Is Law School a Mistake?

Published: Jul 02, 2012

 Job Search       Law       Salary & Benefits       
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Last week, The Wall Street Journal published some chilling statistics about how recent law grads are faring. According to the WSJ, only 55% of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs that required a law degree nine months after graduation. And only 8% of those graduates held full-time, long-term jobs at firms with more than 250 attorneys.

In response to the WSJ article, J. Maureen Henderson at Forbes came out with a piece entitled—spoiler alert—“Why Attending Law School Is the Worst Career Decision You'll Ever Make.” Henderson argues that “law school is no longer a sure bet when it comes to employment security and financial prosperity.”

And she’s right. A J.D. is certainly not a one-way ticket to a life of luxury. But does that mean you should toss out your LSAT books?

Not just yet: for many students, law school is still a viable choice. But just like you would before making any investment—especially one that can cost up to $200,000—it is important to weigh the risks and benefits.

Here are the three most important questions to ask yourself before attending law school:

  • Do I want to be a lawyer? It seems obvious, but many people—especially of the liberal arts major variety—end up at law school because they’re not sure of their next step. In an economy where jobs for art history majors are scarce, it can be tempting to delay reality by signing up for grad school. But it is important to remember that law school is a professional school—it is meant to prepare students to become attorneys. In this way, it is much more like medical school than it is like business school, which does not prepare its students for just one specific career path. If you didn’t want to become a doctor, you wouldn’t go to medical school. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, you probably shouldn’t go to law school.
  • Is BigLaw for me? Many people justify the high price tag of law school (often about $40,000 per year, plus living expenses) by pointing to the salaries that BigLaw offers—in many cities, that’s $160,000 plus bonus for first-year associates. But before you take out that loan, it’s important to remember a few things. First, as the WSJ points out, only 8% of 2011 law school graduates were able to snag BigLaw spots. If you have your eye on one of these positions, make sure a significant number of your potential school’s alumni have also been successful in breaking into BigLaw. But even if you have your hands on admission letters from several T14 schools, ask yourself: do I want to work in BigLaw? Keep in mind that paying off $160,000+ in loans can take about ten years, even on an aggressive payment schedule. Do you see yourself spending the next ten years at a large law firm?
  • What is my financial aid package like? Even if BigLaw isn’t for you, law school might be. Most attorneys, in fact, do not work at large law firms. If your goal is to work in public interest law, academia, at a small firm or as a solo practitioner, it is essential that you do the math before 1L orientation rolls around. Talk to alumni in your target field and find out what average salaries are for recent graduates. If you hope to work in a lower-paying field, it may make sense to accept a higher aid package from a lower-ranked school, even if you were accepted elsewhere. Also, if you plan to rely on your school’s income protection plan (available to some public interest attorneys), read the fine print. These plans, while an excellent resource for many graduates, often have conditions that can significantly affect their utility. For example, many plans include a portion of the recipient’s spouse’s income in calculating the award. Plan to get married in the next ten years? You’ll want to take that into consideration.

Are you glad you went to law school? Not so glad? What do you wish you had known before attending? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or connect with us on Twitter @VaultLaw.

--Rachel Marx, Law Editor