Wednesday, June 18, 2008

To hear many students tell it, law school is a guaranteed ticket to a well-paying career. So a recent milestone must have sounded like good news.

The United States last week became the world’s first nation of 200 accredited law schools, as the American Bar Association (ABA) gave provisional approval to two North Carolina institutions.

In other countries, it’s much harder to become a lawyer. In the U.S., the doors are open and getting wider. The 150,000 students enrolled in law schools last year were a new high. So adding more slots means even more avenues of opportunity, right?

On closer inspection, however, the economic factors of the “more is better” argument for legal education don’t necessarily hold up.

It’s the numbers at the top that get all the attention: At the largest law firms, median starting salaries were $145,000 last fall, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), an organization that tracks law placement.

But many students don’t realize at first that the high-paying law firms recruit almost exclusively at institutions ranked in the top 15 or so. Overall, the median salary for new lawyers is $62,000. For public interest law jobs, new lawyers can expect about $40,000.

Meanwhile, the average amount students borrow to attend a private law school surged 25 percent between 2002 and 2007 to $87,906, ABA figures show. For public law schools, borrowing averages $57,170.

“I think we have this fundamental disconnect between images of lawyers in the popular media, in the courtroom dispensing justice, where everyone seems prosperous and well paid,” said William Henderson, an Indiana University at Bloomington law professor who studies the job market. “The reality is for a lot of people, law school is a route to trying to start your own private practice, and that’s a very crowded business right now.”

Vichet Chan, who received his law degree from Catholic University in 2007 has been looking for work ever since. He recently moved back in with his parents in West Virginia to save money. He owes about $250 a month in interest on student loans. If he gets a job, he will lose his hardship deferral and will owe about $1,000 a month.

“The thing is companies want experience from young lawyers, but it’s hard to get the experience,” Mr. Chan said.

One symptom of the surplus is the rise of so-called “contract attorneys” - essentially temps with a law degree. They work for roughly $20 to $40 an hour on often monotonous tasks, like reviewing documents, that law firms outsource.

A blog called Temporary Attorney even chronicles the mind-numbing assignments, verbal abuse and poor working conditions that include cockroach-infested, stuffy rooms with blocked exits and no breaks allowed.

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