William D. Henderson is an associate professor at Indiana University School of Law — Bloomington. Andrew P. Morriss is the H. Ross and Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business at University of Illinois College of Law – Deciding where to go to law school is a difficult decision for many applicants. Law school is expensive and becoming more so each year, making the choice of where to go often the biggest investment decision an applicant has made in his or her life. Yet many prospective law students lack knowledge about the entry-level legal market or even what different types of lawyers do in their daily lives.
Despite its many flaws, the annual U.S. News & World Report law school ranking is cheap and easy to use, making it an important source of information for prospective students weighing their options.
Unfortunately, the utility of these rankings is often distorted by an Internet-based echo chamber, where anonymous posters brag about their admissions to elite schools and job prospects at big firms.
To further complicate students’ decisions, many law schools are engaged in vigorous competition to lure students who will boost the schools’ status in key U.S. News metrics, such as median LSAT score or selectivity. All too often, the results are expensive, bad decisions about law school.
Based upon our combined 21 years of experience as legal educators and our empirical study of rankings, we think students rely on law school rankings as a rough guide to their future employment prospects. Yet the U.S. News rankings would be far less influential, and produce fewer bad choices, if students had better sources of information. Providing prospective law students with better information is the purpose of this special guide.
During the last three decades, the size and geographic dispersion of the global economy has dramatically increased the demand for sophisticated corporate legal services. In contrast, the demand for personal-services legal work — wills and estates, personal injury, family law, simple business contracts, etc. — has grown at roughly the rate of population growth.
These dynamics have resulted in a “bimodal” income distribution, in which there is a heavy concentration of salaries in two distinct ranges, based on salary figures provided by NALP. At the high end are the large corporate firm starting salaries that so interest the media.
In 2006, salaries in the largest firms in major markets jumped from $125,000 to $135,000 to $145,000. Thus out of 22,684 starting salaries reported for 2006, 4,809, or 21.2 percent, were in the $125,000 to $145,000 range. (In 2007, this mode moved further to the right due to associate “salary wars.”)
Yet prospective lawyers need to remember that most new lawyers do not earn $160,000 a year at a large firm. Many earn $40,000 to $55,000 per year in small to midsize firms and solo practice. In 2006, 8,577 reported salaries, or 37.8 percent, were in this range out of the 22,684. The payments on $100,000-plus worth of law school debt look quite different to someone earning $50,000 than they do to someone earning $160,000 a year.