Who Should (And Shouldn’t) Go to Law School
posted by Sarah Waldeck
Yesterday’s New York Times article about the depreciating value of a law degree is presently number one on the Times’ “most emailed” list. My fervent hope is that the article is being forwarded not just to lawyers, but also to individuals who are considering whether to join a 1L class in 2010.
Because I am visiting at another law school this semester, I don’t have to attend any admissions events this spring. Yet I’ve been thinking hard about what advice I would give prospective students and this is where I’ve landed: Only go to law school next year if (1) you have always dreamed of being a lawyer; or (2) you are accepted by a very prestigious institution; or (3) you are offered a full scholarship.
This is not advice I’ve arrived at easily. Fifteen years ago, such advice likely would have discouraged me from even considering law school. But the economics of my decision are likely very different from the economics of the decisions that will be made this spring. I went to a state university and graduated without a penny of debt. Partly this was because I worked for three years after college and managed to save money, but mostly it was because my in-state tuition averaged about $5,000 per year. Today, in-state tuition at the same institution would cost more than $16,000 per year. If I went to a private school in the metropolitan area where I usually teach, I’d be looking at a yearly tuition of about $45,000.
Tuition has been rising steadily for some time now. There is a perennial worry about whether prospective students understand what it is like to be a practicing lawyer or what the law firm jobs that enable them to pay off their debt really entail. But now there is an additional and even more serious concern about whether and to what extent graduating students will have legal opportunities in the first instance. As the Times article suggests, this concern encompasses both opportunities in private law firms and in the public sector, including some of the “public interest” jobs that students have traditionally taken to qualify for federal debt forgiveness programs.
Forty-five thousand dollars per year (plus other costs) seems like a lot to pay for such uncertain prospects. But the number of people sitting for the LSAT this year suggests that quite a few will be willing to pay it; soon we’ll have a clearer picture of how many LSAT scores will materialize into actual applications.
Of course, this year law school applications will be partly driven by the lack of opportunity costs. Graduating college students face generally dismal employment prospects regardless of what field they want to enter. But I suspect that optimism bias plays just as large a role in student decision-making. No matter what the economy, some lawyers will be wildly successful. Many prospective students are inclined to think that they will be part of this group, no matter how daunting the odds against it. On the more rational side of the analysis, it’s also true that law school historically has proven itself a relatively good place to weather out bad economic times.
What is different this time around, however, is that no one is yet sure whether the changes in legal markets and in law firms are permanent, or whether things will eventually return to what we had come to think of as normal. If you haven’t always wanted to practice law, or if you’re considering a law school that is not one of the best in the nation, or if the law school isn’t offering to pay for you to attend, my advice is to wait to see how this plays out.
Law schools know that many prospective students will ignore this kind of advice, at least for now. The decision to admit students—and to encourage them to attend—has a moral component, especially when law schools know that some students (many? most?) will face diminished prospects upon graduation. Law schools, the ABA and the AALS have a continuing dialogue about what constitutes a quality legal education. Now they should be talking about concrete steps that are responsive to the changing legal market. In the short term, and at a minimum, law schools would seem to have the obligation to hold tuition steady. In the long term, and if these market changes are permanent, universities need to ask hard questions about whether the number of law school seats should be determined by how many people want to go to law school or how many lawyers the market can absorb. This, in turn, would raise a series of questions about class size as well as the propriety of establishing new law schools.
Given the current legal climate, one would hope that decreasing applications would force law schools to grapple with these questions. But markets, including those for law students, are imperfect. The most I can hope is that prospective students think hard about whether, at this particular point in time, a legal degree is worth the investment.