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Who Should (And Shouldn’t) Go to Law School

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42 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    I see far too many people going to law school because they think being a lawyer is their ticket to a high income lifestyle. I’m really glad you’re taking the time to advise people of the realities they’re facing in this market.

  2. Chris says:

    If anything, these three might be too broad. I always dreamed of being a lawyer, got into Yale and Harvard, took a scholarship at the Columbia, and then the firm I worked for last summer decided not to hire me and half of the rest of their summer class. I have a considerable debt load and my only hope of paying it off is a government position and income based repayment. What was a sound investment when I began law school has become a complete financial disaster.

  3. Native JD says:

    Don’t bother. There are no jobs for you. It’s a racist profession dominated by white men (I’m Native and Biglaw wouldn’t even interview me (Top 50 school, 3.0+, 5 years of Capitol Hill experience and heavily involved in ABA diversity efforts).

    This profession is doomed.

  4. Bobble says:

    Native JD – I’m not going to argue over whether law is a “racist profession dominated by white men” (perhaps you spefifically mean “Big Law,” which I wouldn’t agree to be synonymous with the entire profession). However, I will point out that a) 3.0+ at a top-50 school is not impressive given current grade inflation (that could be bottom half), especially when i consider that you would have indicated if it was higher than a 3.1; b, Capitol Hill experience is irrelevant for Big Law, and a law degree is a waste for a lobbyist (also note that for many, capitol hill experience equates to glorified fax machine operator at 18K per year), c) while I laud your involvement in ABA diversity efforts, how does that qualify you for interviews in and of itself?

    Good luck, but in your case i might not blame the ‘system.’ I am sure you are intelligent and will succeed in your niche, when you find it, but accept some responsibility for your predicament.

  5. Ariella says:

    Rather than making this list disjunctive, it should be conjunctive. So if you have AT LEAST two of the three, then go to law school. But if you only have one – then don’t do it. Take, for example, someone whose always wanted to be a lawyer, got middling grades, a middling LSAT score, and is admitted to a T50-T100 school (or worse) with no scholarship. Would you advise that person to go to law school? I sure wouldn’t. Just because they have the personal drive to do it doesn’t mean that they’ll be successful.

    I’m a SHU Law graduate (which is where Prof. Waldeck normally teaches) and although I don’t regret my decision to go law school (I like practicing as a lawyer and I also teach at the local law school), I wish I had known more about what it really meant to “be a lawyer” when I first applied. I applied to only one school, did not take an LSAT prep course, and did not have a scholarship. I got middling grades in law school and was, really, quite lucky to get two excellent appellate clerkships. But I could easily have been in the group of people who never found a great job after completing school. I graduated in 2005. If I was graduating now, I shudder to think of my job prospects and my loan debt.

  6. Thomas Paine says:

    I recently graduated from a first-tier law school (May 2009). I passed the bar on my first attempt (July 2009). All of the state government jobs are frozen, there’s no hope for anyone to get a jop there anytime soon. The federal government jobs are extremely competitive because all the people that got turned away from private sector and state government practice have nowhere else to go.

    I was furtunate enough to be just offered a position (yesterday) with a solo practicioner. So it only took me about 9 months from graduation to get something lined up. Many of my classmates are much worse off: offers rescinded, jobs terminated, no interviews, etc. So don’t go into law school with the mentality “I’m a lawyer, so now I can command a giant salary” because you will be gravely mistaken.

    My advice to anyone who cares to hear it is this: don’t be afraid of going to law school, but remember that not all lawyers make over $100,000 a year. Society automatically thinks “lawyers” equate to “money,” which is just incorrect. Also, don’t be afraid to be yourself.

  7. BridgeportJoe says:

    I have one more:

    You should go to law school if you like getting paid to write and you are good at it. Being a lawyer really is one of the only professions where you can count on a stable (not great, at least not anymore) income for writing most of the day.

    That said, I’m not sure the “prestigious school” route is a good enough reason anymore. Maybe if that prestigious school is Harvard or Yale, but otherwise, you’re going to be stuck on the Biglaw track unless you graduate in the top 10% of the class or so — and that track has recently gotten a lot less secure and a little less lucrative. (When I graduated law school, you were generally guaranteed about 5 years barring sheer incompetence, with healthy raises and bonuses every year. And if you stuck around there was at least a 50-50 shot at partnership. Now it’s more like 2-3 years — not counting layoffs, which always focus on the second years — and it’s more like a 25% chance at partnership if you stick around, with a lot less people sticking around.)

  8. bee och says:

    law schools have to be more forthcoming with respect to their employment stats. They should release figures re: employment prospects 5 and 10 years after graduation. Recruiters should also be investigated for their questionable practices in shifting attorneys around and moving attorneys out of the practice of law.

  9. jay says:

    I think that it is dangerous to assume that people who have “always” wanted to be lawyers should go to law school. Does anybody really believe that a 5, 10, 15 year old kid understands and appreciates what it means to practice law? The vast majority of people who grow up wanting to be lawyers do it for the money, the prestige or the drama they see on TV–not the best reasons to go $150k or more into debt in an uncertain economy.

  10. Greg says:

    As a recent YLS graduate, I would like to agree with Chris in stating that these three are too broad. There is no shortage of students at top schools that regret going to law school, especially now when the market is limiting their employment options.

  11. ohwilleke says:

    I’ll have to disagree. You should go to law school if you plan on becoming a lawyer or law professor, have an almost sure chance of passing the bar, and qualify for federal student loans.

    The economic advantages of a “prestige” law school are not necessarily as great as advertised. It makes a difference in getting a first job, but most law firms hire academically competent graduates of local law schools as well as prestigious ones, and a large share of lawyers who make their way into big law depart within five years. Tuition has risen, but many public law schools are still considerably cheaper for in state students than they are for out of state or private law school students, and scholarships are more readily available at those schools.

    Equally important, many students who are not at the very top academically actually end up doing as well or better in the actual practice of law than the academically excellent students. Academic ability and success as a lawyer are only loosely corrolated.

    The fact remains that becoming a lawyer greatly reduces your likelihood of becoming unemployed in life, and greatly improved your odds of making a decent salary. Federal student loans have repayment options that make it possible to have low payments for a long period of time and defer payment until a first job is located, involve very low interest rates compared to other investments, and have tax deductible interest reducing the effective interest rate.

    Certainly, if you don’t take a job that requires a law degree, there were more cost effective ways to prepare. Certainly, the job market could be much better. But, a law degree still makes economic sense for most people compared to the alternative (usually finding a job with a liberal arts degree and no marketable skills) even on the lower income hump of the bimodal income distribution of lawyers.

  12. Unemployed OVER A YEAR NOW says:

    MEMO TO PROSPECTIVE LAW STUDENTS: THERE ARE NO JOBS! I have been out of law school three years now. I spent 2 years at Big Law (Cravath) and the past 14 months looking for work and doing lousy temp jobs. I had a 4.0 in college and law school (that is how I landed the Big Law job) and all the volunteer, pro bono, language skills, etc you could dream of. None of that matters. THERE ARE NO JOBS FOR LAWYERS. Go to Med School if your brain works.

  13. Solangel says:

    I am also very concerned about the cost of attending law school and the current legal market. However, I’m hesitant to discourage students from attending law school unless they are admitted to a very prestigious law school or have a full scholarship. The students who are most likely to heed that advise are those from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds and racial and ethnic minorities (the research suggests that minorities are more sensitive to the cost of education than other groups). As a result, law schools will become less diverse than they already are–less diverse than the medical profession and accountants and auditors, for example. I’m not suggesting that we advise minority students and those from less economically privileged backgrounds to attend law school just so that the legal profession can be diverse, but we would hate to see only the privileged classes attending law school.

  14. LAC says:

    I have been giving people who wanted to go to law school this advice since my 1L year. Except I say that you shouldn’t go to law school unless you are already rich (meaning you have about $200k just lying around), you can go to a Top 10 school, AND you can go for free or for less than $30k.

    I was one of those poor kids who decided to be a lawyer when I was young so that I could grow up and support myself and my family. I went to law school with no debt—my college education was paid for with federal grants. I am now-$100k, and that only accounts for 70% of my tuition, which means NONE of my living expenses. The last $40k is one year of tuition in my LL.M program. One year. Frankly, I was in a better financial position when I was on Welfare. And at this rate, I will be again soon enough.

    There are no entry-level jobs anymore for anyone. Not for finished fed clerks, not for LL.Ms (like me), and not even for Harvard grads. I have a degree in tax from one of the best programs in the country and about 10 people in my graduating class of more than 100 are employed 6 months later—more than half of those people are foreign nationals who have jobs in their native lands. Now, my friends who were lucky enough to get government jobs to take advantage of the public service loan repayment program are being told they make too much money to qualify (less than $70k/yr) and are left with $100k+ of student debt and a low-paying job. Frankly, many of us are taking paralegal jobs (and some firms now only hire JDs for such positions), thus effectively nullifying our credentials and Bar status just to put food on the table. At this point, my education is a curse. It automatically disqualifies me for lesser work elsewhere, and the loan load is oppressive to say the least.

    There is no upside any longer. There needs to be a moratorium on law school admissions for at least 5 years to stop the excess flood of lawyers into an economy that cannot remotely support the supply it currently has.

  15. Anthony says:

    BigLaw for risk averse suckers with no imagination or creativity. The fact is, no law firm is more prestigious than the one with your own name on the letterhead. So move to some middle-of-nowhere town and hang a shingle. Crack one big P.I. case and your debts are paid.

  16. Mike says:

    As a member of the Class of 2005 (LLM in Tax 2006), I feel very lucky to have had the timing that I did. Overall, my graduating class seems to have done very well, a few BigLaw layoffs notwithstanding, and note that said individuals have had a VERY hard time finding work.

    I would have failed the 3 prong test mentioned above, which I think should be viewed more of on a conjunctive basis as suggested above. Am I glad to be an attorney? Very much so. I was lucky to find a field which I find stimulating and challenging (corporate tax law). And my combo of JD/LLM has allowed me to be in a position where those who are on the same level as me are typically (very bright) CPA’s who are 5-15 years older. In short, my educational degrees (and hard work of course) will likely allow me to rise higher than had not gone to law school.

    However, it was my ability to obtain a great FIRST job out of law school (Big Four Accounting) that allowed my career to blossom. Today, those opportunities just do not seem to be there, to the degree that I would not choose to go to law school in today’s climate.

  17. Ben I says:

    This is a really sad series of posts. Its evident that most people reading/writing on this list have never been in the business world. I worked for companies for 10 years before starting law school, of which I’m now a 4L (and gainfully employed as a privacy/compliance officer). I’m shocked that people think there are ‘no jobs’ when in reality there are thousands of jobs for lawyers in the business community. Companies LOVE LAWYERS because they are usually a) smart, b) articulate, and c) work hard. Outside of the ‘law department’ job at a company, they also typically hire lawyers for business development jobs and management of various departments such as compliance/risk/procurement.

    Think broader, think harder, and dont be pegged down as a traditional lawyer. The degree is always worth it.

  18. Mark Edwards says:

    I agree with Sarah in part — but I think some qualifications are necessary.

    First, law school may not be the best option for someone who sees it as a way to maintain a comfortable upper middle class life. But it can still be a means to improve the station in life of plenty of people. My goal in going to law school was to get paid to use my brain. I wanted a job where I wouldn’t get fired for sitting down, which I would have at the job I had for the three years before law school.

    Lawyers aren’t the first ones to face layoffs; I remember very well in the 1970s when my mother was laid off from the shoe factory where she worked, and my father had to scramble to find a new job as on building and grounds crew. I myself stood in an unemployment line in the Bush I recession in the early 90s, before I went to law school. Being a lawyer at any firm or agency beats the shoe factory — and the factory is gone, regardless. And if I’m going to be out of work for a while, I’d much rather be out with a law degree in my pocket than without. Yes, the debt can be huge, and you need to take it on very carefully. But for lots of people, it’s still the best option.

    Second, I disagree about the need to go to a prestigous law school, unless you’ve got your heart set on the big firm world. In fact, I think you might be better off going to a smaller school that serves a particular market and that has deep roots in it. In some ways, regional and local schools that serve communities may be better able to weather economic downturns than national schools that serve financial districts. I have no information to substantiate this, but I suspect schools that have deep roots in, say, Des Moines or Spokane, be suffering less of a shock than schools who traditionally funnel their grads to Wall Street.

    That said, I agree with much of what Sarah says.

  19. Civ Pro King says:

    I agree with some of you and disagree with others to varying extent. The problem is law school for the younger generation–my generation–is a six figure investment (even at many public schools). Everyone wants to see a high ROI (return on investment). Getting laid off, or not being able to find a job, is hard from many viewpoints. From an ecnomomic/financial standpoint it means zero (0) return on your investment. Mark Edwards, sorry, but being laid off from a shoe factory is a ridiculous comparison from an economic standpoint (though similar from an emotional standpoint). From an emotional/psychological standpoint you are screwed because you need a decent wage to take care of basic needs and to start servicing the loan that financed the investment. Et cetera.

    Fact is this… do not go to law school unless you are: (1) going for free or mostly free; (2) rich and can afford to; or (3) deeply passionate about the law and would like to have a law degree at all costs (even if it means having a low standard of living). I went pursuant to the third criterion. Someone told me that if you practice law to become rich you are going to be miserable. So true. If you practice law because you like it you are going to be happy and perhaps live long. True more often than not.

    For the Solangel types, sorry, I know you have good intentions and you are right in some respects. However, minorities might be reacting from an economically more savvy standpoint–albeit subconciously. To elaborate, it’s no secret that minorities attending law school are more likely to have lower income backgrounds. Therefore, they are more likely to give greater consideration to the investment returns because there is a higher elasticity of demand among them. Probably they are doing the right thing by not going to law school–after all they don’t have as much bailout money in their family tree. Further, for those of you worried about minorities, how many minorities do you see in well paying legal jobs? Seriously, how do you expect them to repay their loans?

    “Unemployed Over a Year Now” I feel your pain. Fact is, the practice of law is moving from a profession to a business model. The numbers dictate. Demand and supply dictate. Too many lawyers, too few jobs, and a $100,000+ investment(hey, law professors get paid really well, even at public shcools, which is part of the $100,000+).

    Sad, sad, sad.

  20. A.J. Sutter says:

    It’s genuinely sad to read these posts. May I provide some perspective as a JD ’83, who has been at big firms, a medium firm, in-house, a business-side VP at a Fortune Global 50 company, and solo. Notwithstanding that tuition was much lower back then, so I didn’t have as terrible a financial burden as some readers, maybe my experience will give you some realistic idea of what to expect, even in a good case.

    (1) This is not the first recession: many big firm associates lost their jobs in the early ’90s, and Baker even closed their L.A. office, if I recall correctly; and after the dot-com bust, senior counsel and even some “service” partners were on the chopping block. It won’t be the last.

    (2) In-house is great — even essential experience, in my view, if you want to be a transactional lawyer — but there you’re subject to the vicissitudes of the particular industry and company, not just the economy as a whole. One of my former big companies had, and continues to have, booms and busts in hiring due to industry effects, and lawyers have gotten cut (e.g., during the 1998 Asian Crisis). Another company where I worked had a cataclysmic earnings report one quarter, and many professional jobs were shed.

    (3) Lawyers can be attractive hires for some non-law jobs in business, such as business development, but woe be to you if you don’t then stay in the management rat race in perpetuity. If you ever step off the track, then once you get to be near or past 50, you’ll find your opportunities sorely lacking. There are very few openings available for attorneys with 10 years of experience — unless you’re currently employed in a position comparable to the one you’re hoping to move to, or have a $$multi-million portable book of business. Opportunities for those with 20 years’ or so are almost non-existent. Having had a fancy title at a well-known company can hurt your chances of getting re-hired, especially past a certain age (you’re assumed to be too expensive). And the age prejudice against people 50 or over was pretty ubiquitous in the US job market anyway, even before this crisis; Fortune magazine had a cover story about it in 2005 or 2006.

    (4) Bottom line is, you should not enter the law profession unless (i) you’re pretty certain you can become a tenured law professor or a judge with a life appointment, (ii) you’re pretty certain you can build a 7-figure book of portable business, or (ii) you’re prepared to go into solo/micro practice from time to time. I’m solo currently, practicing outside the US now, which has its own challenges and opportunities. But this isn’t the first time: I also had to go solo for two other periods between permanent employment, when I was younger and less experienced. While the second one was relatively short, the first lasted almost 3 years, and was pretty arduous (though I got a great job at the end of it).

    That said, being a lawyer has opened many doors for me in my life, and provided many adventures and opportunities, if not always the stability I had sought when I chose to go to school. (One is that I’ve also been writing professionally for the past five years or six years or so.) The most important part of being happy with your chosen career is to choose something that can build toward a relatively “dream” job, where the dream is based not on money, but on what you’re interested in. If you think law is that, then you should keep your mind open to nomadic or indirect career paths from the get-go.

  21. Nando says:

    In 2008, ABA-accredited law schools produced 43,588 graduates. Are there anywhere near this many attorney or law-related openings in a good economy?

    Also, look at ABA “Ethics” Opinion 08-451, which allows U.S. law firms to send American legal work to foreign lawyers and non-lawyers. The reality is that law is a dying industry. Thank you for publishing this article. Prospective law students NEED to see the truth about the oversaturated lawyer market.

    Law school is a terrible investment for most.

  22. jimbino says:

    Times sure have changed! I went to UT Law in 1979 because it was almost “free” and I was tired of paying taxes for others to feed at the gummint trough.

  23. jimbino says:

    Is it not true that there are ample opportunities in patent law for those very few lawyers who have actually mastered math, economics or science?

  24. Jan says:

    So easy for a professor to say. They have the cushiest jobs, tenure, good salary, and never have to practice. I had this professor in law school and all she taught was policy, which never comes in handy in the practice of law.

  25. Publius Novus says:

    ohwilleke (#11) got it right. “Above the Law,” Professor Waldeck, and all of the bloggers I have read are all focused on BigLaw. I worked in D.C. for over 30 years. There, top tier law school grads were the norm. Now I work in Baltimore. In Baltimore, 70-80% of the lawyers I encounter graduated from the University of Baltimore (4th Tier) or the University of Maryland (2d Tier). The local, regional, and national firms, the Maryland AG, local prosecutors, and the USAttorney’s office in Baltimore overwhelmingly hire UB and UM grads. The jobs are there, but granted, working for the Baltimore City prosecutor or the Maryland AG isn’t lucrative.

  26. LouS says:

    Actually grads from the class of 04-present are still having trouble finding jobs or loathe the jobs (doc review) they do have. SH has no trouble calling them for donations though! I’m glad the professors have time to comment and write senseless articles rather than teach law or grade exams.

  27. R Smith says:

    The fat is being cut away from Law, just as everywhere else. $165,000 to people just out of law school with no usable skills was unsustainable. We are backing up a few decades to where people were expected to be able to DO something to stay employed. Let me assure you (decades in the business), a 4.0 w/o usable skills is as useful as a brilliant but blind man who wants to be a eye surgeon. The bloat shows in the “I’m so entitled” post by “Native JD” above, who thinks his mediocre GPA, mediocre school (top 50?) and utterly useless capitol hill and ABA experience was or is worth anything to a client. The ABA gets a “continuing irrelevance” award from most lawyers. If you want to be a lawyer, press on: there’s always room at the top. The baby boomers will retire or phase out soon enough. But if you thought it was easy street w/o work, run away.

  28. Cato says:

    The advice Sarah gives is essential the same as that I’ve given for almost 25 years. There are far too many law students for the available jobs, and the job market is really two (at least) completely separate markets:

    1. the big law market which is limited to those who (i) graduate from the top 5 schools (ii) graduate in the top half at a top 6-10 schools, (iii) graduate in the top 20% and/or on flagship law review from a top 11-15 school, or (iv) in the top 10 (absolute number) from the best local law schools with ties to the top area firms.

    2. everybody else.

    To incur any debt, let alone significant debt, to attend law school, anyone who is certain to be eligible to the big law market as laid out above (and note, as you move through the ways in, the greater the risk that you won’t make the cut) is INSANITY. Or, to be kind, business judgment so terrible, you shouldn’t be making that kind of a decision.

    No one who cannot get into a top 15 law school has any business taking on any significant debt given the risk that you won’t be in that very top of the class it takes to get a good job, even in good times.

  29. Cato says:

    oops, that’s

    , anyone who is NOT certain to be eligible to the big law market as laid out above (and note, as you move through the ways in, the greater the risk that you won’t make the cut) is INSANITY

  30. Brian G. says:

    BigLaw for risk averse suckers with no imagination or creativity. The fact is, no law firm is more prestigious than the one with your own name on the letterhead. So move to some middle-of-nowhere town and hang a shingle. Crack one big P.I. case and your debts are paid.

    I could not agree with this comment more. And it doesn’t even have to be a P.I. case. I used to slog at an insurance defense firm where the boss had 3 million dollar homes while I could barely pay my bills. One day, someone referred a case to me where an insurance company denied a defense. I filed a dec action and bad faith claims, worked my ass off (no different than what I did for the insurance defense firm), won on the dec action, and settled the same day as the court ruling, Now, I laugh at BigLaw, whose turn their noses up at me despite working 6 and 7 days a week while I took 10 weeks worth of vacations and time off in 2009. (not to mention I am spending 10 minutes reading this post and commenting rather than worrying about who I can bill .2 of an hour to).

    The real problem with law schools are both the schools and the students. Way too many of them think they get the degree, the money rolls in, and you only have to work a few hours a day. Then they find out it can be worse than being a landscaper,and can’t handle it. The sense of entitlement is laughable.

  31. Roberto says:

    Funniest.
    Post.
    (and comments.)
    Ever.

    Energetic, smart, ambitious, and talented people almost always succeed if they’re in the right place at the right time. Matriculated or not.

    Get a damn degree, or not, and create your own success. You don’t like the way things are run, go change it. What was ‘big law’ before it was ‘big law?’

    Go create your own industry and get rich. Not talented enough? So sorry. Join the rest of us.

  32. TelecomEsq says:

    Law schools will NEVER discourage applications with realistic projections of employment/debt. This is because law schools are the ultimate cash cow for higher education. They charge professional-school tuition with very little overhead. It’s disgusting how little regard they have for their students, but it’s just human nature writ large.

  33. HomeBasedAttyNow says:

    Thank you for honest advice. I passed the bar 24 years ago and I have been seeing this situation coming for a long time. We will see a lot of talented solo practitioners arrive, which is good for the public, but I’ll bet a lot of them would not do it over again.

  34. Joe Shmoe says:

    Well, I’m one of those students in that metropolitan area paying $45,000 per year and I must say thanks for the grim outlook.