Don’t Go to Law School

I’ve posted before that prospective students must honestly consider their prospects for success in school because, unless they attend one of the very top-ranked schools, their job opportunities will be limited if they are not ranked at the top of their classes. The Wall Street Journal Blog recently interviewed “ school naysayer” Kirsten Wolf, a 32-year old BU graduate. Wolf went to school a few years out of believing that she would obtain a marketable skill that would justify the cost of borrowing to pay tuition. In the fall of her second year, when she realized her B+ average was not good enough to land her a position with a large firm, she began to question her decision. Already $45,000 in debt she stayed, graduated in 2002, passed the Massachusetts bar, and found no law jobs waiting. She went back to the company she worked for before and then eventually moved to where she landed a job she enjoys, as an office manager for a literary agency. She is paying her $87,000 student loan debt over 30 years–which means she’ll still be paying for as she approaches her 60th birthday. In Wolf’s words:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

Legal Blog Watch Alert picked up Wolf’s story and also reported about a lawyer who auctioned his law school diploma on . The post notes the lack of discussion on academic law blogs about whether to attend law school.

For years I have advised students that exceptional performance in law school is more important than where you go. Wolf’s story bears this out. She must have been a good student and gotten good LSAT scores–BU law would not have admitted her otherwise–but that doesn’t put you at the top of your class. Even at BU, which is always ranked as one of the top 25 or 30 law schools in the country, a B+, top-half of the class performance will not open the most lucrative doors. I’m seeing this again with a friend who is currently in her second year at BU. She is quite smart, works exceptionally hard, is one of the most personable and engaging people I know, and yet has been unable to crack into the Big Law associate track. And if you aren’t on that track after your second year of law school, your earnings horizon changes dramatically. Yet had Wolf gone to a lower-ranked school and finished at the top of her class–say in the top 10 or 15 places, or top 3.00%–odds are that she could have obtained a high-paying job. Finishing in the top 3% of one’s law school class does not happen without brains and lots of hard work. That’s why those at the top of their class will still merit a look from the most selective employers, because the employers know what it takes to get there.

I’ve always taken a laissez-faire approach with prospective law students. I’ll be honest about the risks and pitfalls of a legal career and then support the student’s decision to attend law school notwithstanding my warnings. I’m now rethinking my approach. Should I recommend a student who has not shown the academic ability to finish in the top five percent of his or her law school class?

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  • http://www.trudalane.net David Randall

    Too many people do go to law school by default. They believe they need a professional degree, don’t have the science courses/grades/inclination to undertake medical, dental school, or veterinary school, and aren’t interested in accounting. What’s left? Many people also fall into the U.S. News rankings trap, believing that going to a school ranked 45th materially improves their job prospects over a school ranked 65th. When you remove the very top-ranked schools from the equation–and Kirsten Wolf went to BU Law, which generally ranks in the top 25–it is more important to graduate at the top of your class. Ample anecdotal experience suggests that a student finishing in the top 5% of her class at the 65th-ranked school will have better job options than one finishing in the top 25% of her class at the 45th-ranked school.

  • Marie

    I interned at EAPD law firm in Boston during the summer of my sophomore year. I was so excited to be working there regardless of how tedious my tasks may have been. However, when I would tell a lawyer that I too wanted to be a lawyer, each one would say to me, “No you don’t, go into business.” It made me so livid. How could a lawyer, someone who may not have known what he or she wanted to do, maybe did not show great academic ability, discourage another from wanting to follow the same path. Sure, law school is not for everyone, but why distinguish another’s flame? And should they not be hired by one of the top law firms or even pratice law, I still believe having a law degree can never hurt (that is, if it did not cost so much).

  • Alex

    I think she is mainly discussing Big Law. Not everyone is trying to get into Big Law. And it sounds like she was not very sure why she was getting a law degree or what she wanted to practice. I think that if you enter any profession and do not know why you are entering it..you will face massive debts. Opening a business for the sake of it, going to med school when you really just wanted to be a nurse, or as Wolf says about “going to law school as a default”