Sports, and particularly college football, feature the concept of a "trap game." A trap game is one that, for a variety of factors, a team is more likely to end up losing than a superficial glance at the team's opponent would suggest (For instance, a classic trap game scenario involves a strong team playing a lightly regarded but actually pretty good opponent on the road the week before a clash with a powerful traditional rival).
In honor of Wednesday's nine-month NALP reporting deadline, I'd like to introduce the concept of a trap school. A trap school has the following characteristics:
(1) It's expensive to attend.
(2) It's located in what the sort of people who go to law school tend to consider a desirable place to live (obviously these first two factors are related).
(3) It has superficially attractive employment and salary statistics.
A trap school, in other words, is the kind of place that attracts the kind of highly-qualified, reasonably prudent 0Ls who would never consider attending the vast majority of law schools at anything like sticker price, and yet still ends up generating a very high risk of financial and personal disaster for its students. (Of course as long as law schools can get away with publishing misleading employment and salary statistics there are going to be a lot more trap schools than there would be otherwise, since it will be much easier for schools to make those statistics appear superficially attractive even to the reasonably prudent future victim of institutional malfeasance).
Under current conditions, some good examples of trap schools include USC, George Washington, and Fordham. (Many other schools qualify as trap schools to greater and lesser extents. In a more limited sense even HYS have become trap schools under current conditions.) Students who enroll this fall at these schools without the benefit of "merit" -- i.e., cross-subsidized by their fellow law students -- scholarships can expect to spend between $225,000 and $250,000 in tuition and cost of living expenses by the time they graduate. Now it ought to be obvious that, for people who don't come from The Blessed Realm of the One Percent or closely adjacent precincts, this constitutes a ruinous sum of money, given that such people will have to borrow most or all of that sum in the form of very high interest non-dischargeable loans.
It should also be obvious that the only employment outcomes that makes any economic sense for someone making this sort of investment is a job with a law firm that pays a six-figure starting salary, or a public interest job which qualifies for an unusually well-funded LRAP program. (I'm not going to address the PI/LRAP option in this post, except to note that PI jobs are becoming a good deal harder to get than big firm jobs, and that only a small handful of schools have anything like well-funded LRAP programs).
What are the odds that someone enrolling at these law schools will get such a job? Since all these schools report median starting salaries well into six figures for those of their graduates who take private sector jobs and whose salaries are reported to NALP, our reasonably prudent highly qualified paragon could easily think that the answer is an encouraging one, especially on the basis of a not particularly skeptical perusal of the employment statistics published by these schools. The real answer can be deduced by adding together the number of graduates who get jobs with big law firms or clerkships with federal judges, and comparing it to the total number of graduates. The latest figures for these three schools are 33% for USC and 29% for Fordham and GW.
Now this method is subject to various objections. First, it could be pointed out that I'm limiting big firm jobs to jobs with Am Law 250 firms. Yet while this isn't an exact proxy for such jobs, it appears to be a very good one. For example, in 2010 127 GW grads got Am Law 250 jobs, while the school reported that 134 grads obtained jobs with firms of more than 250 attorneys. In addition, given that less than 3% of the class got jobs with firms of 100 to 250 attorneys, it seems that reported employment with firms of more than 250 attorneys closely tracks total employment with firms that pay the sort of starting salaries that would make attending GW at sticker an arguably good choice (There are of course all sorts of problems with the assumption that someone who ends up getting a big firm job therefore spent the $225,000 to $250,000 it cost to get it wisely, but that's a separate argument).
A second objection is that 2010 was a particularly bad year for big firm hiring. (See these comments from DJM to get a sense of both how much GW's big firm employment statistics deteriorated between 2008 and 2010, and how deceptively the relevant numbers are presented by the school). Now that's certainly true from a backward-looking perspective, but this objection is itself subject to a couple of rather big caveats. First, it's far from clear to what extent, if at all, the downturn in big firm hiring is cyclical as opposed to structural. Given this uncertainty, it's imperative that, as DJM also points out, law schools update their publically-available employment statistics immediately to reflect the data they'll be reporting this month to NALP regarding the class of 2011.
Second, even if big firm hiring comes back to a significant extent, this will not by any means solve the fundamental mismatch problem between what the cost of law school has become and what the return on investment is likely to be. If one makes the in my view extremely optimistic assumption that big firm hiring numbers will improve by 50% over the next few years, that would still mean that more than half of the classes at schools such as USC, GW, and Fordham won't be getting such jobs. And keep in mind that these schools are all ranked around the 90th percentile of ABA-accredited law schools. These are, relatively speaking, elite (or at least sub-elite) institutions. There are literally a hundred law schools that are not much if at all cheaper, yet have vastly worse employment outcomes than what I'm calling trap schools.
And this, fundamentally, is the problem. Legal education now has a cost structure that only makes sense, on average, for graduates who get jobs that pay six-figure starting salaries. But at the vast majority of law schools less than 10% of graduates get such jobs. Trap schools fall into the gap between the tiny group of schools at which enough graduates are currently getting such jobs that spending $200K+ isn't an extraordinarily risky gamble, and the huge number of schools at which, even under our current far less than transparent conditions, spending that kind of money is obviously reckless behavior for graduates who aren't either independently wealthy or children of hiring partners at successful law firms that don't have anti-nepotism policies.