Best of 2011: Samuel Alito, Peyton Manning, and How Law School Resembles the NFL Draft


In the award-winning book “Freakonomics,” economist Sudhir Venkatesh got unprecedented access to the inner workings of a crack distribution ring. When he crunched the numbers, he found the average crack dealer made less than minimum wage. They were at the bottom of a pyramid-like labor chart, sacrificing for the slim chance of making it to the top.

In a post-industrial economy, drug dealing is not the only occupation where wages disproportionally skew towards the top 1%. The odds are stacked against Millenials, whether they strive to be football players or lawyers.

Admittance into a top-14 law school, like a scholarship from a top-10 college football program, is the culmination of a lifetime of striving. Of the over 100,000 high school seniors who play football, fewer than 3,000 sign Division I letters of intent. Similarly, the top 25% in Harvard Law’s 2009 class had an average GPA of 3.95 and a LSAT score of 175, which puts them in the 99th percentile of the over 100,000 test takers each year.

Yet, despite overcoming nearly impossible odds, each group still has the toughest test of their lives ahead of them — each other. NFL teams rarely draft players not at the top of the depth chart, even at powerhouses like Texas or Oklahoma. And even at Harvard or Columbia Law, “Big Law” firms — those with the coveted $160,000 starting salaries — don’t reach too far below the median class rank when selecting first-year associate.

As you go down the ranks, the odds only decrease. NFL players from non-BCS conferences were usually top-tier starters in college, while top-50 law schools typically send only 10-25% of each class to “Big Law." And just as there are always a few DII and DIII players in the draft each year, students from tier 2 and tier 3 law schools occasionally beat out graduates of elite schools for jobs. But “small school” success stories are the best of the best — collegiate All-Americans, the top 1% of their class in law review.

Of course, you cannot solely judge the experience of playing collegiate sports or earning a graduate degree by their end result. NCAA telecasts are full of former athletes extolling the virtues of their collegiate experience, declaring, “Most of us will be going pro in something other than athletics.” Proponents of law school, meanwhile, trumpet a JD’s versatility in the job market.

However, each has hidden costs that take a substantial long-term toll on those involved. The newest research on concussions indicates that the gravest threats to players are not the highlight-reel hits, but the trauma of endless low-impact collisions over years of practice. Football players, especially linemen, usually put on 30-40 pounds of muscle in college, locking themselves into eating habits that will become increasingly unhealthy when they no longer burn thousands of calories a day in practice.

Law students who miss out on “Big Law” in 2L OCI are often left with over $100,000 in non-dischargeable student loan debt that can take most of their professional lives to pay off. The high starting salaries of first-year New York City associates hide the bimodal distribution of law incomes — most lawyers earn modest middle-class salaries and have little opportunity to transfer into the “Big Law” salary structure, not when there are thousands of new students clamoring for spots coming in behind them each year.

For the lucky few that do manage to scale the mountain, the dream often differs harshly from reality. Big law firms are notorious sweatshops where first-year associates are pushed to work more than 2,000 billable hours a year, most of it both extremely monotonous and incredibly stressful. Under the still widely used Cravath model of law-firm hiring, only a handful of a class of 35-40 associates last at a firm long enough to make partner. The NFL is just as tough — for every Peyton Manning or Ray Lewis, there are 10 special teams players clinging to a roster spot. The average career lasts only 3.5 years.

So when you watch a 22-year old walk across the stage of the NFL Draft to shake the commissioner’s hand, take a second to look at the young lawyers and agents in suits surrounding him. They too have beaten odds just as long to get there.

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