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.


Marcus Kalka

But...law-school grads are not absolutely bound to the legal field and law firms [per the Northwestern Law study]. People with law degrees can find good jobs in government, teaching, management, finance, administration, banking, human resources, and various other worthwhile fields. A law degree is becoming what a Master's degree once was. We shall see what the market has in store; in the meantime, we should try to hope for the best. Tjarks' article is very fascinating and interesting, but it is a stark generalization to the ever-evolving market regarding football and law. Who knows, we may have a number of rival professional football leagues in the future comparable to the NFL today. And besides, even those players who fail to make it in the NFL can find worthwhile jobs as coaches and trainers. Tjarks discusses this; the pinnacle of football or law is not always about being in the "Big Show." Further, the difference between law school and football is that in law school not everyone is working towards being in "Big Law" whereas in the NFL draft, the players are working towards being in the "Big Show."

Not being able to "scale the mountain" does not mean the end of the world. The real problem for law students as Tjarks notes is the "non-dischargeable student loan debt that can take most of their professional lives to pay off." However, we shall have to see what the market has in store in terms of the labor markets, unemployment, government intervention, and inflation in the future. A lot of things can happen economically, and we have to hope for the best whereas pessimism can be counter-productive. Even if there is a "pyramid-like labor chart" and even if the odds appear bleak and even if "the odds are stacked against the Millenials", the market has ways of correcting things. The student loan issue and "pyramid-like labor chart" issue are small parts of a much, much larger generational, socio-cultural, and economic quagmire. Besides, a legal education in itself is not worthless. All in all, I believe there is a solution for these problems and it rests in one word: productivity.

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Brandon

@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.

rageon

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.

robyn ann goldstein

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

Sam Faycurry

Facetious comment:

Sooooo I guess I'll just be a doctor then.....

ABH

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

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.

Mike B

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.

CPA

I personally know a few who go or have gone to law school. They are decently smart, but nothing exceptional. I mean, some are impressive, but the whole lot of them don't "wow" me. So I don't think much was wasted.

And the same thing goes for in the accounting profession.

JPM

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!

Bevan

Good analogy, but I would like to have seen something about the ever growing need for Pro-bono work. The people who tend to need legal help are they that cannot afford to pay it. Yet, should these clients receive the help needed, the client could gain financially and be repeat (and paying customer).

Also, NFL teams would do well to offer more free tickets to venues to non-traditional fans (females), in order to grow the fan base.

I think this impacts the early stages of the career, in that most beginning salaries are 40k or less.

Mike R.

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.

Bevan

Mike,

You need to google IBR. 10 years of service for a county, and you would be debt free. 25 years of making a minimum payment based on salary/dependents and you will be debt free.

Your ignorance of recent tax legislation is IMENSLY short-sighted.

Caleb b

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.

IBR

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.

Loyola LA 2008 grad

Fuck you Loyola Law School.

JohnforAmerica

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...

john

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.

anon

Draft like law school analogy is pretty weak:

1. If you don't get drafted, you're done. If you don't get taken by a big firm, you can start your own firm. You are only limited by your own drive/ambition. Lawyers in their first year out on their own are certainly capable of $100k income and can probably match biglaw within a couple years. Many people prefer having their own firm over bigfirm life. Working in public interest is something a lot of peopel from top law schools who could have gone to big law prefer as well. The article sets up an either you win if you make $160k or not false dichotomy. In the NFL, if you don't get drafted, you don't really prefer to be in sales or whatever in the same way.

2. 10 year loan forgiveness program makes having a low public service salary reasonable. If it takes "most of your professional life" to pay off your loans you're doing it wrong.

3. The people from TTTs and the like who make it to biglaw are not like D3 players who make it. They're probably around top 15%. They're not top 1%. Also the draft often takes players who don't look like superstars (or didn't necessarily crush college) because they look suitable for the NFL game. Likewise college superstars are often not drafted highly (Heisman winners, Tim Tebow, etc). Biglaw is a lot more strict as far as who they take.

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Mike R.

"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

"This is hyperbolic at best. Starting your own firm is just like starting your own business: it takes start-up capital"

You can run your own firm for $500/month. All you really need is a cell phone, virtual office and a computer. You can meet clients at the courthouse, or if you really want you can rent meeting space for $10 at the virtual office place.

" Being a lawyer requires clients, and those don’t instantly appear once your hang your shingle. "

Actually they kind of do. It's called the "panel list" or something along those lines. When the public defender has a conflict of interest, they have to refer a defendant out. There's a list of attorneys that will take those cases. It doesn't pay much (typically around $50/hr), but if all your clients came from that you can probably make $60k a year with a reasonable work schedule. Some states don't even really have a public defender system, all indigent clients are referred out in this way. If you're good at making impressions, those clients will often refer their friends to you, that you can charge higher rates. This is how most attorneys get their start.

I have friends who went out on their own. They are on track to make $100k/yr after expenses in their first year. You just have to be willing to work hard, ask questions, and manage your firm well.

I graduated in 2009 from a TTT. Although I don't have up to date numbers, in those days I'd say around top 15% had a shot at biglaw. Cravath didn't recruit at my school (as far as I know), but Wilmer Hale did.

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M

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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M

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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HH4

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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HH4

please excuse the double "without savings" :D