Which law schools are worth attending? For most people with less gold than Croesus, prospects for finding well-paying work after graduation will be a prime consideration.
Data on the class of 2013 from Law School Transparency show that only the following 9 law schools had at least 50% of their graduates working at a law firm with 101 or more attorneys (a generous definition of Big Law) within nine months of graduation:
If we consider not just jobs in Big Law but also federal clerkships, we get the following additional schools:
That's a total of 13 schools—the so-called "top 14" minus Georgetown—at which at least 50% of last year's graduates found a federal clerkship or a job in Big Law.
With 40% of the graduating class finding those jobs, the number of schools increases to 16. With 30%, 24. With 20%, 31 (that's 15% of the ABA-accredited law schools). With 10%, still only 78.
Let's try raising the bar instead. With 60% of the class getting federal clerkships or jobs in Big Law, the number of schools falls to 11. With 70%, the number is only 4 (Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford). And not a single law school sees 80% of its graduates get those jobs.
If we consider federal clerkships and jobs in Big Law to be the only good jobs for a fresh graduate of law school, we can conclude that more than 60% of the ABA-accredited law schools had not even 10% of their graduates in 2013 get good jobs. Almost all of those schools estimate the cost of attendance (including nine months of living expenses per year—don't people have to live during the other three months as well?) at $100k or more, usually much more. To people who feel that that is too much to spend (even before interest and fees are tacked on) for less than a 10% chance of a good job, at least 127 of the 205 ABA-accredited law schools are therefore not worth attending. Those who expect at least a 50% chance of a good job in exchange for what might well be a quarter of a million dollars' worth of non-dischargeable debt can immediately rule out 192 of those 205 law schools.
Why do I define "good jobs" in this way? Because of the cost of attendance—and the heavy debt that it usually entails. For law school even to begin to make financial sense, a person who is relying largely on loans needs the sort of income that a new graduate can seldom obtain without a job in Big Law or a federal clerkship. Indeed, the definition of "good jobs" is actually too broad, as most of those positions last only a few years and are followed by decidedly straitened circumstances.
These figures should give pause even to the typical devil-may-care lemming. Furthermore, they can inform educational policy. What exactly is the purpose of sustaining the 60+% of law schools at which not even 10% of the students have a decent chance of a respectable outcome? Should those schools not be shut down right now? Should eligibility for student loans require more than a rubber stamp from an admissions office? These are questions that we should not be afraid to ask.
For now, I say that the 13 schools listed above, those at which half or more of the students find jobs in Big Law or federal clerkships within nine months of graduation, are the only ones that anyone not independently wealthy should consider. And even they are dodgy, especially at full price. People who are paying little or nothing in tuition may shade the cut-off from 50% to 40% but should understand that in so doing they are taking a big risk. All schools below the 40% mark should be deemed fourth-tier institutions that no one without big money or genuinely usable connections should attend at any price.