For those of you who’ve been following the site for a while, you know that I’m a law school grad–University of Tulsa College of Law 2009. Because many readers know I went to law school, I get several emails a month from guys who are thinking about taking the same path themselves, and are wondering if I have any advice for them about making that decision. So I finally figured I’d just write up my answer to this query in a post and start directing people here. Hopefully, we’ll get some other law grads (and maybe even some law professors) to chime in with their opinion, too.
So, should you go to law school?
Total lawyer answer, I know.
Generally, I tell people considering a career in law to seriously reconsider their decision. Why? Most people I talk to are making their choice without enough information. They often underestimate the investment and burden law school and the practice of law can put on your time, finances, and relationships, (not to mention your sanity) and overestimate their ability to excel in school and later find a great job in our current economy. Personally, I think that most people who want to go to law school, probably shouldn’t.
Below, I flesh out some of the reasons why law school isn’t the best idea for most people, followed by a brief section on who should consider law school. I’ll be honest: I focus on the negative aspects of law school more than the positives in this post. It’s not because I have an axe to grind against the legal field or that I think the law is some evil, soul-sucking career. I have several good friends who are attorneys who love what they’re doing, and I have a lot of respect for my law professors at Tulsa Law. And it’s also not because I couldn’t hack it in law school myself, and have thus become bitter about my experience; as I’ve mentioned before, I graduated in the top ten of my class and probably could have made a good go of a career in law if I had so chosen.
But I think most people know what the pros are for going to law school: you get a degree that gives you access to a career in the field of law, a mind-sharpening education, and a prestigious credential on your resume. And because of a psychological effect called the “confirmation-bias,” people tend to latch onto any information that confirms their preconceived notions, while ignoring anything that contradicts them. So in this post, I basically lay all the negative stuff out there, in attempt to break through that bias. After all, when making such a big decision, both the pros and cons need to be weighed equally. My goal with this post is to tell you what I wish I would have known before I decided to go to law school, so you can make a fully informed decision.
Why Law School Might Not Be a Good Idea
Law School Is Expensive and It’s Getting More Expensive Every Year
Law school is freaking expensive, and it’s getting more expensive each year. From 1989 to 2009, undergraduate tuition rose by 71%. In that same time, tuition at law schools went up 317%.
Sweet baby Teddy Roosevelt! 317%!
To give you an idea of the average cost of law school, take a look at these numbers for 2009:
- Average tuition for public school, residents: $18,472
- Average tuition for public school, non-residents: $30,413
- Average tuition for private schools: $35,743
If you’re like the thousands of potential law students who plan on attending a public law school as a non-resident or attending a private law school, you’re looking to spend more than $100,000 just for your degree. When you add in books, fees, and living expenses, that number can easily shoot past $120k.
Of course, most people don’t have $120,000 lying around, so they have to take on huge amounts of student loans. In 2011, the average debt for public law school students was $68,827 and $106,249 for private schools. $106,000? That’s like a small mortgage. If you want to see the average amount of student debt for each school, check out this chart from U.S. News & World Report.
And tuition is still rising. Just last week, Notre Dame’s law school sent their students a letter announcing a 12.7% tuition hike for next year. Instead of paying $40,000 a year for a legal education, students will now have to pay over $45,000. Zoinks!
Law School Scholarships Look Enticing, But Are Risky
“But Brett, law schools are offering to cover all my tuition because I did so well on the LSAT and because of my awesome GPA. Law school won’t be expensive for me.”
First, congratulations on the LSAT. Second, contrary to the folksy saying, you should always look a gift horse in the mouth. Here’s why.
Pressured by alumni and students, law school administrations spend a lot of time and money trying to increase their rankings in U.S. News & World Report. Two of the factors that go into the ranking are 1) the law school’s average incoming student undergrad GPA and 2) the law school’s average incoming student LSAT score. To attract students with high GPAs and LSAT scores, law schools will offer generous tuition waivers to those who have them. If you have a really high GPA and really high LSAT score, you might get a full tuition waiver. If your GPA and LSAT score were decent, but not extraordinary, you might get part of your tuition costs knocked off.
But here’s the catch. To keep your scholarship, schools will often require you to stay above a certain GPA throughout all three years of law school. For example, at the University of Tulsa, my partial tuition waiver was contingent on me maintaining a 3.0 GPA every year.
I can hear you now. “Pfft… 3.0? That’s a B average. I scored Bs in undergrad without breaking a sweat. How hard could it be?”
Answer: really hard.
You see, unlike in undergrad colleges where rampant grade inflation has been going on for the past few decades, most law schools have stuck with using a strict grade curve which requires professors to distribute grades on a pre-determined percentage. At many law schools, only a third of students will end up with a 3.0 GPA or above at the end of the year. The rest will have C averages or lower.
Even though only 1/3 of students will maintain B averages or above their first year, law schools offer merit-based scholarships to half of their incoming first year law students. Schools can afford to offer so many scholarships because they know a percentage of those students won’t be able to retain them the following two years in law school.
The problem isn’t that law schools give more scholarships than they know they’ll actually renew; the problem is that most law schools aren’t very transparent about the strict grading curve or about the percentage of students who retain or lose their scholarships. Consequently, many students are swayed to going to law school based on a generous scholarship offer without fully understanding that there’s a good chance they’ll lose it.
To be fair, it’s not really the fault of law schools that undergraduates misjudge how well they’ll be able to do in law school. While law schools have maintained strict grading standards, undergrad schools have been inflating grades for the past couple of decades, which inflates students’ sense of their abilities, and gives them unreliable expectations of what their grades will be like in law school. But I think it would be helpful for law schools to recognize the change in grade expectations and do a bit more in educating prospective students about their strict grading curves.
Thankfully, the ABA may start requiring law schools to disclose scholarship retention rates among first year law students to prospective students. Until schools are required to disclose scholarship retention rates, familiarize yourself with the legal concept of caveat emport, or buyer beware. Don’t let a generous scholarship sway you to going to law school. Before you say yes, call up the admissions office and ask about the school’s grading curve and find out the exact percentage of students who lose their scholarships after the first year. After you have that info, you need to decide if law school would still be worth it if you lost your scholarship.
Lawyers Don’t Make as Much Money as You Think They Do
“Okay, Brett, so law schools are expensive and I might lose my scholarship. But even if I do, paying off my debt after I graduate will be easy once my big fat lawyer paychecks come rolling in!”
Many Americans believe that becoming a lawyer is a golden ticket to a hefty paycheck and job stability, but neither expectation is always true. I’ll address the idea of job stability below, but first let’s talk about those big lawyer paychecks.
Despite what you’ve read in John Grisham novels about rainmaker attorneys winning $100 million cases or young associates earning six figure salaries right out of law school, the average lawyer in the U.S. makes somewhere between $65,00 to $90,000. Sure, that’s definitely nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a far cry from the Mercedes Benz-driving image that most people have of attorneys. (Also, keep in mind that figuring out average salaries for a profession is difficult. According to some calculations, only around 53.8% of those with a law degree are working in a law-related field, and the salaries of the other 46% who are working other jobs or are unemployed are unreported. Also, I tend to believe that most of the salary numbers we see out there are inflated due to a larger survey response rate by high earning individuals compared to low earners.)
For example, in Oklahoma the average salary of an attorney is between $54,000-$84,000, and I know of firms here in Tulsa that start out new associates at $35k a year. Sure, $54,000 can go a long way here in the Sooner State, but when you have to pay $1,500 a month on your six-figure law school debt, and you have a growing family, money becomes really tight, really fast.
Also, what people don’t tell you is that the only jobs that offer six-figure salaries to people right out of law school are the big, established firms. And you have almost no chance of being hired by a big firm unless you graduate in the top 10% of your class–really these days you have to be one of the top ten people in your class for big firms to even take a look at you. And keep in mind that if you are lucky to get hired by a big firm, you’ll often be working 60-80 hours a week, so you’ll certainly be earning those Benjamins.
And if you had fantasies of becoming the next Jack McCoy, you better have an intrinsic motivation for working. Public sector and non-profit attorneys make very little money. Some public sector and non-profit attorneys have had to take on second jobs during this bum economy delivering pizza or working construction just to make ends meet. Thankfully, the government is starting to pass debt relief legislation for law grads who decide to go into public or non-profit law. Unfortunately, many of these programs only apply to federal student loans. If you took out a lot of private loans, you’re still left footing the bill.
I don’t think salaries for attorneys will be improving anytime soon. The Great Recession has fundamentally changed the business and practice of law. Besides relying on technology and outsourcing, many firms are hiring fewer full-time attorneys and using more contract and temporary workers, allowing them to cut costs while maintaining or even increasing productivity. All these cost-cutting moves, coupled with an over-saturated job market (see below), are leading to today’s attorneys having lower salaries than their predecessors.
“Well, hold on one minute! I’m a lawyer and I’ve done very well for myself.”
I don’t deny that there are people going into the law that have made a very good go of it. I know several law classmates who have established solid legal careers and are making a very comfortable living. But for every classmate that I know who’s done well, I know two more who are still looking for work or struggling to make ends meet in their current job.
“Still, you really can’t judge the value of your law degree just a few years out of law school.”
I hear this a lot from older attorneys, and they’re right. On average, individuals with professional degrees, like a JD, have significantly higher lifetime earning potential than people with just a college degree. And it’s silly and immature to expect to be making your peak salary right out of school. Like any investment, an education often takes years before you start seeing any returns.
But while I agree with the importance of looking at the big picture, I’d counter that the rapidly increasing debt load of law grads, along with lower starting attorney salaries and an abysmal job market, might not make the investment worth it even in the long haul for many people. Plus, being burdened with so much debt so early in your life definitely can limit your career options and may force you to put off important life decisions like home ownership and children.
The Abysmal Legal Job Market
The Great Recession hit the legal field hard. Since 2008, law firms big and small have been laying off attorneys left and right. The public sector hasn’t fared any better. Budget cuts at the state and local level have forced district attorney offices to reduce their number of prosecutors, while non-profit legal groups, faced with similar budget constraints, have been forced to scale back. Tens of thousands of attorneys are out of work.
During this same period of time, law schools in the U.S. have been pumping out 45,000 new law grads each year to the job market. Many college grads from ’08 onward who couldn’t find jobs after graduation decided to wait the rough economy out while attending law school. They figured they might as well increase their credentials and expand their career opportunities while waiting for the economy to pick up.
Unfortunately, what many students are discovering is that four years later they’re graduating into one of the worst legal job markets in decades. Not only are today’s law grads competing with other recent law school grads for jobs, they’re also competing with the tens of thousands of experienced attorneys who have been laid off. Which is to say: The job market is over-saturated with attorneys.
And it probably won’t get any better. Many firms have discovered that they can get along with fewer attorneys. Instead of hiring full-time attorneys, many firms are hiring lawyers for contract labor that pays considerably less. Technology and offshore outsourcing are also doing the work that many young attorneys used to do. Yes, that’s right. American legal work is now being done by people in India. So not only is a recent law school grad competing with thousands of other out-of-work attorneys, he’s also competing with computers and a guy in India who’s getting paid peanuts in comparison.
“Wait a minute here, Brett. Law school X says that 98% of their graduates are employed within 9 months of graduation. The legal job market can’t be that bad with such amazing placement numbers!”
Yes, you’re right. Most law schools have been reporting amazing job placement numbers despite the down economy, but if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. That 98% job placement number is an exaggeration; puff as they say in the sales industry. While 98% of students may be employed 9 months after graduation, that doesn’t mean all those graduates are working in legal jobs. When some law schools survey their grads, many will count a graduate as employed even if they’re just working at Starbucks or substitute teaching. Many schools will even hire recent law grads to work in their library at minimum wage just so they can count them as employed!
Some schools puff their employment numbers like this in order to increase their rankings in, you guessed it, U.S. News and World Report. The higher their employment placement number, the better.
Many recent grads feel they were duped into going into law school based on false employment information. There’s a growing class action law suit brewing against several law schools for inflating their job numbers. I have my doubts about the success of the suit, but I do think it will spur schools to become more transparent about their job numbers and actually break down the type of jobs law grads have and whether those jobs require a JD.
A new advocacy group is also bringing light to the lack of law schools’ forthrightness on this issue. Law School Transparency’s mission is to better inform prospective law students about future job prospects and to encourage the ABA to improve its oversight over how law schools report their numbers.
“Okay, so the legal job market is bad. It’s still a good idea to get a JD because it will make me more marketable in other professions and give me some flexibility in my career.”
I hear this line all the time, but I don’t agree with it. A JD degree is designed to make lawyers. Period. Unless you plan on practicing law as an attorney or in another profession that requires a JD, there’s really no point in having a JD.
Are there law grads who have careers in non-legal jobs? Absolutely. You’ll find JDs among journalists, real estate brokers, business owners, and yeah, even professional bloggers. Heck, the fire chief of a Tulsa suburb is a law grad. But did a law degree really help them land these jobs? Maybe. A little. I’ll concede that many of the skills you pick up while in law school might come in handy in these non-legal careers. But there are much easier ways to become a journalist or business owner that don’t require three years of intense schooling and six figures of student debt. Thousands of people land these sorts of jobs every year without a law degree.
As far as giving you more flexibility in your career, that often isn’t the case either. I know some law grads who, when they couldn’t find a job in the legal field, became willing to take any job. But they couldn’t get hired in these others sectors either, because the prospective employers said they were “overqualified” for the positions. And I’d also argue that the exorbitant cost of a law degree actually limits your career prospects, especially at the beginning of your career. When you have a boat load of non-dischargeable student debt hanging over your head, your main priority is finding a job that will give you enough money to pay your loans. Taking a journalist job at a big news site that pays $20,000 a year or starting your own business that will at first generate little revenue just isn’t an option when you have a bunch of student loans nipping at your heels.
- Is Law School a Losing Game?
- Law Graduate Overproduction
- A Profession in Decline
- Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Software
- Outsourcing to India Draws Western Lawyers
So to recap what we’ve discussed so far, before you go to law school, you need to ask yourself: Am I ready to spend three years of my life and six-figures on a degree that may not provide good career prospects or enough of a salary to pay for my student debt?
But I’m Different!
“I hear ya, Brett, I do. And maybe law school is a bad choice for most people, but I’m different! I’ll keep my scholarship and land an awesome job after graduation.”
Want to know something funny? Every other would-be lawyer is thinking the exact same thing, except you’re the sucker and they’re the exception. According to a survey by Kaplan back in 2009, pre-law students are very confident about their own abilities to get a job in a legal field, but don’t think their peers will fare as well:
According to a recent Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions survey of 330 pre-law students, 52% report that they are “very confident” that they will find a job in the legal field after graduating law school and passing the bar, but only 16% say they are “very confident” that the majority of their fellow aspiring lawyers will do the same. In fact, only seven percent of respondents indicated a lack of confidence in their own ability to secure employment upon graduation. Pre-law students’ attitudes are in keeping with research showing that students aged 18-29 are more optimistic about their economic future – despite a sluggish job market – than past generations.
Confidence is good, but don’t let your confidence bubble over into hubris.
Who Should Go to Law School
Hopefully I’ve made the case that most people who want to go to law school shouldn’t be going to law school. If you look at it from a purely economic prospective, the value proposition of a law degree isn’t very good in today’s world.
While most people shouldn’t go to law school, a career in law is still a good option for some people and can provide them the means of having a very rewarding and fulfilling career. So who should go to law school? I’ve discussed this with former classmates and other attorneys. We all have different opinions on the matter, but we agree on a few things. If you can answer all the criteria below in the affirmative, then law school might be a good option for you.
You know a lot about what the practice of law is really like. If all you know about the law is what you’ve seen on TV and movies, you should not be going to law school. Many law students (me included) go to law school with no clue as to what the practice of law is really like. Two years into law school they discover they hate the law, but by then they’ve invested so much time and money into their legal education that they decide to finish a professional degree that they don’t even plan on using.
Before you decide to spend three years of your life and a small mortgage on law school, take some time to actually see first hand what the practice of law is like. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. How do you know if you “like” something without actually doing it? There are a few things you can do.If you know a few attorneys, take them to lunch and ask them about their work–What’s a typical day like? How often do they go into court? How many hours do they bill? What’s the pay like? How’s their work/life balance? Ask them to hold nothing back and to be completely candid with their answers.
If you don’t know any attorneys, call some up and ask if you can come to their office for 15 minutes to ask about their work. Most of them will be happy to oblige.
If you really want to see what the practice of law is like, I recommend trying to find some sort of menial job at a firm or non-profit office. Many large firms have gofers who take care of the mail and other similar jobs. Even if a firm or government office can’t pay you, volunteer your time. The insights you’ll gain from the experience will be invaluable to you as you decide whether a career in law is the right thing for you.
You want to practice law so bad that you can’t see yourself doing anything else in life. Don’t become an attorney for the money or prestige. Don’t go because your parents want you to go. Don’t go because you don’t know what else to do with your life! Those are really bad reasons to start a career in law. If you have a complete understanding of what a career in law is like and you can’t see yourself doing anything else with your life, then by all means, become a lawyer.
You have a decent scholarship. If you weren’t able to snag a merit-based scholarship that covers more than half of your tuition, don’t go to law school. First, it’s simply not worth the student debt. And second, if your undergrad GPA and LSAT scores weren’t high enough to earn that sort of scholarship, you probably aren’t going to do well in law school. While not perfect, undergrad GPA and LSAT score do a pretty good job of predicting success in law school. I know it’s hard to admit that you’re not cut out for something you really want to do, but trust me, you’ll be better off doing something else.
Once you land your scholarship, don’t lose it! Work like a crazy person to maintain your GPA so you can keep your scholarship throughout law school. Use the fear of six-figure student debt to motivate you to study.
You’re a hustler. I don’t want you to think after reading all the doom and gloom above that you have no hope of having a lucrative and satisfying law career, or that your fate isn’t in your hands. If you want that brass ring, you can still get it, you just have to be willing to work your butt off all three years to earn it. Get on law review. And maintain the highest possible GPA. GPA is king in landing summer internships with big firms that will hopefully lead to real jobs after graduation. If you’re going to make it a goal to graduate in the top ten percent of your class, and you have the motivation and discipline to obtain that goal, then go for it.
You’re entrepreneurial. The days of landing a steady job right after law school are long gone. Just as in most sectors of the economy, you can no longer expect the brass ring just for completing the law school ride. Today’s lawyer needs to see himself as free-agent, rather than a firm-man.
If you can’t find a permanent job right away, it may mean you’ll need to hire yourself out as a freelance attorney to several firms at the same time. I have some former classmates that are doing this right now. Yes, it’s hard work, and yes, the pay for each job isn’t that great, but they’re making ends meet and racking up experience in the process. After busting butt for a year, most have landed full-time jobs at firms in town.
Even if you manage to land a gig at a firm or government office, you have to treat it as if it were a temporary gig. Larger firms often layoff most of their younger associates within five years. Those that remain are put on the partner track. During those five years, competition is fierce among associates. Be sure that you’re comfortable with that sort of work environment.
I also know many young law grads who have done pretty well for themselves by starting a solo-practice. But hanging out your own shingle isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a highly motivated person who’s not only savvy in the law, but also in business.
So that’s my two cents on the subject. I’m sure many will disagree, and I hope they’ll add their thoughts to the discussion. If you’re looking for further reading, I definitely suggest checking out this report commissioned by the ABA back in 2009 on the value of a legal degree in today’s market. It does a good job of explaining nicely the pros and cons of going to law school. Their conclusion is pretty much the same as mine: law school is a good idea for some, but not all.
And I bet you’re probably wondering, “Well, Brett do you regret going to law school?”
People ask me that all the time and honestly it’s a tough question to answer. No one likes to admit they regret their decisions. On the one hand, if it weren’t for law school, the Art of Manliness probably wouldn’t exist. Blogging became a creative outlet for me during my stressful law school days and the fear of spending the rest of my life in a career I didn’t like motivated me to make the site the best it could be. And law school did help improve by writing and analytical skills. I guess my legal education has also come in handy in running my business as well, although I still go to an attorney for most legal issues that come up.
On the other hand, I’m not quite sure it was worth the money, stress, and time to earn a professional degree that I’ll likely never use in any significant way. I could have gotten a masters in the humanities in order to sharpen my writing skills, and enjoyed my studies a lot more in the process. With the fear of losing my scholarship and class rank always hanging over me, I was often in the library from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, leaving Kate to be a “law school widow.” I had no social life to speak of. It was a grinding three years that left me weary and cynical. When I look at pictures of myself at the start of law school and then after graduation, I cannot believe how much I aged in just three years.
So I guess my answer to the question is…maybe.
Yeah, total lawyer answer.
I’d love to get some other opinions on the topic. If you’re an attorney, do you recommend that people go into law? Why or why not? Who do you think should and shouldn’t go to law school? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.