Bullish for a JD? High average salaries may be misleading

Undergraduate college enrollment is surging as students look to higher education as a way around the recession (see my previous post). The same trend typically takes place across graduate schools during tough economic times, though it’s worthwhile to break it down by field: Today, a look at law school enrollment and the trade-offs of getting a JD.

Many law schools are indeed seeing double-digit enrollment growth, while nationally the total number of applicants is up a more modest 2%. With law school often costing well north of $100K, it’s no surprise that law school growth is unexceptional during the toughest economy in decades. Still, with large firms touting starting salaries in the mid six figures, and high average salaries advertized across the board, law school continues to look like a good option to many.

The problem is that those numbers don’t tell the full story. Consider the disconcerting distribution of lawyers’ salaries. As this fascinating article shows, the distribution of lawyers’ salaries has become increasing bimodal over the past 15 years. This means, Bill Henderson writes, “that measures of central tendency, such as average or median, are not necessarily reliable guides for law students' future earning power.” 

 

It seems that as recently as 15 years ago, the salary distribution followed a much more normal, bell-curve distribution. By 2006, most lawyers fell into one of two camps, clustered around the $40,000 and $135,000 earnings marks.

The wide and widening gap between those lawyers who “make it big” and those who don’t should give pause to students considering law school. Especially, as Nathan Koppel writes in the Wall Street Journal, because “it is the worst job market in modern memory at large corporate law firms.” High paying jobs are definitely still out there for top lawyers, but many law school graduates may earn their JD only to find the salary bump isn’t worth the bump in debt load.

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