As a new class of future lawyers heads to law school, they do so in the face of statistics that question whether it’s a smart financial move. Despite a recent controversial study that estimates the lifetime payoff for a law degree at $1 million, critics say the reality is more grim.
The average student who earns a Juris Doctor from a public law school graduates with nearly $76,000 in debt, reports the American Bar Association. At private schools, that figure rises to $125,000. With only one full-time, long-term, J.D.-required law job available for every two graduates, there’s an equally perilous scarcity of work.
Perhaps the biggest problem students face is figuring out whether their gamble will pay off. Since debt, employment and payoff numbers are national averages, they say little about future prospects for an individual student or whether the law profession is right for you. Before turning the tassel, it’s crucial to look at where the jobs are, who’s in debt and what you can do to stay in the black. Here are seven metrics for figuring out if law school will be worth it.
“For the group of very select law schools at the top, the employment prospects are terrific,” says Steven Harper, a former attorney and author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis.” “Life can look awfully good, and it will be awfully good for the vast, vast majority of those people, but that’s maybe 10 percent out of 200 law schools.”
There’s a sharp discrepancy in job prospects between first- and lower-tier schools. When comparing U.S. News and World Report’s top 20 law schools with institutions that landed in the 126-to-146 ranking range, students attending upper-echelon institutions were nearly twice as likely to hold full-time, long-term law jobs as their lower-tier counterparts. Students attending lower-tier schools were also about 2.5 times more likely to be underemployed.
The Ivy League isn’t the only ticket to a post-graduate job, says Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, an organization that helps students with the decision to attend law school, and provides employment and underemployment data on law institutions nationwide. Schools with a solid local reputation and strong ties to the community can be just as effective at finding work in that area.
Regardless where you attend, your performance will be a factor for future employers. A study published last year in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies shows that grades are “the most important predictor of career success,” even more so than your school’s reputation. The study, authored by law professors at UCLA and the University of Arizona, states that “… it is well known that judges care greatly about grades in choosing their clerks, professors care about grades in choosing their research assistants, and many employers insist on good grades in choosing new hires.”
Harper says that students who can stay above the bottom 25th percentile in GPA have the best shot at landing a job that pays enough to repay student loans.
“You have to be really honest and realistic with yourself about ‘how well am I going to stack up against my peers?'” he says. “You have a very hard time convincing anybody, I think, who’s entering law school that they’ll ever wind up below the median, much less below the 25th percentile in anything, whether it’s practicing law or something else, but guess what? That’s just mathematics. There’s an honest self-reflection that has to happen.”
Some legal fields are hotter than others, which may explain why schools like New York University are changing their curricula to focus more on specializations. A study by Robert Half Legal of 200 attorneys in hiring positions revealed that litigation, business, commercial and health care law are expected to offer the greatest number of jobs.
Leslie Levin, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut School of Law, says that students can increase their marketability by having a clear idea of the law field they’d like to practice and by taking relevant courses and pursuing externship opportunities.
“Focusing on an area in which the student would like to practice and then positioning him or herself as somebody (who) is knowledgeable in that area will increase their employability,” she says. “So, for example, if somebody gets a tax certificate, they are going to be more appealing if they want to go to a firm or the government and practice tax than somebody else.”
Summer associate gigs help, too. More than 90 percent of law students who held summer associate positions in 2012 were offered entry-level positions after graduation, reports the National Association for Law Placement.
“(Students) should think foremost on why they want to be a lawyer,” says Andrew J. McClurg, author of “1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School.” “If their only reason was to make a whole lot of money, that was never a good reason, even when the economy was great.”
Many students have unrealistic expectations about post-law school life and few have a clear picture of the daily lives of practicing attorneys, says Levin. Some don’t know that they may not use their J.D. A survey by the NALP shows that 1 in 5 2012 graduates worked in a nonlegal profession or held jobs where a degree might have been an advantage or requirement, but passage of the bar was not required.
The best way to understand what attorneys do is by observing them first-hand, she says.
“Even in college, people often will get part-time jobs in law firms. They can volunteer for organizations where lawyers are working and doing public interest work. They should talk to lawyers; if they know lawyers, they can shadow lawyers,” she says. “The one thing they shouldn’t do is assume that what they are seeing is the entire range of what lawyers do.”
Getting into a good school and acing your classes is only half the battle. The law grads who are getting jobs are the ones who have spent time hobnobbing with future employers, says McClurg.
“Joining student organizations and going to bar functions and putting yourself out there and making connections, other than your academic record, that’s really one of the only things you can do” to increase your marketability, he says.
That also means remembering that you may not be able to get a job in your first choice of legal field, says Blair Gould, a third-year law student at Wayne State University who’s primarily interested in corporate and real estate law but is also gaining litigation experience.
“People need to continuously be diversifying their legal skill set,” he says. “Take advantage of any kind of connections you can make and join any civic or social organization you can because all of those things will come into play eventually. You never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
Nearly 9 out of 10 third-year law students advise those considering law school to consider an institution’s financial aid package before enrolling, reports Kaplan. That’s because how much you borrow will largely determine where you work after graduation.
Median starting salaries at law firms clock in at $90,000 per year — a 28 percent drop since 2008 — but not every lawyer is bringing home the big bucks. Median salaries at public interest organizations hovered at $44,600 annually, while judicial clerks and government employees earned $52,000. That’s barely enough to cover the $558 monthly student loan payments public law students face if they borrow the average $76,000 in loans at an 8 percent interest rate over a 30-year period. On the flip side, the median salary at large firms is $160,000.
The good news is that more than 100 law schools offer loan assistance and forgiveness incentives, reports Equal Justice Works, and public interest workers may be eligible for accelerated federal loan forgiveness. Scholarships also abound, but read the fine print, warns McEntee.
“Oftentimes scholarships come with stipulations, and stipulations are difficulties,” he says.
If working in the legal profession is what you want to do for all the right reasons, debt and employability statistics shouldn’t derail you, but they should be a consideration, says Levin. To keep financial figures in check, Levin recommends that students consider lower-cost state schools or attend law school part time. They should also do some serious research to ensure they understand what attorneys do, the variety of contexts in which they work and whether they would be a good match for the legal profession.
“If (being an attorney) is really what makes you happy, it may take longer to pay off the debt, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it,” she says. “(Whether law school pays off) really depends on what you hope to get out of your law degree and what you want to do with your life.”