Why law school is no longer a golden ticket

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(MoneyWatch) Law school isn't the professional golden ticket that it used to be.

According to a new study by the National Association for Law Placement, the employment rate for recent law-school graduates is at its lowest level since 1994. Only 85.6 percent of 2011 law school graduates (whose employment status was known) had jobs nine months after leaving school. That is two percentage points lower than the employment levels of the 2010 grads.

Those figures might not seem alarming, but only 65.4 percent of 2011 grads had jobs that required that they had to pass the bar exam. This is the lowest percentage ever recorded. Twelve percent of the jobs were part-time and 7 percent were part-time and temporary. Most of the latter positions were funded by the law schools themselves.

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The upshot is this: Roughly one out of every three 2011 law school grads are unemployed, back in school, or working in jobs that don't require a law degree.

Even worse

Indeed, the news is probably even worse, Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a legal education policy nonprofit, tells the The National Law Journal. He suspects that when all the school-funded, part-time, and temp law jobs are stripped out, the percentage of full-time law jobs would be closer to 50 percent.

"For members of the Class of 2011, caught as they were in the worst of the recession, entering law school in the fall of 2008 just as Lehman Brothers collapsed... the entry-level job market can only be described as brutal," observed James Leipold, NALP's executive director, in a statement.

"When this class took their LSATs and applied for law school, there were no signs that the legal economic boom was showing any signs of slowing, and yet by the time they graduated they faced what was arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years."

Ironically, plenty of these young law grads, rather than face the dismal job market after they earned a college degree, headed to law school instead. Now they face equally bleak job prospects, but they also have law school debt to repay. The average law school debt is roughly $100,000 (See my previous post for more information on the debts young lawyers face.)

The number of young Americans taking the LSAT, the law school admission test, has been dropping as more people begin to realize that a law degree is no longer a guarantee of financial security.

The moral of the story? If you are tempted to seek a law degree, do your homework.