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PayScale Claims No Schools Have $160k Median

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[Editor's Note: This story has been updated here.]

For the most part, statistics about law school graduates’ starting salaries has come from one of two sources, either the schools themselves, or from some third party just parroting what the schools tell them.

And, the elite schools say exactly what you’d expect them to, that the median starting salary for recent grads is $160,000.  In fact, you have to venture out of the top 14 (er, 15, hey Texas!) to find a school reporting a lower number, Vanderbilt, at $147,500.

But now there’s a new data set on the scene, coming from PayScale and what they report may shock even some of the cynics:

No school has median starting pay of $160,000.

Even those of us who long accepted that many schools were inflating their employment rates and salaries still believed that at least the kids graduating from the top 10, or even the top 5, were pulling in $160,000.  After all, BigLaw is hiring people, and even many firms in the AmLaw 101-200 range offer $160k for first years.

PayScale reports that top median private-sector pay is only $157,000, coming from Columbia.  (Public-sector workers were excluded.)  UVA comes in at a distant second, with $137,000.  Only one other school, Harvard, managed to crack the $125,000 mark.  $125,000 is what schools reported as their median starting salary for the class of 2005.

PayScale found only nine other schools that managed to even break $100,000.

Some of the discrepancy is likely due to differences in data being collected.  Law schools tend to have an easier time collecting salary data than outside sources, and schools that send a lot of students to BigLaw are going to have plenty of people eager to brag about their big shiny paychecks.

Perhaps PayScale’s numbers tip more towards the folks who go into non-law jobs, which aren’t starting at $160,000 across the board?  Possibly, but Columbia reported only 2% of its students went into jobs that did not require bar admission.  Stanford reports 3%, NYU 3%, Chicago 2%, Penn 3%.

The difference can’t be entirely attributed to small sample sets either.  PayScale looked at salaries from 28,000 graduates of 98 schools, an average of 286 per school, and only considered graduates who held private sector jobs.  Even if everyone at NYU who took a non-law job was counted, it there simply aren’t enough of them to pull the median down.

One difference between the law school data and PayScale data is that PayScale looked at graduates with less than 5 years experience, and not merely the most recent class of graduates.  The median work experience for this group was 2 years though. The numbers may be lower due to high attrition rates among junior associates; BigLaw is known to chew people up and spit them out, but 2 years is awfully quick to do that, and many of them will land in other similarly-paying jobs, and those who aren't given the boot should be earning in the $170,000-$185,000 range after 2 years.

There may be some problems with how PayScale collected data or nuanced difference in what they and the law schools look at, but nothing that can account for Texas's self-reported median of $160,000, and the PayScale reported median of $83,500.

Given all the other hanky-panky that's been revealed about law school employment stats, there is only one option left for law schools to regain any sort of credibility in reporting salary data: external auditing.

Wait, a second comes to mind: close.


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