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When It Comes to Law Degrees, Caveat Emptor

Law schools promise grads jobs with six figure salaries, but they've been getting creative with the numbers. Is a J.D. still worth the cost?

This week I learned what article not to share on Facebook with my friends in law school. The recent New York Times piece "Is Law School a Losing Game?" has struck a nerve, particularly for third-year students on the verge of graduation. My friends don't need me to share the article—they're living the reality.

It turns out the information on which U.S. News & World Report bases its revered law school rankings, particularly post-graduation salary and employment data, isn't exactly on the up and up. The schools have been getting very creative with the numbers—Indiana University professor William Henderson refers to it as "Enron-type accounting standards"—by conveniently failing to mention to eager applicants about to go into serious student loan debt that the chances of landing a job at Cravath, the top firm in New York City, are next to impossible.

Just like lots of other businesses hit hard by the economic downturn, law firm hiring is down, layoffs are commonplace, and outsourcing legal work to India is en vogue. But, according to the law schools, 93 percent of grads are working within nine months of graduation. The schools also claim that the, "median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000."

The reality is that even a grad from a top law school could end up bagging groceries for $10 an hour to pay the bills. But according to the way the schools compile their data, that grocery store job would count as "employed."

The article's poster child for being burned by this system is 27-year-old Michael Wallerstein, a recent graduate of San Diego's Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Wallerstein is now $250,000 in the hole, and bill collectors want the shirt off his back. He's living in New York City but he's not working at a firm. Instead, he's relies on temp work and house sitting to survive.

Why the deception? Law school is the "cash cow" of the university world. A ready supply of student loan money keeps schools flush. If the real employment and starting salary numbers are revealed, applications might nosedive, and the money trough schools are gorging from gets shut down.

Popular law blogs like Third Tier Reality and Subprime JD have called law schools out on their deception for quite some time, but the popularity of the Times article on the newspaper's website suggests that these shady practices are a real wake up call for the masses—particularly people considering taking the LSAT in February.

Until the American Bar Association and the schools step up to reform the data and ranking process, with law degrees, as with everything, caveat emptor. But, what do you think? Does the Times article change your attitude about the worthiness of a J.D.?

photo (cc) via Flickr user Tulane Publications

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