A response to ‘Is law school a losing game?’

On Jan. 8 the New York Times published a much-discussed article called “Is Law School a Losing Game?” The article’s author, David Segal, is critical of a law school system that he alleges overstates employment prospects to prospective students, all in the name of packing classrooms with students who pay high tuitions.

The Lawrence Journal-World linked to the article on Jan. 13 and asked about the employment picture at KU Law.

Let me partially answer that query by referring to two specific criticisms leveled by the article and then explaining how KU Law does business.

  • Segal refers to the “Wonderland” of law school employment statistics and states that many schools — even some outside the top 40 — list the median starting salary of their graduates in the private sector at $160,000.

    As a prospective law student, it’s imperative to carefully scrutinize employment stats. For example, there’s a significant difference between private practice and public sector salaries. Statistics that blend private practice and public interest salaries together are relatively meaningless.

    So are private practice salary stats based on only a small percentage of graduates. It’s likely that schools outside the top 40 listing a median starting salary of $160,000 for grads in the private sector have not accounted for even a majority of those graduates when calculating the average.

    For the class of 2009, 79 KU Law students reported a private practice salary. This represented 80.6 percent of 2009 graduates employed in private practice. The average salary was $72,660.

  • Segal also alleges that schools massage employment data to produce numbers that are inciting to prospective students and palatable to current student and alumni. In doing so, he notes that “a school with the guts to report, say, a 4 percent drop in postgraduate employment would plunge in the rankings, leaving the dean to explain a lot of convoluted math, and the case for unvarnished truth, to a bunch of angry students and alums.”

    The decision to come to law school is an important one that ultimately involves three years of intense study and, in some cases, significant borrowing. Prospective law students should be afforded every opportunity to review accurate employment data. The following information for graduation years 2006-09 is available on the KU Law website.

    Graduation Year % Employed at Graduation % Employed Nine Months after Graduation US News Ranking
    2009 63.2 89.0 TBD
    (April 2011)
    2008 69.4 93.6 67
    (April 2010)
    2007 67.1 95.5 65
    (April 2009)
    2006 65.9 94.7 73
    (April 2008)

    In the midst of the recession, our numbers took a hit, but we were upfront about reporting the losses accurately.

  • One statistic not touched upon in the article, and not often discussed by prospective students, is the percentage of students employed in “bar admission required” positions.

    Most law students enroll with the goal of practicing law after graduation. By graduation, some have decided to pursue less traditional, “J.D.-preferred” or other professional positions that do not require the passage of a bar exam.

    During the recession, we’ve seen the percentage of recent grads employed in “bar admission required” positions decline as an increased number of graduates who do want to practice law have been unable to secure traditional legal positions and have been forced to look elsewhere.

    Here’s the percentage of KU Law graduates from the last eight classes who were employed in “bar admission required” positions nine months after graduation:

    KU Law Class Ratio Percentage
    2002 117/162 72.2%
    2003 96/146 65.8%
    2004 133/184 72.3%
    2005 124/179 69.3%
    2006 117/170 68.8%
    2007 115/157 73.2%
    2008 120/161 74.5%
    2009 97/156 62.2%

    (Note: Other categories are J.D. Preferred, Other Professional, Non-Professional, Pursuing Degree FT, Unemployed-Seeking and Unemployed-Not Seeking.)

The recession has certainly put a damper on graduates securing traditional legal positions, and prospective students deserve access to this information from all schools they’re considering.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services