Pros and Cons When Deciding Whether to go to Law School - Enhanced Earning Capacity vs. Crippling Student Loan Debt.
Dad get me out of this!
Law School - A Worthwhile Investment?
I'm a 30-year old recent law school graduate who practices law at a small-sized firm, and I'm currently paying off massive student loan debt which I borrowed to pay for my legal education. As a result, I feel I can offer some insight as to how I feel about my decision to attend law school in retrospect with the assistance of 20-20 hingsight. In particular, I will look into some factors which I know to be important now, but did not take into consideration at the time I was applying to law schools.
College graduates considering whether to go to law school face a daunting decision, but seldom do they realize it at the time. In order to fully appreciate the profound long-term ramifications of attending law school, prospective law students should be fully aware of the realities that they will face upon graduating from law school. While the law school application process has always been highly competitive, in recent years a record number of college graduates have been applying for admission at law schools. Due to the dire state of the economy, there is an unprecedented level of competition compared to earlier years, as college graduates find it exceedingly difficult to find employment. This has caused the number of applications to spike, and there are far more applicants today for the limited number of spots available at law schools than in years past. Responding to this spike in demand, across the nation many law schools have increased the size of their incoming classes, but not at a rate that accommodates the increased demand.
Preface - I'm Not Trying to Scare You Away From Attending Law School
In the paragraphs that follow, I do not mention the difficult job market facing new attorneys or the scarcity of high-paying "BigLaw" jobs for the purpose of scaring away college graduates from attending law school. If you are looking for a more depressing "doom and gloom" narrative as to the perils facing law school graduates seeking a big pay-day (or even getting a job in the first place), I refer to you to the blog posts of Elie Mystal at "Above The Law". I do not share this "doom and gloom" perspective.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, in retrospect and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I am now acutely aware of certain consequences of my decision to enter the legal profession. I made certain assumptions when I decided to attend law school which I imagine are shared by most law school applicants. Assumptions along the lines of "lawyers earn a lot of money", "I'll be able to buy a big house and raise my future family in it, which will of course be located in a great school district", "becoming an attorney is a sure-fire way to secure gainful employment", etc. (on the latter assumption I must add the qualification that this was a safe assumption for me because I practice law with my father, who always wanted one of his children to practice law with him). Once again, I am not trying to deter potential law students from pursuing a J.D.; however, due to the rosy disposition that is endemic among applicants, it is inevitable that this article may come across as negative. So, my intent in writing this was not that it serve as a deterrent, but instead that it might assist would-be law students in becoming "well-informed purchasers" before they make this important decision.
What Will My Job Prospects Be When I Graduate and Pass the Bar Exam?
While increased demand has induced many law schools to increase the number of spots available for their incoming classes, these schools have not done so to make the lives of applicants easier. Quite the contrary, law schools are "cash cows" for universities. I describe law schools as "cash cows" because (using easy numbers here), if the tuition at the average private law school is in the area of $35,000.00 per year, over the course of three years the law school (and hence the university) will rake in an additional $100K in revenue over a 3-year period for each additional full-time student who is not on scholarship. I'm rounding off and using easy numbers here, of course, but the incentive for law schools to increase class size is as clear as a bell: for each additional 10 students admitted, the law school (and university) stands to rake in around a cool $1,000,000.00 (one million dollars) in revenue over a three-year period.
I mention the nationwide trend of law schools increasing their class size as a segue to one of the primary considerations law school applicants should be aware of. Specifically, while law schools may be taking on additional students and raking in the dough by doing so, it would be generous to describe the job market for current law school graduates as "stagnant" compared to previous decades (in fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, "stagnant" would be a very generous description). The truth is that the legal profession is definitely not immune from the economic downturn of the past few years. But this hasn't stopped law schools from increasing enrollment and consequently pumping out more and more graduates into an already-depressed job market.
Now that I've outlined some of the difficulties you will face upon graduating law school, I will put the "good and gloom" aside for a moment. The depressed job market is hitting virtually every sector of the American economy, not just lawyers. In fact, while it is unquestionably true that the legal profession has also been hit hard by the economic downturn, it is a safe bet that it is currently significantly easier for a law school graduate to find gainful employment than it is for college graduates who don't have a J.D., and the prospects for a higher starting salary are likewise significantly higher (that is, of course, once you actually find a job).
Ironically, the possible "double-dip recession" can itself serve as a factor that makes attending law school attractive right now for college graduates. When considering the alternative of sitting on your hands, unemployed or applying for jobs which don't even require the college degree you just earned, attending law school and working towards an enhanced earning capacity doesn't sound so bad, does it? In addition (and I sincerely hope that this is the case), 3 years from now you may find that you've graduated at a time when the economy has substantially recovered from its current sad state of affairs.
Will I Get a "BigLaw" Job and Rake in Over $100K the First Year After I Graudate Law School?
For most law students, this is highly unlikely. Of course, everyone who attends law school is "smart" in a sense when compared to the world at large (at least from the perspective of imagining what the scores would look like if every United States citizen over the age of 21 were to take the LSAT exam, and what percentile law school students would land in). The reality is that only a small percentage of the graduates of any law school are going to find a "BigLaw" job that pays you money hand over fist right after you graduate. For law students like me who finished ranked around the middle of their graduating class at an average school (according to US News & World Report), this is simply not going to happen. This is the case for the vast majority of law students.
The Law School's Website Makes it Seem Like I'll Be On a Gravy Train With Biscuit Wheels When I Graduate, Is This Data Reliable?
In a word, NO!
As mentioned towards the beginning of this article, despite the scarcity of top-end "BigLaw" jobs and the often-crippling student loan debt faced by graduates, demand for a legal education is still at an all-time high. Furthermore, these cold, hard realities, have not deterred a record number of college graduates from applying to law school. I've read various different blogs and articles which attempt to explain this phenomenon, and some blame it on deceptive marketing by law schools. In that regard, I know that the website for my alma mater is certainly fudging the numbers big-time when it states the percentage of it's alumni who are employed after graduation, or that the average graduate's annual salary one year after graduation is something absurd like $85,000.00 a year. I know this is not the case, as does every recent graduate from every law school when looking at these misleading numbers who - by sheer force of having common sense and speaking with fellow graduates - are aware that arriving at these numbers required cooking the books in a manner which would make ENRON executives proud.
By no means am I saying a law school degree won't enhance your earning capacity compared to the job prospects available to you if you were to attempt to enter the work-force right after college (it often multiplies it a few times over), but I am saying that if you are going to look at materials produced by law schools at all, take any information you find in those materials with a grain of salt. Actually, you'd better buy a huge bag of salt to digest those numbers with. They're just entirely unreliable, period.
My Salary When I'm Practicing Law Will Make Paying Off My Student Loans Easy, Right?
Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that you won't struggle mightily in paying off your student loans from law school. Before and during law school, I never thought about it. The numbers simply weren't real to me at the time (I just couldn't comprehend what $140,000.00 in debt meant to my future self, after all at the time it was years away from being real). As they say, "you gotta spend money to make money", and that is especially so if you want to make your money as an attorney. Repaying the Federal portion of your student loans taken out for law school will generally be a bit more manageable in terms of the size of your monthly payments, but when combined with the monthly amount owed on the private portion of your student loans, you will be lucky if the total number is anything below $800.00 per month.
I am currently about 4 years into paying off my crippling student loans, and I do so at a rate of $1,050.00 (one thousand and fifty dollars per month). Only a certain percentage of the interest paid on the Federal portion of my loans is tax-deductible, so in reality it's almost all post-tax to boot. It has been a tremendous challenge to manage my family budget while paying off these loans (I have 3 kids and my wife is a mother by day / law school by night), but we get by. The relevance of my "getting by" to the spirit of this article is that I certainly didn't imagine myself practicing law and making a pretty nice salary only to get by. On the other hand, I do know that in another 8 or so years, when my massive monthly student loan payments are a thing of the past, almost as if by magic I will have an additional $1K per month for my family budget. For most attorneys (myself included), you will see a substantial increase in your salary over the years as you pay your loan off.
In summary, I simply didn't know exactly what I was getting into when I decided to attend law school. I was hit hardest by the realities of paying off my crippling student loans. However, I love my job and I love practicing law. As a Poli Sci major in college, I also didn't exactly have any obvious career paths available to me. The real "pay-off" for my decision will be when my loans are paid off. In the meantime, it will be a struggle financially and "them's be the breaks". But I'm happy and I do see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel (i.e., years down the line when my decision will finally pay off from a financial perspective).
I hoped this article offers prospective law students some insight as to the real world factors you should consider when making this big decision.