsible. I wouldn’t want them to represent me in the first place

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