26 February 2013

The Role of Prestige in Law Student Employability

The legal profession today is in a quandary. Following the crash of 2008, opportunities for attorneys contracted dramatically. Due to internet innovation, legal services became available at low cost online. Clients became much more shrewd about paying young lawyers in firms to learn on the job. Firms stopped hiring and thinned out their workforces. Meanwhile, the law schools within universities became huge money-makers because tuition was set at a high level due to the prestige of the profession and the only overhead was professors and a library rather than expensive medical or scientific equipment required for other high level degrees. Universities had set up their law programs to milk this opportunity for all it was worth, churning out a glut of graduates who found themselves without job opportunities.

Attorneys are expensive. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars going to school and must repay that money. They have overhead to pay in the form of office rent, paralegals, secretaries, legal research software, technology, and supplies. Attorneys intend to make a good living after meeting these expenses. These facts price most middle-class and poor Americans out of the services of an attorney, and many cases and claims are not pursued because legal fees would be more than any possible recovery. Therefore the legal profession is considering a mid-level legal worker with more expertise than a paralegal but less than an attorney, much the same as a nurse practitioner in the medical field. If this occurs, more of the public will be served, but attorneys will see fewer and fewer jobs.

            Therefore, students considering law school think very carefully about how their choice of school will affect their employment prospects upon graduation. The U.S. News and World Report began a law school ranking system which is generally the standard since 1987. Law schools compete fiercely to move up in the rankings because then they can charge higher tuitions and make their universities more money.  Unfortunately, this caused many law schools to pad their employment-after-graduation statistics in order to move up the rankings. Law schools would create jobs for their own graduates, count the self-employed, and even count those not working in legal professions as “employed.” The point is that while popular, rankings can not necessarily be trusted.

            Unfortunately, whether or not rankings are accurate regarding employment statistics or not, they do matter, especially to work in “big law.” However, because of the change in the employment landscape, the importance of school rankings has changed. While big city, prestigious law firms still require top-ranked degrees for employment, many mid-sized and small firms are watching costs and realizing that hiring graduates from mid-tier and lower tier schools is cheaper. However, prospective students should weight the cost of different law schools against their prospects for employment. First, students should attempt to get into the highest ranked law school possible. Of the highest theirs they achieve, students should take the one with the lowest cost. Paradoxically, some low-tier law schools cost more than others just a few numbers higher, so students need to pay attention to tuition.

            Rank of law school is certainly not the only factor employers consider. They also consider class rank, whether the student made it onto law review or into the trial team, and what initiatives the student took while in law school. The key to success involves getting into the highest tier possible, but even if that is only a middle tier school, the student should strive to shine in any way possible. Ways to do that are ranking in the school’s top 10-20%, being on law review or trial team, having work experience through internships or clinics, or taking initiative to write papers published by journals. Any way you look at it, it is a lot of work.


Kevin Lynch is a freelance author and blogger who mainly focuses on education, professional school, professional training, employment trends and other relevant social issues; those interested in finding a qualified lawyer in the area of Personal Injury should click.