The law school numbers game
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After reading a recent article in the Post-Gazette about the lack of fabulously paying jobs in the legal market, "Students Seeking Legal Career Urged to Go to Top Schools" (Aug. 29), my stomach did double somersaults.
The national economy is in deep distress, homes are being foreclosed, health care benefits are being slashed, average citizens need ethical, competent attorneys to provide affordable legal services more than ever. And we're supposed to worry that a student had trouble landing a job paying $100,000 within a month of taking the bar exam? Pardon my indigestion.
The pessimistic portrait painted by the young Post-Gazette writer, who developed his theme by stacking up numbers and percentages contained in the annual U.S. News and World Report surveys, does not resemble the world of legal education in which I have worked for the past three decades.
Let me clear up one misimpression, right off the bat: Most new graduates -- at the vast majority of American law schools -- do not walk out of the door and begin earning six-figure salaries and driving BMW convertibles. Nor should they.
Articles like the one in the Post-Gazette and a spate of recent stories in national publications bemoaning the inability of law schools to guarantee lucrative salaries for their graduates after they receive their diplomas convey precisely the wrong message.
The economy is struggling to rebound -- we know that. College degrees and professional education require savings and sacrifice. (This has always been the case.) Yet the best reason for a young man or woman to attend law school is the same as it was a century ago: to ably represent fellow citizens and to help the justice system work effectively.
Much of the problem goes back to the notoriously misleading U.S. News and World Report surveys. These "special edition" publications are born of a desire to sell magazines. (The print version of U.S. News went out of business due to financial woes, yet the money-making "best of" editions still flourish).
They are packed with slick advertisements by those featured in the magazines. Sadly, they have encouraged many law schools to fudge numbers to keep up with their "competitors," by artificially inflating their statistics. (Several law schools have faced lawsuits and sanctions from the American Bar Association recently for playing fast-and-loose in reporting their statistics.)
Here's a secret for your readers: The numbers are only as good as the people supplying and spinning them.
Duquesne Law School graduates hold positions that include president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, president of Consol Energy and the chief financial officer of U.S. Steel. Our alumni run major law firms in Pittsburgh and nationally. They include state Supreme Court justices, federal judges, leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature and other prominent public figures.
Few of these individuals would have achieved success if they had obsessed over starting salaries and eschewed law school in favor of chasing a nonexistent pot of gold. In fact, many of the best trial lawyers and practitioners have cut their teeth in small firms where they have received modest salaries -- to start -- while gaining invaluable experience. Many of them go on to run their own firms and earn salaries that dwarf those of graduates of the Ivy Leagues. (I attended a "top ten" law school, and I have seen plenty of Harvard and Yale graduates carrying the bags for attorneys who attended Duquesne or Pitt.)
The greatest success stories in the legal profession are about those who do what they love and work hard at it.
The Post-Gazette writer described entry-level legal salaries of $60,000 as "measly." With all due respect, there are many important jobs -- serving on the legal staff of foundations, working for nonprofits assisting children and minorities, serving one's country in the Navy JAG Corps -- that pay such "measly" amounts. As with new graduates of medical schools who perform residencies at salaries that do not translate into instant condos in Hawaii, these jobs provide experience that is irreplaceable.
It is true that many talented lawyers will become very successful and do extremely well financially. But that should not be the principal purpose of entering law or any other profession.
Duquesne's law graduates work in small firms, big firms, corporations and in public interest jobs. We are grateful for each employment opportunity for them. We are also proud of their work. Each one of these dedicated professionals contributes to the effective functioning of the legal system in Western Pennsylvania and across the nation.
Additionally, we are acutely aware of the onus of student loans in light of the current economic situation. Duquesne Law School has recently increased scholarship funds available to entering law students, so that those who wish to serve others through the practice of law will not be deterred from doing so due to economic barriers.
This month, Duquesne Law School is celebrating its 100th anniversary. We have lived through a Depression, two World Wars, countless recessions and a host of national crises. For the past century, in the midst of these challenges, we have produced top-notch, highly ethical lawyers who have helped to build this city and have woven themselves into the fabric of this region. We continue to stay focused on that important mission.
One can call a legal education many things: difficult, costly, rigorous. However, as long as lawyers use their talents to serve others and to bring fairness to our democratic system, obtaining a law degree will never be a bad investment.
First Published September 16, 2011 12:00 am