Applying to Law School? Please Reconsider!

Bubble burst

Think you want to apply to law school? It might be time to rethink your application decision. While law school admissions are at an all-time high, law jobs are disappearing. Maybe forever.

Signs of a law school application bubble

The concurrent trends of increasing legal education cost, decreasing legal employment, and strong debt insulation are setting the law school market up for a crash.

Sam recently published an article on MinnPost titled, “The Law School Bubble is About to Burst.” In that post, Sam makes the case that law school admissions may be experiencing an irrational exuberance that can only lead to collapse.

Cost of legal education is rising uncontrollably

According the ABA, the cost of law schools has been increasing consistently by about 6% per year for the past two decades. Student debt loads have been increasing at similar levels, with average private law school graduates owing over $90,000. Neither inflation, nor average legal salaries have been increasing at anywhere near this rate.

Law firm jobs are disappearing permanently

It is no secret that the legal employment market is in the midst of a crisis. What is less talked about is that the current economic crisis has revealed, but not caused, some major trends in legal employment.

As Sam points out:

“Even before the recession began, going to law school was a dicey proposition. Although law schools trumpet average or median starting salaries of about $80,000, most lawyers make between about $40,000 and $60,000, according to the National Association of Legal Professionals, and have for many years. Only a few lawyers get those gravy-train, six-figure salaries…[D]espite the 90-percent-plus employment figures touted by most law schools, most graduates will not get jobs as lawyers in law firms…

“There are high-paying jobs for — maybe — the top 1 percent of law school graduates. And the rest? Many will pick up low-paying temp work doing document review. Many others will never practice law. Those who remain will have to evolve.”

The moral hazard of law student debt-financing

The concept of moral hazard holds that people often make poor decisions when they are insulated from the risks associated with their actions. In the case of law schools, our current student loan system—which can often extend the cost of law schools out over 20 or 30 years of payment—insulates prospective law students from a real understanding of the enormous, life-long financial risks their education’s costs place on them. For instance, I still have trouble wrapping my head around the quarter-million-dollars in student loan debt that my wife and I had after we graduated (and from public law school at that!)

The moral hazard problem is not only applicable to prospective students. Because long-term student loans finance such a huge portion of law schools’ budgets, deans and faculty have almost zero incentive to reign in the cost of legal education or to provide more value for the tuition dollar. Just think how quickly law schools would change their staffing, teaching, and community involvement if they had to personally collect loan payments from their alumni for 20 years.

Do you need to join the legal profession?

The law is still an honorable profession. Attorneys have a unique role in supporting justice, improving our civil society, and maintaining the rule of law. There will always be some need for talented legal professionals. There will always be opportunities for innovators—whether at big firms or as solo practitioners. At the moment, however, there are too many licensed attorneys for the demand of their services.

Even in the midst of a law school bubble, the legal profession is still the right choice for the handful of people who truly belong in the profession.

To those prospective law students applying to law schools as a fallback in a bad economy, or because you want three more years to figure out what to do with your life: please save yourself time, money, and a huge amount of stress; do not apply to law school.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/circulating/2533948028/)

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  • http://newwaylaw.wordpress.com Andy Mergendahl

    Despite my debt and fears about my family’s financial future, I am (as of this minute at least) glad I went to law school, because I enjoy doing the work. But I think many law students are in school for very different reasons, and wind up miserable, even if they do find work. I agree with Sam in that we are going to see a “lost generation” of lawyers who marched, with the encouragement of law schools, right off a cliff. Any law school faculty member with a conscience cannot be sleeping well these days, particularly in Minnesota.

  • http://www.neulawpc.com Towle Neu

    When I was in law school at the University of Iowa, I asked the Asst. Dean (now the Dean), what are some of the primarily factors that influence how many law students the school accepts every year? I had assumed – or hoped – that she would tell me that the job market played some, albeit minor, role in this decision. I was so very young and naive. Her response? “The size of our building.” (I understand this is not unique to law school; most, if not all, grad schools function in this manner.) I suppose the idea is that the market will ultimately regulate the number of people who apply to law school, but during transitionary times like the one Aaron and Sam write about, there is always a lag time before the market will impact admissions. And with that lag time there come new law school grads who suddenly need to find new careers – and a way to pay off the debt of their previous “career”.

  • Mike D

    It’s a well written post, but I think you need to take a broader view. There are no law jobs? There are no jobs anywhere, and students hardly have a choice.

    When we graduate high school we are told we have to go to college because the job market for high school graduates is pitiful. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing by the boatload. So we go to college, oops! thanks to federal subsidies everyone else is too. So when we graduate, our 4-year degrees are barely worth the paper they’re printed on. So we’re pushed into graduate school. MBA? Riskier than law. Medicine? Screwed if we didn’t take pre-med. Social sciences? A joke. So what else are people to do? Law school! There are over 220 law schools, and admissions are a breeze for the bottom hundred or so.

    Bottom line, students will go to law school because they have no where else to go. Something has to give. We have to stop these “everybody should” policies. Everybody should go to college… everybody should have a house… everybody should have health care. That, combined with printing money to pay for it, jacks up prices and creates bubbles. Our economy needs a MAJOR structural change, and popping the law bubble is only the tip of the iceberg.

  • Ron Tough

    I passed the bar after graduating a T2 school in 2003 so I’ve been practicing for a little over 6 years now. I graduated with about $177k in law school (and undergraduate) debt. My first job, which I was lucky to have, paid $35k a year. I made $45k the following year, the $55k, then $65k, then about $70k for 06-09. I bill about (and collect) about $225-$250k a year for my firm but I can’t get them to pay me anymore. I would like to earn more but I don’t know where else to go and my own firm has financial problems so they’re not going to give raises (or bonuses). My boss said his own compensation is down 30% from last year and even more from 2007.

    In the ensuing time, I married a wonderful woman with a law degree. She’s about 5 years out and she has a non-traditional legal position reviewing and drafting contracts for a hospital. It’s not a counsel position but it pays about $54k a year and has great benefits. She spends about 5-10 hours a week on the side working for my busy firm as a contract attorney paying about $37.00 an hour for an extra $12k a year or so gross.

    Over the last five years I’ve managed to pay off about $55k in student loans, $10k in car loans and $2k in credit card debt. I feel grateful that I have paid off a chunk of my debt but the prospect of repaying an additional $122k in student loans is daunting.

    I rent a 2 bed / 1 bath vintage apt in a large midwestern city. My wife and I use one used car. We make most of our own food, including lunches. I eat lunch downtown maybe once a month. I live very frugally. I of course could be cheaper but that would mean eating more rice and beans and putting off other reasonable and necessary purchases. I don’t have cable television and our home computers are between 5 and 10 years old.

    Furthermore, the jobs I have are stressful and require between 50 to 60 hours per week, every week, with no more than 2 weeks vacation. I have court everyday, sometimes 4 or more times a day and I meet with a dozen new clients a week. I also am required to handle everyone’s court appearances because the firm doesn’t want to hire any new attorneys.

    The firm I work at has 5 partners and 8 or 9 associates and 2 of counsel attorneys. Every firm I’ve ever worked at has a tense feeling and there’s always a partner going through a bitter bitter divorce. Many of them have drinking problems. Currently we have a partner with both a drinking problem and a divorce which is threatening his ability to keep our firm’s largest client happy. This directly effects me in that the client (Who is insane) could call us up and fire the firm on a moments notice, removing a $1,000,000 in revenue a year from the firm…and my job. If we lost that client I wouldn’t bother coming into the office the next day.

    I have little prospects of becoming partner, and even if I could, I don’t think I would want to. The partners are middle aged, stodgy, alcoholic, racist, and a host of other terrible white man attributes. I look at them and I think, Wow, I don’t want to be in their shoes, even if they are pulling down in the mid-$200′s a year. Which by the way, comes from the sweat off my back.

    In conclusion, this has been my lawyer experience. Not the greatest but still better than some people’s lot in life. I’m happy I have a legal job, I made a decent salary and I don’t have to work more than 11 or 12 hour days, 5 days a week. I generate enough revenue to keep the partners happy, I have a lot of freedom, and, I’ve paid off over a third of my debt in about 6 years time (actually about 4 years because those first two years were rough making less than $50k a year with $177k in law school debt).

    The other saving grace is that my minimum monthly loan payment has reduced significantly because of the reduction in interest rates and paying off my loans. My total monthly was $1,100 in October 2004 to about $545 today. Yet, even with those reductions, I still pay anywhere between $1,800 to $2,100 per month (plus tax refunds and any bonuses) to my student loans. I’ve held off doing so the last few months b/c I need to ‘keep my powder dry’ if my firm loses this client due to my bosses’ alcoholism and and general inability to focus on work, but that still doesn’t change the fact that I’m putting aside the same amount of money, just in case.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

    I think we all can agree that the law can be a wonderful profession, that the legal market is entirely broken in its current condition, and that many prospective law students would make a better choice by not going to law school.

    • Betsey

      I take the LSAT in two days. Going to law school would lead to my second career, after graduating in 2006 with a Public Relations degree and realizing that I absolutely hated the job. I’m not looking to get myself into another career I am going to hate and the ONLY chatter I am finding on the Internet is DO NOT GO TO LAW SCHOOL. Well, okay then… what are some other alternatives?

      You say to reconsider going to law school because I will graduate with a ton in student loans and then have a hard time getting a job, and an even harder time getting a well paying job. With the exception of the student loans, that’s EXACTLY where I am right now — I can’t find a job, much less a well paying one. So, why not add on more education that could lead to more job opportunities?

      It’s easy to blame the economy, but doesn’t there have to be some understanding that the difficulties faced by recent law school graduates are also being faced by every other job seeker?

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        How will it improve your position to be exactly where you are now (no job), but with another $100,000 or so of debt?

  • http://www.thelegaldollar.blogspot.com/ The Legal Dollar

    I agree with you completely that law school enrollment is currently in a bubble – and to the great detriment of law students. More on this can be read here:
    http://thelegaldollar.blogspot.com/2009/11/law-school-enrollment-bubble-law.html

    Also, with regard to the maral hazard, encouraging potential law students to go to school right now seems morally questionable, especially from the point of view of the law schools. More here”
    http://thelegaldollar.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-nature-of-evil-encouraging-law.html

  • http://newwaylaw.wordpress.com Andy Mergendahl

    Sorry, Aaron, but I can’t agree, at least in this sense: the legal market is not broken, as markets, if they are in fact free, meaning open, cannot break. They can, however, be manipulated by those with excessive influence until they become closed. The current law licensing system supports and defends a closed legal market. The simplest way to achieve a free and open legal market is to eliminate the law license requirement altogether, and let a free and open market determine who succeeds and who fails at providing quality legal advice at a competitive price. I’d be happy to compete in such a market.

  • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

    @Andy: I agree that the market is not broken, or destined to collapse. Predictions of the collapse of law schools, big law firms, network television, greedy banks, etc., tend to be greatly exaggerated.

    But I don’t see how eliminating a license requirement would help anyone. There are already enough marginally-competent or dishonest lawyers that harm other people. And if there’s anything that’s wrong with the legal markets, it’s that there is no price competition despite the high demand for less expensive lawyers and the high supply of underemployed lawyers. Deregulation would only pave the way for additional fraud, clog the court system with unprepared lawyers, and drive legislators to try to regulate the legal profession. No thanks.

  • kaiser

    Let the bubble burst. Its a necessary process.

  • Realist

    Ha. Andy Mergendahl, you’ve got to be kidding. The market is already oversaturated because the licensing requirements are laughable. And many law schools can scarcely be called so. And many lawyers can scarcely be called so. The licensing that does exist is to attempt in some small part to protect the pulbich from gross incompetence and malpractice. Would you also support a system where anyone can perform plastic surgery with no license and no medical training to speak of?

  • PWD

    While I agree that law school is expensive, the problem with most attorneys is that they go to school and graduate with a false sense that money will just flow like water and that hard work will reap benefits. Well guess what people, while it may happen for some, the world just isn’t fair.

    Every male in my family for 4 generations worked in a coal mine. In fact, I worked a few summers in the mine to help pay for college. I’m glad to be making 60k a year working somewhere that doesn’t require I carry a breathing apparatus. I just get sick of hearing all of you self-entitled “intellectuals” cry that partner X keeps passing you over. Do your job, quit whining, quit being envious of others, and realize that being alive and healthy is a great reward.

  • http://lawyerist.com Randall Ryder

    I wish you had put the last section first. Many people do not think about whether they want to actually practice law or work in the legal profession before applying and attending law school. For some, it is impossible to realize that until they actually attend law school, but not all of them.

    Admittedly, I am an idealist. If you want to go to law school, and really want to practice law, an opportunity will present itself–or you can make an opportunity for yourself. It’s tougher in this economy, but it is still doable, you just need to work hard at it. If you are not willing to work hard, you are in wrong profession.

  • http://newwaylaw.wordpress.com Andy Mergendahl

    @Eric: if the current system doesn’t keep incompetents from practicing law, there are two solutions. Either make it even harder to get a law license, or eliminate the license system and let those who want to give legal advice go ahead and try it. The lack of real price competition is mostly due to the fact that law school costs so much. And the courts are already clogged with unprepared lawyers – they are pro se litigants and defendants.
    @ Realist: (perhaps you could tell us your real name?) your analogy is not instructive. Practicing law is to performing surgery what performing Shakespeare is to balancing your checkbook. Your solution is to close all the law schools that you are/were too brilliant to attend. Sorry, I’ve seen plenty of bad lawyering from U of M graduates too.

  • PWD

    @ Andy – Amen. I love when lawyers compare themselves to surgeons, as if being a lawyer is somehow like performing surgery. What a joke.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

    @Andy:
    I’m entirely perplexed by your argument.

    I said the legal market is broken.

    You said it was impossible for it to be broken, then proceeded to describe one way in which you think it is broken (a reason I disagree with, but a reason nonetheless).

    So are you conceding that the market is broken, or no?

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

    @Andy:
    Additionally, market efficiency theory (which I find lacking), doesn’t hold that a free market can’t be broken in the short term; it holds that in the medium- and long-term a free market will self-correct. (If markets were perfectly efficient in the short-term, crashes could not exist).

    I think we agree that the legal services market is not purely “free”, and I think you would have a hard time arguing that we aren’t in the midst of a “correction” phase. As such, this market (by a theoretically-flawed-definition, or not) is broken.

  • http://newwaylaw.wordpress.com Andy Mergendahl

    @Aaron:
    I’m not an expert on market theory and its terminology. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll agree with you that the market is broken, with “broken” meaning, “failing to provide a setting for supply to efficiently meet demand for the benefit of provider and consumer.” My point is that the legal market isn’t open, and I think it should be. I’ll also agree that the market as it now functions is trying to correct itself, by creating very high unemployment for attorneys. But that won’t fix the real problem, which is the licensing system itself, which exists to serve the interests of lawyers and law schools, and not (as many who benefit from the system claim) consumers. That’s the discussion that interest me.

  • Brad Perri

    I think I agree in part with Andy: I’d like to see the licensing requirements changed, but instead of eliminating them, I would like to see them re-embrace an apprentice-approach as a legitimate way of learning the law. People could see what the practice of law is really like, ideally, without incurring a quarter of a million dollars in debt. Firms would get their cheap labor. I also think part of the problem is the current dominant view of lawyering as a service industry rather than as a profession, but that’s a loooong argument for another day . . .

  • John Schreck

    Being a lawyer is not about the money. It is about being a good lawyer. There is always room at the table for lawyers who make a difference.
    I went into law in 1980 to be a small town lawyer, as were many of my friends (I had been a farrier for some time: a horse-shoer). Unemployment was higher in the early ’80′s then it is now, and the recession was deeper. Turns out their community was a rather closed shop and I did not qualify (I did not graduate high enough in my class), so I tapped my network of contacts outside of our little community. Ended up at Kraft & Hughes, Wall Street, for a few years. Then Prickett Jones, Wilmington, DE. Then I started my own firm representing the men I had met over the years, and I still represent them, their sons and their network of friends. I was having so much fun being a lawyer my bride decided she wanted to go to law school. She is now General Counsel for a public pharmaceutical company and has been general counsel for several other companies….
    There will be lean years and flush years, just as with our clients.
    We will have difficult partners and firm break-ups: been there with every firm and on several occasions I have been appointed by the DE Sup CT to counsel/negotiate/manage the break-up of other DE firms (for one side). Such is practice.
    My two children are completing undergraduate this next term. They both want to work for a few years before the decide if they want to go to law school. Just as their parents did, though for different reasons. They have not debt from undergrad.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      @John:

      My question is: What advice are you giving your college-aged children about how to decide whether law school is the right choice for them?

  • http://www.practicehacker.com practicehacker

    This is fun, isn’t it?
    The law students are defending their decision to matriculate
    The recent graduates are pissed at the dearth of opportunity
    The young lawyers think that it was too hard to get a job
    The older lawyers think it’s too easy to join the profession
    Aaron Street is discussing the efficient markets hypothesis
    Not that any of it will make a difference, but at least we’re talking and thinking about these issues. Who knows? Maybe someday one of us will actually do something about it.

  • http://newwaylaw.wordpress.com Andy Mergendahl

    @practicehacker:
    Bravo! We threw a fat pitch over the plate and you crushed it. I tip my hat to you.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

    @practicehacker:

    On the contrary, I am trying to do something about it.

    I am using my platform (this publication) to speak directly to prospective law students trying to convince some of them to reconsider their decision (I’ve also chatted with a number of law school administrators in the past couple of weeks about this—to less avail).

    I will have some additional practical suggestions for fixing law schools in the coming days.

  • Brad Perri

    The question appears to be whether the current costs of becoming a lawyer (those costs being monetary and personal) are being made known to those seeking to enter the profession and whether the profession itself has any obligation to make sure that those costs _are_ made known. I think the “follow your heart” approach would benefit from some frank disclosure on the part of the profession and the schools themselves as to how the current state of affairs serves the short-term and immediate profit interests of schools and existing members of the profession with little or no regard for the well-being of those seeking entry to the profession. So I don’t think it’s an issue of making it harder or easier to become a lawyer, or justifying one’s decision to become a lawyer, or justifying one’s decision to encourage others to become lawyers as much as it is about assessing the current conditions of entering the profession fairly and accurately so that such decisions are informed decisions.

  • Joetta Lawyer

    I graduated from a top 20 law school in 1996. I got out of school taking a job making $10/hr at the advice of a career services person at the school. His boss decided when she found out that he had made a mistake. I was advised to un-take the job. My ‘successful placement’ was noticeably absent in that year’s annual brag report. That’s right, my law school reported that no one in private practice took a job making less than $32k that year. Funny, I wasn’t the only person I knew in my class making the same amount I was making. We didn’t exist in reporting.

    Moved on to government work making $32k/yr as a lawyer with 2 yrs exp. Got up to $65k/yr with the government then went to a firm. My firm experience mirrored poster Ron Tough’s. I finally left and started my own office, where my income has varied from sub-zero to just short of what I made as an associate. This year, I would’ve done better working at McDonald’s.

    While more noble souls may opine that being a lawyer shouldn’t be about money, there is no doubt I pursued this path because I wanted a way to be self-sufficient, unlike my mother, who had to rely on extended family after divorce. I come from a blue collar background and this was supposed to be a way to improve that situation. It’s been an interesting journey of discovery. In the end I’ve determined that best way to make 6 figures in this field is to have the good luck to be born to a lawyer father with a good book of business to pass on. I now take great pride in how many people I’ve talked out of this career path. It would save a lot of folks a lot of heartache if we lawyers would be more honest about the prospects and realities of this career. If your ego is your main concern, then go ahead, you’ll probably be happy to announce yourself as a lawyer when you walk in the room. If you’d like to be able to support a family, then research to find a career with better prospects. I’d suggest science or pharmacy right now.

  • Bree

    I went to law school without the intention of becoming a lawyer. I don’t regret doing so, but this is the advice I give anyone who is thinking about law school (and the advice I gave prior to the recession, as well):

    Unless going to law school is the only way you can achieve your goals, you shouldn’t go. Period.

  • http://www.policydiary.com/ John Wilson

    Hi Aaron, I think you made some good points. I am a member of your target audience and applied to law school in October of this year. Some of the comments were great, I specifically would like to highlight Mike D’s, “[t]here are over 220 law schools, and admissions are a breeze for the bottom hundred or so.” In looking at rankings and acceptance rates, I would say this is fairly true.

    However prospective students tend to misuse the rankings (not too much of a surprise, I know). Instead of focusing on where they will practice, what interest may suit them, and how much a school will offer them to attend vs. how much they expect to make as a graduate of that school, students tend to go to the higher ranked school regardless of anticipated income or other relevant information. This is a big mistake. Going to a top 20 school in order to work in a small town market or in public interest will probably leave one in debt for a very long time. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but one must do their research and be prepared for that kind of financial situation.

    So while the bottom 100 or so schools are easier to get into, not all are degree mills or barely accredited. Also, good students with good numbers (gpa and/or LSAT) are rarely paying sticker price to attend. For instance, Howard Law is a fourth tier school with a 20-23k sticker price. They’ll frequently offer 20-25k (total) scholarships to students who have a >3.3 and >155 LSAT. In addition, because of its focus on mentoring and shaping minority attorneys, it inhabits a niche market that firms are attracted to when looking for diversity.

    Students graduating in the top 15% of their class can expect to enter big law firms without a problem and earn commensurate salaries. Those graduates not as highly ranked will earn much less, perhaps, 60-90k, but also have the benefit of possessing much less debt and having a strong network and large alumni base willing to assist in job searches.

    In conclusion, I think you and some readers made excellent points. In the end prospective students need to ask themselves harder questions and seek candid answers from law students, practitioners, and schools themselves.

    • BS

      Yeah, there are a ton of (read none) biglaw associates from Howard and those who don’t graduate in the top 15% make “only” $60k-$90K. I can’t believe AARON let this post stay given it is obviously a deceitful plug for your school.

  • law is 4 losers

    Read my blog bigdebtsmalllaw.wordpress.com. Law is a dead industry- I have many friends who never finished high school earning more per hour than most attorneys. Small firms are getting 300+ resumes for jobs paying 35 K a year.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    @John: Actually, price and financial aid have little to do with ranking. From what I can tell, the most-expensive schools are usually private schools, regardless of rank, but they are also able to put together better financial aid packages.

  • Guy in Gorilla Suit

    “Those graduates not as highly ranked will earn much less, perhaps, 60-90k, but also have the benefit of possessing much less debt and having a strong network and large alumni base willing to assist in job searches.”

    Dear John, with all due respect, you are highly confused. Students from average law schools who do not make it into a large law firm (somewhere between 90 and 99%, depending on the school) can expect to earn $35k-50k, not $60-90k. And far as the alumni network willing to assist, you may find that there’s far less to that rumor than is trumpeted at your career office.

  • AtlantaEsq

    A tragic side effect of this law school bubble will be that many newly minted attorneys lacking any practical experience or training will be forced into solo practice due to barren employment prospects. Many of these “kids” don’t understand the first thing about running a business, marketing themselves (and to this I would ask “How?” when you have no experience), or even how to practice. The antiquated pedagogic structure of law school does little to nothing to prepare one for the real world. To be minimally competent in any field of law would require at least two years of supervision under a seasoned attorney/firm/agency in my humble opinion. Being that entry level associate positions have become virtually extinct and public sector opportunities are as prevalent as the spotted owl, I foresee a darker future for the legal field worse than the present…which I didn’t think was even possible. Hordes of new graduates will be engaging in unethical practice (probably far more unknowingly rather than knowingly), and the overall quality of legal work will steeply decline. Yet law school tuitions will remain artificially high, jobs will be nonexistent, those lucky few that do find jobs the vast majority will be paid no more than your average employed undergraduate, meanwhile the public at large is demanding cheaper and cheaper prices.

    Prospective and current law school students need to take a step back and look at the ROI (that is “return on investment” for all you political science, history, and psychology majors) using CURRENT data before deciding to take out six figures worth of loans to purchase a piece of paper that says Juris Doctor. Because chances are when Sallie Mae comes knocking on your door looking for $1K-2K payment over the next 10-20 years, chances are that J.D. will only be worth the paper it is printed on.

  • Tina Lawyer

    I graduated from law school in 2001, in my mid 30s. It has been incredibly difficult to make a living. From graduation through 2007, I held a succession of jobs as a temp (corporate transactions and legal doc review) and a small-firm associate. The temp jobs paid from $17/hr to $22/hr, I never got any overtime, but I have to say the stress level wasn’t bad other than being broke and knowing the job could end unexpectedly. The law firm associate jobs were very stressful and paid really badly for the hours demanded- 60+ for a) $13,000 in year 1, based on split fee compensation – to b) $40K salary for year 6. Face time with clients was carefully restricted by my law firm employers – they know what it is worth. Mentoring was practically nonexistent, unless you call getting criticized by your boss for not being “intuitive enough” mentoring. Yeah, I swear that was actually said to me in a review.

    I finally got a job that paid $60,000 per year with a relative’s firm. I was there for a year and a half and it was great until he retired and I was laid off. I’m trying to start my own office with the clients I gathered, and the remaining partners there are trying to prevent any of them from following me. It’s been tough, but at least it feels good to be busting my tail for myself for a change. My credit sucks now, and I have my student loans back on deferral. It’s been six months and I haven’t lost my house yet. I may have to start waitressing or something pretty soon though, because I have some clients who are just not paying promptly who always did in the past, and I’m worried.

    Anyone who goes to law school now is crazy in my opinion. I would not do it over again.

  • http://esqnever.blogspot.com Esq. Never

    Good article, Aaron. Too many people have the impression that even if law isn’t their dream profession, it will it at least provide them a stable career as a member of the professional class (no manual labor or cubicle dwelling for them!) The law schools, et. al., of course, do nothing to dissuade anyone of this notion. Sadly, only a limited number of graduates will work in a stable office environment with a decent salary and benefits as attorneys.

    Plenty will work for struggling small firms, barely scrape by as solos, or work for one of the many unscrupulous PI/Bankruptcy/Etc. mills. (If they find legal work at all.)

    Personally (and I know I’m not alone), I’ve decided to just treat the JD as a sunk cost and move on. It’s hard though – knowing that you spent all that time and money for nothing. Also, the JD really doesn’t help (and often hurts) when trying to move into another industry.

    Thanks again for helping get the word out. If it won’t help the law schools be more honest in their marketing techniques, at least it may influence some potential law students to stay away from this poor educational decision.

  • Brad Perri

    @John:

    I would also like to hear what kind of advice you’re giving.

  • http://www.policydiary.com/ John Wilson

    @Sam Glover: No, Sam I wasn’t saying that rank had to do with price. What I meant was that, relatively speaking, lower ranked schools give more aid. For instance, Howard offers one-half tuition to 25% of it’s students. That’s a lot. You would be hard pressed to find high ranked schools that matched that. Also, I’m not saying that a student should only look at financial aid but taking it into account along with where one would like to practice and how much one is likely to earn, is a good idea.

  • RE Ramcharan

    Wow. What a depressing conversation.
    Everybody’s broke, everybody’s in debt, the partners are crooks/won’t let me get ahead, the clients are insane, I can’t find a job, it’s too easy to get into law school, I have to fix my own lunch, the disciplinary administrator is filling up my voicemail box, yada, yada, yada.
    If we’re going to have a legal system at all in this country, somebody is going to have to do the lawyering, and at some point in our careers we decided that it was going to be us. The legal profession is what it is, and has been that way since 1992 when i passed the bar. If the number of jobs available were the only consideration, we would all have been registered nurses. For some of us, perhaps it is not too late.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      @RE In order to stop bumming you out, on January 5th I’ll be posting some ideas on how to fix the law school employment problem.

  • http://baradvisor.blogspot.com Bar Advisor

    This post dovetails nicely with my post (http://baradvisor.blogspot.com/2009/10/bright-side-of-failing-bar-exam.html) about what to do when one fails the bar exam.

    I am constantly amazed at how many of the young lawyers that I meet got into the law because they wanted to be rich. The joke, of course, if on them. I think LA Law and similar TV shows have given the public a completely wrong view of what it means — financially — to be a lawyer. Posts like yours will help clear up that misconception.

    Let’s hope that prospective law students read it and similar posts before they decide to commit to law school. Law students need to make the decision to attend law school only after considering all available information.

  • http://www.policydiary.com/ John Wilson

    @Brad Perri: You would like to hear the advice I’m giving? I’m a bit confused as to what you are referring to. I gave an opinion. (Which I believe to be qualified based on the fact that I: 1) have done a substantial amount of research, 2) know many attorneys practicing in various fields, and 3) have two siblings who are attorneys as well). We can agree to disagree but let’s not act as though one’s own personal opinion is the holy grail on this matter. Because it isn’t.

    @Guy in Gorilla Suit: I picked Howard Law as an example. And the numbers I quoted were relating to their alumni. I understand that many attorneys don’t make salaries over 60k. But what is sometimes lost in discussions such as these is the fact that some attorneys don’t borrow 100k for law school loans and didn’t get into the legal field in order to make 160k a year.

    Which takes me back to my original point – the more a prospective student can narrow down their specialty interest and preference of location to practice, the more likely it is that they will make financially astute decisions concerning their legal education. At the end of the day that is what this is all about.

    Instructing people to not attend law school is a fool’s errand. The goal should be to empower people to make smarter decisions. I think Aaron’s article hit the nail on the head in this respect. Some of the comments, not so much.

  • JD Underdog

    With law schools start claiming 90 percent employment and an average starting salary of $70,000 for new graduates nine months after graduation, you need people to challenge the validity of that information. There are those who discourage people from applying to law school, but they don’t do it without doing their homework. And many have been there!

    As far as empowering people to make better decisions, the anti-law school movement is doing just that. We truly want the applicant to have both perspectives, that of the admissions office and that of recent law graduates who have passed the bar and are unable to find work despite sending hundreds of resumes, networking, and attending job fairs. You have to be critical of law schools that say Joe Biden or a Supreme Court justice graduated here. The logic does not follow that you’ll be the next VP or even close. Also, be wary of average salary as opposed to median salary. The few who report are typically ones who make six figs and are happy with their experience. Those numbers drive up the average. What exactly is employment? Last I heard, working in doc review or Foot Locker counts as employment for purposes of the survey.

    But how many 22 year old college graduates do you know who know exactly what they want to do in life? I don’t know of too many, and many are duped into thinking that law school is a golden ticket and that more degrees equals more income.

    I agree with what was posted here: “the more a prospective student can narrow down their specialty interest and preference of location to practice, the more likely it is that they will make financially astute decisions concerning their legal education. At the end of the day that is what this is all about.”

    The more 22 year olds go through this thought process, the fewer of them you’ll see in law school.

  • unperson

    LOL at people asking john wilson questions. If you read his posts, he says he is merely a law student. His posts are filled with authoritative sounding information, but as a law student, he knows precisely Jack. He is shoring up his own doubts and fears with his opinion-filled posts.

    Look, the law schools are not going to do anything. They are making big time Bank. And neither is the legal profession hierarchy. They also are either making good money off of this scam or they are afraid to jeopardize their own position.

    The law schools ARE vulnerable. They have been pushing bogus stats for years now. All we have to do is keep putting that idea out there and eventually the dialog will become infused with that obvious fact.

    Do research on ways to prove the stats wrong. Make videos. Write blogs. The only reason this scam has come to the fore at all, to the degree it currently has, is because of our own efforts this past year or so.

    We need to start exposing and verbally attacking individual law schools.

    Disregard the nay sayers and the moles and trolls.
    Keep fighting.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

    @Unperson and @John Wilson:

    Brad and I were both actually asking a question of a previous “John” commenter, John Schreck.

  • Brad Perri

    Woops. Yes, sorry; John Schrek. Thanks, Aaron.

  • Annika

    I am impressed with the analysis you guys are providing in this post. So far the focus has been on finding employment in the US. I want to be an international lawyer, however. I believe that, contrary to the current employment trends within the US, the field of international law will actually grow, recession or not. Anyone knows about the job market in that field?

  • Adam

    I graduated from law school 2 years ago and passed the bar, but have yet to practice as a lawyer. I don’t think I ever will — I work in academia as a policy researcher and do consulting on the side when the opportunity presents itself. I make 50-60k a year, and work very tolerable 40 hours a week. My wife (grad student) and I share a house with another couple (grad student and a public defender), watch our budget, get outdoors a lot, and are generally pretty happy.

    It may not work for everyone, but I found that a law degree is valuable in a lot of ways unrelated to “practice” of law. The ability to understand complex social institutions and governmental bureaucracies, and trace the effects of policies and decisions on relevant markets, is in itself valuable to businesses and communities, especially in emerging fields like sustainable energy.

    The problem, of course, is that a public policy degree costs a lot less and gets you some (but not all) of the same skills. I have to say, though, that the ability to walk into a room full of people and tell them you’re a policy expert AND a lawyer opens a lot of doors, as people believe that lawyers have more acumen regarding real-world policy implications than people with pure policy degrees. Still, the difference in debt is substantial, and the law school I went to was dead-set on training people to be litigators above all else. I think that’s a mistake, and that law grads would have better job prospects if law schools trained them to be useful to people in ways distinct from litigation.

  • IlliniMax

    The 20–60–20 rule applies to law school graduates.

    20% of law school graduates will head to large, very large firms, investment banks and consulting firms. This 20% consist of the top half (as measured by class rank and GPAs of 3.4 and above) of top 15 law schools; the top 25% of top 15-25 law schools; the top 15% of top 26-30 law schools; the top 10% of top 31-50 law schools; and the top 5% of everywhere else. About 60% will make partner (save New York where 20 % will make partner)

    60% of law students will go to medium sized firms, niche law firms, stable government service and the like. Most of these people after 3 to five years will migrate down to small law firms.

    20% will start at small firms, legal aid, public defender, do social security, temp work , paralegal, contract administration, personal injury or abandon law altogether. The small firm will keep them around until the senior partner’s son/daughter graduates from law school or until they realize that their chances of getting a raise are nil. They will toil and make a living getting by doing something—nothing great.

  • http://pluggedinlawyer.com/ Tracy Thrower Conyers

    I graduated law school in a similar economy (1989) and it took me almost 20 years to pay off my related debt, but I’ve never once regretted my decision to go. Law school isn’t about becoming a lawyer. It’s about learning a way to approach life and business. It’s good to know the risks (and your post does a great job of this), but I have to disagree that everybody should skip the exercise. Just don’t go into it expecting a cushy $160K corporate associate position on the other end.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    I think encouraging realistic expectations is exactly Aaron’s (and my) point. Along with encouraging realistic advertising by law schools.

  • Brad Perri

    How alarming that law schools need to be encouraged to perform realistic advertising.

  • Steve

    Everybody in here complains about being broke and that the system tricked them. The fact remains that if you had worked hard during and after law school you would have nothing to worry about. Of course there will always be the people with just flat out bad luck, just as there will be people with just flat out good luck. The simply truth is, is you want to do well in life and you work really hard then you’ll make something happen. Everybody expects to be given a job a because of the fact that they have a JD, or they went to “top-ranked” school school. I can guarantee that there is a higher correlation between how hard you work and how successful you are than there is between how successful you are and what law school you went to. Quit whining about the system and do a little work.

  • Brad Perri

    @Steve: What an incredibly hostile and unhelpful comment.

  • Annika

    Steve,
    You are probably right about a correlation between hard work and success. I’ve moved to the US at the age of 27, learned English, and became a teacher in a mid-sized city in which three universities pump out hundreds of teachers every year.
    I know , teaching is a different field, but, to find success in any area, one should focus on developing something unique that they could offer ( besides a sense of entitlement).

  • steve

    the hard truth is difficult for some to accept, but it is still the truth

  • Anonymous

    @steve:

    You think that putting a “little work” into it makes everything click into place? You really think that people who made it into law school, passed the bar, and still hate their miserable careers, trying to pay off the layers of debt accumulated in loans – that their problem is not WORKING HARD ENOUGH?

    You know why people EXPECT to get a job upon graduation with a J.D. from a top law school? Because the schools ADVERTISE this at every step of the game. Are 21 year olds really expected to do the thorough due diligence and conduct their own field research about the actual salary figures for grads?

  • Francis Barragan

    While studying, the thing that seemed to come back the most often was that law would open the doors to everything. At the very least, that was something a lot of people outside of law used to say. I must say that it has still not been made quite evident to me what law may lead you too, except practice law itself. I know for a fact that a lot of graduates do other things rather than practice, but it does not mean that their law degree led them to this new field, in most cases, it seems like a lot stumbled into new things, without their law background playing a huge role. That being said, this is really anecdotal so I guess your mileage may vary.

    Good luck to all those that try it though!

  • KC

    Student loans were supposedly intended to help students but in reality helped the schools. The easy money encouraged students to make that “investment” in education and graduate saddled with many thousands of dollars of debt. Institution of ‘help’ for unwed mothers encouraged an explosion in the numbers of unwed mothers. Health insurance insulates the consumer from the cost of health care and, I believe, is largely responsible for the skyrocketing health care costs. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Medicare to ‘help’ seniors was pushed (maybe even conceived) by the insurance companies to get the aging and unhealthy population off their expense sheets and onto the taxpayers’. Some are unintended consequences of do-good ideas and others appear to be deliberate manipulations.

  • cath

    I graduated in 2001 from a very good Law school. I worked my butt off and sold my soul to a firm that didn’t care if any one in your family died, became disabled or if you wanted to have any resemblance of a social life. All for $40,000 a year. I started my own Legal Support business where I am so much happier, work LESS and make SO much more money. With a background in Law I can work in ANY business and do temp work, extra legal support in Law Offices and live my own life. Yes, I managed to find a way around that “Bubble.” Law Firms have seriously curtailed full-time work but I have many, many firms clamoring for my specialized part-time work services. Good luck to everyone out there..

  • http://www.shawndking.com/ Shawn

    @Anonymous: Yes, the problem is lawyers are not working hard enough. Or rather, in my case, not working at all. Just my personal experience, but over the last 10 years, I’ve had an awful time finding a lawyer who was willing to WORK. Just because I might not have the idea for the next Google, or the case for a multi-million dollar lawsuit, does not mean that I do not have legal needs which need professional attention. Yes, I’m certainly willing to pay reasonable expenses; however, at the end of the day, I DO expect you to *gasp* actually do something.

    Further, this discussion reminds me of a news show a number of years ago (I think it was 20/20) where an innocent man was wrongfully imprisoned. His sister went to law school, became his attorney, and won his freedom. Pay attention: It was easier, faster, and cheaper for the family to send one of their own for a JD than to deal with overpriced, lazy lawyers.

    Finally, I want to go to law school, not because I want to work in the legal profession, but because of the difficulty in finding competent legal assistance: “Aww, the heck with it. I’ll just go do it myself!”

  • Anonymous

    I followed a link here from ATL (you should thank them AARON) and the content of the comments indicate a vastly different audience.
    Look, most of you scraping by in law knew well in advance that you were not cut out to be lawyers. The LSAT should have told you that. I really can’t believe people who score poorly on the LSAT decide that they have the mental acumen to compete in the legal market in the US and go to a T3/T4 lawschool. Actually, on second thought, that is exactly the type of thinking required for the masses to spend north of 6 figures on a crap degree from any of those institutions.

  • Jan

    Don’t compound your student loan debt, by marrying someone with the same amount of student loan debt. Its double trouble.

  • Chris

    I’m sorry, but you would have to be living under a rock somewhere to not have some idea how bad the job market is…even in 2012. It’s not just this way with the Law…it’s everywhere.

    The fact is, for those who are pushing to go to law school, two things are absolutely true and CAN NOT be disputed:

    1) DO NOT EVEN THINK of going to Law School if you are going to have to go into debt. I was blessed in that I served my country and because of that, my school is completely paid for. I waited until I was in my 30′s to finally go because I wanted to make sure my debt was well under control and I was in the right place to make sure that I didn’t have to take on any debt while attending. Those individuals who graduated from law school with mountains of debt are kicking themselves now because they always gave me a hard time about waiting too long to go. If you can eliminate the debt part, then you have a fighting chance (or at least a broader range of lower paying jobs you can take)

    2) For those deciding to go, you MUST understand that you are entering a profession with NO TANGIBLE EXPERIENCE. YOU WILL STRUGGLE TO FIND A JOB…PERIOD. Stand by and prepare to bunker down.

    It makes NO SENSE at all to give a new grad over 100k in ANY industry when the person is brand new to it. My cousin made that mistake. But that is basic common sense…I guess the problem is that sense isn’t as common as we would like it to be. When I finish…I JUST WANT A JOB…period. I can work my way up while doing whatever. This is a society of instant gratification…I think quite a few folks out there have lost sight of the idea of something taking time. For me, personally, I know I’m not going to be making 100k right out the door…hell, I’ll be happy with 45-60k…but that’s only because I put myself in the position to be that way.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/joshcamson/ Josh Camson

      The debt accrued in any kind of higher education is an investment. I don’t see how you can argue that nobody should ever go into debt to go to law school. Why? A more reasonable piece of advice would be to ignore the rankings and go to a less expensive school where you can get more grants and scholarships.

  • newbie

    does this means tier 3 or 4 law students has a hope to get a job that will pay back all of the loans? and why does people hate tier 3 and 4 law schools so bad? soo stupid.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Did you post this drunk, or will some law schools accept anyone with a pulse, whether or not they can put together a coherent thought?