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.

Marcus Kalka 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.



@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.


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.....


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.

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.

Loyola LA 2008 grad

Fuck you Loyola Law School.


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...


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.