A few things I learned from the Wisconsin new lawyers task force report

The State Bar of Wisconsin recently released (PDF via TaxProf) a task force report on "Challenges Facing New Lawyers." They received feedback from 599 "new lawyers" with a margin of error of 3.8%. Most graduated in 2011; over 70% had graduated since 2008. Here are some things I gleaned.

1. Contracts, criminal law, family law, estate planning, municipal/government law. These were the top five practice areas in an open-ended, unlimited response survey of the graduates when asked to identify their "primary" practice area. (These may be useful courses for a student to consider.)

2. Undergrad debt is a small portion of law graduate debt. Among those who took out loans (over 90% of respondents), the median amount of law school debt was $95,000; the mean was $94,822; the 25th and 75th percentiles were $68,000 and $120,000. But the median undergraduate debt was just $20,000, and only half of respondents had undergraduate debt.

3. Graduates expected lower debt loads. The survey found that about 80% found their debt "more than they expected it to be." One factor is probably the ballooning annual rise in cost: debt loads increased by by 36.8% from 2005 to 2008. Another is probably lack of information for prospective students. It's worsened lately after federal politicians agreed to eliminate subsidized loans for law students. Most anticipate long-term (i.e., at least 6 years) consequences on account of their debt.

4. Graduates expected higher salaries. 78.9% thought their earnings were less than they expected; their income was an average $41,591. 6.6% had incomes higher than they expected; their income was an average $147,250. And for the 14.6% who had income meet expectations, their average compensation was $79,865.

5. Graduates expected better benefits. 71.4% had lower benefits than they expected, such as health or dental insurance.

6. Jobs come from who you know. The survey reflected the fact that more found jobs from "networking" (39.2%) than "job boards" (30.9%). The survey qualifies that results were based on what was used, so efficacy should not be implied from the result. (And it roughly correlates with NALP figures I've seen.) But, it's a notable result.

7. Students sometimes don't know what classes they ought to take until it's too late. Even though law schools often offer practice management, business training, entrepreneurship, and similar classes, many students do not take them because they "do not realize the importance of the classes until it's too late."

8. Most students who knew about the difficult legal job market still went to law school. The survey reports that about 64% of students went to law school "despite knowing the difficulties lying ahead because they wanted to help others or serve justice." They thought the risk was acceptable: "More than half of respondents though the risk was worth the reward or they trusted that they would find a way to succeed."