Law schools, once viewed as a guaranteed path to a high-paying career, are coming under fire as disillusioned graduates find a tighter job market than they say they were led to expect.
A small but growing coalition of graduates, on blogs with names like "Scammed Hard" and "Shilling Me Softly," blame their alma maters for luring them into expensive programs by overstating their employment prospects.
In July, Law School Transparency, a non-profit founded by two Vanderbilt law students, requested that 200 schools submit salary and employment data for 2010 grads, which they aim to post online.
One recent grad even went on a hunger strike on Aug. 5. "We have a new crop starting, and no one’s telling them anything about this," says Zenovia Evans, 28, of Denver, who uses the name "Ethan Haines" on her blog, UnemployedJD.com.
The first in her family to finish college, she says that "no one wants to say, ‘Hey, career office, you failed me,’" but "I couldn’t take this lying down." She says she owes more than $150,000 in loans.
The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, acknowledges such concerns. A report in November, noting the average student borrowed $59,324 for a public law school and $91,506 for a private one in 2007-08, cautioned prospective students to "have a clear picture of the debt they will incur and the expected earning power."
Among 2009 graduates, 88% are employed, down from 92% in 2007; they were more likely than in previous years to hold part-time or temp jobs or those not requiring a law degree, says the non-profit National Association for Law Placement. Summer job openings for second-year students, often the first step to getting hired full time, "shrank dramatically" this year, it says.
Meanwhile, the number of law school applicants for this fall rose 2.2% to more than 87,000.
Ohio University economist Richard Vedder says the question goes beyond law. "We are entering the age of the overeducated American, the person with college degrees who cuts hair, trims trees, drives trucks," he says.
Kelsey May, a 2010 University of Tulsa law school grad and co-author of What the L? 25 Things We Wish We’d Known Before Going to Law School, agrees law school can be tricky to navigate but says the anger is "misplaced. … There should be some level of (personal) responsibility."
Accredited schools typically collect and post information about recent graduates using ABA surveys. But data can be incomplete — and misleading. Even with widely reported hiring cutbacks, "we had some schools reporting 100% employment," probably because unemployed grads didn’t respond, says Donald Polden, Santa Clara University law school dean. He chairs an ABA committee on legal education and admissions that is now looking at how to report data "in a more robust way."
Georgetown Law student Roger Gordon, who says he has racked up $175,000 in loan debt, wants more than that. In June, he petitioned the Supreme Court to decide whether people who take the bar exam even need three years of law school. "If you count on law schools to do the right thing, you’re going to be waiting a long time," he says.