Tuesday, February 1, 2011

FAQ: Should I Go to Law School, 2011 edition

This post has been delayed by a few days, but I got an email from a reader last week looking for advice in deciding whether or not to go to law school. This topic was already on my mind since I had a coffee two weeks ago with a student intern in my office who had just been accepted to UChicago law (and others; it was actually my exact same acceptance list, which was weird and made me think of all sorts of paths untraveled) and she was trying to decide which school to attend. There was also an article in the New York Times nearly a month ago titled "Is Law School a Losing Game?" (My thoughts, in brief, on that article: it did a good job detailing why law school employment statistics are deceptive, almost to the point of being outright fraudulent, but did a terrible job in choosing student subjects to feature. Quotes like, "I looked at schools in Pennsylvania and Long Island, but I thought, why not go somewhere I'll enjoy?" to show how one guy picked his law school that now has him $250,000 in debt and without permanent employment, are not particularly symapethic. I lost interest in finishing the article by page 2 and it's a subject I would normally view with both interest and sympathy.)

Anyway, on to my reader's question: Elizabeth wants to go to law school. She is married to a supportive husband (who would like children sooner rather than later, though that's not a deciding factor for anything) and has worked at a bank for the past 5 years since undergrad. She did very well on the LSAT and got in to a good school (US News rank between 25-30) in the city she currently lives, where her husband currently has a good job. So she's poised to start down the law school path, but is being dissuaded or at least given pause by all the people around her telling her not to go. As she says, "I’m normally not one to listen to unsolicited advice from random strangers, and I would shrug it off or make justifications. But my husband and I are currently pretty settled – we’ve got our finances in order and we’re starting to build a little savings nest. ... I have a job now, but it’s really boring and unchallenging. I could stay the course, start making babies and keep this job forever, but the thought of that is very depressing. ... If I were your real-life friend, would you tell me that law school was a good idea or a bad one?" She ends with a lovely paragraph that she is a long-time reader, knows that advice is always hard to give and comes with a lot of "it depends" but she'd love to hear any thoughts.

So, Elizabeth. My short answer is that I wouldn't tell you Not to go to law school.

But I'm going to add about some caveats and lots of explanatory paragraphs, and then I'm going to hope my readers have extra to say because my particular journey is different from what you and others may experience. I've written about this before, but law school rank matters a LOT. A whole lot. Way more than I ever imagined before I went to law school, at least for for AmLaw 100 firms. (Am Law stands for American Lawyer and they do a ranking of law firms every year based on gross revenue and other factors, firms on this list are generally referred to as "BigLaw", a phrase you'll hear a lot in law school and beyond. BigLaw jobs have the same basic salary structure, with $160k being "market" pay for a first year, and you spend 8-10 years as an associate before either making partner or being pushed out, assuming you haven't left already. My experience is entirely in the BigLaw world. Those are the firms that recruit at Chicago and I clerked at two BigLaw firms during my 1L and 2L summers. It's a funny little universe, and not one that everyone wants to be a part of regardless of where they go to school, so I hope other readers will add their takes from smaller markets, niche practices, going solo, clerking for a judge, working for the government, working in public interest, etc. Also, my experiences as an interviewee took place before the market meltdown in 2008, so I know the world has changed since then. Basically, I'm doing all I can to show you why my advice is very nearly meaningless before I go ahead and give it to you anyway.)

So school rank matters. I know that my office doesn't even look at resumes for schools out of the top 20. It's not fair, but it's efficient, and it's the way it is. Other firms and offices (for example, our larger Houston office recruits from a larger range of schools) dig deeper, but in general, the school you attend matters a lot in your job search. Your class rank matters a whole lot too. I'm not sure which one should have priority. This was a follow-up question Elizabeth had: are you better off going to a lower ranked school where you can be the top of your class or to a higher ranked one where you're in the middle? I say, go to the higher ranked one. You really can't predict where you'll be in your class- law school grading is at times very random and the exams are like nothing you've taken before. Plus people pick schools for a variety of reasons, so you really don't know what your classmates will be like at various schools or where you might rank among them. Chicago doesn't rank and doesn't calculate GPA, so class rank wasn't anything I worried about (which is good, because given my grades, I'm quite sure I was smack in the middle of mine). Overall, I'd probably tell a friend to go to the better school, even with the risk of being lower in your class, if the jump is more than 20-30 schools or a whole tier in rank. If the ranks are any closer together, I'd let tuition cost and location sway me more than school rank.

But back to whether you should go at all. I think law school should be thought of like medical school or other professional programs. It's a huge investment, of both money and time, and if you can think of anything else you'd like to do, then you should do that instead. Law school takes you out of the job market for three years and lands you with more debt than any twenty-something should really have. I think it was worth it. I like my job and I couldn't do it without my J.D., but I think about my loans every single day, many times a day, and they affect the decisions I can make for myself and my family, and they will continue to do so for another 8-10 years (hopefully less, but the 2 kids makes it tough because daycare is so expensive). So can you think of anything else you'd like to do? A JD is a practical degree (though law school itself is anything but) and you should want to be a lawyer. Plus, thanks to the debt you accrued while studying law, you will have to practice it for 10-30 years to pay it all off. This is kind of an unfair question because I really didn't know what lawyers did until I became one. It worked out for me, but I have friends for whom it didn't work out quite so well and I know they regret going (one because she's realized she doesn't want to be a lawyer, another because of her lack of a job; if she had a job, I don't think she'd say she regrets going).

The world has changed in the 5.5 years since I started law school. The job market is undeniably tough. I think it's gotten better from the dark times of 2008-2009, but it's still tight. Our summer program had 26 law students when I summered after 2L year. We expect 14 this summer, and that was after a record year for revenue. We, along with many other firms, have just cut down. Lateral hiring has constricted so people aren't leaving as fast. Law students don't have as many offers so we aren't competing as much with other law firms. We have work, but aren't so crazy busy that there's a need to hire as many people as possible. This past fall we interviewed about 15 call-backs for my section and invited 3 to come for the summer. It's tough. I look at these resumes and meet these students and think, I'm not qualified to work here anymore. But other bigger cities still have large summer programs and according to the article I just read in American Lawyer this morning, litigation is picking back up nation-wide. I hope other people will know more about the current hiring market in other cities and from other schools.

I think law school is an amazing learning experience. If you had a trust fund, I'd unequivocally tell you to go. 1L was kind of awful and my brain hurt a lot and I was extremely stressed out, but it got better and three years later I can more fully appreciate all it did for me. I think differently. I write differently. I approach problems- both legal and non-legal, differently. If I was in a bigger city I think I'd have quite a bit of flexibility in different jobs I could take with my degree. I'm honestly not sure what I'd tell a friend. I'm optimistic by nature so I have a hard time ever telling anyone not to do what they want to do.

I know a few of my fellow bloggers have mentioned convincing others not to go to law school, so I'll forward the question on to them. Do you feel that way for everyone? or was it something particular about that person and their circumstances that lead you to that recommendation? (or anti-recommendation?) Any thoughts for Elizabeth and the others who will probably google themselves to this post?

[Unrelated PostScript: My background was discontinued so I've been forced to mess with my blog formatting, something I usually stay away from because I have no idea what I'm doing. Hopefully everything is legible and I'll find something I like soon.]


  1. very busy on a review project this morning but i'll step up and answer the very easy question - it is unquestionably better to be middle of the pack at a better school than it is to be at the top of a lower ranked school. what LL says is true at my firm too - it doesnt really look deeper than top 20, except the occasional 20-30 student who has deep experience in, say, technology or pHd or something. if you want to make more money and go to a big firm, go to a better school.

  2. and one more thing to consider that i didnt see skimming the above. i would say go to law school. it is long term investment. careers are very long - in the grand scheme, 3 years (even if they are years you are having babies) and say, $200,000, are not that much for a professional who can plan on working, say from age 30 to 70! as michelle obama says, "they can't foreclose on your brain!".

  3. I work in the specialized area of patent prosecution. I didn't go to a top tier school, but my law school is very well known for patent law. I graduated in 2007 at the top of my class and it was still a struggle to find a great job. If I had graduated in 2008 or more recently it might not have worked out at all.

    I know of one patent lawyer, for example, who graduated in 2008 from a better law school than mine who had to go back to school to get a more technical BS because no one would hire him. He'll be 35 before he gets back on track.

    This is all a long-winded way of saying that I agree with everything LL wrote. The people I know who graduated from my law school who aren't working in IP are having a very tough time. Patent law and tax are the best areas for job security and if you want to do anything in any other area, do not attend a law school that is ranked second tier or lower.

  4. I think school only matters if you want to go into Big Law. I'm not a big law attorney and I can tell you where you went to school doesn't matter at all.

    If I had to do it all over again I wouldn't be a lawyer, but I think law school is a very good education. it teaches you to think a certain way.

  5. I'm happy I'm here in law school, but everyone is worried about a job. That said, it isn't just lawyers feeling the squeeze - I sometimes feel like the people complaining loudest about as school and ensuing unemployment don't realize that nobody in any field can get a job right now.

    I'll say this - I got a full scholarship to my law school (ranked in the 50s), and I absolutely would not have gone if I'd had to pay full price. The cost is too high - bc then you feel stuck having to bill mega hours at a firm in order to pay off your loans, and lose all your flexibility. I hate feeling trapped. On the other hand, if you have a lot of reason to believe you'll love being a lawyer and WON'T feel trapped when you have to go to the office every day for 30 years, then go ahead.

    Final caveat - I'm #1 in my class right now at this mid 50s law school, and barely got any interviews. I do have one summer job at a firm that I had to practically beg for. Rank is important, but for this area of the south in particular, local connections are much more important to you getting a job.

  6. LL, I like the new background. Totally readable in Firefox. Its a shame that you can't use the super cute header you used to have.

    Also, LL, I think you are SPOT ON. For Biglaw jobs (and judicial clerkships and many other jobs these days) law school rank matters much more than class rank. And, as you said, don't count on "I'll just go to lower rank school and plan to be #1 in the class." It does not work out like that for many, many people.

    For Elizabeth: talk to real working lawyers. Make "information interview" appointments. Take some vacation days from work and spend a few days following lawyers around. Get to know what the job IS before you decide you want to invest three years and thousands of dollars in this career change. Law can be boring too. Do the math. You're in better position than many (good law school acceptance list, pretty financially secure, supportive husband & I'm pro 'having a child while in law school'), so like LL, I wouldn't DIScourage you. But encouragement with caveats is hardly unabashed enthusiasm, is it?

    (Me: 2009 law school grad, chose the low-ranked school on scholarship and landed state judicial clerkships, unsure what my next career step will be, but Biglaw is basically closed to me even if I wanted it.)

  7. I agree, LL - law school rank is HUGELY important. This is not only for law firms - the federal government is snobbish about law schools, as are corporations looking to fill in house positions. Given the debt load law school requires, I recommend that Elizabeth go to a top law school. My former law firm ONLY interviewed candidates from about 15 law schools.

    My current law firm is more of a boutique firm (and pay is lower than the 160 scale). However, people have generally gone to top schools (particularly the associates).

    As far as whether Elizabeth should go to law school, she should know what it is that lawyers do and make sure she wants to do that. Like you, I had no clue what lawyers did before I went to law school. I actually enjoy my practice, but it's a very unique practice area. I find most law practice to be mind-numbingly boring (and many people have the same feeling). If she is choosing law because she finds her current job to be boring, Elizabeth should try and find out whether she'll find law boring too.

  8. Ranks matters but only to a certain degree. And there are ways to offset a so-so ranking. Also, if you can go to law school and not acrue any debt and you think you would like it, you should go.

    I have a public interest job and make less money than people do with just a bachelor's degree but don't regret going. I went to a T2 school, but graduated top 10% of my class and had numerous scholarships. (I wouldn't choose a T3/4 school over a T1 one for scholarships, though, so it depends.)

  9. I graduated 6th in my class from a school that was ranked in the 80s. I went to that school instead of a better ranked one for reasons similar to Elizabeth's -- it was near our house and my husband had a good job. I also got an amazing scholarship. So I ended up graduating with exactly $30,000 in student loans. But no job offers.

    So I agree -- if you are going to go, go to the best school you can get into (well, if you get into number 22 and number 23, but 22 is across the country and 23 is 10 miles away, stick with 23 if that is where you want to go). Be prepared. The ONLY person from my school to get a job at a big firm, was ranked lower than me in class, but she worked like a slave as an RA for a professor, was law review editor, and was very, very good about making contacts which led to her getting an interview. She was the most driven person I have ever met in my life. That is not me. If that is not you either, you may not want to go to law school.

    Do you have the following traits:

    1. You are efficient. If you had to write a paper in college, did you plan it out a bit, spend a few hours on it and get it done? You might be a good lawyer. If you agonized over the paper for 20 hours, spent another 5 hours writing the opening paragraph before finally sitting down to finish the remaining 10 pages at 8am before it was due in class at 10am, you may get through law school, but it might kill you.

    2. You don't mind ambiguity. Lawyers live in seas of gray. Facts are gray - always. The law is a black line. As a lawyer you are paid to push the gray facts either into the black line, or away from the black line -- depending on which side has hired you. There is also the ambiguity of never knowing what a judge or jury will do -- you don't decide, they do. If you cannot accept ambiguity, don't become a lawyer, it will kill you.

    3. Do you love to read? If you don't like to read, don't become a lawyer.

    Overall, I am glad I went to law school, but it is a very close call. I agree with LL that I love what it did to my brain -- certainly more valuable to me than a brand new car. But I graduated in 2009. I have two kids. And some days, many days, I wish I had never gone.

  10. In my experience, which is not in BigLaw, school rank still matters, though perhaps not quite as much as in BigLaw. For clerkships? Definitely. For public interest work? Yes, there too.

    My public interest employers have been more willing to look more broadly at candidates from non top tier schools, but it seems to be disproportionately the top tier school folks who get hired. There are some exceptions- people who went to well-regarded lower-ranked law schools in the market where I practice can get some traction, particularly if their school has public interest programs with strong connections to the local legal community (many do).

    And in public interest, the math is different, too- you're not looking at a $160K salary, so the financial calculations might come out differently. I was fortunate to get some money from my school based on my public interest bent, and that really helped make the decision easier.

  11. I don't necessarily agree that you should go to the top school. I think it very much depends on what type of job you want after you graduate. (Of course, my experience might be unique and is in a very specific legal market - so take it with a grain of salt.)

    I got into a number of top schools in 2008(including Chicago), but chose a school ranked around 30 because it was the top school in the city I wanted to work and they offered me scholarship money, making it significantly cheaper than any other school I was considering. I knew that I wanted to work in my city and knew that I didn't want to work BigLaw. Now I'm a 3L (graduation can't come soon enough!) and don't regret a thing. I have a job with a medium-sized firm that pays great (not $160k-great, but still great) and only requires 1400 billable hours a year. Essentially, I chose the "lower ranked school where I could graduate toward the top" option instead of the "top school where I could graduate in the middle" option and it has worked out very well for me. However, I do now a lot of people who are very worried about finding jobs, even those who are on law review and graduating at the top.

    So, it's kind of a crap-shoot. Think long and hard about whether you think you'd enjoy the schooling as well as the work. Law school is long and tiring, but it's definitely doable. And if you have a good idea of what you want to do when you graduate, I think it's worth it.

    Of course, I can say this now. Check back with me after I've been working for a year to see if I feel the same way. :)

  12. my public interest job doesn't look much at which school you went to--client experience and good sense are much more important. But I think that's a big exception to the rule. Many government jobs and most firms care a lot, as do clerkships and many public interest jobs. I was in the top third of my class at a top-10 school, and a lot of opportunities have come easier (not easy though!) as a result.

    I love being a lawyer. I think I could've done lots of other things and liked them too but always would've wondered about this. The earning potential is good (though uncertain, these days) even though I'm not making very much now! I don't think it's less family-friendly than other well-paying professions.

    Yes, there can be a lot of debt. I am very very very lucky to have only ~50k of it, 2 years out from graduation. If the OP blanches at the idea that owing tens of thousands of dollars is actually fantastic compared to other classmates, then law school without a huge merit scholarship is a bad idea. Also, in addition to loan payments, she should know it could really affect ability to qualify for a mortgage (as I learned this year--and mortgage bankers don't know how to deal with LRAP, IBP, and other payment strategies--they just see big debt and small income and say no).

    Anyway, I've written a lot. My overall advice is: If you know what lawyers do (typical lawyers, not the one awesome one who saves refugees in remote places or something) AND you want to do it (for the salary it leaves you after monthly loan payments, and the hours it requires) AND you get into a school that's either in the top 25 or so nationally or the best in your city/region.....then yes, you should go to law school.

    ps: I don't have kids of my own but it seems law school would be a better time to have them than the first year or two on the job. Several of my classmates took this path, but LL might be able to give better info.

  13. I'll do what I can to address public interest as well - at least, my narrow slice of it.

    First, go to the best ranked school that you're able. It can only help your career, and you really just don't know what you're going to want to do at the end of those three years. That said, debt matters if you're going to be doing a PI job. Federal loans can now be forgiven after 10 years with qualifying employment, and the monthly payments are scaled to your income. This is a HUGE help. But those private loans will follow you to the grave, so you need to look into what your schools offer in terms of scholarships, loan repayment, etc. Go in with a plan, don't just hope for the best.

    As for getting a job - it's brutal. Many of my younger classmates seem to think that PI is a fall back career, something they can turn to when the more lucrative firm jobs don't appear. It's just not so. If you want that environmental law job, for instance, you can count on needing a few years of experience or great connections under your belt to be competitive. EVERYONE wants to save the seals/forests, etc.

    My experience with PI has been that they care only about whether you are competent and dedicated, and you need to PROVE both. I know that my future employer only interviewed people who had interned for them for two summers, stuck around for a semester or two, and who had proved themselves utterly dedicated by working crazy hours under pressure. I was never asked for my grades once. They had 750 applications for about 20 jobs.

    So if you are going into law school because you know 100% that you want to go into PI (1) go to the best school you can, with an eye to either the debt or the repayment options, (2) start making connections right away - volunteer, go to events, etc (3) intern, intern, intern and give them your best work, (4) ask for advice from practitioners in your area. Take them out to coffee, get yourself a set of mentors and friends. (5) take classes relevant to your practice. Immigration, natural resources law, crim law. (5) Clinic.

    If you are thinking about law school but don't actually know what a lawyer's day looks like / are doing it because your parents told you to / don't know what else to do, etc. then reconsider.

  14. From my perspective at my public interest job I will pile onto how much law school rank matters. I work at a well know public interest organization (about 80 attorneys). All new attorneys recently brought on have been from top 14 law schools. This most recent cycle the final applicant pool included a 4.0 Stanford grad with a law degree from Yale and an Editor-in-Chief of one of the Harvard law reviews. They are extremely snobbish about rank and prestige in combination with the other qualitites needed to work for a public interest org.
    Without knowing what you want to do its hard to give much advice- but if you are considering public interest look at your potential school’s LRAP program. Also look into the government IBR program. I have about $125k debt- but under IBR would only be paying my loans off at $330 a month- with my school’s LRAP I’m not paying a penny.
    I loved law school, and based on my experiences my husband is now a 1L also. I agree with all the caveats- but know that if you go to a good school, work hard and have a plan for where you want to end up you won’t necessarily be left with crushing debt.

  15. a response to the NY Times article mentioned above:


  16. Going to law school has certainly been one of my biggest regrets--my debt, when added to my complete lack of apathy about being a lawyer and the work lawyers do, is not a pretty combination. However, I will say that I didn't do enough research about being a lawyer before I actually went. I wrote an article a while back about my reasons not to go to law school, so I won't retype it! It's here: http://hubpages.com/hub/Should-I-Go-to-Law-School

  17. I am only a 1L, so I don't pretend to have the best advice. But I want to point out that 1) you can't assume you will get a biglaw job, if you even want one, so don't force yourself to go to a crazy expensive school with an expectation that you might not be able to meet. You might even intend to go into biglaw and be qualified for it, but in the meantime find something you're really passionate about and change you're mind. Don't lock yourself into a debt that can only be paid off with the highest paying jobs.
    Also, 2) research the law school's employment statistics. Hopefully you can find more than just what's on the school's website (which might not be accurate). For example, I found several statistics when I was researching pointing out the popular schools for getting those biglaw jobs (and used it as at least an indicator of employer preference in general) and which alums generally make it to partner. The highest ranked school I got into was in the T10 and 8 schools higher than where I'm at now. I chose to go to my current school because it saved me about $75k and, after doing some research, I didn't think the small difference in employment statistics was worth that much money. The school I'm at now places students into employment opportunities better than its ranking would suggest, and most of the higher ranked schools I got accepted into actually performed worse in terms of placing students into jobs. Also, when thinking about jobs- consider the market your school places into. I'm in the middle of interviews right now for my 1L summer, and I'm finding it very difficult to prove to employers that I'm committed to their firm when I've been moving around for a decade and don't have any connections. Connections will get you jobs. If you're interested in working in a city, consider going to school there. You will have an easier time networking and an easier time convincing employers that you have an interest in that geographic area. If you have an idea of the employers in the area where you'd like to work, you can also look up their attorney profiles and see which schools are represented. I will point out, however, that I didn't really seriously consider any school below T25. Although I don't think ranking governs everything, there is a point where it makes a HUGE difference.
    I do think it's still worth it to go to law school, but I think you have to be committed. I'm shocked at how many people are still pouring into law school simply because they don't have a job or they can't think of anything better to do. You don't need to know exactly what practice area you want to work in, but just make sure that you are going to law school because you want to practice law. Like you, I'm married and had to uproot my family for law school. I left a paying position to throw us into debt. It's not a decision I made overnight, and I think if you're at this point, you sound like you know what you're doing.
    I don't really know where to add this, but I wanted to note that the firms that I've researched have at least halved the number of 1L summer associates they hire, and many have stopped hiring them altogether. I think the 2L market is starting to pull back together (slowly), but the 1Ls are still lagging behind. It is very difficult if you don't have a strong connection to the city/employer or are at the top of your class. Once I decided to go to law school, I tried to "beef up" my credentials as best as I could before starting school so that I could market myself on more than just grades.

  18. Just reading this post makes me anxious. I graduated with LL at UChicago (Facebook friend, not hang out IRL friend fyi) and work as a prosecutor in a medium sized market after being laid off from a large firm in that market. The job market for lawyers is awful right now. I would not suggest anyone go to law school (unless they can go for free or what they would consider close to free) because the return on your investment depends on your school, your rank, your interview-ability and to be frank, luck. I love my job and was lucky to get it, but it's very tight right now and every 6 months people start worrying about layoffs - the state budgets are lagging behind the market recovery - at least in my area - so it's incredibly stressful. It also pays pretty poorly and I am grateful for my loan repayment assistance.

    Finally, I will echo LL that you should only go if you REALLY want to be a lawyer. If you are going to do "something" challenging - think very carefully before committing to the law - it's not for everyone and it's mostly a lot of sitting at a desk researching and reading case law and writing.

  19. And also, consider your husband's job security. Will he be staying behind (if you move out of state), or moving with you? Is his position pretty stable? My husband lost his job one month after I started law school and is still looking. It happened suddenly and was very unexpected. Just make sure that you have enough saved and you've budgeted enough during law school in case of any emergencies. Fortunately we planned for emergencies since I was applying in 2009 and we had witnessed several family members and friends lose jobs, but it can still be scary and stressful.

  20. For Elizabeth and others considering law school:

    I tend to look at how law school has changed who I am (i.e. before law school self, and after). Overall, I have to say, I like myself more now for a few reasons I can attribute to the law school education/process. I feel like I have more substance; like by excercising my mind, my thinking process has gotten so much stronger. I also feel more confident and sure of my ability to handle more kinds of situations. (It's sort of like having been through so much, you can kind of deal with anything someone throws at you. ;))

    Some things I resent about school: 2.5 years spent without the ease of "just" working at a job, and having evenings and weekends with my husband. I actually took summer classes so I could graduate early so I could get my "normal" life back.

    As for school itself: I felt like it was doable, but a drag at points. Something I had to just push through for the most points, although there were indeed moments and specific classes that felt amazing. However, overall, I felt like law school put my life on hold for a few years (i.e. we waited to have children), and it used a few otherwise really nice childless years that I would have gotten to spend with my husband (also very supportive, much like E's situation).

    Bottomline: I very much appreciate who I have become through the process, and yet I am still ambivalent about my choice. If you want to do it, then you should. It may or may not be the best decision, but it will likely not be a bad one either. Best of luck with whatever you decide! :)

  21. ack, I meant to say that school was somthing I had to push through for the most parts (not points)...

  22. I felt the exact same way as Elizabeth pre-law school -- I had a comfortable, settled life and an objectively great job that I hated. When I really thought about the things I enjoyed and wanted to do, my path seemed to head straight to law school. (In retrospect, there may have been other career paths open to me... but at the time I didn't have the soft skills necessary to pursue them, or the confidence and knowledge about how the world works that I gained in law school.) However, I definitely calculated my expected ROI before heading to law school and if I hadn't gotten into a great school, I'm not sure if I would make the same decision today given the job market.

  23. Elizabeth, I think the experience is different for everyone. I graduated last year from a so-so law school (bottom of tier one), I was 50th in my class out of about 250 - and I got a two-year judicial clerkship (federal district court) and an offer to go to a top ten law firm (Houston office) after that. So, you never know! On paper, I am not a candidate for either of the jobs I have. Still, I got them. And, based on my experience, you can open a lot of doors for yourself by networking. I basically told everyone I knew that I wanted to get a judicial clerkship and asked if they could help me. Someone did.

    I would unequivocally encourage people who really, truly want to practice law to go to law school. I loved my time there. The economy is bad now, but it will not *always* be this bad. The question is whether you are financially secure enough to be able to wait on a job offer if, when you get out of school in three years, the jobs still are few and far between. That said, all the previous cautionary comments are also spot on, take them into consideration. I still have friends from my law school class that are unemployed. It IS a tough market, but go for it if it's something you really want to do. Good luck!

  24. There's so much I wish I'd known before I started law school last fall. My husband and I both had good jobs in a stable field, with good hours and good pay. We went to cheap state schools and between the two of us only had $40k in loans. I'm now realizing I didn't really know what I was getting into; I miss working at something I was good at, and I miss getting a paycheck. I'd been married for 5 years when I started school, and didn't realize that this was the year we'd start to feel ready to have kids. Now that we're living on less than half the income we were before, there's just no way we could afford them. My first semester grades put me in the bottom third of my class at a school between 15 and 20, and the outlook is not good. I alternate between swearing I'll drop out after this semester and trying desperately to do the best I can to increase my chances of getting a job after graduation that pays what I made before I came to school: 70k a year with 20k in school debt is a very different thing than 70k a year with 100k in loans.

  25. Law school was probably a great investment a decade ago, but now that tuition has skyrocketed, there's no payoff, because there are no law jobs. The recession ate them. The few jobs there actually are, even the crappy pay public service jobs, we're competing with the ivy league. There's some ivy league grad working at the public defender's office now, who couldn't get another job. WTF? Also, the crappy firms are taking advantage of the expanded labor pool. A few days ago I saw a posting for a mid-size insurance defense firm that pays crappy, that was taking applications for a new associate, wanting top of the class. WTF ever. Ten years ago, when I decided to go to law school, they would never have even dreamed of landing an associate in the top of the class, until that person became disillusioned with Big Law, brought in some clients and came in as a partner. Now any crappy firm can have the cream of the crop, because no one is hiring, and people in the top 15% of my class did not have jobs as of getting sworn in to the bar. For instance, a Berkley grad beat my friend out for a supreme court clerkship that she otherwise she have been a shoo-in for. Why a Berkley grad still didn't have a job at the point that opening came up is definitely a result of the recession. And I don't see the legal market improving any time soon.

    As for it all being worth it... well, I'm having a rather bitter day. Today, if I could file bankruptcy and discharge my student loans, I would hand over my law license and work in a public library reshelving books and be happy about it. I think there's some satisfaction in what we do, but in all honesty, most days I think I made a huge mistake in going to law school. I'd trade interesting and challenging for a boring and stable 9 to 5 any day.

  26. I can't speak to law school or being a lawyer but one thing to think about is if there are any other professions/careers that fit with existing skills or interests and require less upfront investment. I am a health actuary and for someone who is good with numbers/data an actuarial career is very beneficial from an investment/stability/earning potential standpoint. You get paid to study and pass the exams to become credentialed as an actuary while you are gaining experience on the job. I imagine that there are other potential career paths that minimize the risk of ending up with such a huge amount of student loan debt and have more demand/less competition.

  27. I would say not to go to law school. I am highly regretting my decision. I live in San Antonio and graduated at the top of my class at my law school. I had a two year judicial clerkship; one year with the Chief Justice and one year with an Associate Justice and now I'm unemployed and have been for the past 4 months. It's hard to hear that big law firms are hiring because that is not what I'm hearing in San Antonio. I have talked to big law firms, which have all told me they are not hiring and have not been hiring from their summer associate pools either. I even have the "connections" as you may call them wherein a judge I worked for would talk to a colleague, get me some face time, but it never has panned out. I thought last year it was because it was the end of the year and with the new year things would turn up. But, it hasn't. I am still hearing the same line. If I want to find a good salary in a law firm, I know I am going to have to leave San Antonio. However, that's easier said than done because it makes sense for me to stay here since my husband has a great job with a hefty salary with his Bachelors degree. Thinking about that makes me happy for him but pretty much apathetic I took this 100K risk and it is not panning out. I agree with Proto Attorney. I may be bitter, but maybe once someone hires me, I would feel better about it. Right now I'm working contract work, which really just does not even pay the bills.

  28. I guess my point is its a huge investment that one needs to be sure will pay off. Maybe if you have a job lined up and aren't going to take on a lot of debt, then maybe?

  29. I have a feeling I'm one of LL's "older" readers . . . so keep that in mind when reading my perspective. I'm a 1997 UT Law grad who has worked in BigLaw, government, and now for an international organization.

    I chose UT over higher-ranked private law schools, and I can honestly say this was one of the best decisions of my life (right up there with my choice of spouse). At the time, dark ages of 1993 (I deferred a year), we were in a recession (no, not as bad as 2008-9, but bad enough in its own way) and like many others, I applied to law school as a safe haven from a really crappy post-college job market. At least my 22-year-old self somehow had the presence of mind to think about the cost: choosing UT (back then! in-state!) meant leaving law school with about $80-90,000 LESS debt than the top-tier schools. [Keep in mind I was not married at the time and had NO parental assistance (my parents actually declared bankruptcy during my 1st year of law school) and was already carrying loans from a pricey top-tier undergrad.] Many told me that I was selling myself short, was limiting my options, etc, etc. I had doubts but decided that under the circumstances I couldn't ignore the price tag.

    I ended up graduating in the top 10% of my class and going on to work for a top tier Wall Street firm (in NY) where many of my colleagues (even back in late 90s) had well over $100K in student loans--and our starting salary (highest in the nation!) was $85K (they pretended it was $100K by including signing bonus and law admission bonus :)). Man, was I glad I'd gone to UT.

    That said, I know that public school tuition has skyrocketed; UT Law is not exactly "lower-tier" in anyone's book; and it is nearly impossible to predict where you will land class-rank-wise in your law school class. I'm not sure that my experience could be replicated these days.

    I would think very carefully about the cost, and about your husband's career. You will be paying for this for a long time to come--LL's advice about being sure you want to be a lawyer is right on. Even if I in some sense won the golden prize, it sure didn't feel like that for several years. It took me a lot longer to pay off my student loans (from undergrad and law) than I had thought it would; my grand plan originally did not include BigLaw at all!

    One of the reasons that I worried so much about the debt when choosing a law school was that I was sure that I was going to do international public law (actually, this is what i do now, just took 12 years to get here!). However, the reality of graduating with even "limited" undergrad and public law school debt meant that I felt compelled to take the BigLaw job to pay the bills. It was just going to be for 2 years . . . well 2 turned into 8, and I can honestly say that sometimes i am sad about how much of my 20s and 30s was lived pulling all-nighters tediously editing deal documents. All in, it's worked out for me. But I truly have a hard time imagining how it work out if I were just starting out now. The world has changed.

  30. I am not a lawyer nor in law school but from a life-advice perspective I'd agree with Rebecca S. above: Is there any other field you're thinking about that involves less up-front risk and investment? I've seen a lot of my peers go to law school kind of by default--they aced the LSAT, being an attorney sounds prestigious, they're not sure what else to do after school, etc--but in the end they don't like being lawyers. So think about if you WANT to be a lawyer, not if you can get into a good school or have a high class rank at your school.

    I've seen some med students do it too--they do well in science and on the MCAT and so assume they're cut out for med school. They only think about if they can get into medical school, not if they should actually BE DOCTORS. They become doctors and they're miserable.

  31. My long comment got erased. I'll try again with a shorter version:

    1. My credentials: I am 29, decided to go to law school 5 years out of undergrad. Currently in my last year. When I decided to go, I was staring down the barrel of a well-paying, but unfulfilling job in human resources; long-term relationship with now-husband; thinking about kids but feeling not quite ready, esp. because I didn't feel fulfilled in my life and worried about having kids before I felt more comfortable/happy with what I was doing. It gradually dawned on me that my past experiences, skill areas and general interests were pointing me in the direction of law, a career I hadn't considered before.

    2. Look: Only you can know the extent to which you are considering law school as (a) an escape/change in direction from what you're doing now and (b) the professional career path that's a true fit for your personality and interests. If you're considering law school mostly because of (a) and not so much because of (b), then I'd challenge you to think about what other things might give you a change you might be looking for. Don't go just to get out of your current situation. But if you're really feeling that law is What You Want To Do, then don't let ANYONE tell you it's not the right thing to do. Nobody can ever know if the risks they take will pay off in the end. But if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to practice law for a living, then you should absolutely go to law school and forget the millions of reasons that people will throw at you as to why it's a bad investment. Your dreams, the things you feel called to do are never a bad investment. Be honest with yourself about which of these reasons (and yeah, it's probably a bit of both) is dominating your interest in law school.

    3. About that legal career: For BigLaw advice, LL was probably spot on. I wouldn't know cause I went to law school with the express goal of avoiding anything BigLaw related. (Debatable as to whether that was a smart move.) But she knows what she's doing, and did it well. I wanted to do public interest, but there are virtually no jobs. So now I'm looking at small- to mid-sized firms and even potentially going solo (in the field of immigration). Plenty of people tell me that's crazy. But I went to law school because I want to represent immigrants. And immigrants, when they need to, can scrimp and save. So I know I'll have paying clients. I'm learning that you can and MUST get creative with jobs. If you don't limit yourself to the well-defined career paths and career search paths, and if you look beyond the places where everybody wants to work/live (i.e. consider the suburbs, consider off the coasts and outside major cities), there's a lot more out there than people might think. It helps that I actually WANT to be a lawyer - I don't feel ambivalent about it. See #2, supra.

    4. Here's a myth: If you go to the mid-tier school you can be at the top of the pack. Not true. I chose the mid-tier school over the top-tier because I wanted a lesser debt load and knew I wasn't aiming for BigLaw or BigGov't where the rankings would matter most. But I too thought I would "instead" be at the top of the class. Here's the thing: everyone who goes to law school is smart, and that has virtually nothing to do with where you land in the class rankings heap. Neither does which schools accepted you. The people at the top are those with the most self-discipline, who work the hardest and want it the most. So if you go to a mid-level school thinking that because a top-tier school wanted you it's a surefire bet you'll be the best in your class, you might as well accept defeat. I took it for granted I would naturally be at the top, and I was wrong. I don't work that hard. I'm okay with that. Would you be?

    5. No matter what you do: good luck! And let us know what you decide to do!

  32. What I can say is that if you are having a hard time deciding whether or not to go, don't go. Law school is not easy or cheap and you definitely don't have a promise of what type of salary you will have when you get out. Being an attorney is not an easy job. The legal field can be very very stressful and emotionally taxing. I am not surprised at all that there is a high rate of substance abuse among lawyers.
    If you are thinking of going to law school for a large pay check or just because you are bored, don't do it. Go to law school because you want to be a lawyer.
    I went to law school because I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and "help people." I went to UT Law and graduated in 2006 and those 3 years were pretty tough. Additionally, when I got out of law school, my starting salary was very very low. Probably the same as a teacher. I'm in a happier place now, but for a few years I was pretty unhappy. I knew I had to go to law school because I always wanted to do this, but there were some really dark days.
    Most legal jobs don't pay 160k and most legal jobs are very very stressful. Go to law school because you believe in it, not just because.

  33. Wow!
    I know I graduated Law School many, many, many years ago (20 to be exact - but I don't feel -and am not - that old, trust me!) and that I hail from a different country (Canada) but it's hard to believe how different things are between here and there/then and now.

    Law School is pricey here too, in fact, it's gotten a hell of a lot pricier over the last several years with students now paying the same or more in tuition for an undergrad year than I did for Law School. But there was never the kind of crushing debt load you guys are discussing.

    On the flip side, I can't picture any first year associate ever dreaming in their wildest dreams of making much more than a quarter of your $160 k/yr. Not in Nova Scotia anyway. The pay would be signifantly more at a firm in Toronto, of course (where the cost of living would be even more significantly more) but I still can't picture $160k for a first (or second or third) year associate even there.

    But enough rambling, what I really wanted to say was this - I have been repeatedly amazed at how useful a law degree is even if a person chooses not to practice law. For one thing, you have instant credibility (whether you deserve it or not!) - just open your mouth and tell people you're a lawyer (even if you don't practice) and they look at you completely differently. But much more importantly, I find it incredibly useful in the sense that I can pretty well make my own job anywhere and anytime I want to. No, I don't just mean by opening a solo practice but, for example, by offering my legal analysis and research skills to other lawyers, doing contract work for the provincial Barristers' Society Library or even ... most recently ... going completely entrepeneural and creating a brand new legal product - a self-help Legal Guarianship Kit (think of the Legal Will Kits you can purchase but more complex) that people can purchase and use to obtain guardianship of a family member without the cost of retaining a lawyer.

    I guess I'm just trying to say that if you love law (and I most definitely do, I can't picture myself ever leaving the field), there are many, many things you can do with a law degree besides the traditional idea of being a private practice lawyer. The downside, of cousre, is how do you know if you really love law until after you go to Law School? (And, just for the record, no, I most definitely did not love Law School.) That I don't really know ...

  34. LL I agree with you. I tell people all the time not to go to law school. Which of course sounds sort of hypocritical considering I went and am glad I did, but it's TOUGH right now. The vast majority of my class (2010) is NOT employed. And we're not talking about people who are holding out for great jobs. We're talking people with $150k in debt who would JUMP for a job that pays $45k a year (which is really not even a living wage when you consider your loan payments).

    Just don't do it.

  35. I will preface what I'm about to say with the fact that I just got my loan consolidation confirmation in the mail this week...

    I tell people who want to go to law school because it sounds "fun" or their parents are lawyers or they want to save the world, that it's probably not going to be what they expect, and maybe they shouldn't go. It is not easy to save the world when you are tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The job market is a lot better than last year, from what I can tell, but places aren't expanding as much (or at all) anymore. I am currently clerking for a judge. I was in the 15% of my class to have a job at graduation last year. During my 1L year (2007-2007), 85% had jobs lined up by January and almost all were employed by graduation. The market is just not the same, but who knows where it will be in three years.

    My biggest surprise in law school was that 1L year was HORRIBLE. I was always the nerd who loved school, and for the first time in my life I hated it. On the good advice of a professor I decided to wait it out until 1L summer when I actually did some lawyer-like work. I loved it. While I am less than loving my boss right now, I still love what I'm doing and can't wait to get into actual practice and out of clerking.

    I don't think I'd recommend people to go to law school. In fact, I HAVE told more than one person NOT to go. However, if someone really enjoys the practice of law (which, like you said, is hard to really know until you've been to school) it's not worth it. I looked at a piece of paper that said I paid out $82,000 in loans that will end up costing me $230,000 over the next 25 years. I cried. And I think I will cry more than once before it's paid off. BUT at least I'm doing something I will love. So, I guess who really knows what anyone should really do....

    Wow, least helpful advice ever.

  36. Elizabeth - do you want to be a lawyer? Do you know what lawyers do? If you don't know the answer to either of these questions, it is foolish to blindly commit yourself to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for something you are ambivalent about. If what you want is an intellectual challenge and higher status in society, there are a million different ways to get there that don't involve loans of the scale that most of us now-lawyers have.

    Everything I was going to say in response to this post has already been said.

    I suggest talking to as many practicing lawyers as you can to find out what they do. In particular, try to talk to attorneys who have been practicing for at least five to ten years, who have seen the legal market change, and who may have interesting (and frankly more insightful) opinions on the future of the profession that you would be entering.

  37. I am a Wyoming attorney, and went to UW's law school. Here, lawyers and firms are skeptical of people who didn't go to UW law, or who otherwise have no Wyoming ties. I think that is generally true for the rural areas in the middle of the country - school rank doesn't matter, but whether you went to the regional school does.

    That said, most of the top ten of my class (2009) were able to break into the Denver BigLaw market, but I know it was hard work for them to compete with the Denver regional law schools.

    My best advice is to really think about whether you want to practice law - don't go to law school if you just want the intellectual challenge, because the cost and stress is not worth it. Then, if you really want to be a lawyer, decide where you want to go based on your goals for after law school. If it's BigLaw, go to a top school. If you're not in the major metropolitan markets and in the middle of the country, then go to a regional school.

  38. I do think that it would be helpful to consider what she wants to do with her law degree. Even debt isn't as daunting when you are doing something meaningful--if you are going to go to a same/corporate job as you would have had without your law degree, the extra debt might not be worth it. But consider that if you do something in the public interest, the "value added" from your law degree is worth way more than the prestige attached to whatever law school you go to. For example, you are now licensed to represent people who really need it.

    I think Lag Liv does a great job of talking finances and weighing the pros and cons. But it's important to include a subjective valuation in that equation--at least if you are inclined to help people. As a 3L going into public interest law, a law degree is worth way more to me--and way more to the world.

  39. The one thing I haven't seen mentioned here is that not all debt is created equal. I have $220,000 in student loan debt (from a BA, MA, and JD - the JD being the most expensive of those, unfortunately). Some of it is capitalized interest - I went to school for many years to rack up that kind of debt. But...only $22,000 is private loan debt (i.e., that I owe to the Sallie Mae gods). And that makes all the difference in the world.

    I work a legitimate law job in the same city as LL, but make a fraction of what she makes (a third). I do not work in public interest. And my loan payments are a chunk of my monthly take home salary. But...with the new government programs, I consolidated all my federal debt last year ($198,000, kid you not), and have monthly payments of roughly $600 based on my income. If I don't pay off the debt in 20 years, it gets forgiven. That's not a bad way to live, and I get to do what I love. (I pay slightly less than $200/month on the private loans - I have friends that have much, much more than $20K in private loan debt who are absolutely drowning - there is no relief available in the private loan world. If the only way you can go to law school is by taking out $50K or more in private loans, don't bother).

    We hire recent college graduates as paralegals at my firm, and most all of them want to go to law school in a year (so we have high turnover, too, but we don't mind). We run our paralegals through the ringer - they draft documents, call opposing counsel, and sit in on a lot of the meetings the lawyers have. We train them to be lawyers, and then they decide whether this is really what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Of the five paralegals we've had in the past three years, three have gone on to law school, one chose to pursue an MA instead, and one chose to go for a doctoral degree. But the two that chose other than law school might have been stuck in a program they hated if they hadn't seen the inner workings of an average law firm BEFORE they made that choice. That's why I suggest that anyone who isn't sure about whether they want to go to law school should work as a paralegal for a year or so before they make that decision - it will also give them time to save up some money. Law school isn't going anywhere - it will be there when and if you decide you want to go. This isn't a race.

  40. I graduated from a good school as an undergrad but could not get a job as a paralegal. I think having a paralegal certification might have helped in retrospect. So, I went to law school (top 100 school) figuring worst case scenario I could get a job as an attorney at a small firm or a as a paralegal after law school. I graduated class of 2010, and there basically aren't any jobs for attorneys without years of experience (with the exception of OCI, but only the top 15% of our class was allowed to participate in the OCI - On Campus Interview - process) It also turns out that law firms won't hire law school grads as paralegals either. So law school hasn't exactly worked out for me yet, and even the 33k in student loans I took out for the degree seems like a bad investment at this point. Furthermore, while college was a blast, all 3 years of law school felt like Chinese water torture.

  41. I go to Yale, and I'm worried about jobs, too. You may hear that if you can get into one of the top law schools you'll be fine, but I'm not so sure that is true. Yes, we still have access to the BigLaw jobs, and we have a great LRAP program. However, competition for clerkships and public interest fellowships is intense, from deferred associates and all the people from other schools who couldn't get the BigLaw jobs they wanted. I'm worried about providing for my family on a public interest salary, assuming I can even find a job right out of law school.. what non-profit is adding positions? My 3L friends who want to do public interest have no idea what they will be doing next year, but all of the BigLaw slots are gone for the year even if they wanted to change their minds.
    I'm incredibly lucky to have gotten into Yale, and am usually still glad I came here with all of my debt over the free ride I had at other schools in the top 8. However, I wanted to tell Elizabeth that even at the top it's not risk-free and it's scary to have left a well-paying union job for this uncertain future.

  42. Totally agree with Meg and others who have encouraged you to really understand what lawyers do and be sure you like it before you go. Yes, it can be interesting, but also repetitive and oftentimes stressful. Also, as Elizabeth the commenter said, experience makes a huge difference. You may think, hey, I have finance experience. That should help me get a job. Hahaha, no. Maybe you have a slight edge over someone with no work experience but your experience wasn't legal. I have several engineer friends making big bucks who worked all through school (part-time program) graduated in top 25% (one in top 10) and can't get work because they have zero legal experience. Try to get legal experience in school. Volunteer. Network! In the end, as with many things, it ends up being about who you know more often than not.

  43. A law student provides invaluable information about law school, applying, transferring, succeeding, using a law degree for a non-legal career and dealing with all the nerds along the way.

    A law student provides invaluable information about law school, applying, transferring, succeeding, using a law degree for a non-legal career and dealing with all the nerds along the way.

    A law student provides invaluable information about law school, applying, transferring, succeeding, using a law degree for a non-legal career and dealing with all the nerds along the way.
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  44. The only way to succeed in law school and its unique Socratic method of teaching is to experience it – to invest countless hours with professors in a classroom environment.

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  45. Should you go to law school? It pains me a bit to think of it as purely economic, although the economics certainly matter. You've got to talk to practicing lawyers, not other law students and not academics. You need to know not just what law school is, but also what being a lawyer is like. Don't presume you know. And yes, as other commenters say, it matters how good a law school you can get into. There are lots of cynical blogs out there, but I think a fair assessment can be found at


    Just be honest with yourself and don't go for insecurity/prestige reasons. And don't go b/c you've always said you'd be a lawyer one day. And certainly don't know if you want to be something other than a lawyer.

  46. Basically, if you want to go to BigLaw, a JD from a top 10 school is more or less essential. If you don't go to BigLaw, you will get paid a lot less, if you're lucky enough to get a job, while carrying a huge debt burden.

    I also think the question of whether or not you really want to be a lawyer is impossible to answer. Before you actually practice, your answer to this question is just a guess, and even the best guesses can come out totally wrong once you actually have to live the life of a lawyer day in, day out. In my experience, as a former BigLaw associate, it was much more stressful and intense than I thought. I also did not realize that I would hate being cooped up in an office all day, and it felt like my life and who I was was slipping away from me. To be fair, BigLaw provided very good training (I wasn't a litigator), and I appreciated the massive paychecks and bonuses, which allowed me to quit without being too anxious about my finances during my current unemployment. For me, it was a good run, but I am very glad that I quit, and I can definitely say that I will never go back to BigLaw. Just thinking about it gives me the creeps.

  47. I like your article.

    I am contemplating law school at 41. But my circumstances are a bit different. I have a career that I like (boring at times, but that's okay). I always wanted to attend law school, but it was cost prohibitive for me, 10 years ago.

    Because I served six years in the Army, the VA will pay 100% of my law school tuition, if I attend a public school. If I attend a private school, between the VA and my employer, my tuition is 100% covered with no money out of my pocket.

    Presently, I live in Northern VA. I don't care about working Big Law, because I wouldn't be a good fit. I don't care about attending a T-14 law school. Further, presently, my salary is comparable to a first year associate, so I am not pressed about becoming a lawyer for the money.

    I want to attend a school that emphasize clinical work, because the only option for me, after law school, is to work for myself. I feel the clinical work will contribute to my readiness.

    Any suggestions or advice?