The so-called “Great Recession” is over, but law graduates are still feeling the negative effects of that economic downturn, according to a new survey measuring how a law degree is perceived by college graduates and the longterm results it yields.
Those who graduated from law school after 2009 had higher debt loads than their predecessors, took longer to secure good jobs, and were less likely to recommend that others go to law school, according to the study conducted by Gallup and AccessLex Institute.
Moreover, recent graduates were much less likely than pre-recession graduates to conclude their J.D. was worth the cost. That change regarding the value of a J.D. was not merely a reaction to newer graduates drowning in debt, since researchers controlled for student debt levels.
The survey, which polled more than 10,000 college graduates, J.D.s and holders of other advanced, isn’t all bad news for legal educators, however. College graduates still see benefits to a law degree. In fact, the percentage of respondents who said a J.D. is valuable—88 percent—was second only to a M.D. among advanced degrees, outpacing MBAs and doctorates. (Among respondents, 98 percent said a medical degree was valuable.)
“While a law degree is still held in high esteem, it is now seen as a riskier investment than in the past,” the report reads. It warns that the difficulties recent law graduates face may be undermining the strong reputation a law degree holds in society.
AccessLex institute, a former private loan lender that has transitioned into a nonprofit research center and legal education advocacy group, partnered with Gallup to conduct the survey last summer. They sought to find out how a law degree is perceived and how law graduates feel about their own school and career experiences.
“I think that most people still think lawyers and the law degree are valuable and important for our society,” said Aaron Taylor, executive director of the AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. “But it’s one thing to think they are valuable, and another thing to say, ‘I would do it.’ ”
In fact, more people are making the decision that law school isn’t worth the cost. First-year enrollment at American Bar Association-accredited law schools plummeted nearly 30 percent between 2010 and 2016, and has remained essentially flat for the past two years.
Researchers consistently found differences in the experiences of lawyers who graduated before and after the 2009 recession.
- Sixty percent of those who graduated in 2010 or later borrowed upwards of $100,000 for law school, an increase from 49 percent the previous decade and 26 percent of 1990s law graduates borrowing that amount.
- More than a quarter of post-recession law graduates—26 percent— took more than a year to find a “good” job (as it is described on the survey), compared with 10 percent among their predecessors. Just 44 percent of recent graduates had a job lined up when they left school, compared with 51 percent among all lawyer respondents.
- Only 53 percent of recent law graduates would recommend going to law school, with the cost of a J.D. being the primary reason cited by those who recommend against it. (The uncertain job market was the most common reason given for recommending against law school among the entire survey pool.)
“I look at it in many ways as two distinct worlds of law graduates,” Taylor said. “The ones who graduated before and then the ones who graduated during and after the recession. Those in the former group paid less for their degrees and they had an easier time finding good employment. The latter group paid more and had a harder time finding good employment. As a result, those in the latter group are much less likely to agree that their degrees were worth the cost and less likely to say they would get a J.D. again with the benefit of hindsight.”
Overall, 52 percent of the surveyed lawyers strongly agreed that they would go back to law school again given a choice. But that figure fell to 42 percent among those who had borrowed more than $100,000 to finance their degrees. Similarly, only 23 percent of those high borrowers said they felt law school was worth the cost, compared with 48 percent of all law graduates. Put another way, the lower the amount borrowed, the more likely the graduate felt law school was worth the cost.
Among the lawyer survey respondents, their experiences in law school appear to shape how their view the value of a J.D. There was a strong correlation between those who said their law schools were very helpful in securing a job and those who said their law degree was worth the cost.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents who graduated in the top 10 percent of their law classes tended to value their law degrees more highly. Two-thirds of those high performers said their law degree was worth the cost, compared with 46 percent of those who landed in the top third of their classes.
The report throws cold water on the notion that a law degree is a ticket to wealth and happiness.
Lawyers reported lower levels of financial well being than both those with other advanced degrees and bachelor’s degree holders. Overall, lawyers reported relatively high levels of social and community well being, yet 46 percent said they were either struggling or suffering when it comes to liking their work and being motivated to achieve their goals.
“Law graduates significantly trail other advanced degree holders in liking what they do every day,” the report reads. “Furthermore, they outpace those who hold only a bachelor’s degree in financial stress and security.”
Law schools should use the survey results to think about how to better improve the student experience, Taylor said. That means hiring more career services and student support staff, he said.
“Respondents who agreed that their law school helped them find a job were much more likely to have positive views of the value of their degrees,” Taylor said. “This suggests that schools investing in student support services could yield graduates who feel better about their law school experience and reap better outcomes.”