Making the Right Decision about Law School

Most recent graduates know someone in, newly graduated from or getting ready to head to law school. While law professions have long been attractive to grads with a bachelor’s degree and a lot of drive, it seems as though the law school enrollment and graduation numbers have spiked of late. From small art colleges to major universities, students with BAs are looking to law as a lifelong profession.
But is this a good thing for those just beginning to think about getting their law degrees? What kind of debt are most applicants looking at? Is it a waste of education if you can’t get into the right school? What’s the job market like? Simply put – is the U.S. already over-saturated with young would-be lawyers in mountains of debt?
The questions can stack up and get overwhelming, but tackled one at a time, you’ll get a full and clear picture of what advantages law school can offer you – or the definitive reasons to cross it off your list. So relax and read on.
What’s the debt situation like?
US News and World Report notes that a good rule of thumb for those heading to higher education is not to get yourself in more educational debt than your potential first-year salary. For instance, the source says, $120,000 of debt for a $60,000-a-year job is going to lead to serious trouble down the line.
Since $60,000 is a good entry level salary for the average law graduate in the current economic climate, applicants should use it as a metric for gauging the kind of debt they’re willing to get into. Educational debt is an investment, after all, and you don’t want to make a bad call.
How much does name recognition matter with law schools?
Prestige is easy to gauge. After all, most of the world has heard of Harvard. However, its effects on your post-law degree career are much harder to anticipate. Rather than the school’s name recognition, consider finding a program with teachers you respect or who can make excellent contacts post-graduation.
US News and World Report spoke with law professor Paul Campos, J.D., with the University of Colorado, about how much school prestige matters. His advice was that each individual candidate make his or her own calculation. Measure how much a school’s prestige weighs into what you want to do and how much it will cost you to go there. A full ride is hard to turn down after all, and heading to that less-renown school could still provide you the contacts and education you need to advance.
What’s the job market like?
Time notes that in 2007, a robust 91.2 percent of law school graduates found jobs – salaries were high, practice was good. Then the economic meltdown hit in 2008. By 2009, only 65.4 percent of law school graduates were moving on to employment that required bar certification.
Being a lawyer has not been easy recently. As Time goes on to expound, many lawyers – especially the young ones new to the job market – are stuck at tedious jobs: document-heavy contract work that can pay as low as $25 an hour. While this is a great wage by some estimates, the law degree earned to make that salary carried price tags sometimes as high as $150,000.
Many law schools are doing their part to help out fledgling lawyers fresh out of class with their degrees. The New York Times reports that Arizona State University is planning to open a nonprofit law firm that will keep 30 recently graduated lawyers on staff. Meanwhile, Time notes that other law schools are offering public interest fellowships or going the extra mile to train those new graduates hoping to open solo practices.
But what’s the long-term prognosis for law? Will things get better?
Time says that there are two dominant views currently among those in the profession. According to one, the poor job market is temporary, similar to other recessions, and the industry will roar back to life once the economy does the same. There’s been a slight uptick already in law jobs to support this.
However, another view believes that the current market is indicative of a larger trend that won’t be overcome. The globalization of law means that it’s easier than ever to outsource legal assignments for cheap. In fact, even technology is displacing some workers when it comes to document reviewing.
Only time will tell, but with the right outlook and a willingness to work hard even through the worst economic climates, many would-be lawyers can make the dream come true.