When news no longer fits, make it up – myth making about law school in The New York Times

The picture The New York Times paints today about recent law school graduates sure sounds bad. Struggling 2010 Columbia JD who hoped to become a law firm partner appears to be barely surviving in life. But wait, he makes “more than $100 an hour.” The Times’ Elizabeth Olson, without any evidence, concludes that is “far less” than what he would be making as a lawyer.

But that $100 an hour would translates into $200,000 p.a. if the former law student worked full time at it (although it is not stated how many hours he actually works) and is in fact far more than most if not all fifth year associates at law firms make. In fact, the highest average salary in any one region for ALL lawyers in the country is only 195K! And it is far less in New York.

And while that Columbia student may not be doing what he had hoped to when he entered law school that is true of many graduates and always has been. Very very few graduates of law schools end up as partners at major law firms. One friend of mine who did make it was one of 35 law students hired as first years at a leading NY law firm. He was one of only 8 left by the time his partner year came up seven years later and he was the only one of those 8 to make partner. And that was a result of the glory years of the late 80s. In fact, 40% of all licensed lawyers do not practice law at all.

Finally, The Times ignores the alternative – what if their profiled Columbia graduate had left his undergraduate school without going to law school? Would he be better off or worse? The peer reviewed and published data we have by Simkovic and McIntyre says clearly that he would be worse off.

Instead of turning to readily available and widely known peer reviewed and published data, The Times strangely relies on information from a single state (Ohio) collected by a law professor widely known to be a harsh opponent of law schools who specializes in evidence and criminal law. Professor Merritt’s “study” has in fact not yet been “published” as The Times stated, much less peer reviewed (in fact, her peers have critiqued the article in detail as here), but has only been self-posted on the open source Social Science Research Network. (One of those posts at SSRN suggests the article will soon appear in the Michigan State Law Journal, which is not a peer reviewed journal. Interestingly Michigan State is one of the kinds of lower ranked law schools that critics like Merritt think should shut down because of the poor outcomes for their graduates.)

This is the second time in recent days that The Times has published a seriously flawed piece on higher education. One has to wonder what has happened at our so-called “paper of record.”