About two weeks ago, we reported on a study of the law schools whose graduates earned the highest median starting salaries. The rankings were based on numbers culled from Payscale.com, and if you thought the list looked a bit odd, you weren’t the only ones. “Those median starting salary figures are about as believable as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,” remarked one of our commenters, while others cried T14 tears over Penn’s mysterious absence from the list.
Wipe your tears, friends, because today we’ve got a new and improved list for you — one with salary numbers delivered straight from the law schools themselves, including the percentage of recent graduates who reported their salaries.
Which schools are on the new list? Keep reading to find out…
Before we get to the new list, let’s have a chat about why the numbers on the original list were so wrong. The study’s author, Susan Adams, says she relied solely upon compensation information from Payscale, and now questions the “motivations” of people who bothered to post their salary information on the site in the first place. After extensive talks with Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency, here’s some of the details Adams found in her search for new information on law graduates’ median starting salaries:
For new lawyers who join high-paying firms like New York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore or Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, first-year compensation for most associates is set at $160,000. Though the Wall Street Journal has reported that some first-years at Cravath make as much as $265,000 (Cravath won’t comment), most associates at top firms receive salaries that go up in what’s known as “lockstep” compensation from year to year, from $160,000 to $170,000, $185,000, $210,000, etc. Some firms also give generous bonuses. The nation’s highest-paying firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, is known to pay bonuses equal to a full year’s salary.
Thus, because salaries at most large firms are pre-determined and associates tend to stay for the long term, young lawyers at those firms have little incentive to sign onto Payscale and divulge their salary information. That widespread entry salary of $160,000 also explains why grads of 10 different schools all appear to have the same median income; if more than half of the class takes jobs at high-paying firms, then the median will be set at $160,000.
(FYI, first-years at Cravath do not make as much as $265,000. The Wall Street Journal article cited notes that the firm’s bonuses “supplement base salaries that range from $160,000 to around $265,000.” At a lockstep firm, you won’t make that much in base salary alone until you’re a seventh-year associate.)
So which law school came out on top this time around? Behold the beauty of the T14 in the Top 10 (ranked in order of salary response rate, and by percentage of the class employed, generally, in the case of ties):
LAW SCHOOL RANKINGS – MEDIAN STARTING PAY
1. University of Chicago Law School: $160,000
Class size: 215 / Employed: 209
Number reporting salary: 202 (97%)
2. Columbia Law School: $160,000
Class size: 437 / Employed: 425
Number reporting salary: 419 (96%)
3. Northwestern University School of Law: $160,000
Class size: 284 / Employed: 268
Number reporting salary: 256 (96%)
4. Harvard Law School: $160,000
Class size: 578 / Employed: 556
Number reporting salary: 548 (95%)
5. New York University School of Law: $160,000
Class size: 537 / Employed: 514
Number reporting salary: 504 (94%)
6. Stanford Law School: $160,000
Class size: 194 / Employed: 186
Number reporting salary: 179 (92%)
7. Duke University School of Law: $160,000
Class size: 241 / Employed: 225
Number reporting salary: 222 (92%)
8. University of Pennsylvania Law School: $160,000
Class size: 259 / Employed: 252
Number reporting salary: 235 (91%)
9. University of California at Berkeley School of Law (class of 2012): $160,000
Class size: 312 / Employed: 295
Number reporting salary: 261 (84%)
10. University of Virginia School of Law: $117,500
Class size: 364 / Employed: 356
Number reporting salary: 348 (98%)
NYU, Penn, UC Berkeley are now members of the Top 10. The schools following UVA — Georgetown and Cornell — also boast $160K median starting salaries, but UVA ranked above them simply due to “the impressive number of grads who report their salaries.” Also of note: Yale now hovers just inside the Top 20, due to the number of graduates “working in prestigious but low-paying judicial clerkships.”
Further down the list, we see schools like San Diego and Catholic making appearances again, but now with lower starting salaries. On the last list, Catholic posted a $75,600 median starting salary, and this time around, that number is $63,000, with just 40% of the class of 2013 reporting salaries. Similarly, San Diego posted a $75,300 median starting salary on the flawed list, and now that number is $65,000 — with only 18 graduates earning in the ballpark of that salary.
To be honest, we’re not quite sure why a number of similarly situated schools like these made the second list at all. This is where the “motivation” factor comes in — if you’re earning what you consider to be “top dollar,” of course you’re going to spread the good word and report your salary. Those who don’t report at all likely aren’t motivated to do so, whether it’s due to shame, a lack of care, or any other excuse.
Adams concludes by stating that “a diploma from any of these schools will almost surely guarantee a high-paying job,” but we’d caution readers and note that not all law schools are created equal — there’s no longer a “guarantee” that simply having a Juris Doctor will result in a high-paying job. It’s still worth it to go to a top law school, but guaranteeing anything in terms of salary is dangerous in times like these.