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Should You Go to Law School?

Sept. 20, 2012
Managing Money
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Tristan, our AmeriCorps VISTA contestant on So You Think You Can Finance, is considering attending law school someday. It’s a noble goal, and we don’t want to discourage Tristan’s legal ambitions. But how should he decide whether to go or not? And if he does decide to go, what school should he pick?

In the past, going to law school was thought of as guaranteed employment and high income. But that’s not the case any more. The job market for lawyers is shrinking rapidly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 218,800 job openings lawyers between the years 2010 and 2020—meaning 21,880 openings per year. But the American Bar Association says that U.S. law schools awarded 44,004 J.D.s in 2010.

Professor Deborah Jones Merritt, of Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, crunched those numbers on the blog Inside the Law School Scam.  I asked her and Kyle P. McEntee, executive director and co-founder of Law School Transparency—how should Tristan and other young people like him decide whether law school is the right choice for them?

Q: What would you say to Tristan: should he go to law school?

Professor Merritt: I think anyone considering going to law school should first interview five practicing lawyers in different areas of law. Too many people come to law school just because they want to do good, or because they’re a good public speaker, or for other reasons, and then they get there and find out they don’t really want to be a lawyer.

I would also recommend that people work before they go to law school. There are a lot of jobs in the world and people should explore the job market more broadly. For instance, being a human resource manager at a large company involves many legal issues—such as employment law and privacy law—but it doesn’t require the financial investment of a law degree. If you don’t like another type of job, it may help you decide that you really do want to get your J.D.

Kyle P. McEntee: We can only speak generally, without knowing someone as an individual and their individual situation. But generally, the first thing to ask yourself is, why do you want to go to law school? For a long time law school was envisioned as a ticket to financial security. Over the last 10 years or so, the value proposition of law school has declined. Salaries rose a little at the beginning part of the last decade, but not enough to keep up with the raises in tuition.

The analysis people do over whether they want to attend law school has evolved – it’s gone from an evaluation of an investment in human capital, to more of a traditional investment evaluation. Because of higher tuition costs across higher education, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, education is great and I should pursue it no matter what.’

Q: What about rankings? Do you buy into the idea that it’s now more important than ever to go to a top tier law school?

DJM: I buy into the hierarchy, but it’s hard to develop an absolute formula. There’s an intersection of the prestige of the school and your ranking in the class. People at Harvard, Yale and Stanford—the top three—pretty much everyone who graduates from those law schools will get a good job. But if you go down to the next three—Columbia, University of Chicago and New York University—some of those people will not get good jobs, which correlates to their class rank. So, are you better off in the bottom quarter of your class at Columbia, or at the top of your class at Georgetown, for example?

For us at Ohio State, we’re in the 30s in the rankings, and only about 7 or 8% of our graduates get jobs with Big Law. You will pay a lot less in tuition here, but you still have your living expenses for three years to think about. And you can’t count on being in the top 10% of your class. I tell people, ‘we don’t have a football team here—everyone in the law school is here to work hard, and they all have similar LSAT scores to you.’ Just because you were in the top of your class at college—people go to college for all kinds of reasons, including to have a good time. No one spends the tuition money to come to law school to have a good time.

KPM: People place a lot of importance on the U.S. News rankings, and expect job prospects are best at the school ranked #1 and worst at the lowest ranked schools. That clear slope you would expect is non-existent. Past the top ten or so schools, there’s a murky middle where employment doesn’t correlate to ranking. There should be more intelligent sorting of the schools. People say it’s worth paying more in tuition to go to a more highly ranked school—but there’s no correlation beyond the top few.

To decide where you want to go to law school, you should ask yourself what you want to get out of law school, how you can achieve that, and what will it cost. We think juxtaposing the location of job placements (i.e. looking at what law school gets graduates jobs in Missouri), the legal employment rate, and the cost of attending is the best way to compare. That gives you a starting point from which to unbundle the costs and benefits.

Q: How do you think this trend of dismal job prospects combined with soaring tuition costs will continue? Should aspiring lawyers wait a few years until the situation improves?

DJM: I don’t have too much hope that tuition will go down. It’s hard to predict, because things are changing so rapidly. One thing we’re talking about doing here—and this is still just at the brainstorming stage—is thinking about giving students a Masters degree in law after the first year. That would mean law school is a less risky investment. If you know you will be at the bottom of your graduating class after the first year, it would give a student an option to leave after the first year with a degree. It’s just a guess, I don’t know if any law school will do it. But many students get to law school and feel trapped if they don’t like it, or they don’t do as well as they thought they would—this would give them more options.

KPM: People will start going to law school less. In 2011 enrollment was down 7 or 8%, and this year I think it will be down in the double-digits, and that will probably continue next year. What’s the result? Schools will close down, because they have really high fixed costs, and tuition will continue to rise. But ultimately in the long-term it will mean the cost of education will come down. We’re starting to see scholarships go up already, because people are saying it’s not worth it and so the amount paid goes down. But the sticker price doesn’t go down. People paying the whole cost are subsidizing people getting scholarships. It’s extremely unfortunate.