... to take a survey.

Yesterday, David Lat took a detailed look at the National Law Journal’s newly released list of “go-to” law schools — the ones placing the highest percentage of their 2011 graduates in Biglaw. Of course congratulations are due to Penn and Northwestern and the other schools whose graduates are still landing associate positions. But the real news is how seriously discouraging the NLJ data is. We all know the legal job market is tough, yet Bruce MacEwen’s observation that 85% of law schools give students a worse than 10% chance of getting a job in Biglaw still manages to startle.

Our ongoing ATL School & Firm Insider Survey (take it here!), asks current law students, among other things, “What do you expect to do after you graduate?” A whopping 71% tell us that they expect to work for a firm. (This percentage was consistent across class years.) That this proportion is so high, and so at odds with the NLJ findings, can mean some combination of two things:

  • The ATL student readership skews heavily toward that minority of students who will actually snag Biglaw gigs.
  • Many (if not most) expectations of law firm employment will be dashed against the reality of a contracting job market. In other words, a majority of students think they are in the fortunate minority

After the jump, we’ll look at how wide the gap between student expectation and market reality is, even at the “go-to” schools:

Below is a look at the NLJ top “Go-to” law schools with their percentage of 2011 graduates at NLJ 250 firms, contrasted with the percentage of current students who expect to work in a firm after graduating, based on ATL survey results. (Yes, we’re conflating ‘firm’ and the NLJ 250, but let’s say it’s reasonable that students who expect to work at a firm expect to do so at a place where they might have a plausible chance to pay down their debt. For that reason the NLJ 250 can serve as a rough proxy.)

UVA has the largest “disappointment factor” among this group, with 46% of its students not realizing their expected employment outcome, while Penn has the narrowest gap, at 18%. In all cases, though, the disappointed cohort is a substantial percentage of the overall class. Is everyone blurring the distinction between “expect” and “hope”?

Professor Paul Campos, ATL’s Lawyer of the Year for 2011, analyzes the NLJ data at Inside the Laws School Scam. He singles out two schools for dishonorable mention:

Fordham (19.6%, #20 on the NLJ list) and George Washington (17.8%, #23) confirmed their status as classic trap schools. With less than five percent of their classes doing federal clerkships, and with total cost of attendance at both 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.

According to the “disappointment factor” metric we’ve just invented, both GW (53%) and Fordham (67%!) fare miserably. Addressing would-be applicants, one bitter GW student says, “You’re not special. You have worse than a one-third chance of getting a high-paying job therefore don’t takeout an insurmountable amount of debt to go to GW. You will most likely be able to be employed but not in the way you were dreaming about when you were a college junior taking the LSAT.” Is the widespread aspiration for a lucrative law firm job really so closely verging on Extraordinary Popular Delusions territory?

Law students, does this disconnect we’re seeing comport with your own experiences and expectations? We’ve had decent survey response from students at all the schools we’ve looked at here, but our appetite for more is bottomless. If you haven’t done so already, please take a couple of minutes and take our brief survey here. Thanks.

Earlier: Best Law Schools for Getting a Biglaw Job (2012)


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