For many, a legal degree may not be worth its cost, as a much-talked-about New York Times article published last weekend pointed out. But for graduates of Yale Law School, the number one school in the nation, the juris doctorate remains profitable.
The article painted a bleak picture of employment prospects for law school graduates: 15,000 legal jobs at large firms have vanished since 2008, and students can graduate with debts of up to $200,000. But virtually all YLS graduates continue to find employment, YLS administrators and national experts said.
Executive Director of the National Association for Law Placement James Leipold said it would be “laughable” to suggest that YLS students receive an unfair return on their investment.
“Probably even those in the bottom quarter of [Yale’s] graduating class will have many opportunities open to them that are foreclosed to students of less select law schools,” he said. “Of course at any school, no matter how good the preparation, there are students who will struggle [to find jobs], but that is not enough to suggest that an institution or a system of education is flawed.”
The problem, Leipold said, is that less selective schools with lower career placement success rates cost the same as schools like Harvard and Yale. The New York Times reported that tuition at “mediocre” law schools is often around $43,000 per year. YLS tuition is $48,500 for the 2010-11 year.
The Times article also reported that many law schools have manipulated their employment statistics, counting graduates as employed even if their job does not require a law degree, misreporting graduates’ median starting salaries, and offering students short-term jobs to bolster employment numbers. Kelly Voight, the executive director of the YLS Career Development Office, said that Yale does not need to resort to such tactics to appear to be weathering the recession.
“We are fortunate to have a small student body of roughly 200 graduates each year, which allows my office to spend a lot of time working with students on their individual career plans so that they are able to successfully navigate the job market,” she said.
Stephanie Turner LAW ’12 said that since law school is such a large financial investment, it is scary that many that many graduates are unable to find jobs, and even some YLS students feel job-related pressure. But, she said, she feels lucky to attend YLS because most graduates still have great job prospects.
Julie Duncan LAW ’12 said that after she read the Times article, she forwarded it to her parents to give to some of their friends whose kids were considering attending second- and third-tier law schools, “so that they might stop their kids before it’s too late.” She added that the article reinforced her belief that she would not want to go to law school outside the top ten or 20 institutions.
“I have some friends at top-50 law schools near my hometown, and none of them have jobs lined up for this summer or for after graduation,” she said. “I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree that can’t get you a decent job, especially without the kind of loan forgiveness programs we have at Yale.”
According to figures published on the YLS website, around 70% of the Class of 2009 went on to work at a law firm or a clerkship. Despite the economy, employment statistics have stayed relatively constant, Voight said.
Voight added that YLS tries to be forgiving of students’ debt. The school’s Career Options Assistance Program ensures that if graduates take low-paying jobs in public interest, government, or non-profit entities, the school will forgive some of their debt depending on their salaries, she said. Those making under $60,000 a year are not expected to contribute to law school loans.
Leipold said that to judge YLS solely on the basis of its students’ starting salaries would be misleading, since many graduates go on to federal clerkships or academia, which pay relatively little in the beginning but often lead to lucrative jobs in the future.
“Many who clerk for federal judges will go on to hold prestigious jobs in private industry, firms or politics,” Leipold said. “Yale graduates a disproportionate number of leaders who go on to hold leadership roles in our economy.”
Still, as Patrick Moroney LAW ’12 said, “It seems that anyone from YLS who isn’t going to have one of those $160k firm jobs they talk about in the article when they graduate will have done so by choice.”
Of the roughly 35 percent of the YLS Class of 2008 who clerked after graduation, 64 percent went on to work at a law firm, 10 percent began work for the government and 8 percent took jobs in business and industry, according to the school’s website.