Benefit From the Law School Bargain

Everyone hears about discontented lawyers. The hours are long. The clients are impossible. The work is tedious and boring. I could go on, but I do not have to. You know where I am coming from.

I have been a lawyer now for more than 25 years and have worked in a wide variety of settings. Some jobs were pretty good; others not so good. None were awful. In any event, whenever I am asked if I have any regrets about becoming a lawyer, the answer would be a resounding “No, I am glad that I decided to become a lawyer.”

What Was The Deal, Anyway?

Why no regrets? Let’s go back to my first year of law school and what I learned in Contracts. When I attended, this was the deal. I donated three years of my life and $15,000 to the University of Wisconsin. In return, I will be able to tell the world that I am a “professional.” Chances will be pretty good that I will make a respectable living. The work will not always be the most exciting in the world, but at times, it will be satisfying. Finally, any debt will be gone when my kids are still young.

Speaking for myself and I think for most in the boomer generation, I got the benefit of the bargain. No breach of contract; no lawsuit against my alma mater. I’m proud to tell people at cocktail parties that I am an attorney. I have made a respectable living, although I am hardly rich. There have been satisfying days at work. As for debt, it was gone in five years. Now the problem is figuring out how to pay for the college educations of my three children (remember, I am not rich).

What’s The Deal Now?

Now let’s fast forward to the present. Is this new generation of lawyers getting the same benefit of the bargain that I obtained? Well, you still can call yourself a professional. Check one box. Can you make a respectable living? Not so sure. The job market has been awful for recent graduates and few expect that to change soon. Even top graduates from top law schools have been laid off and cannot find work.

And what about those who are not top graduates or did not attend top law schools? Did you really go to law school to review documents at $25.00 per hour? Will you become what I call a “not by choice” solo practitioner? Is that a realistic alternative when so few law schools provide the necessary training to manage a practice (at least today, some schools are genuinely trying; in my day, hardly any even made the attempt). Furthermore, the marketplace for legal services is becoming more competitive. No pundits today predict significant increases in demand in the future and the law schools continue to crank out thousands of graduates every year.

Sadly, many will be forced to abandon the profession before ever having a chance to ever actually be in it. Here’s where the deal is really going sour. Many recent and future graduates leave school with a debt load well into the six figures. It’s the equivalent of paying off a home mortgage and is not even dischargeable in bankruptcy (at least that is what I am told by those who practice in the area). One can afford to look for a legal job for only so long or practice law as a solo with minimal revenues. At some point in time, it is time to abandon ship, thus rendering the part of bargain about satisfying work entirely “irrelevant” as we were taught in Evidence. There will be no opportunity to determine if the work is personally rewarding or not because there was never a genuine opportunity.

Quit Bellyaching and Word of Caution

So now you may be thinking, OK Roy, what is the point of this post? Well, there are actually two points for two separate audiences. One is for my generation and the other is for those considering going to law school.

To my fellow boomer lawyers, quit complaining; you have nothing to complain about. Little in this world is perfect so you should not expect practicing law to be. Be grateful that you can still impress some people at parties, you can afford to pay the mortgage in your house in the suburbs and that on occasion, you can sit back and say to yourself that you helped solve someone’s legal problem and felt good about it.

For those thinking about becoming a lawyer, think long and hard. The deal is not what it once was. I do not want to sound all gloom and doom. Certainly many newly minted lawyers will find jobs, earn a nice living and find practicing law to be satisfying, just not nearly as many as in the past. The warning here is if you are one of those pondering law school only because you cannot think of anything better to do after graduating college, there probably are better things to do.

(photo: thinkpanama)

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  • Nena Street

    Great article, Roy.

  • Elisaberh

    Let me be very blunt. Who the hell are you impressing at parties? Are you kidding? It has never been a “good thing” to be a lawyer. I always introduce myself, apologize for the fact that I am a lawyer, get a good laugh, people see I am a human being and THEN I am treated respectfully and as an equal. Good article though.

  • Joe

    The lack of opportunities for a lawyer is shocking, it is much worse than most people can imagine. The law schools keep churning out untrained law students into a market that has no real use for them. The ABA should be taking a leadership role on these issues, they have to be the most useless trade organization ever created.

  • Randall Ryder

    $15,000 for the whole three years? Wow.

    Great post. You are correct that individuals who simply think law school is something to do need to think twice before taking on law school debt.

  • Sean Nichols

    Opportunity is largely self-made. Two points. The first, is that the WSJ has an article today talking about how engineers receiving jobs out of school has dropped from 70% in 2007 to 30% in 2009. Engineering is also a field that is growing at a faster than average rate. Second, I worked at a hospital before starting law school. About three years ago, there were 200-250 nursing jobs listed at any given time. Now, there are only 50, or less. Even nursing jobs have become scarcer. And nursing was expected to be a growth industry.

    I’m not arguing that law school is a good investment for most people, or even a good investment period. It is a good investment for people who genuinely want to be lawyers, and will be a successful investment for people who are entrepreneurial.

  • Fritz Ebinger

    Mr. Ginsburg, I agree with most of your article, but I must add you are the master of your bargain.

    I donated three years of my life to Drake Law School. In return, I will be able to tell the world that I am a “professional” if the world cares to ask. Chances will be pretty good that I will (a) make a positive difference in other people’s lives; (b) understand the function and limits of government, and; (c) be a leader in my respective community.

    For those that argue I am a blind ideologue, check out Minn. Stat. §358.07(9) for the Attorney’s Oath. The profession has never been about making a respectable living, pride at cocktail parties, or paying for my kid’s college education.

  • Steve Miller

    NYU Law School was so impressed with my financial condition that of the $9,000 for 3 years of tuition, they awarded me a $3,000 scholarship and a 10-year loan for another $3,000. So my upfront cash contribution was only $3,000 for all 3 years. I thought I had hit the jackpot when the “NYC street” salary jumped to $18,000 between the time I was hired at my first Park Avenue law firm job at $16,500 and the first day on the job.

    As for career choices today, I would quote Deep Throat of Watergate fame, “Follow the money”. For the 1st generation born after 1946, the memories of the Great Depression were real experiences of their parents. So the need to become “a professional” was believed to be the road to financial success and ingrained into their kids at an early age. The result 40 years later was too many doctors and lawyers. Growing up, the kids of those kids lived high off the hog until the law of supply and demand caught up.

    How many people are impressed with those “professional” titles today? Yawn. It’s just another job. The difference is not as great as it ought to be between $8.50/hour at McDonald’s and $3,000 a week from lawyering, once you factor out the debt and schooling years. IMHO if you’ve got the capacity and fortitude, the money today is in China and biotech. If not, expect a not-so-exciting 40 years of legal work drudgery.

  • Man, your article makes you really think twice about becoming a lawyer. With the loans you owe after graduation and the market being so competitive for a recent grad, it really makes you wonder about going in to another profession.

  • ben

    The atticus fintch ideal should be all but a distant memory by now. However, if you can incorporate doing a good thing by a person with no options; and you happen to make money off the transaction…I call that an double win and a practice grower.

    Your status as an “attorney” should have nothing to do with it, that’s just an ego stroke.

    As an attorney you’ve been given the rules of the game: Its your decision of how your choose to use that knowledge.

    When you went to lawschool, nobody ever said that if you got a b+ or higher you’d get $100,000.00. So get over it, or get moving on.

  • Should You Be A Lawyer?

    This is an excellent post, especially for prospective students who are getting career advice from older established lawyers. Many parents and family friends mean well when they give advice, but sometimes don’t realize how much circumstances can change.

    Many non-lawyers also don’t understand why $25 per hour is not a good starting salary as they don’t take into account the debt from law school and 3 years lost opportunity cost. One common refrain is “You’ve got to start somewhere.” This saying has some truth, but does not reflect the reality that document review and other contract work does not build the skills and experiences that are likely to lead to better career opportunities.

    Also, some non-lawyers forget that lawyers are subject to stronger ethics rules that limit them from being as entrepreneurial. For example, an attorney can’t solicit business in person and is somewhat limited in exactly what he can advertise.

    Another career opportunity for non-lawyers is to leave their current job and open their own business, often in competition with the former boss. There may be no non-compete stopping them, and even if there is, there is about a 50% chance it won’t be upheld as courts in many states give them substantial scrutiny. In some entrepreneurial industries, many employers reluctantly acknowledge that ambitious employees will consider doing that. It can be a bit more difficult for a lawyer who wants to leave the law and compete with his former client in business.