The Law School Question

Posted Jan. 23, 2011, at 5:57 p.m.

It is that time of year when aspiring lawyers are filling out law school applications. Those in Maine shouldn’t be scared off by horror stories about the shortcomings of expensive schools and the dire employment prospects at big-city law firms.

Annual ratings by U.S. News & World Report are just out, with Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and University of Chicago, as usual, leading the top 100. The University of Maine Law School in Portland appears under “Other Schools to Consider” in an alphabetical list of 42 additional law schools.

The New York Times recently came out with a devastating attack on the ratings system and the way some law schools play it. The Jan. 9 story says law school can be a “catastrophic investment.” A new study shows that recruiters for top law firms and other potential employers look only for applicants from the “top five” schools. Resumes from lesser schools go into a “black hole.” U.S. News takes note of the recession and warns that “law students must be prepared for a tougher road to financial reward.”

The Times article begins with an anecdote about a 27-year-old 2009 graduate of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, in the U.S. News’ lowest tier. Its graduates are 92.1 percent “employed nine months after graduation,” according to the ratings.

Not Michael Wallerstein. He gets only occasional legal jobs, has no savings and owes $250,000 in loans. The Times piece says that U.S. News’ “wonderland statistics” make the prospects look “downright rosy” while a recent survey says 15,000 attorney and legal staff jobs at large law firms have vanished. Even partners have gotten the ax. Yet the article claims that the unemployment figures include tending bars and clerking at Radio Shack and that some law schools hire back their unemployed graduates for temporary jobs bridging the Feb. 15 date used to rate employment data.

The bleak outlook exists mainly at the big and famous schools, with their tuition charges of $40,000 to $45,000 a year, and at the big-name law firms that tend to recruit from the top schools.

In Maine, the situation is different. Local lawyers say their firms have made few, if any, layoffs. A law graduate usually can find work with a law firm or in the public, nonprofit or government sectors in Augusta or in a county seat.

Dean Peter Pitegoff of the University of Maine Law School reports that 86 percent of its 2009 graduates now are employed, with more than two-thirds working in traditional lawyer jobs. Tuition is around $22,000 for residents and $32,000 for nonresidents.

Their average student loan debt is about $75,000. And, says Dean Pitegoff, the Maine Law School has never rigged its ratings with the tricks described in the Times article.

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