“Watch your step, law grads. It’s a dangerous world out there,” warns Third Tier Reality — one of the many blogs created by angry law school graduates who feel cheated by their expensive education and shortage of legal services jobs.
Many law students have been hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis and are unable to find adequate employment to pay back their student loans. Despite the national trend, University of Michigan Law School Students — though struggling the past couple of years — fare better in the job market than law students from other universities.
Where the University stands
The University of Michigan Law School — established in 1859 — has always been a national leader in legal education. While there are 200 law schools currently operating in the United States, the University’s is currently ranked the ninth best law school in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
“I’ve never seen any kind of ranking in which Michigan wasn’t in the top 10,” said Sarah Zearfoss, the Law School’s assistant dean and director of admissions.
“But that’s just not how I think about anything related to Michigan,” she said, describing how she prefers to focus less on the rankings and instead gauge the Law School’s success in other ways.
Nevertheless, a law school’s ranking is vital to attracting students and getting them hired by law firms.
Douglas Kahn, who has been a Law School professor at the University since 1964, said “the status of the school in law plays a really significant role — maybe more so than in other fields.”
Kahn said the University’s current ranking upsets a lot of alumni who are used to the Law School being ranked fifth, at worst.
“You have to be concerned about it. It affects students and what schools they’re going to. It will affect faculty — when you’re hiring, they look at it,” Kahn said.
Second-year Law School student Paul Sanderson-Cimino said there is a lot of pressure to attend a school in the top 14, and that a school’s ranking is a huge predictor of a student’s job placement.
“It’s a very prestige-obsessed profession — pathologically so. It’s kind of a pathology that impresses upon everyone. It makes you kind of crazy,” Sanderson-Cimino said while laughing. “You’re always judging yourself, it’s not healthy.”
The current landscape
Law school applications decreased dramatically this year both nationally and at the University. As said by Zearfoss, the amount of students taking the LSATs have dropped 22 percent this year, but hasn’t affected enrollment too much considering that number was up almost 20 percent last year.
Zearfoss explained the number of law school applicants increased dramatically when the legal market suffered, and the number decreased when the market started to improve. She acknowledged that the trend is odd and most people expected the opposite to happen.
“My gut tells me that last year when the economy was bad, people were grappling trying to figure out how bad it was, and more people may have been interested in pursuing higher-ed that year,” Zearfoss said. “Then this year, the news really started seeding that for the legal sector there had been problems in the market, and people reacted to that by saying ‘OK, that’s not what I want to do.’ ”
In spite of the increased interest in obtaining a law degree, the economic downturn has caused much difficulty for students looking for jobs. “Certainly the economy is harder right now, and it is more challenging even for our Law students,” Zearfoss said.
For law students, the summer before their second year is a pivotal time, as all universities hold on-campus interviews where potential employers look for students to work for them the next summer.
In many cases, that same employer will also hire students once they graduate from law school.
“Three or four years ago, employers were in here begging (students) to come. It’s not quite that easy now — except for a very few students,” Kahn said. “There will be some students who are going to be taking some months before they find their position.”
Sanderson-Cimino said in successful years firms might have about 80 summer associates, but last summer, available positions reduced to about 10 summer associate spots.
Timothy Estep, a second-year Law School student, reflected on current and past job prospects.
“I think it was a little better for us this year than it has been for the (second-year students) of the past couple of years,” Estep said. “Law students by their nature are competitive, and you could feel some anxiety in the air during OCI.”
Callie Dendrinos, another second-year Law School student, reiterated this anxiety felt by law students.
“A lot of people were saying that they were having a hard time. There just haven’t been as many offers,” she said. “So I think that really the point that we are at now is not that people are getting laid off from their first year of work, it’s that the firms are offering less positions.
“I think there are still a few people who are looking, and I think that’s unusual — especially at Michigan.”
For those few students still searching for a summer job, it is a sensitive issue. One student declined to be interviewed because it was too stressful of a topic to discuss.
“Honestly people don’t ask about it because people don’t want to assume that you have a job, and then make someone feel badly that they don’t have one,” Dendrinos said. “That happens, and it’s a painful conversation for everyone.”
According to a Feb. 1 article in the American Bar Association Journal, the number of employees in legal services has declined 7.8 percent since 2007.
John Bredell, co-founder of the Bredell & Bredell law office in Ann Arbor, explained how law jobs in particular were affected by the economic crisis in 2008.
“As the economy has ground to a halt, many (legal) jobs have disappeared. And it isn’t just lawyers who are affected, but lawyers are certainly affected because when you think about it, every single aspect of the economy that flows down — most of those businesses were paying for legal advice,” Bredell said.
In such a bad economy, businesses also can’t afford the legal advice they sought in the past.
“Companies are probably no longer using lawyers as much as they used to because they have bigger worries. They’re saying, ‘We’re trying to meet the payroll, and we’re not going to do a visit that requires lawyers,’ ” Bredell said.
Though the job market has opened up slightly, Kahn said it has still contracted severely.
“I talked with firms that cut 50 percent of the number they were hiring, and they hired a large number of people,” he said.
Zearfoss also noted the decrease in job opportunities for law students.
“I believe in 2009, the economy and legal sector lost 6,000 lawyer jobs, not including paralegals or secretaries. Just lawyer jobs from the biggest firms — that’s huge,” she said.
She added that the number of layoffs continued in 2010, though there were fewer than in the previous years.
While the number of law jobs has decreased the past few years, the number of law schools continues to grow. According to the American Bar Association Journal, the number of law schools has increased 9 percent over the past decade.
The emergence of new law schools results in even more students competing for a dwindling number of positions. According to the ABA, law schools awarded more than 43,000 Doctor of Law degrees last year, which is an increase of more than 11 percent compared to a decade earlier.
Despite the competition, most University Law School graduates find full-time employment. According to the University’s Career Services website, the class of 2009 Law School graduates had a 99.4 percent employment rate.
Many, however, are settling for lower paying jobs. Bredell said students from the top law schools used to take private sector jobs with enormous paychecks — now, these same students are competing for lower-paid government jobs.
“There’s the whole trickle-down effect. It used to be that if you go to Michigan State, which is a much newer law school and doesn’t compete with U of M’s, the State kids will apply for those government jobs, and now they’re finding out that kids who went to Yale or U of M and were at the top of their class are also applying for those jobs,” Bredell said.
This means students from lower-tier schools who usually rely on the government jobs are left out in the cold. Many of the “scamblogs” — like “Shilling Me Softly” and “Third Tier Reality” — are created by these students who are unable to find law jobs and don’t have the money to repay their loans.
“It’s very comparable to someone who runs off to Vegas and blows $200,000 on one hand of Black Jack and they lose — it’s like for the rest of my life I’m going to be paying off this massive amount of debt,” Sanderson-Cimino said, empathizing with the disgruntled graduate students from other schools.
While Sanderson-Cimino didn’t find the advice from the Career Services Office to be beneficial, the alumni network at the University and at Carleton College where he completed his undergraduate studies helped him secure a job.
“The alumni network can be pretty loyal. I actually found something mostly because I talked to alumni from Michigan,” he said.
Besides seeking help from alumni, University Law School students who have a job that pays below a certain level can enlist in the Debt Management/Loan Repayment Assistance Program. There are also federal loan forgiveness laws which erase students’ loans if they work for at least 10 years in the public interest.
“It’s not Michigan’s goal to leave its graduates high and dry, there are programs to kind of help you manage debt — especially if you want to work in public interest,” Estep said. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about the debt that I’m taking on right now.”
Dendrinos is seeking a career in the public interest sector and described how that wouldn’t have been possible without the forgiveness laws.
“If I’m only making $35,000 a year I won’t have to pay that much in loan interest,” she said. “I would not have come here if that hadn’t happened because I could not pay back my loans on that income.”
Though the legal sector is becoming more competitive with shrinking job opportunities, Kahn encouraged students to still pursue a law degree.
“You don’t have to become a lawyer if you don’t want to. There are a lot of other opportunities where law training would be helpful in getting the position,” Kahn said. “There are some very successful business people who didn’t go into law, even though they had a law degree.”
Zearfoss expressed similar optimism for the future of law schools and the students who choose to pursue law degrees.
“Practicing law is incredibly rewarding, and you also get to feel like you’re helping people,” she said. “From this point of view, those are the advantages of being a lawyer even in a bad economy.”