A Reality Check for Law School Students

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 11.40.36 AMLaw school represents a significant commitment of time and money. For decades, the perceived benefits have outweighed the costs, but in the second decade of the 21st century, the answer to the question “should I go to law school” is less clear.

Not so long ago, law school was the career of choice for a large number of liberal arts grads. The field favored those with strong critical thinking skills, and acquiring legal skills was deemed an advantage for any graduate—regardless of whether the law student ever intended to become a lawyer.

But rising costs, sky-rocketing debt, a changing legal field, and continued economic challenges, have changed the ROI equation.

For students with top grades, excellent LSAT scores, and a passion for becoming a lawyer, going to law school can still be an great choice. These are likely the students who will go to top twenty schools, or be awarded full merit scholarships. But, without the guarantee of a highly-paid law job at the end of three years of law school, most prospective law students need to carefully weigh whether the investment is worthwhile.

Reality check #1: How much debt will you have?

Borrowing for law school was high, but relatively stable, for many years. In 2004, according to a recent New America Policy Brief , the typical indebted law student owed $88,634 at graduation (expressed in 2012 dollars). But, thanks to a 2006 federal government decision that now allows borrowing up to the full amount of attendance, the median debt load of law students in 2012 soared to over $140,000—a 58% increase.

Reality check #2: How much do you have to earn, to be able to afford a median debt of $140,616?

Most students will expect pay off their debt over 15 years. Using the median debt, that means a payment of $1,248 a month, according to calculators on the website FinAid.org. FinAid! estimates you will need a salary of almost $150,000 a year to afford this level of monthly payment. Depending on your loan, there may be “extended” or “graduated” repayment options, but for many this feels like getting a mortgage without building equity.

Reality check #3: How likely is it that you will get a job paying more than $150K?

Nine metro markets have mean wages for lawyers above $150,000; the highest—in Silicon Valley—has a mean salary of $192,000, according to the American Bar Association Journal. In fact, six of the nine most lucrative legal markets are in California, which also doubles as one of the most expensive places to live. To even come close to the $150K salary, most graduates will need to find a job in large law firms, so-called “biglaw”—those employing over 100 lawyers in major metropolitan areas. An excellent article on “biglaw”, and its culture can be found at Top-Law-Schools.com.

Reality check #4: Can you find a job in “biglaw” from any law school?

If you are in the top 10% of your class, on Law Review at any good law school, and geographically mobile, you may have an excellent chance of finding a well-paid position as an associate in a large law firm. Your chances increase substantially if you can bring business to a firm, or if you have additional experience prior to law school that is of interest to the firm. But, the lower the ranking of the law school, the more likely your job will pay under 100K. Lower pay is also likely if you accept a job where a law degree may be an advantage, but which does not require you to pass the Bar.

If a law school has a US News ranking over 50 for example, you may find that fewer than 20% of the graduates are employed full-time in law firms with over 100 lawyers within 9 months of graduation. American Bar Association rules nowe require disclosure of career outcomes on law school websites, so search the school’s site under terms “employment statistics” or “required ABA disclosures”.

Another excellent source of comparative information can be found at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. On this site, you can not only compare the career outcomes and rankings of different law schools, you can also check the Above the Law rankings, which compare schools solely based on the number of graduates employed full-time, long term, in positions requiring Bar passage. Above the Law excludes School-funded positions–an increasingly popular way for law schools to help students find employment (usually for up to a year) while simultaneously increasing their standing in US News rankings.

The decision whether to go to law school is very different for the student without debt than it is for someone who will be paying back large loans for over a decade. Similarly, a student who intends to pursue a legal career in public service and apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program may view law school as an excellent investment.

Regardless of individual circumstances, all prospective law students owe it to themselves to do due diligence and research before signing on the dotted line of a loan agreement. Given current debt to potential income ratios, your future may depend on it.

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