Long regarded as one of the most stable, prestigious and financially rewarding designations, a Juris Doctorate seems to be as popular as ever in the minds of prospective undergraduate students.
If nothing else, earning a law degree is seen as a safe and secure route. If three years of grueling postgraduate work and $200,000 or so of debt can’t guarantee a stable and rewarding career, what can? Even this superficial outlook seems convincing.
The problem to anyone paying any attention is that reality is just the opposite.
For years, studies and casual observations have highlighted a market over-saturated with lawyers, one in which basic laws of economics fall to the wayside, where supply grows even as demand shrinks. One study out of Northwestern Law showed 15,000 attorney and legal jobs have been cut from large firms around the country since 2008.
Add this indisputably clear trend to the fast-rising cost of attending law school, which, for the vast majority of students, is financed by student loans that can easily leave graduates with up to $200,000 in debt, and you can see the potential for disaster.
This begs the question: Given the current climate, why are students still lining up to go to law school, even at mediocre institutions?
As anyone seriously considering law school can tell you, the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings is the Holy Grail of law school stratification and the primary guide for potential applicants and legal employers alike.
Of course, applicants often consider a range of factors, such as cost and location, when looking into schools, but in terms of perceived quality and prestige, these rankings are most trusted.
The problem with these rankings is that they are derived from data that is collected and analyzed by the law schools individually, in a process which is neither perfectly standardized nor audited.
This has led to some very questionable data reporting, which can be described as creative accounting.
In one category, graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation, the criteria is so broad that a graduate waiting tables, selling shoes or doing any other job unrelated to the legal field would be counted as an employed person to boost the statistics.
Few would argue that choosing to attend a top-10 school over a lower-tiered school is a bad decision, but the distinction is seldom that clear.
For example, should the rankings be a fool-proof guide in choosing a school ranked in the 30s over one ranked in the 50s? What about when there is a significant difference in the cost of attendance?
We can only hope the American Bar Association and the Association for Legal Career Professionals, the organizations in charge of setting the guidelines for the surveys, will impose stricter standards and audit results in the future, or that U.S. News will unilaterally demand similar action.
Even better in terms of the larger issue of an over-abundance of lawyers would be strong restrictions on the number of law schools accredited by the profession itself, a tactic already perfected within the medical profession.
Until there is clear reform of some sort, it is up to students to understand the extent to which they can rely on the rankings, and at what point it fails to be a useful tool.
Justin Davidoff is a sophomore majoring in Judaic studies.