Unlike medical schools where most graduates have strong earning potential, many law school graduates find a crowded job market and limited income. Add to the fact that many attorneys find the work to be miserable, and it should be clear that there are significant risks with attending law school. How does a potential law student know when a legal education is a good investment? When is attending law school a mistake?
The law school graduates who find a job that is mentally and financially satisfying will say law school was worth it. Those that struggle to find work or dislike their jobs will say law school was a bad idea. The trick is figuring out what category you will fall in before you go to law school.
Evaluating the decision to attend law school requires an objective analysis of any potential schools as well as the methods to pay for school. It also requires an honest self-assessment. The key to preventing law school regrets is to ask the important questions before heading off to school.
How do I know if law school is worth it?
I am a lawyer. There are many lawyers in my family. And yes, many of my friends are also lawyers.
I’ve also worked with many lawyers struggling with their student debt.
Over the years, I’ve seen some very happy lawyers and some miserable lawyers. Most fall somewhere in the middle.
Based upon my personal and professional experience with attorneys, two major factors separate the happy lawyers from the unhappy lawyers:
Capability – This might sound harsh, but not everyone has what it takes to become an attorney. Strong verbal and written communication skills are essential. High-level critical thinking is a necessity. Though flawed, the LSAT is designed to test the skills that are necessary to do well in law school. Passion can undoubtedly help overcome some challenges, but in a crowded job market, not everyone will succeed.
Desire – Very few lawyers work a traditional 40 hour week. Many put in late nights and weekends. Sustaining a schedule of this nature for years at a time requires someone with a passion for the work they do. The long hours combined with the inherent stress of the job create a miserable environment for those that don’t want to be there.
The good news for prospective law students is that it is possible to investigate your desire and capability before ever stepping foot in a classroom. Many attorneys and firms routinely hire recent college graduates. Those considering law school can learn a lot about themselves working as a law clerk, paralegal, or legal secretary. If you can find job satisfaction in these positions, becoming a lawyer might be a good fit.
Bad Reasons to go to Law School
Anyone considering law school should think about the reasons they want to go. Attending law school for the wrong reasons can lead to unsatisfying employment and lots of student debt.
Do any of these motivations sound familiar?
Large Income – Some lawyers make massive amounts of money. It is no secret that a highly successful lawyer can become very wealthy. Many people go to law school less motivated to join the practice of law and more motivated to get rich. The problem with this motivation is that many lawyers don’t find financial success, and doing the work just for the money can be soul-crushing.
Prestige – Lawyers wear fancy suits, do important work, and have respect in the community. Lawyers may be the but of many jokes, but to most, becoming an attorney is a respectable profession. The problem with this motivation lies in the inherent danger of making important career decisions based upon how you want others to perceive you. Entering the profession to please others is a recipe for self-disappointment.
The Next Step – Some people find that they are excellent students. After high school, they go to college. After undergrad, they go off to grad school. Many students may feel that graduate school, specifically law school, is the next logical step in their journey. Don’t go to law school because it seems like a logical choice. The only time law school works is if it is precisely where you want to be.
Good Reasons to go to Law School
Attending law school for the right reasons is an excellent way to help ensure success as a student and increase the likelihood of a fulfilling career.
If any of the following are driving factors, it might be a sign that law school is a good idea:
The Desire to Help Others – At its best, the legal profession is a community of individuals dedicated to helping people navigate serious and complicated situations. Lawyers have the opportunity to make significant contributions to the lives of others through their work. Being driven by a genuine drive to help others can make legal work far more fulfilling.
Seeking Out Challenging Work – The practice of law requires a diverse set of skills and can be challenging in many different ways. The people who thrive under pressure and even enjoy the stress may find that being a lawyer is an ideal job.
No Other Choice – A strong reason to attend law school is that you cannot see yourself doing anything else. If you have spent some time in a law office and decide that there is no other profession for you, it is a more informed decision. Watching an episode of Law and Order and thinking that you must become a lawyer doesn’t count.
Unfortunately, those who attend law school with the best of intentions sometimes live to regret their decision. Often this regret can be traced back to unwise financial choices.
Paying for Law School
Law school is pricey, and many current attorneys find themselves frustrated by the debt they racked up as law students.
Scholarships and grants are the best way to pay for school, but most students will require additional funding.
Working and saving some money before attending law school can be a wise decision for multiple reasons. The ideal route is to work as a law clerk or paralegal for a couple of years.
Opting to get some legal experience before law school can provide numerous advantages:
- Help with law school admissions,
- A head start networking,
- Time to evaluate the decision to become a lawyer, and
- Money to help pay tuition.
Similarly, some law schools allow students to attend school part-time while keeping a full-time job. In theory, part-time students can get a legal education without losing out on valuable working years. As a part-time student, I found this route wasn’t the financial boon that I had hoped for, but it was still worthwhile.
Finally, many law students will turn to student loans to help cover the cost of school. Finding the right student loan is relatively easy because the best option is to borrow federal loans exclusively. As graduate students, there is no yearly borrowing limit.
Many private student loan companies offer loans designed specifically for law students. While the private interest rates may be better than the Graduate PLUS loans, the federal perks make the Graduate PLUS loans the better choice. Like all other federal loans, Grad PLUS borrowers can opt for income-driven repayment plans and qualify for forgiveness programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness. These protections make choosing federal loans an easy decision.
Why is law school so expensive?
The cost of college has skyrocketed, and law schools are no exception. Many top law schools now charge over $60,000 per year for tuition alone.
In 1985 the average private law school tuition was just $7,526 per year. According to statistics from the American Bar Association, after adjusting for inflation, law school in 2018 cost 2.73 times more than it did in 1985.
Public colleges, once an excellent source for a reasonably priced education, have seen prices grow even faster. The same ABA statistics show that public law school is now 5.82 times more expensive than it was in 1985.
A 2013 study from the ABA identified three key reasons that law school has become so expensive:
1.) Discriminatory Pricing – Many law schools offer considerable scholarships to attract top students. The rest of the class has to pay more so that the superstars can attend on a scholarship.
2.) Other Expensive Services – Some law schools spend a lot of money on career development offices to help students find jobs. Additionally, many students want real-world legal experience, and providing these opportunities can be expensive.
3.) Cost doesn’t reflect value – Schools now set the price of education based upon the cost of delivery minus any available state subsidies. The ABA argues that cost should be based upon what students can afford and the actual value of the degree.
The easy access to student loans has made the third issue particularly severe. There is no limit on graduate school borrowing from the federal government so that students can pay increasingly absurd tuition prices. The ability and willingness of students to pay any price for law school has allowed the cost of a legal education to spiral out of control.
Scholarships for Law School
Many schools now offer full-scholarships to attract top students.
These scholarships can make law school much more affordable, but they may also put students in a difficult position.
Attending a more highly regarded law school could be far more expensive, but it can also lead to better career prospects. The school offering a scholarship is less risky from a financial standpoint, but the job outlook could be limited.
Students with scholarships should also pay close attention to the requirements to maintain the award. Some schools impose high GPA requirements that may cause many to lose their funding.
Ultimately, qualifying for a scholarship introduces another variable to consider when selecting a law school…
Picking the Right Law School
The law school attended can make a big difference for many lawyers. It might also be insignificant in the long run.
Law school rankings are the source of much debate within the legal community. While no list can definitively compare two schools, it is worthwhile to understand why some schools are more highly regarded than others.
When researching law schools, it is important to consider many different factors:
Bar Passage Rates – If the students who attend a school are not passing the bar at a high rate, it should be a major red flag. The students who graduate and cannot pass the bar will have to pay back their law school debt without a license to practice law. Avoid schools where this is a major risk.
Employment Statistics – What percentage of students have jobs that require a law degree at graduation? How many find jobs within a year? What percentage of students find jobs with the help of the school’s career development office? Career resources and placement can be a difference-maker when it comes to deciding whether or not law school is worth it.
Career Goals – If you want to clerk for the Supreme Court, attending Harvard or Yale becomes important. Some schools are known for preparing graduates for specific practice areas. Think about the job or jobs that you want. Talk to people in those positions. What schools do they recommend?
Location – Some schools may not have a national reputation, but they may be highly regarded in specific cities. If you know where you want to live, find out what schools do best in that particular job market.
Making a Smart Law School Decision
Don’t be afraid to reach out to lawyers to ask for advice on picking a school. Many attorneys have very strong opinions on attending law school.
If there is a job you want, talk to the people who have walked the path you are considering. It is hard to overstate the value of personal advice and first-hand experience.
Law school is a massive investment of time and money. Before making any decision, make sure to do your due diligence. Law school choices are too important to cut corners.