The Law School Bubble Has Burst

Mediocre legal education doesn't pay.

This image is released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0 via pXhere.

The Wall Street Journal continues to shine a light on the student debt crisis with its report “Law School Loses Luster as Debts Mount and Salaries Stagnate.”

Law school was once considered a surefire ticket to a comfortable life. Years of tuition increases have made it a fast way to get buried in debt.

Recent graduates of the University of Miami School of Law who used federal loans borrowed a median of $163,000. Two years later, half were earning $59,000 or less. That’s the biggest gap between debt and earnings among the top 100 law schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal data found.

Graduates from a host of other well-regarded law schools routinely leave with six-figure student loans, then fail to find high-paying jobs as lawyers, according to the Journal’s analysis of the latest federal data on earnings, for students who graduated in 2015 and 2016.

It’s worth noting at the outset that Miami is an odd choice to spotlight. It’s a private school, so there’s no state subsidy at all. And, while it’s a perfectly legitimate program, it’s not exactly an elite school. Indeed, it’s ranked well behind both the University of Florida and Florida State University, both of which are cheaper to attend. Here are the, admittedly contentious, US News rankings and data:

It’s literally two-and-a-half times as expensive as the other schools yet admits nearly as many students as both combined. So, Miami Law students are almost certainly people who couldn’t get into one of the much-higher-ranked state schools. Still, it’s not a fly-by-night program, either.

Federal data suggest the value of a law degree from nonelite schools has diminished. Salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, tuitions have soared. A three-year juris doctor program, including living expenses, now can cost more than $250,000 at private law schools.

Graduates who finished law school in 2019 earned a median $72,500 the following year, according to the National Association for Law Placement. That is about the same as graduates who finished school a decade earlier earned soon after graduating.

In recent years, brand-name private schools have been saddling graduate students with upward of $100,000 in debt despite their limited earning prospects, in fields such as film and theater, the Journal has reported. The data suggest graduate debt is emerging as a new trouble spot in the student debt crisis. The law-school numbers in particular show how the problem extends even to professions reputed to be more lucrative.

Only a dozen of the nation’s law schools leave students earning annual salaries two years after graduation that exceed their debts, according to the Education Department data covering roughly 200 programs. Among them are Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Again, though, Miami is an extreme case:

Even at some of the most prestigious law schools—those in U.S. News’s top 30—students are borrowing far more than they will earn soon after graduation, including at George Washington University and Emory University. At lower-ranked but still competitive American University, graduates borrowed a median $175,000, nearly triple their median earnings after two years.

George Washington’s dean said many of the college’s alumni enter government and public-interest jobs, which pay less than private firms. American University and Emory declined to comment.

So, a GS-12 with two years of service makes $90,106 a year in the DC area. That’s a decent living by any standards for a 25-year-old with no work experience. But civil service pay caps at $172,500. One would need to be appointed as a federal judge or a similarly plum mid-career gig to make significantly more than that working for the government.

Many Miami Law students said in interviews that they assumed attending a reputable private school would give them an edge in the job market.

Laura Cordell, a 2019 graduate, said she chose Miami for the prestige, particularly within Florida. “You go to any courthouse in Miami and the judge went to UM, the judge is a teacher at UM, there’s some sort of connection to UM,” she said.

“When I was looking for law schools, I wasn’t looking at price as much as what would be good for my career,” said Ms. Cordell, 30 years old, who said she turned down another school that offered her a large scholarship. “I didn’t have an understanding of the gravity of the amount I was borrowing.”

So, the school admits 1126 students a year, every year. People will practice law or otherwise utilize their degrees for four decades or more. The percentage of them who will go on to be judges has to be vanishingly small, indeed.

Regardless, the law schools are following the same path as the universities for the same reasons:

Over the past decade, Miami has increased law-school tuition and fees by 43%, to $57,000 for the coming school year, according to American Bar Association data. That’s more than double the rate of inflation.

Law schools can charge higher and higher amounts knowing that students can tap the U.S. government’s Grad Plus loan program, which permits borrowing up to the cost of tuition, fees and living expenses. It is now the fastest-growing federal student-loan program. If graduates’ loans are never repaid, taxpayers will be on the hook.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren notwithstanding, it makes no sense for the taxpayer to be subsidizing students who take on huge debt because they can’t do math.

Although maybe the schools should be on the hook for cranking out more graduates than the market will bear. And for failing to teach them the broader context of the profession:

Ms. White said Miami urged students to borrow less for living expenses, but that students tend to be unsophisticated borrowers, with many taking out the maximum every year. “They don’t know how to manage money in large numbers,” she said. “And so, over a relatively small period of time, [borrowing] got out of control.”

A 22-year-old who’s not smart enough to get into Florida State is unlikely to have any clue about this sort of thing. Conversely, the schools collect massive amounts of data about what kinds of jobs their graduates get and how much they pay. Why not, I don’t know, share that with them as part of the admissions process and continue to work with them as part of their legal education? Surely, law school should prepare graduates for the legal profession, not just teach them the law?

Starting lawyer salaries generally fall into two clusters: $45,000 to $75,000 for public service and small-firm attorneys, and around $190,000 for large firm jobs, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement.

More experienced associates at large law firms can earn upward of $250,000—far more than their peers at small firms or in the public sector. But more than half of entry-level jobs at high-paying firms have gone to graduates of just top 20 ranked schools, according to an analysis of American Bar Association data by Law School Transparency.

Well . . . yeah. I would be shocked if more than one or two Miami graduates go on to clerk for a federal judge, for example. I suspect most of them are eking out a living handling divorces, pleading down DUIs, and other mundane jobs that aren’t the subject of television dramas.

Paying off a student loan over 10 years, once considered standard, is difficult for many law-school graduates with six-figure debt. Roughly two in three recent law-school graduates hadn’t repaid a dime of their principal balance within two years, or had suspended payments altogether, the Journal’s analysis shows. If the graduates don’t pay down interest—often topping 7% in recent years—their balances will grow, not shrink.

Just 15% of recent University of Miami Law graduates had begun repaying their student loans after two years—the lowest rate among law schools at elite private research universities, as defined by categories the Education Department uses.

Again, Miami just isn’t a particularly prestigious school. Here is its class profile:

Compare it to much-higher-ranked yet markedly cheaper Florida:

Florida is much, much more selective (although, for whatever reason, its graduates suck at preparing for the bar exam).

Regardless, it makes little sense for the federal taxpayer to subsidize ever-increasing tuition and ever-spiraling student debt at schools producing graduates who are uncompetitive for the job market.

FILED UNDER: Education, Higher Ed
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Law school is a “bait and switch”. Partners in major law firms have big incomes. Associates in major law firms make decent incomes—and bill 200 hours/month for them. But most lawyers don’t work for major law firms. Those firms hire from top law schools.

    Incomes in the practice of law occur in a bimodal distribution—two peaks and the lower peak is under $50,000. I know full-time lawyers working for California counties who are earning around $40,000 a year.

    4
  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    The law school bubble has deflated before only to be revived by the promotional efforts of law schools and their faculty, not to forget the undergrad faculty, parents and relatives that encourage the student to follow their dreams. No one wants to have the hard conversation the lays out the problems that need to be overcome. Besides, who wants to dissuade a student who could be the next Thurgood Marshall or Sarah Sotomayor, regardless of how unlikely that is to be.

  3. CSK says:

    It’s not just law school. It makes just about as much sense as incurring a huge debt to go to a fourth-rate private liberal arts college to major in documentary film-making.

    4
  4. Mu Yixiao says:

    “When I was looking for law schools, I wasn’t looking at price as much as what would be good for my career,” said Ms. Cordell, 30 years old, who said she turned down another school that offered her a large scholarship. “I didn’t have an understanding of the gravity of the amount I was borrowing.”

    She can’t think her way through that, and she expected to be a high-paid lawyer?

    What was it I was saying about critical thinking skills the other day?

    8
  5. grumpy realist says:

    I’ve done my part talking to would-be students about not using law school as a catch-all because you don’t know what else to do with your life. Don’t do it unless you really, really know what you’re doing. I went part-time and worked full-time. Had sufficient funds to not take out loans; would not have gone had I needed to borrow $100K+. And yeah, I was noticing the problems my classmates were having in getting jobs afterwards.

  6. Teve says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    What was it I was saying about critical thinking skills the other day?

    that it’s not good critical thinking to support a general statement with an anecdote? Was that it? 😀

    11
  7. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. there’s still a “class distinction” between law schools that have full-time programs and those that have part-time/evening programs. Dating from the time when those who went full time were the Boston Brahmins and Mummy and Daddy had no trouble paying for everything. And, of course, upon graduation there would be a nice little junior partnership available either in Daddy’s firm or provided by one of the family friends in their firm.

    And as for those of us who took evening programs–well, we were just vulgar little plebs having to WORK our way through life. Scum. .

    (Believe it or not, I had at least one law professor with the above attitude. She could NOT get along with those of us in the evening/part-time program. In her eyes, our not attending full-time meant that “we weren’t serious.”)

    2
  8. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Teve:

    The proper response is “Kids these days!”. 😛

    2
  9. gVOR08 says:

    I’m frequently reminded of years ago reading of someone asking a guy why he became a dentist. He replied, ‘I don’t know, some fool teenager made that decision.’ How many people really analyze their school and career choices?

    3
  10. CSK says:

    There was a law school in New England that, years ago, shut down after repeated failure to be accredited. One student told the local newspaper that this was unfair, because there ought to be some place for stupid people to go to law school.

    True story.

    3
  11. Kathy says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    @Teve:

    There’s lack of critical thinking, and there’s lack of knowledge.

    Seriously, schools should teach basic finance starting in the fourth grade or so, and keep it up until high school. That way you’d have fewer people taking out big loans before they even start earning money.

    2
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I had my shot at law school. I’d been working as a library grunt at Wilmer, Cutler (now Wilmer Hale) and I was told by my boss that my name had come up at a partnership meeting of some sort and they wanted to offer to pay my way through law school. Sadly (fortunately) I did not have a college degree. Also, no High School diploma.

    And, frankly, I’d seen the life that associates lived. That picture of SW reporters above? Variations of that, mounds of that regularly buried associates in my library for days. I’d leave them on Friday for the weekend, come back on Monday and they were still there. Four years of being treated like a beast of burden, then, oopsie, not quite partner material, so, it’s out on your ass. Fuck that.

    2
  13. Joe says:

    I’ve done my part talking to would-be students about not using law school as a catch-all because you don’t know what else to do with your life. Don’t do it unless you really, really know what you’re doing.

    It’s a good thing you didn’t get to me, grumpy realist, because that describes the entire arc of my career.

    @CSK:

    there ought to be some place for stupid people to go to law school.

    Based on my experience, there is no shortage of such institutions.

    1
  14. CSK says:

    @Joe:
    Well, this student was clearly too stupid to realize that.

    I was visiting my parents when this news broke, and I remember my mother practically falling out of her chair laughing when she read that comment.

    2
  15. Beth says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    She can’t think her way through that, and she expected to be a high-paid lawyer?

    Except we were explicitly told that more time than I can count. Connections were the only thing that mattered. I graduated in 2007 and had good enough connections to get interviews with people in Cook county and IL government, but they all had the same look in their eye. “Your connections are good enough to get you this courtesy, but we’re all about to be laid off.”

    I ended up getting a job with my dad’s attorney. He’s a great mentor and a huge butthole. I got paid $6 a billable hour. My first check was for like $300. I made more as a truck mechanic. It would take me 11 years (and going solo) to make anywhere near decent money (my mentor remains a butthole, I love him, but yeah, butthole).

    I feel bad for the kids about to graduate into this bubble.

    2
  16. Barry says:

    Mu Yixiao, a lot of this is incredibly intensive marketing done to people graduating college who are finding out that the job market is terrible. Go into the ‘Career Center’ of a college, and you’ll see a whole publishing house of pamphlets extolling law schools. You won’t find much good information about real outcomes.

    The materials from law schools are BS. Read ‘Don’t Go To Law School (Unless): …’ or ‘Con Law’ for just how bad of a con job they do. Students don’t expect prestigious organizations to be run on the basis of a ‘pump and dump’ shop.

    Meanwhile, on TV, everybody is exposed to thousands of hours of video which makes being a lawyer look like a good profession.

    The system is greased to slide students in, and then eject them.

    1
  17. a country lawyer says:

    @CSK: When Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigned, President Nixon nominated Harold Carswell a judge of the Fifth Circuit as his replacement. That nomination went down in flames when his early support for segregation became known and his less than scholarly opinions also came to light. After his rejection one senator commented “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers, and they are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”

    2
  18. Beth says:

    Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren notwithstanding, it makes no sense for the taxpayer to be subsidizing students who take on huge debt because they can’t do math…

    A 22-year-old who’s not smart enough to get into Florida State is unlikely to have any clue about this sort of thing

    I want to push back on this cause this is one of the things that grinds my gears. Our whole culture is set up to demand and drill into kids that THEY HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL and THEY HAVE TO PICK A CAREER and if they don’t they are worse than useless. There is a crushing weight of expectation that if a kid doesn’t go to college (and some sort of post college grad school) they are absolute and total failures.

    Then, when they do go to college (and law school or grad school) and take out huge loans at extortionate rates, fees and structures, we tell them that they are garbage for not understanding what they did. I only got to law school because of the pressure of expectation (and a whole lot of sympathy for what people thought was a pathetic, but nice, White boy). I had no idea what I was doing at 27 other than when I tried to join the Army they wanted me to fix things instead of putting me in the best possible position to get dead.

    I don’t remember what I was thinking at 22 other than I had to graduate college at some point and I wanted to be dead. The 22 year olds I know now are using Discord to plan an orgy. They have better things to do, because they have already figured out the deck is stacked against them.

    We were told in our law school orientation not to take out loans. It was like that guy who did the micro-machines commercial only boring. The very next person gave a very slick presentation that basically said that if we graduated we were all going to be lawyers and the money spigot would flow. Wink wink, nudge nudge. I graduated into the Great Recession.

    Finally, can we talk about how a loan that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and in many cases survives the death of the student or is otherwise guaranteed by the government, has interest rates in the 6-9% range? Or has terms allowing the loan to be constantly recapitalized? These things are designed to extricate as much money from students, their parents and the government as possible all while getting Boomers to complain about how stupid the kids are.

    9
  19. a country lawyer says:

    @a country lawyer: P.S. That senator was Roman Hruska, Republican of Nebraska.

    1
  20. ImProPer says:

    @CSK:

    “There was a law school in New England that, years ago, shut down after repeated failure to be accredited. One student told the local newspaper that this was unfair, because there ought to be some place for stupid people to go to law school.”

    There are, to be found in a prison near you. ;•)

    @Kathy:

    “There’s lack of critical thinking, and there’s lack of knowledge.

    Seriously, schools should teach basic finance starting in the fourth grade or so, and keep it up until high school. That way you’d have fewer people taking out big loans before they even start earning money.”

    I know they used to, and likely still do today. It is imo, the enticing grift from college recruiters, high school counselors, unscrupulous lenders, and even seemingly clueless parents, with their banal and misleading “you can’t put a price on education” mantra, that are primary causes of our malady. Knowledge is ubiquitous and free these days, critical thinking, is as well, just not very popular in our current culture. For better or worse, a very important thing to young people.

    1
  21. Michael Cain says:

    Reuters reported yesterday about a huge surge in law school applications…

  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Just came to post that.

  23. CSK says:

    @a country lawyer:
    Thanks for reminding me. I think the senator was Roman Hruska. An unforgettable moment.
    P.S. Whoops, didn’t see your later reply.
    @ImProPer:
    I still marvel at someone who would actually say that to a reporter.

    1
  24. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Among them are Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.

    To be fair, even our numbers are skewed by the relative few of us who score white shoe positions. Our first years start above $200k, with a healthy bonus, and they’re typically approaching $250k & bonus by year 3. Even a relative few graduates getting those numbers will skew the numbers for the larger class.

    I’ll fully agree that there are far too many graduates chasing far too few positions – it allows firms to be more selective and those graduating from lower tier programs can find themselves in a mess of a financial hole – a mess that should have been completely avoidable had their guidance counselors and such been upfront with them about their realistic career prospects.

    1
  25. Raoul says:

    Since interest rates are lower today, the cost of borrowing is lower, thus a higher loan amount today would have the same impact on household spending as a loan half the amount 25 years ago. Until the respective charts make this adjustment one cannot discern the real life impact of today’s loans as compared with loans in the past. IOW GIGO.

  26. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Beth:

    has interest rates in the 6-9% range?

    Absolutely agree with everything you said. I wanted to further clarify that the interest on those loans is accrued daily. They’re basically guaranteed in practice to be perpetual / unable to be repaid. It’s the worst sort of evil.

    3
  27. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Raoul:

    Graduate DIRECT loans come in at 5.28%. PLUS loans are at 6.28%, and as I said, the interest on those begins from day one and accrues daily. The day the typical student graduates from grad school / law school, they’ve already accumulated 3 years worth of interest that got capitalized on a daily basis. It’s de facto usury.

    2
  28. Raoul says:

    @HarvardLaw92: My point is that we need the interest rates of 10, 20, and 30 years ago. It is the only way to make a valid comparison. Rates that appear high today would have been fantastic in the 80s when I was paying 9%. Each percent point difference is actually significant on a 10 or 15 year note.

  29. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Raoul:

    I think that the only way that comparison makes sense is to compare the whole picture – i.e. tuition costs then and now as compared to relative income. You have to factor that in or else it looks worse than it is. 10% or 20%, for example, doesn’t mean as much in a relative sense if you’re borrowing, say, 0.25x of the salary median. I don’t think it’s the rates that get these kids – it’s that ridiculous daily compounding and the cost of tuition. The bottom line has gotten to the point where it’s far less worth the investment today than it was in the 1980’s.

  30. Beth says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    To be fair, even our numbers are skewed by the relative few of us who score white shoe positions. Our first years start above $200k, with a healthy bonus, and they’re typically approaching $250k & bonus by year 3. Even a relative few graduates getting those numbers will skew the numbers for the larger class.

    I had a friend that graduated with me from our 4th tier school that went to one of the big global firms. I believe she got like 2-3 raises before she actually started along with several bonus. I’m not sure if she even worked there more than 6th months before she was seconded to one of their clients to an in house position. Worked out for her as she’s now a big in house person, but it was wild. Compared to my $300 check, she was a god.

  31. Beth says:

    @Raoul:

    I don’t know much about the student loans in the 80’s but I suspect there is a disconnect between then and now in the way the interest is calculated. Yes, in general interest rates were much higher in the 80s, but were student loan interest rates calculated in the same way. I suspect not, because if they were, people wouldn’t have been able to go to school.

    As an side, I love explaining to 20-30 year olds when they complain that their interest rate on their home loan went up from 3.2% to 3.9% while they were looking for a house that rates in the 70s/80s were like 12-16% and that assumable mortgages were a thing. I usually get blank stares.

  32. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Beth:

    That is indeed somewhat unusual, but kudos to her for getting there and well done. She sounds like she has what it takes. I’ve wondered at times in the past if it wouldn’t have been preferable to have slid over somewhere alone the way into a nice Gen. Counsel position. I think though, that if I’m honest I do love what I do, I’m not thrilled by the thought of landing back in litigation, and the grass does always look greener until you’ve bought the house. Case in point – I think I’m well compensated, but Karen pulled down multiples of what I bring home last year at Goldman. It seemed to many of us like she had it made until I got a really good upfront look at just how insane her average day was. No thanks.

    Reynolds is right, to be honest about it. We do pay these kids exceedingly well, but we also do work them into the ground. I’m not thrilled or proud to be throwing that truth out there, but I won’t try to hide from it either. It’s the worst sort of grinder, and we generally will start easing third years who haven’t tripped the partner track flags by that point out of the door, but the rewards for the comparative few who survive to get there are substantial.

  33. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @ImProPer:

    “There’s lack of critical thinking, and there’s lack of knowledge.

    Seriously, schools should teach basic finance starting in the fourth grade or so, and keep it up until high school. That way you’d have fewer people taking out big loans before they even start earning money.”

    I know they used to, and likely still do today.

    I have been teaching Accounting at a community college for the past 8 years. I assure that they do not get anything close to basic financial education any where along the way unless their families make it happen.

    I include mini-lessons in all of my courses on personal finance topics under the guise of using them as context for business accounting. I’ve been told over and over by students that they’ve had 8 years of Texas history and government, but no one’s ever taught them how compound interest works before.

    3
  34. Beth says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    I knew on a cellular level, even while in law school that I didn’t want the big firm life. There was no amount of money that was worth that. I get that the job is essential, but I do t think the grind is. But that’s just me.

    I’m actually much happier and better compensated on my own. I’ll never make big firm money, but I don’t really care. I do well enough. If I didn’t have these bloated loans around my throat I’d be better.

    I’m mostly in transactional work or mundane, yet overly cryptic government stuff (zoning, property tax exemptions, nothing sexy, just weird) and I find that way more enjoyable. I am slowly wandering away from litigation. The money is there, but I hate dealing with 60% of litigation attorneys that just want to fight and then turning around and having to fight my client to get paid. No one is ever happy in litigation.

    When someone buys or sells a house at least they are happy when it’s done. Although, lately, real estate attys are losing their minds too right now. We’re all mad at each other.

    1
  35. ImProPer says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”
    Albert Einstein

    I’d like to believe that it was just an oversight from the faculty that made
    “Texas history and government” such a prominent and encompassing priority in their version of an education. The jaded side of me makes this difficult though.
    Glad they made it into your accounting class, and a chance for better outcomes.

  36. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Whatziz?

    Next thing you know you’ll be sayin that MBA’s from for-profit schools are worth less than wallpaper !!!

    This is America. We have to crank out the American Dream(TM) no matter the outcome.

    After all, where will the next weird couple brandishing guns on their front porch come from if we don’t overinflate their self-worth.

    2
  37. CSK says:

    Well, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen attended the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, reputedly the worst in the U.S., and look to what glorious heights he ascended.

  38. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: People keep forgetting that universities are businesses not services. The job of the university is to fill 1o0% of the desks with tuition payers not to provide education and/or training to the people filling however many desks are occupied. Beyond that, if universities begin to slack off in this mission, where is industry going to get the surplus skilled labor to shunt into low-wage jobs, keeping the working poor in line and insecure?

    2
  39. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: WHAT ARE YOU THINKING????? Are you DELIBERATELY TRYING TO KILL the consumer loan industry?

    1
  40. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Well, I didn’t say that universities don’t do those things. I was merely marveling at the zenith to which a grad of a crap school soared. Who wouldn’t want to work for TFG???????

  41. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Sorry. Didn’t realize you were replying to my earlier comment. The back function almost never works for me.

  42. steve says:

    Whats the ratio of billable hours to hours actually worked? (Setting aside all of the jokes.) I found myself reading the comment above about 200 billable hours per month and thinking that would be easy if that actually correlates closely with time worked.

    Steve

  43. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @steve:

    I can only speak to my environment, which is typical of our sort of firm but may not be a good representation of life as a sole proprietor or an associate at a local / regional. The best ratio I have ever seen here, from a legend who lived at the office and literally had no life outside of it, for years, was 0.85 to 1. More realistic is probably 0.7 to 0.75. Certain things have to be done that can never be billed. That’s just a fact of life, and while we encourage our associates to bill, we frown upon padding (as do the courts). Our quiet expectation is 2,000 to 2,100 for most associates. Those seeking to evade the year three easing out of the door and make partner one day typically will put in more like 2,300 to 2,400.

    So, in a reasonable world, 2,850 to 3,000 actual work hours per year (say 59 to 63 hours per week) as a minimum. 68 to 71 hours per week as a minimum if you have any real desire to make partner some day. If there is a large deal in play and it’s crunch time – you can easily work 100 hours or more in the space of a week.

    1
  44. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Beth:

    One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that time will give you a different perspective on things. What seemed so worthwhile in my 30s can be tinged with a bit of regret here in the present. I don’t mind the perks, and I’m honestly glad to have put the work in to have attained them, but the price paid can sometimes feel a bit steep. I’ve often wondered how I’d have felt if I’d just gone out on my own, with a small firm, and foregone those prices paid. There are times, especially now that I’m coasting down the hill of wondering when it’s time to call it a day and actually have the time for my wife and kids that I’d like to have had, that it seems like it would have been a good alternative. Your situation sounds almost idyllic in a way. I’m glad that you are happy though; in the end that’s all that really matters.

    3
  45. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    He replied, ‘I don’t know, some fool teenager made that decision.’

    I think that’s part of the reason I wound up dropping out of college. the big part.

    Granted some people do know what they want to do early on, others have no clue. Me, looking back, I should have studied ancient history, then gone for an academic career in either Egyptology or Roman history. Both are vast and rather well-documented, so you can find lots of under-researched topics or aspects to explore. But none of that was even in my radar back then.

    1
  46. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You should have tried in Mass and I believe VA. In Mass you can read for the bar and if you can get a judge to vouch for your good character, you can skip the Bachelors and go right to torts. At one time even the lack of a HS diploma wasn’t a problem. My father, a HS dropout, did the nights and weekends law school bit under the GI Bill after WWII. He never passed the Bar, but it didn’t matter, by then his employer was training him to be an engineer, which was a much better fit for him.

  47. liberal capitalist says:

    So, in a reasonable world, 2,850 to 3,000 actual work hours per year (say 59 to 63 hours per week) as a minimum. 68 to 71 hours per week as a minimum if you have any real desire to make partner some day.

    In all seriousness: Fuck that shit !!!

    I was on the partner track way-back-when at Andersen Consulting. I realized that my peers were mice-on-a-treadmill and that life would become billable hours… hours that actually developed little, if any, true value for the customer.

    I threw that completely right out the window, and took a job at a startup (when: 1998). I actually had to call my sister the MBA and ask: “What are stock options?”

    Nope, there are better ways to become comfortable in the USA. I honestly don’t want to rule the world or be a master of the universe.

    As a proud slacker that is worth … well, more that some here and less than others, I am very OK with working 20 hours or less a week and making a tidy six figure income.

    Perception of value is what I sell, and I will ride that pony until I retire. If I can show a customer ROI, and it benefits us both, then job done. I realize that bootstraps are for my monk shoes, not something that will actually pull me up.

    100 hr crunch time… hilarious.

    Keep whipping those mice!!!

    5
  48. Teve says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    I’ve been told over and over by students that they’ve had 8 years of Texas history and government, but no one’s ever taught them how compound interest works before.

    Then they didn’t have Algebra II in high school. That’s where A=P(1+r/n)^nt appears.

  49. Teve says:

    @Kathy: I’m 45 and I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. I’m jealous of the people who always did.

    2
  50. Teve says:

    @liberal capitalist: 15 years ago when I graduated college with a stem degree I knew half the people with my degree immediately went into programming for the bucks. I happened to bump into a guy who worked at a major game publisher that was about 15 miles from where I lived. Verr famous company that rhymes with “Gepic”. Talked to him about how people get jobs there and what the work is like, and he told me it was great, except for crunch time. What’s crunch time, I asked? Oh, right before a game is due to be released everybody works basically 18 hours a day seven days a week for three months. I smiled, and nodded, and in my mind the portcullis slammed to the ground. Fuuuuuck Thaaaaat.

  51. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @liberal capitalist:

    Yah. To be fair, the rewards at the end of that path for equity partners are substantial (7 digits in direct cash flow, special investment funds available only to the partners, etc.). It’s nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but like I said earlier, it’s when you get to my age that you begin to remember and add up the costs. The price paid can be substantial as well.

    3
  52. Beth says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    So, in a reasonable world, 2,850 to 3,000 actual work hours per year (say 59 to 63 hours per week) as a minimum. 68 to 71 hours per week as a minimum if you have any real desire to make partner some day.

    That sounds like actual hell. When do those poor kids find the time to say “screw this” and sit on the couch and play video games and read OTB?

    I get the prestige and money, those are real, tangible things. The cost is just way too high. To be clear, I’m one of those maniacs who loved law school and loves being a lawyer, it’s great. You just have to know yourself and have a good idea of the costs. I think a lot of young lawyers don’t really get it.

    And no offense to you (cause I imagine you see it too), the ratio of good to bad attorneys quality wise doesn’t really change when you start taking about bad big firm attorneys. They’re just smarter, more expensive dumbasses. One of my most gleeful moments was helping to defeat a big firm real estate litigation partners. She didn’t understand the nitty gritty mercenary nature of Cook County evictions. Judge ended up cramming down $40k in fees down to $1,250. We put on quite a show.

    I also ended up getting stiffed by that client for 5 grand. Last thing I heard he fled back to France. The joys of solo practice.

    1
  53. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: This is part of the whole “like what you’re doing” thing. If you enjoy the work, it really does make a difference. The stress still bothers you though, true enough. I wouldn’t do it just for money either. For me (and being single most of my life except for a short-ish marriage) money isn’t that much of an incentive. If it had been, I’d have gone in with Luddite’s associate and left him dead on the floor after the big job.

  54. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Should I assume then that you are yet another guy whose going to sit in his rocking chair and NOT say “Ya know, I really shoulda spent more time at the office while I had the chance?”

  55. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Beth:

    I get the prestige and money, those are real, tangible things. The cost is just way too high. To be clear, I’m one of those maniacs who loved law school and loves being a lawyer, it’s great. You just have to know yourself and have a good idea of the costs. I think a lot of young lawyers don’t really get it.

    I think that one of the many lies we gently tell ourselves is that it’ll be worth it in the end. To be fair, I have a good life and will have an easy retirement once I talk myself into walking away (assuming my wife doesn’t make that decision for me. She’s certainly probably entitled to at this point). On the flip side, my kids are basically adults now and I don’t remember it happening. They’re good kids, and they’ll be good adults here shortly, but I have to be honest and say that may be in spite of me rather than because of me & give the credit to my wife. I’m the ghost they ran into once in a while who missed birthdays and called from Geneva \ Rome \ Wherever I happened to be to congratulate them on this or that accomplishment. It’s when we’re closer to the end that we realize how important our choices were at the beginning (and the price we paid for them).

    And no offense to you (cause I imagine you see it too), the ratio of good to bad attorneys quality wise doesn’t really change when you start taking about bad big firm attorneys. They’re just smarter, more expensive dumbasses. One of my most gleeful moments was helping to defeat a big firm real estate litigation partners. She didn’t understand the nitty gritty mercenary nature of Cook County evictions. Judge ended up cramming down $40k in fees down to $1,250. We put on quite a show.

    I can’t argue with that. I will say that often it’s the ones I didn’t initially expect as much from who prove to be the killers, while the golden haired fall by the wayside. We’re generous, and we spend a great deal of time and money grooming our hires, but we’re also pretty aggressive in cutting them loose early once we’ve had the time to see who really has it and who looked better on paper. Kudos to you, though. I know that had to be satisfying, especially with the air of “I’m entitled to win” I can imagine probably wafted in the door behind her. The first thing I try to teach my younglings is never, ever take the other side for granted. You’re only as good as your last win, so keep your eye on the ball lest someone detach your set from you while you’re admiring yourself in the mirror.

    Also, to be fair, I do M&A. Entirely transactional. I haven’t meaningfully been near a courtroom in years. Certainly haven’t been near one as a litigator in a long time. Your story takes my mind back to SDNY, when I basically lived in one. I look at that time more fondly in retrospect.

    I also ended up getting stiffed by that client for 5 grand. Last thing I heard he fled back to France. The joys of solo practice.

    France, you say? I maybe could help you out there. I’m not violent myself, but I do know a guy … 🙂

    2
  56. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I think I could have been that guy, easily. I’ve been a workaholic / in love with my job for a long time now, but of late I’ve find myself asking whether I really enjoy it as much as I used to. Like I alluded to above, my kids have basically grown up and I missed it. I missed quite a bit, and time is the one thing that you can never get more of or get back. That realization was pretty sobering. I find myself asking more and more lately how much more I’m prepared to miss before I wise up and enjoy what I’ve missed out on while I still can. Definitely leaning towards “Enough. Enough already.”

    2
  57. de stijl says:

    I am of the type and personality that when I was in college I took classes that interested me and thought broadened my self.

    That it might be marketable one day was of tertiary concern at best.

    I despise naked careerism. Education as a gizmo that if you had it jumped you up a level or two on the org chart.

    I wanted knowledge. Allusions. References. Competing fields of thought. I took linguistics and philosophy classes because I wanted to know more. I took Physics For Poets because it was cleverly named. (That was a hard-ass class despite the name.)

    I went to school to learn. I could not exactly grok careerist fellow students. I do not reject the premise, but it struck me as a waste. You have a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn and you chose Business Administration. Dude, we live in different worlds.

    It struck me one day. Many people envision a future where what they do for a living plays a prominent feature in who they are and what they do. How they envision their future life as unfolding. Strikes me as absurd, but not my business. That was not my take or motivation at all.

    Eventually, I had to decide on a major. I really did not want to. I wanted wide not narrow. I went to my closest faculty advisor and laid out a plan. Graduating without a major is something universities cannot cope with apparently. Can I imagine and create my own cross studies major? Yes, but.

    You have to argue a case for it. Demonstrate it. I did. Jumped the hoops.

    Liberal Arts colleges are remarkably conservative when folks try to buck the foolish major system of post secondary education.

  58. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl: It has been a very long time, indeed, since bachelorette degrees didn’t require a major. It’s a very small percentage of the total credit hours but it’s supposed to be a degree IN something. But law school was never about education. It has always been about training for a specific profession. If graduates of law school can’t make a living as a lawyer, the school is failing its essential mission.

    1
  59. George says:

    @Raoul: when I graduated Duke Law in 1998 my effective average interest rate on my loans was under 2% (averaging subsidized and I subsidized loans). When they altered the loan programs under Obama the rate structure was changed. The prime rate in 1998 was quite a bit higher than now but the lowest interest any of my younger colleagues pay is between 6% and 7%. If I had borrowed all my tuition back then I would have about $70k in loans (I had a bit less because of scholarships). Today borrowing full tuition at Duke would leave you about $180k in the hole. It was MUCH easier to handle student loans 20 years ago. I really don’t understand why anyone goes to low school these days, unless they already have a $250k per year job offer before they enroll . . .

  60. Barry says:

    @George: ” I really don’t understand why anyone goes to low school these days, unless they already have a $250k per year job offer before they enroll . . .”

    In one of the books ‘Don’t Go to Law School (Unless)…’ or ‘Con Law’, the author noted that 25% of Duke Law students took out zero federally subsidized loans. That suggests that their families were loaded.

    They went on to point out that in a class and prestige-dominated field, those 25% would have an enormous advantages in getting jobs and in getting good jobs.

    They suggested looking at Duke’s numbers and recalculating them assuming that 25% of the class were guaranteed to get favorable outcomes. The other 75% would be splitting the leftovers. This suggested that 1/3 of that remainder would get a good job – one that would let one pay off the $250K cost of attendance. The other 2/3 of that remainder were screwed, blued and tattooed, as the saying goes.