"It's an honor system, essentially," said Askew, who noted that there has never been a complaint filed with the ABA accusing a law school of manipulating its data.
Epps agreed it would be nice to have an independent body compile employment data on new graduates, but she doesn't see that as being the right task for the ABA. Tracking down graduates nine months later is difficult and time-consuming for the law schools themselves and would be even more difficult for any group to independently replicate those efforts on a national scale, she said.
While the ABA is not considering independent policing of employment statistics, some leaders are contemplating how the organization can help prospective law students make good decisions. Thies, the student ABA representative, is revising the opening chapters of the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools to beef up information about the financial implications of attending law school. He pointed to a new paper titled "The Value Proposition of Attending Law School," written by the ABA's economic crisis commission. The paper encourages prospective law students to closely analyze costs and employment prospects before deciding to attend -- something Thies said many of his fellow Yale undergraduates didn't do.
"A lot of people who didn't know what they wanted to do ended up going to law school," he said. "For a lot people, law school is a good and productive thing to do. But it's not always the best thing."
In fact, law school is always a bad choice from an investment perspective, according to a research paper titled "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be…Lawyers."
Herwig Schlunk, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, performed an investment analysis of the value of a law degree, taking into account the cost of legal education, the opportunity cost of not going directly into the work force and earning potential. He developed hypothetical scenarios for three student types: one who attends a second- or third-tier school with a 10 percent chance of landing a job at a major law firm, another who attends a low-first- or high-second-tier school and has 50 percent chance at a major law firm job, and a student with good grades at a top law school with a 90 percent change of landing a job at a big firm. He calculated that the net law school investment for those students ranges from $201,000 to $280,000, between tuition and lost wages.
Using what he termed a somewhat conservative calculation, Schlunk determined that the second- or third-tier student would need to earn a starting salary of just below $80,000 to justify the expense of law school. The middle of the road student would need about $113,000, while the top student would need to earn $150,000 out of law school. Schlunk calculated that the students actually can expect to earn starting salaries of $65,000, $105,000 and $145,000, respectively -- a poor investment in all three cases.
Schlunk noted that his calculations were based on data gathered before the economic downturn, meaning that law school likely is a worse investment for his hypothetical students than he initially concluded.
Although potential law students should look closely at the financial realities of law school, that decision should not rest on money alone, said Spieler, the dean at Northeastern University School of Law. The benefits of law school, such as developing solid critical thinking skills, can't be calculated by a starting salary figure alone, she said.
A wealth of academic papers, independently verified statistics and an army of J.D. skeptics urging caution still wouldn't be enough to scare some would-be law students into a cold analysis of the potential risks and benefits, Henderson said. Part of the problem lies in the fact that those who are drawn to law school are accustomed to being the smartest in the class.
"Even if we communicated the realities in a statistically valid way to prospective students, some of them still won't process that information," he said, "Students will continue to think that they will perform above average and be the lucky ones to snag a top job. A lot of people choose to see what they want to see."