Legal Careers

A comment on my post Not Covered by LSAT Prep takes exception–quite respectful exception–to my statement that “If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.”  The poster writes “such a statement may be easier to make in retrospect than prospectively. According to your bio, you graduated in 1981.”  His point is that in the century since I graduated from school the cost of legal education has risen faster than wages and inflation, and it is much more difficult to pay back student loans on a graduate’s average salary now than it was then.

I’m sure that’s true.  I see that reality in the pressures facing my oldest son, who is a 3L, and in students I’ve mentored over the years.  A friend who graduated six years ago owed more in student loans for and than the outstanding balance of my home mortgage.  She is one of the fortunates who landed a BigLaw job at what was then the highest starting salary in Boston because she is smart, talented, incredibly hard-working, and proved herself  while working as a law student.

The increasingly-skewed relationship between the cost and economic benefit of law school education only reinforces my point about doing due diligence.  My mantra for the dozens of prospective law students I mentor each year is get life experience, investigate whether law is a good choice for you, and consider the enormous commitment of time and financial, psychological, and emotional resources law school requires.  The profession is filled with unhappy lawyers.  They can be unhappy because they don’t make enough money, or their practices are stultifying, or they are worn down from years of arguing, or they don’t like their clients, or they think they would be happier raising goats in Maine.  The  suffers disproportionately from alcohol abuse.  Why would any sensible person enter this profession without assessing honestly how well it fits them?

And why would any sensible person enter law school without assessing honestly their chances of success?  The Wall Street Journal article that prompted my prior post discusses the tiered nature of the legal profession.  There are the few who finish at the top of their classes and garner BigLaw offers, but they are the exception.  The income gap between the high and and low-paying poles is enormous.  If financial necessity dictates that you start at $160,000/year when you graduate and your historic academic performance suggests that you won’t be among that top ten percent (or fewer) of the Type A personalities who will dominate your class, you need to ask “what am I doing?”  You need to revisit your expectations.   Note that I’m not saying don’t go–that admonition applies to those who don’t do the due diligence and make the /reward calculation.  But don’t count on a payoff and define success on terms that are likely to be unattainable.

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  • http://www.maclawstudents.com Erik Schmidt

    Professor Randall, I’m going to bookmark this post. The next time someone asks me if I think they should go to law school, I’ll send them the link.

    Jesser, I see more of my colleagues in law school thinking about the kind of jobs you mention. Unfortunately, the preferred route into many of those jobs is via BigLaw. The truth seems to be that in many respects it is an employer’s market. They can afford to be very choosy in who they hire, and they can demand BigLaw experience.

    It’s a strange situation when so many law students are getting jobs at big firms, knowing that they’ll jump ship in three or four years. They’ve heard horror stories about the huge number of billable hours they’ll have to rack up, but they go for it anyway, on the theory that the experience will allow them to get into the legal job they really want to be doing.

    Also, I wonder if during this glut of law school grads, we’ll start seeing more JDs moving into fields traditionally dominated by MBAs.

  • JesseR

    As someone who has little interest in pursuing a BigLaw job, I wonder if the phenomenon outlined in the WSJ article will prompt more law students (and future law students) to pursue smaller firm jobs, public interest or government legal careers? Though they may not start off with a 160K/year plus a hefty ‘signing bonus,’ these types of careers are not as tightly bound by the illustrious ‘Golden Handcuffs’ that seem so prevalent in the BigLaw environments. Also, student loans do not need to be paid off immediately, and one that lives modestly for a few years (save that Fendi briefcase and Jag for later…) can still have a rewarding career in public interes or smaller firm environment.