Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Kid on the legal job market vs. the academic job market

One of my favorite bloggers, a Medieval-historian-turned-1L, has great insights into both:

I think I bring a warped perspective to discussions about the employment prospects in law.

(Disclaimer: I don't know much about the legal job market yet, not compared to the academic job market, so my comments here are just gut reactions, not reasoned arguments.)

This article talks about a reported employment rate among 2007 law grads of 92%.

Now, this is troublesome because schools are notorious for reporting ANY employment as employment - so if a law grad is working at Starbucks, hey! they're employed! Moreover, these percentages are based on students' self-reporting, and presumably those who are un- or under-employed are less likely to respond than those happily set with legal employment.

Nonetheless, the idea was floated at this other board that a 92% employment rate wasn't very good, and that, well, it made me laugh. Or cry. When you consider that most people I've seen now concede that maybe 50% of humanities Ph.D.s will get a tenure-track job (and I'd argue that number should probably be lower), 92% sounds like PERFECTION. 80% would sound like perfection. And 70% would sound pretty decent. I mean, maybe there really is 42% worth of wiggle room/exaggeration in the reporting of law grads' employment. But I'd be a little surprised if it were THAT high.

The other major issue with legal employment is an extreme bi-modality (is that a word?) of salaries. Associates - meaning new law grads - at the biggest of BigLaw firms do earn $160K+. (I'll pause while my academic compadres recover from that one.) Of course, firms offer a wide range of salaries, and only a very small number of people will reach such heights. Nonetheless, the article linked above states that the median salary for law grads working at firms is $108K.

The thing is, there are salaries clustered at the top of the scale, and salaries clustered at the bottom of the scale, but very little in the middle. And the same article warns that 38% of law grads are earning $55K or less.

And all I can think is, I would be willing to bet you that there are a LOT of assistant professors throughout this country who still start at less than $55K. (We won't even get into adjuncts, who are, after all, employed in the field for which they trained, and who would therefore be considered successfully employed by legal standards.)

The bottom line, according to New Kid, even taking into consideration how expensive law school is: "It still doesn't sound as bad as academia."

Having read several emails and reports from my own enormous and prestigious R1 university about hiring freezes and curtailing new faculty searches from 135 last year to 25 this year, I am inclined to agree, despite my general position that you should NOT go to law school. But now I just think you shouldn't go to grad school, either. So, one part of my American dream was that my own kids would be financially comfortable enough to study and do what they love. That still seems to be a luxury of those with serious family money. Knowing what I know now, which I didn't ten years ago when I was starting college and humanities Ph.D programs, I would strongly urge my kid to seriously think about job prospects and run the statistical probabilities. It's just so depressing to think about or talk about, but since I didn't make that choice I don't want to harp on it, lest my humanities grad student friends hate me. I played it relatively safe, and I am inclined to think that my kids should as well. TD listened to some family friend about learning a hard science and finance, and he is doing interesting work and feels just as fulfilled as I do (of course, I am a law school sellout, so maybe we are two peas in a pod).

Still, while I strongly resist the "trade school" model of academia, there must be a way to balance doing what you love with less scary job prospects and better pay. No grad student should incur debt, but many do anyway, because fellowships are competitive, and at the big universities, so are TA'ships--and that's how you're funded. And the stipends are pretty meager and may not cover all of your living expenses, and I know plenty who take out loans. MFA programs are especially pricey, considering that people are paying $25-35,000 a year to embrace the bohemian impoverished life of a writer or artist.

Yeah, really, perhaps it's another American dream deferred, but I think I would suggest to all my nieces and nephews and my own future children to really, really think about their major, school, and career choices. In this bad economy, probably lots of Nth generation Americans are still thinking quite pragmatically and practically about these things, so perhaps the second generation of the Lettres will do so as well, and it's not so bad, really. Why do I feel like apologizing for this, as if I am demonstrating a lack of commitment to ideals of education, the humanities, and the liberal arts? I really am still committed to such ideals, but ideals must be balanced by reality. So all I'm saying is double major. Is that such a terrible compromise?