The Talent

August 31, 2009 6:00 AM

Can Attending a Cheaper Law School Lead to a Big-Firm Job?

Posted by Brian Baxter

Times are tough for today's law students. Big law firms are reducing the size of their summer classes and even graduates of top-ranked law schools are having a tough time finding a job.

Given the state of the economy, it seems an appropriate time to compare two recent surveys to consider whether attending a cheaper, less prestigious law school can still land students lucrative jobs at Am Law firms.

The National Jurist this week released its list of Best Value Law Schools, the 65 schools that offer law students the "best bang for their buck" based on the cost of attending those schools and on the percentage of those schools' graduates who passed the bar and got jobs. (Hat Tip: Paul Caron's Tax Prof Blog.)

To determine what makes a law school a "best value," the magazine considered only public schools with in-state tuition of less than $25,000 and private schools with annual tuition of less than $30,000. The magazine for law students then narrowed its list to schools with an employment rate of at least 85 percent and a bar passage rate higher than the state average. It then ranked the schools, giving the greatest weight to tuition, followed by employment statistics. The magazine relied on information from the 2009 edition of the Official Guide to ABA-approved Law Schools; the ABA's data was collected in the fall of 2008. (See The National Jurist's full chart by clicking here.)

So the students passed the bar and landed jobs. But what types of jobs? Are these grads, we wondered, going on to work as associates at Am Law firms? To find out, we compared the list to The National Law Journal's 2008 survey of the 20 schools that send the most graduates to the country's largest 250 firms (the NLJ survey appeared in the paper's annual Law Schools Report).

The results weren't surprising.

None of the schools on the National Jurist's list were among the 20 law schools with the highest-percentage of graduates landing jobs in The NLJ 250. (Predictably, law schools like Columbia, Chicago, Pennsylvania, NYU, and Northwestern topped The NLJ's list with more than 65 percent of the graduates of those schools landing jobs at large firms.) 

Still, for those students attending the "best value" schools on the National Jurist's list, there is hope of work (plus a lot less debt when they graduate).

Another NLJ study, this one in the publication's 2008 Law Schools Report, examined a larger sample size by looking at where graduates from the class of 2005 found work (looking at a graduating class several years later provides a more comprehensive snapshot of job prospects, allowing for jobs taken after clerkships to be taken into account).

Many of the schools ranked this year by the National Jurist appeared on that list, including North Carolina, Georgia, WisconsinBYUGeorgia State, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Louisville, Kentucky, and Missouri-Kansas City.

Of course, today's legal job market is a far cry from that of 2005. And as law professors William Henderson and Andrew Morriss wrote in The NLJ last year, lower-ranked schools can provide students with more opportunities in the long run. Less debt lessens the need to pursue a job at a large firm.

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