The National Law Journal has released its annual survey of which schools placed the highest percentage of their graduates with big law firms. It reveals an ongoing contraction in the number of positions available to new law graduates with high enough salaries to justify paying what the cost of law school has become.
A couple of preliminary notes:
(1) This kind of survey is nearly meaningless to law students at the 85% of ABA-accredited law schools which place less than 10% of their grads in big law. In other words, this data is significant at the top end of legal academia, since it determines the extent to which it makes sense to borrow $150,000 (that will be the approximate amount of average educational debt carried by the current 1L class by the time it graduates) to go to a particular school within the top 30. Outside that range it obviously doesn't make sense to borrow anything like that sort of money, despite the fact that tens of thousands of law students continue to do so every year. Within that range, these numbers reveal that the number of schools at which this level of indebtedness constitutes a reasonable gamble continues to shrink. But since for perverse reasons the rest of legal academia continues to copy the financial structure of the elite law schools, it's important to emphasize the extent to which that structure increasingly no longer makes sense even for those schools.
(2) It's possible that 2011 will turn out to have been an exceptionally bad year for big firm hiring, and there are various anecdotal claims bouncing around the internet that big firm hiring is up for current 2L summer positions. Of course that's the same thing people said about 2010, and before that 2009. Beyond that, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that even if big firm hiring returns to the levels of five years ago, that will do nothing for the 80% of law graduates who won't be hired by big law even at those levels. Nor will it solve the increasingly serious problem of people with six figure debt losing their big law positions before they have managed to pay a reasonable percentage of that debt down.
As to the statistics themselves, some particular observations:
(As always, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford put so many people into clerkships and high-end government work that their big firm hiring numbers can't really be compared directly to those of other elite and sub-elite schools.)
Michigan's figure of 31.48% suggests that more than half of the graduating class at the nation's seventh-ranked law school had a bad employment outcome post-graduation. 11% of the 2010 class had Article III clerkships, so if the numbers are similar for this year's class, and we assume (generously) that five percent of the class either got desirable government jobs or were dedicated PI/LRAP people from the time they enrolled, that still means more than half the class basically struck out -- at a school at which I paid $4,500 per year in tuition but which now charges more than ten times that.
NYU's figure of 40.1% (eight percent of NYU's 2010 class were federal clerks) isn't a whole lot better, especially considering the school's place within the sacred T-6 and the crazy total cost of attendance (now realistically pushing $250K). Last week much outrage was generated when a current Columbia 3L suggested that only 60% to 70% of the CLS class of 2012 was "comfortably employed." Columbia placed almost exactly half its 2011 class in big law, which, when taking clerkships, high-end government and PI/LRAP into account suggests the midrange of that estimate may well be correct.
Fordham (19.6%) and George Washington (17.8%) confirmed their status as classic trap schools. With less than five percent of their classes doing federal clerkships, and with the total cost of attendance at both now well over $200,000, it's likely that more than seven of ten 2011 grads of these schools had employment outcomes they would have considered unacceptable when they enrolled. At 21.5% Texas was right there with them -- a number which could lead those of a less than generous disposition to wonder if Dean Sager really earned all of that half million dollar bonus he paid himself.
Possibly helpful chart
High-Status Employment Law Placement [HELP]
Calculated as big law + A3C + prestigious government/dedicated PILRAP(estimated)
George Washington: 26.76%
As a commenter suggests, the real significance of these stats is that:
(1) Anyone who goes to a high-ranked law school these days can go to a lower ranked one for far less money, given cross-subsidized "scholarships."
(2) The comparative advantage of a high-ranked law school is that it increases a graduate's chances of securing high-status/compensation employment.
(3) Someone who does not get that kind of job is going to be vastly better off in the long run graduating from a lower-ranked school with little debt as opposed to a high-ranked school with major debt.