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Five Big Reasons to Skip Law School

Vivia Chen

June 17, 2012

 Surprised peo© Jacob WackerhausenI know that regular readers of The Careerist are sophisticated about the pitfalls of going to law school—particularly those institutions with pitiful rankings (to me, that means schools below the fiftieth rank). But if you have friends or relatives who still think law school is the cat's meow (how many times have you heard, "Oh, there are so many things you can do with a law degree!"), won't you be a pal and pass this on?

SmartMoney gives us a neat little synopsis of what law schools don't tell prospective students.  Though the article covers ten issues, let's keep it simple and focus on the top reasons why law school might be a lousy investment.

1. Do the math: Too many law grads, not enough jobs. "This year, around 45,000 students are graduating law school," but "there are only about 28,000 positions for lawyers that are available." And though NALP reports that about 88 percent of 2010 law grads got jobs by February 2011, "almost a third of the graduates known to be employed were not working in a legal position that required passing the bar exam."

2. You won't make that much once you graduate (assuming you get a law job). I know you're dazzled by those six-figure starting salaries at Big Law. But unless you're going to a top law school (or a decent regional school where you are top of the class), you won't be making anything in that range. "Nearly half of 2010 graduates made between $40,000 and $65,000." And yes, there are plenty of jobs that pay even less.

3. But you will pay through the nose for the tuition. "The slowdown in jobs and salaries hasn't stopped law schools from raising their fees. . . . The cost of attending a private university averaged $39,184 for the academic year that ended this May." 

4. You (and maybe your parents) will be in debt for a long time.  "The projected average debt owed by law school students is now roughly $91,100, up 14 percent from four years ago." (Law School Transparency projects that the figure will be over $200,000 for the class of 2015.) Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, tells SmartMoney "that parents often end up footing some of the bill. In fact, some law schools ask applicants as old as 30 to submit their parents' financial statements in addition to their own." 

5. You won't have much recourse when you find yourself jobless. "Since 2011, a total of 15 lawsuits have been filed against law schools, including New York Law School, DePaul University College of Law, and Thomas M. Cooley Law School" for publishing misleading placement numbers. But winning won't be easy: In March, New York state court dismissed a lawsuit by former students against New York Law School.

To me, these are pretty compelling reasons why you might want to think twice about going to that seventy-eighth-ranked law school, or (if your heart isn't really into law) even that twenty-fifth- ranked one. But some commentators, like Paul Campos, the blogger behind Inside the Law School Scam and a perpetual thorn to the law school establishment, think that folks will ignore the truth and go to law school anyway. As Above the Law's Elie Mystal has said, people go to lowly-ranked law schools because they think they are "God's special little snowflake" and will beat the odds.

Unfortunately, I don't think it really matters how many times we warn aspiring law students about these risks. They'll believe what they want to believe.


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I went to Texas Tech, one of those decent regional schools with a fairly low national ranking but which has made the top ten best value lists. By living extremely cheaply in law school I was able to pay off my law school loans in my first year of legal employement even though I only made 85k that year. 3 years out I make 6 figures at the same medium sized firm and have no debt other than my mortgage. Law school turned out to be a great investment for me, but then again I was also in the top third of my class and didn't take out more debt than was necessary (ful tuition was also only about 12k at the time)

Prior to law school I made 30k a year and 6 years later I have my investment paid off and make a low six figure salary with the ability to make much more in the future. I didn't have any desire to go to a top 50 school and it worked out for me but I also know it doesn't work out for a lot of folks so well (even those who do choose to go to top 50 schools).

These reasons are partly why some students are suing their law schools and why the law school sector are facing serious questions. The law school lawsuits are going to tremendous in the impact they are going to have on society and how the actual process of legal education works.

I was recently asked for my thoughts regarding a friend's client's son. That son had graduated in 2009, mid-class from a poorly ranked regional law school. He has never had a paying legal job. The only thing I could suggest is that he stop caring about being a lawyer. There are careers where a mere law degree gets one a leg up, but law has never been one of them.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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