The phone rings in my office. A stranger’s voice is on the other end of the line. Soon I’m listening to a story with which I’m all too familiar when it’s presented in terms of abstract statistics, but which at this moment is rendered painfully unique by its humanizing details, about graduating from law school, and passing the bar, and applying for the kind of legal work the caller went to law school in order to be able to do, then for any legal work, then for any legally-related work, and finally, after several months and hundreds of applications, for any work at all.
It’s a story that includes $165,000 in debt, and constant daily harassment from creditors, including threats to the caller’s father (who co-signed one loan) to garnish his social security payments, and working stocking shelves in the middle of the night at a supermarket for nine dollars an hour, and then stringing together a Dickensian existence by grading papers written by convicts for $17 an hour, and working another 20 hours a week at Starbucks for the health benefits, all the while hoping to somehow get to a point where the caller will be able to one day marry her fiancé, also a college graduate, who is also doing low-paid temp work with zero benefits or job security in these United States.
I listen. I try to understand, and to empathize and encourage -- but I’m not a counselor or a priest, let alone someone who can give this person what she really needs (which is a real job, along with a federal law that will allow her to file for bankruptcy). I am only, at this moment, someone who will listen to her story, which shakes me, or rather her voice shakes me, as there is a note in it -- of desperation and despair mixed together with longing for another life that doesn’t look like this one --which gets under my skin, even more than the grim details it conveys of her circumstances: circumstances, which I assure her she shares with tens and even hundreds of thousands of recent law graduates. (This observation represents my pathetic attempt to do something to salve the sense of unmerited shame and humiliation which our wretched profession continues to heap on her every morning and night of her 31-year-old life).
After having done what I could, which was nothing, for a stranger whose voice will stay with me, I open my email to find this:
I'm a 2011 unemployed law grad who has been reading your blog when I can stomach it! My therapist is very familiar with your work. I had to go to my law school's career site to find information to fill out yet another job application. While I was there, I noticed the law school's employment statistics page, linked here: http://law.umn.edu/careers/career-facts-and-statistics.html
“My therapist is very familiar with your work.” Perhaps I’ll quote this email in my annual Faculty Report of Professional Activities, to help explain to my administrative superiors what I did on my summer vacation, in lieu of writing yet another law review article on the subject of what Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence tells us about the subject matter of law review articles.
Then I click on the link.
The University of Minnesota is a “top 20” law school, which is to say it's in the 91st percentile of ABA-accredited law schools. It's therefore a very difficult school to get into: this year's entering class has an average GPA of 3.8 and an LSAT score in the 95th percentile. It's also very expensive. Nearly three quarters of this year's entering class is paying more than $43,000 in tuition (Minnesota residents are paying just under $35,000). That’s a lot of money, especially multiplied times three, and then subjected to a 7.5% interest rate – the average going rate for law school loans – and given that in-state and out of state tuition were hiked by 21% and 24% respectively just this year, current Minnesota students are certain to graduate with much higher debt loads than the $91,000 incurred by the average 2010 graduate.
Still, the school’s web site seems to assure prospective students that it will all be worth it. The “Career Facts and Statistics” page has the figure “98.8%” in emboldened in large print at the very top. This represents the average percentage of Minnesota students employed nine months after graduation over the past five years (the average for the class of 2010 was 98.9%). And the page informs viewers that the “average salary” of 2010 graduates was more than $88,000, and more than $109,000 among those graduates in private practice.
The problem, from a practical point of view, is that this web page needs to be read not like a report of facts and statistics issued by a prestigious institution of higher learning, but like a credit card agreement disclosure statement. In other words, you have to read the footnotes and the fine print.
If you do, and if you happen to already be a sophisticated reader of the kinds of “facts and statistics” reported by law school Career Services Offices, you’ll notice that that these numbers are, to use the technical academic phrase for the methodological techniques deployed to collect them, a pile of crap. The 98.9% employment figure for the Class of 2010 includes part-time work, temporary work, and non-legal work (and indeed part-time, temporary, non-legal work). How many of the class's 284 graduates are in these categories? It’s impossible to tell.
The “average salary” numbers are even more preposterous, given that they’re based on the “approximately one-third” [!] of the class’s graduates for whom the school managed to gather salary information. What jobs does this subset of graduates have? Again, it’s impossible to tell.
But it’s quite possible to guess. Note that only 34 of the 284 graduates (11.97%) in the 2010 class got jobs with AM Law 250 firms. My guess is that the CSO recorded approximately 34 salaries in that particular cohort. Meanwhile, 35 2010 grads were “employed” by firms of two to ten attorneys. How many salaries were recorded within that group? My guess would be “very few.” How many of those 35 “jobs” were temporary contract positions, or law clerk gigs, or eat what you kill arrangements (in which a new lawyer is given office space in return for a percentage cut of whatever business he or she can manage to actually bill and collect)?
What percentage of this class of 284 with a 99% employment rate and the advertised “average” salary of $88,000 is making anything remotely close to that “average? “ Does even half the class have a real legal job today? What’s the real median salary for the University of Minnesota Law School class of 2010? I would love to hear from more members of this particular 99%. For what it’s worth (which is a lot more than what the pack of not-quite lies on the school’s web page are worth) my unemployed correspondent tells me she “knows some people in the top 25% of the 2010 class who are [as of January 3, 2012!] having trouble finding work.”