Margot Keany wasn’t prepared for the disappointment she faced after graduating from Seattle University’s law school in 2010.
It took her two years to land her first job as an attorney, working at a small law firm in New Jersey. And, since she moved back to the Pacific Northwest in June 2014, she hasn’t been practicing law at all.
Instead, she’s been working as a municipal contract administrator — a good job she’s grateful to have, she said, but not what she expected to be doing after spending three years earning a law degree.
Many of her fellow law school graduates have experienced similar difficulties, Keany said, making her question why some officials want to build a law school at the University of Washington Tacoma.
“It’s important to take care of the lawyers we’re already producing,” Keany said, calling the current job market for lawyers “oversaturated” with applicants.
“Baby lawyers are a dime a dozen, and it would be a big mistake to send more people off to be disappointed,” she said.
$63,000 Median starting salary for a lawyer graduating in 2014
$140,616 Typical debt load of law school graduate who took out loans to pay for school, as of 2012
Lawmakers from the South Sound have recently championed adding a law school in Tacoma, even though law school graduates across the county are having trouble finding jobs as licensed attorneys.
According to the American Bar Association, only 59 percent of U.S. law school graduates from the class of 2015 had found full-time, long-term employment as attorneys 10 months after graduating.
Many other graduates found jobs that didn’t require a law license, found legal work that was part-time or short-term, or still were looking for employment.
That might be why nationwide, fewer people are applying to law schools. According to the Law School Admissions Council, the number of applicants dropped 38 percent between fall 2010 and fall 2015.
87,900 Number of law school applicants nationwide in fall 2010
54,500 Number of law school applicants nationwide in fall 2015
38% Decline in law school applicants between 2010 and 2015
Because of those factors and others, “This is not the ideal time to open a new law school,” said Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Tamanaha, author of the 2012 book “Failing Law Schools,” has been an outspoken critic of the law school system for saddling students with high loads of debt while offering lackluster job prospects.
“A new law school will struggle to attract sufficient numbers of qualified applicants to fill a class,” Tamanaha wrote in an email. “Unless the legal job market substantially improves in coming years, a significant number of its graduates will not land jobs as lawyers.”
UW officials say they’re working to determine whether there’s a demand for a law school at UWT before going forward and building it.
The university has hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to determine how much building a law school would cost, whether students would be interested in attending and whether jobs would be available for those students after they graduate.
“We can’t go into this with blinders on,” said UWT Chancellor Mark Pagano. “We are excited and enthusiastic about it, but we have to do our due diligence.”
WASHINGTON GRADUATES STILL STRUGGLE
Graduates of the law schools at University of Washington and Gonzaga University have fared somewhat better than the national average in finding jobs.
Still, more than 30 percent of 2015 graduates from those schools weren’t immediately finding full-time, sustained jobs as lawyers, according to the latest ABA employment statistics.
Graduates of Seattle University’s School of Law, Keany’s alma mater, had even more trouble.
Ten months after graduation, fewer than half of the school’s 2015 graduates had found full-time, long-term employment that required them to pass the bar exam.
Seattle University officials declined to comment for this story. But the deans of the other two law schools in Washington state said the ABA employment numbers don’t always reflect the ways the legal profession is changing.
Today, many people enroll in law school without intending to work as lawyers, said Jane Korn, dean of the Gonzaga law school. They instead might want to do compliance work for the NCAA, or work in investment banking or the technology industry.
The harder question is what will it do to the new grads … to have more graduates in the region looking for jobs?
Jane Korn, dean of the Gonzaga University School of Law
Those kind of jobs — for which a law degree is an advantage in finding employment, but a law license isn’t required — amounted to about 11 percent of full-time jobs accepted by 2015 law school graduates nationwide, the ABA reported.
Korn said there are signs the job market is improving for law school graduates as the economy rebounds. At the same time, she said, “I would say I know from Gonzaga that we have quality, great graduates who are still job-seeking.”
Korn said she isn’t worried that building a law school at UWT would hurt the number of applicants to Gonzaga, but she wonders how it would affect the job market for newly minted lawyers.
“The harder question,” she said, “is what will it do to the new grads, not just to us, but to have more graduates in the region looking for jobs? That’s the question to me.”
‘THE UW NAME’
Kellye Testy, dean of the UW Seattle law school, said it’s possible that a law school at UWT could be more attractive to applicants and potential employers because it bears the UW brand.
That’s especially true in the current job market, she said, because graduates of highly ranked law schools such as the one at UW tend to have a better chance at landing the jobs they want than those from lower-tier law schools.
“Even though they’d be separate programs, it would still carry the University of Washington name, and that means a lot,” Testy said.
Tuition at the state-run UWT law school would be cheaper than private schools such as Gonzaga or Seattle University, which could be a draw for students concerned about racking up debt, Testy said.
Even though they’d be separate programs, it would still carry the University of Washington name, and that means a lot.
Kellye Testy, dean of the School of Law at University of Washington
That’s a big consideration, because debt levels have been increasing for law school students who borrow to pay for their educations. According to the nonpartisan think tank New America, a typical law student taking out loans to pay for school graduated with about $140,000 in student debt in 2012, an increase of about $50,000 from 2008.
Meanwhile, the median starting salary for new law school graduates in 2014 was about $63,000, the National Association for Law Placement reported.
When weighing whether to apply to a UWT law school, “If a student thought they could get a similar experience, they might go for the University of Washington name for the better tuition,” Testy said.
“If they think the experience would be different, they might not.”
STATE’S LAWYERS RETIRING
Supporters of adding a fourth law school in Washington say they’re planning for the future job market, not necessarily the one that exists today.
A 2012 membership survey by the Washington State Bar Association found that more than half of licensed lawyers in the state were 51 or older. A quarter of lawyers at the time reported they either were planning to retire or thinking about retiring in the next five years.
Paula Littlewood, the bar association’s executive director, said the organization expects it could lose up to half its membership in the next five to 15 years.
Tacoma attorney Darrell Cochran said that’s the prospect he’s thinking about when supporting a law school at UWT. Cochran’s firm, Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, has pledged $100,000 to help start the law school should university officials decide to move forward.
“It’s unfair to look right now and say, ‘We had all these kids from Seattle University struggle to get a job, and therefore we don’t need another law school,’” Cochran said. “Because what we’re really talking about is five years from now or 10 years from now.”
The local community felt “a significant loss” after the University of Puget Sound sold Tacoma’s only law school to Seattle University in 1993, said Cochran, whose office is on Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma.
It’s unfair to look right now and say, ‘We had all these kids from Seattle University struggle to get a job, and therefore we don’t need another law school.’ Because what we’re really talking about is five years from now or 10 years from now.
Darrell Cochran, managing partner at the Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala law firm in Tacoma
He said legal minds can be valuable on local boards and commissions, as well as working for local businesses.
Law school backers envision a law school that would be different from others in the state.
Unlike the law school at UW Seattle, the UWT school could cater to people who work full-time, offering evening classes that could work into the schedules of nontraditional students, said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
“For students who already have a job, it’s not really possible for them to pick up and go to Seattle for law school,” she said.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said the state can’t wait until there’s an urgent need for more lawyers to start thinking about ways to train them. Even if the law school was given a green light today, it would be several years before it would begin producing its first graduates.
“You can’t just turn on a law program — it’s not like flipping a switch,” Dammeier said. “It’s kind of a four-year build.”
LIFE AFTER LAW SCHOOL
Six years after graduating from law school, Keany lives in her parents’ basement on Mercer Island with her husband and two children, working to save enough money to buy a home in the high-priced Puget Sound real estate market.
She said doesn’t regret her three years in law school, but she wishes university officials had been more forthright about the jobs that might be available to her and other students after graduation.
“The opportunities that were listed were widespread,” Keany said. “We never heard that there were going to be no jobs, that there were going to be no opportunities. And that’s what I think a number of us found as we entered the workforce.”
While she didn’t have to take out loans to pay for her legal education, instead receiving help from her family, Keany said she worries about how others might fare in the job market after racking up substantial debt.
“It definitely took me a lot of time to find my footing, and there were a lot like me in my year,” Keany said.
“This is not a unique place I find myself in.”