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April 30, 2013

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Ben Barros

Brandon, your point about whether this is generalizable is well taken. My instinct is that it is, but that is just instinct. One thing that might make Widener-Harrisburg different from other schools is that we are a strong regional player without a lot of local competition. Penn State is the only other law school with a major presence in the region. Larger urban areas would have more legal jobs, but would also have more competition between schools. That's only speculation, though. It would be great if other schools could do similar studies.

Anon, a couple of points on your question. First, the bar websites were just examples of sources of data we used. We would also look to other sources, including law firm websites. Google searches revealed a lot. We also looked on LinkedIn for information on people. If the information looked solid, for example if someone was listed as an associate on a firm website, we did not follow up individually. Second, I have been tinkering with this project for almost two years, and had done a good amount of research on the class of 2010 more than a year ago. The employment information for most people stayed stable, with the exception of some people who left judicial clerkships. Even if I had information from a prior search, at least two other people independently searched for data on each person for the current snapshot in time that I report on above. If there were discrepancies or questions, we tried to resolve them. I also requested follow up on anything that jumped out at me as odd. Finally, I know a lot of the class of 2011 personally. I don't know as many of the class of 2010 because I missed their first year when I was visiting at another school. I make no claim that the data is perfect, but I think it is pretty robust. I'd repeat my point made above in response to Brandon - more data from other schools would be great.

BoredJD

Would be interesting to follow up on what happened in the interim- between taking the bar and finding permanent, bar passage required employment. Presumably these folks had to eat for six months. Were they taking on CC debt? What accounts for the large increase? Did they convert part time or short term gigs to full time ones? How did students who were entirely unemployed fare versus temp or part-time workers?

Ben Barros

BoredJD - that is an interesting question. I'll think about how to get at it. I think there are two issues. (1) How long, exactly, did it take people to land their permanent job if they were not employed after 9 months. 10 months after graduation? 22 months after graduation? My instinct is that the 10-15 month window is where most of them got their jobs, but it would be interesting to know for sure. (2) What did people do between graduation and getting a permanent job? This would be interesting to know even for people who got their job within 9 months, at least the subset who didn't start a job right after the bar exam. It is relevant to one of my pet issues, the second-year summer bar exam, because one of the key reasons for that proposal is to minimize the opportunity cost of waiting after graduation for employment.

Plonk

I'm not sure how much this matters, really. Average debt for 91% of Widener grads is %24123,071, meaning a minimum monthly payment of %241,416.31, assuming no interest accrued between graduation and finding a job. Sustaining that kind of payments would require a salary much higher than the ones you're quoting. And your closing line about owning a %24300,000 home on that kind of salary and with that kind of debt is kind of ludicrous, frankly.

Plonk

Something changed my dollar signs. Oh well. Point is, law remains a bad gamble for most students without substantial reforms to decrease its cost.

Ben Barros

Plonk, as I've said many times, I agree with the worry about the debt. I don't think you are engaging in my point about entry level salaries. Yes, people might have to use one of the flexible repayment options short term. As I said in the post, I don't worry about that as much if they are developing their skills and future marketability. The reference to homes was just an illustration about cost of living. And, FWIW, a lot of my former students who I keep in touch with are buying homes. I realize that it might be the subset that has lower debt.

Tyler

One further point on entry level jobs and increasing salaries. Your supposition seems to be that even if a grad takes a low-paying "small law" job, they are gaining valuable skills that will exponentially increase their salaries over time. The problem with that formulation is that you need to take into account small-law salary structures. It would be nice to think that somebody starting at 40 or 45K is going to someday elevate into the high salaries needed to adequately service debt. It's unclear if small law salaries can be charted on an upward trajectory. will some grads eventually make a nice salary of say 150 or 200K? yes some will and some will make even more - but the question is where do the majority top out? something tells me that many will hit a plateau and not rise much above it over the course of their careers. as someone who worked in biglaw, you know that these folks cannot lateral there and get the huge salary. (unless they have a portable book of business) you are well aware that the legal employment hierarchy is on a track - once you put onto that track it is hard to get off (excpetions would be a DA or US attorney who laterals over into biglaw) but if you are private sector small law - the options are limited

Ben Barros

Tyler, I don't think that small law salaries increase exponentially over time. As I said in the post, I don't think it is hard to get to the $75,000 - $90,000 range in small law in the Harrisburg area. Even if it tops out there, I think people can service the debt. Not to say at all that this is ideal. Less debt is certainly better.

BoredJD

In my experience (admittedly at a school where most students are employed before graduation) there was a three to four month period where students took the bar and then went on a bar trip. If they could not get an advance from their firm, they took a high-interest bar loan of between 5-10K to cover expenses during that period.

I'd suspect many jobless returned home to live with family, or returned to pre-law school temp or part-time work, maybe getting a job in their local area.

As for the loans, there is a grace period for six months after graduation, although some of the loans still accrue interest during that time. For those with permanent employment, that happens to be a reasonable amount of time after the beginning of permanent employment to begin making payments (after a security deposit, first+last month's rent, and other relocation expenses). I'd think (hope) that students who don't have a permanent position go on IBR immediately after that. But IBR participation rates are low, and many students I talk to offline do not even know about the program.

Stan

Given the glut of lawyers, I would be genuinely astonished if $75-$90k is "not that hard" to get in Central Pennsylvania.

No matter, assuming that these $90k jobs are plentiful, is that salary sufficient to service $150,000 in educational debt?

Even worse, if it takes X number of years to acquire the skills necessary to get these jobs, what does that initial $150k look like after interest for those X years? $200k? $250k?

Even staying the same, I am skeptical that even a $90k salary leaves enough for the $150k debtor to save for other life events, such as a house, or a car, or a child? For retirement?

Tyler

Stan made my point better than I did by factoring in the accrued interest on loans over time. when you speak about servicing debt, your assumptions leave out the need to have money left over for the simple trappings of a middle class life (i.e. homeownership, vehicles) - moreover, even at the salaries you mentioned, it's entirely possible that a bank could determine that a person's debt to income ratio is too high, even if you are currently "servicing" the debt

again, real data on the salary structure in a given metro area is important - and even those numbers are skewed because the high earners are more likely to report to schools; and BLS numbers are skewed by the high earning biglaw partners and PI guys who hit some jackpots

Bernie Burk

Ben, I agree with a number of your commenters that there is a lot we don't know about what is happening to recent law graduates, especially in that period after the nine-month cutoff, and that your work is a valuable step towards filling that void. I would, however, caution any reader to take the broader view advocated by Brian and his very articulate student. The fact that some of this is better news than prevailing information with only a nine-month horizon might have led us to believe does not mean that it is good news. Nor does it even remotely suggest that anything is improving. Leaving aside a few quibbles I have with your counting, at least one in four of your class of 2011 has been unable to find any law job after two full years. The fact that others remained unemployed or underemployed for a year or more before getting a job is almost as distressing.

We all need to know a lot more about how career trajectories are changing in the so-called New Normal. But the fact that more graduates than we might have imagined may not spend their entire adult lives in indentured servitude is hardly reason to break out the champagne. I'm not suggesting that you are popping the cork yourself, Ben; but beware those who might misinterpret.

Congratulations on some really important contributions.

Bernie Burk

Adam B

As a straight-to-solo law grad two years after graduation and 18 months after bar admission, I barely survive from client to client, and I live with my in-laws! I came from a mid-T1 school in New York City, and I know of only one person from my class and the class after me to have a full-time legal job, and she graduated at the top of the class and had a family connection. Also, her family is rich.

I know of no one from the generation of lawyers just before me, i.e. those 10 years out of law school, who make $90K, even in the high-salaried NYC area! Making that much money just is not common outside of big law unless you own a successful boutique-firm (usually when a group of solos band together servicing a niche area).

So, I find many of the assumptions in this post problematic.

Ben Barros

Bernie, thanks. Two questions for you. (1) I'm curious about your quibbles on categories. I found that process hard. (2) Why do you dismiss all of the JD preferred and professional jobs? Some of them aren't great, but some of them are really good.

Adam, I think the assumptions are solid, but they are just assumptions. Better data is needed.

anon

Here's some more anecdotal criticism...I am in your neck of the woods. I personally know more than a dozen recent Widener grads from your campus who have struggle to find full-time employment and have suffered through long bouts of unemployment or employment in non-professional fields.

Your info fails to address whether the salary of graduates is sufficient to meet their student loan debt. Moreover, how do you define a "good job"?

Ben Barros

Anon, your anecdotes are consistent with the data in my post. Yes, it is taking people a long time to get jobs. Yes, that sucks. I think that I am clear in my post that I am NOT saying "don't worry, everything is okay here." Things are not as much of a disaster as the 9 month data alone suggest, but they are not good.

Good question on how to define a "good" job. I don't have a good answer. I know that there are some things that I don't consider good. It does not excite me to see a law grad working as a paralegal, for example.

Adam B

Barros - You say your assumptions are solid because you feel like it?

Ask any of us that are in the thick of it -- excluding the rich kids who graduated in the top 10% of a top 10 schools -- and we will tell you the truth: there are few recent graduates in career positions and even past graduates from the early 2000s are not doing very well.

If you want to use a dowsing rod, you can always convince yourself that you're headed in the right direction. Don't mind those of us that actually keep up with this stuff on a daily basis, especially if we prove your self-serving study wrong.

Ben Barros

Adam, my data and my assumptions are based on my experience in my area. I talk a lot with former students. Some are doing well, some are not. The data speaks for itself. I've been clear about when I'm talking about data and when I'm talking about assumptions. I've made no statements whatsoever about your area, because I have no personal knowledge about it.

LTR

On the one hand, you claim not be saying "don't worry, everything is okay here." On the other hand, pretty much every "assumption" you make seems to be one intended to make the situation appear as rosy as possible. Your motives seem to be showing through, as much as you try to disclaim them.

Ben Barros

LTR, which assumptions are you talking about? Be specific. What evidence would you point to in support of your position?

Having my integrity questioned in an anonymous Internet comment is not even on my list of things to care about in life. I am, however, interested in getting the facts right.

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