Thursday, September 15, 2016

Villanova Law: A Case Study in Second Tier Employment Outomes

I have to concede, there are times when I truly miss having this blog as an accessible platform to denounce the law school scam. Nevertheless, while I have been a victim of such an insidious system, I have been very blessed in recent years and wallowing in this pool of injustice just isn't healthy. That's why I left my blogging venture behind me years ago.

Moreover, the environment is very different than it was during that tumultuous time. Back then, it was just the bloggers versus the law school cartel. Today, any honest person with a modicum of sense recognizes that the law school emperor has no clothes. Blogging won't move the goal posts any further - only economic and political forces will bring the system crashing down.

Thus, as I have allocated my limited free time, I have resisted the temptation to post my thoughts on such topics as law professors who claim that a law degree virtually guarantees an additional one million dollars in lifetime earnings or the travesty that was the Thomas Jefferson Law School verdict.

I still peruse JD Underground for updates on the scam, and one post recently caught my attention because it included a link to the ABA's compilation of employment statistics - broken down by school.

Many other organizations such as Law School Transparency have extracted and crunched the numbers - exposing most schools as very poor investments. I, however, thought it would be helpful to create a case study of a single second tier school to evaluate the employment outcomes graduates can expect.

I have decided to profile Villanova Law for the class of 2015 (the latest data available). Villanova makes a good case study because it is neither an urban school in the heart of a metropolis like the New York schools nor is in the middle of nowhere like a more rural institution. It has access to the Philadelphia, New York, and DC markets. It also resides in a large state and borders New Jersey and Delaware (which has no law school of its own.)

The conclusions derived from this analysis should be applicable to most schools ranked between 26 and 100 in US News and World Report while graduates from schools ranked lower probably will have worse outcomes. If one disagrees, this analysis can easily be applied to any of the data sets for other schools.

There is no way to directly link to the data set, but the data for the Villanova Law class of 2015 - as well as all other classes/schools - can be downloaded here:

For May 2015 graduates, the survey includes ten months of post-graduate data (i.e. graduates had ten months in which to a find a position in order to be considered "employed").

According to Villanova's own website, tuition and fees are now roughly $43,000 or $129,000 over three years. The school estimates the total cost of attendance (including living expenses) is about $66,000 per year or just under $200,000 for three years. Throw in interest and any undergraduate loans and a graduate could easily find himself approaching $250,000 in debt at graduation.

It certainly would be reasonable for a prospective student to question what type of return he's going to receive if he's going to go a quarter million into the red.

Based upon the hard (and self-reported) numbers compiled by the ABA, a $200k JD is hardly a sound investment.

The data indicates that there were 213 graduates in 2015. After 10 months, 27 were unemployed and seeking employment. That's a 12.7% unemployment rate after nearly a year of job searching. The national unemployment rate in May 2016 was 5.5%. For such a massive investment, graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than the US population as a whole.

The data further notes that 138 of graduates found employment in jobs that require bar admission - the types of jobs people would expect if they graduate law school. This comes out to just under 65% of graduates - or nearly two-thirds of the class.

Of those who are neither employed as attorneys nor unemployed, a smattering (8 students) are not seeking employment, employed by the law school, pursuing another degree, or have been deferred by their employers.

Virtually everyone else has a non-legal job - the bulk of whom are classified as having "JD Advantage" jobs. Only two are listed as being employed in another professional field while two others are listed as being employed in a non-professional field.

(Sidebar: I'm not sure how this proud alumnus' career choice will be classified next year.)

This is where some of the chicanery of self-reported data begins to show. Let's be clear: there is virtually no such thing as an entry level "JD Advantage" job unless you're talking about being a Lexis or Westlaw sales rep or the school is shoving doc review roles into this category. Otherwise, feel free to search the job listings and see just how many non-attorney roles you can find where a company is really looking for someone with a JD.

Trust me, as someone who has had to answer the interview question - "So, why do you have a law degree?" - more times than I can count, a JD confers no advantage.

Anyway, back to the numbers. Given that it's unlikely any of these non-legal positions actually require a law degree, I think it's fair to lump these jobs (JD advantage, professional, and non-professional) together with the number who are unemployed after 10 months. If you add these groups up, the sum is 67. Divide by 213 and you get 31.4%.

This is what I call, the "Worthlessness Factor". These are the people, who after investing in a legal education either can't find a job or can only find a job that could have been secured without enduring the law school ordeal. Therefore, their law degree is essentially worthless.

If you remove the aforementioned special circumstances - the 8 people who pursued an LLM, landed an MRS, etc. - the breakdown is that almost exactly 2/3rds of the class found attorney positions and 1/3rd of the class would have better off buying lotto tickets.

Back when law schools used the the first year to weed out poorly qualified students, they used to scare the 1L's during orientation with a line like, "Look to your left, look to your right. After this year, one of you won't be here." They should amend this adage to read, "Look to your left, look to your right. One of you is essentially going to borrow and flush 200 large right down the toilet."

But what of the other 2/3rds. Theoretically if you can finish in the top two thirds of the class, you should okay, right? Well, let's take a look at the second table where the ABA breaks down the data for those are able to find employment.

It's impossible to link the data from the two tables directly because the categories shift - though we know the unemployed and special cases are no longer included. The "Business and Industry" category roughly matches the size of the "JD Advantage Category" - though some "advantage" jobs may be with the government.

"Business and Industry" - like "JD Advantage" - is also code for "does not require a law degree". Unless, you're offered a role to be a GC for your buddy's hair-brained startup that hawks some crummy mobile app, you're not going to work in a corporate legal office right out of school. It's not surprising that there's overlap between the two categories.

Taking a look at the numbers, let's first look at the number of graduates who landed a position at a firm...any firm: 85. I'm going to calculate the percentage out of the the graduating class as a whole - not just the number employed - because we're looking at overall outcomes for graduates.

The percentage employed at a law firm is pretty dismal: 40% (rounding up). That's right, only 2 out of 5 LAW graduates end working at a law firm. We're not even being selective - this includes everyone from the Skadden bound graduate to the guy working part time for a shady firm located underneath a highway overpass.

Let's examine the breakdown a little more. Most - though not all - law students dream of the elite jobs. The jobs that will produce six figure salaries and will confer upon the attorney the prestige he so desires. When you're talking about six figures of debt, it is probably fair to expect a pretty decent return on that investment.

The jobs that pay such impressive salaries are referred to as BigLaw. BigLaw usually is defined as firms that are larger than 100 employees. According to the ABA data, there are 27 such students (interestingly this is the exact same number as those who are unemployed). It's probably fair to throw in the three graduates who landed federal clerkships because they are likely BigLaw bound.

Combining the various tiers of BigLaw (most fall into the 500+ attorney bucket) and those with federal clerkships, the percentage comes out to 14%. Because maybe one or two other students have a BigLaw caliber government or PI job, we can call it an even 15%.

This isn't horrible for a second tier school. (Typically the cutoff for attaining such a job is being in the top 10%.) Nonetheless, 85% of graduates are walking away with non-elite jobs. That should definitely give anyone pause before assuming a mortgage size student loan balance.

A common fallacy among prospective law students is that even if they fail to land a BigLaw or another elite job, they'll just settle for a "mid law" position. It's a fallacy because the distribution of entry level law firm roles is bimodal rather than normal: the bulk of law jobs aren't at mid-size firms; instead, they are concentrated at the extremes (small law or big law).

The data supports this analysis. If we exclude the 30 students who landed elite jobs, only 8% of the remainder (everyone who didn't land a BigLaw or fed clerkship position) ended up at a firm with between 26 and 100 attorneys. Even if we're generous and count everyone employed by a firm with 11 - 100 attorneys, it only comes out to 15%. That is if you miss the BigLaw ship, you pretty much only have an 8-15% chance of landing a mid law job (most of which are likely uninspiring insurance defense shops paying between $60-80k).

If a graduate does land a law firm role, chances are he or she is going to end up joining a small firm of 2-10 employees. A plurality - 31 graduates with law firm jobs - ended up working for a firm of this size. A majority worked for a firm that was between 2 and 25 attorneys.

While there may always be a small law gem here or there, small firms tend to be the most likely to have high turnover, psychopathic employers, and fail to provide basic benefits that the employees of Starbucks and Whole Foods take for granted. Salaries rarely exceed $50k and may even dip down into the $30k or below range. Because the law schools aren't forced to disclose salary data, we don't know exactly how bad median salaries may be. Nonetheless, you probably don't want to gamble nearly a quarter of a million bucks hoping that this analysis is too pessimistic.

Moreover, of all graduates who end up working for small firms, one out of five of them aren't even employed full time.

The public interest and government employment numbers are probably the hardest to parse, but only about 10% class end up in either category. Even if someone claims that he/she doesn't really want to go into private practice and instead wants to serve the public interest, this isn't a significant portion of the class. These categories presumably include all assistant DA, PD, legal aid, and general bureaucratic (including non-attorney) roles.

Finally, there are state clerkships. Aside from *maybe* one or two graduates who end up working for a state supreme court, these jobs are mostly with low level state courts, don't pay much, and aren't designed to be long term career opportunities. Yes, they can sometimes serve as launch pads for better roles, but often it's a stepping stone to moving to an aforementioned small firm. For every clerk who lands a decent role at a boutique firm, many more will wrap up their New Jersey traffic court clerkships only to be unemployed or left scrounging around for work fighting speeding tickets.

This leads us to another figure, the combined percentage of graduates who end up unemployed, in a non-legal role, working at a small firm, or working in a state court clerkship. This comes out to 62% of the class. If you throw in the "special circumstances" - not looking for work, pursuing an LLM, etc., the number is 66% - just under 2/3rds.

Early on we noted that about 1/3 of the class pretty much has nothing to show for their time in law school. This figure indicates ONLY 1/3 of the class is likely to have a job that even begins to justify the six figure price tag: BigLaw associate, Fed clerk, potentially interesting public/government role eligible for PSLF, or anything that could be theoretically considered a mid law associate role.

Now, I can see someone criticizing these calculations or this analysis. Maybe someone feels I'm too pessimistic or I wasn't consistent in calculating the various rates. My calculations were intended to provide the most clarity regarding prospective employment outcomes, but it's fair to disagree. The numbers are out there and anyone is welcome to drill deeper into the data.

In fact, while I used Villanova's numbers, my point wasn't to vilify this particular school. (I intentionally veered away from mentioning the school's name too often in this post.) It's merely a case study. I hope this blog post will instead serve as a catalyst for prospective students to apply a similar analysis to the school he or she is considering. The breakdown will likely be similar (if not worse) for any school outside of the top 25.

You see, regardless of whether you'd spot the school a few additional percentage points here or there, it doesn't change the overarching analysis. Graduates will still face twice the unemployment rate of the population as a whole. Only around 15% of graduates are going to end up with the type of elite positions most law students covet. Mid Law is hardly a backup plan as it still constitutes a small portion of the class. A full third of the class won't end being attorneys. Most of those who are employed in the legal field are heading to small law or low level clerkships.

This isnt' conjecture, hearsay, or propaganda. This is based upon real, SELF-REPORTED data. As a prospective law student, you have to ask yourself, do I really want to take out a mortgage (in essence) for these results? Do I really want to forgo three years of work experience, retirement savings, etc. to possibly end up as state judicial clerk or personal injury associate pulling down $45k a year?

Obviously the choice is yours, but if you're a potential law student, you're the one - not a smooth talking dean or a law professor with a phony baloney "study" - who will assume the debt and the career options (or lack thereof) with which your degree will saddle you. If you borrow and gamble six figures worth of tuition for a limited chance to get a decent legal job and you lose, there will be no sympathy and no turning back.
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