The law always seems like a glamorous-and profitable-career, even to those who are not all that interested in the intricate details of American law. Remember “Legally Blonde,” the movie in which Elle Woods in all her pink glory decides to go to Harvard Law to chase the boyfriend who dumped her? Then, (spoiler alert) 1) realizes that her ex is a creep; 2) learns that she loves the law; 3) gains the respect of her most challenging professor; and 4) gets the hot young associate as her new boyfriend. It was a smash hit, spawning a sequel and a Broadway musical.
One problem: Law school doesn’t work that way.”Legally Blonde” is to law school what a game of Hide and Seek is to running from a serial killer. According to Forbes.com, law school might be “the worst career decision you’ll ever make.” Why? According to figures from The Wall Street Journal, Forbes points out that
“Only 55% of class of 2011 law school grads were employed full-time as lawyers nine months after graduation. The other 45% may be unemployed, working at Starbucks or starting their own law school hate blogs. Couple this with declining starting salaries (they fell $9000 between 2009 and 2010) and [the fact that] 85% of law school grads are facing an average debt load of $98,500.”
That’s quite a group of statistics-and it should make people think very carefully about pursuing a legal career. In addition, it’s been revealed that these statistics probably aren’t even accurate. For example, the past year witnessed the revelation that law schools have traditionally inflated their post-graduate employment rates. According to an NPR report on law school debt,
“For years, law schools have had to report employment data, and schools routinely said that 90 percent or more of their graduates had jobs nine months after graduation. It turns out they were including barista positions, low-level marketing gigs, or just about anything else you could call a job. Now, says Scott Norberg of the Bar Association, schools have to be specific about what jobs their grads are getting.”
It’s quite clear that the American dream of a legal career leading to riches, respect, and a potential federal position is one of the more dangerous myths perpetrated on unsuspecting students. Given this, it’s absolutely crucial that any undergraduate student considering going to law school after earning a four-year degree know just exactly what they may be getting into. If you are considering law school, here are some basic elements of the law school experience that you should consider:
1. Not all law schools are equal. US News unofficially organizes its rankings of law schools into a tier system. Students who attend the top tier schools, including Yale, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Chicago, et al. are considered the most valuable graduates and therefore have a lock on the most prestigious post-grad opportunities, such as Supreme Court internships and highly-paid positions at the big law firms. Meanwhile, students at second tier law schools must be in the top 10% of their graduating class to even garner a first look at their resume, while students at third tier schools need to be in the top 5%. Fourth tier law schools, including those unaccredited by the American Bar Association and many for-profit law schools, have lower acceptance standards, but students pay a heavy professional cost for this flexibility:
“For example, more than 96% of 2009 graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Law School were employed upon graduation, with a median private-sector salary of $160,000. By contrast, only 53.9% of 2009 Texas Wesleyan University Law School graduates had secured employment at graduation, and their median salary in the private sector was $64,500.”
This means that if you attend anything less than a top-tier law school, you need to seriously consider your employment prospects and whether or not your salary will enable you to pay back law school loans.
2. You don’t learn common practices. It’s common knowledge among law school grads that the law school experience is all about theory rather than the basic necessities of day-to-day legal practice. To a lot of people-especially law professors-the theory is the fun part, where you get to argue about ideals v. practice, take apart Supreme Court cases, and ponder the finer points of minute language choices that can make or break a case and decide the future of millions of people. However, that won’t help you write up a brief the night before a court deadline. In a pointed piece in The New York Times, entitled “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” David Segal points out that one study showed that “nearly half of faculty members had never practiced law for a single day. If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.” They can’t teach students what the actual legal processes are for even the most basic transactions.
3. If you don’t have experience, you won’t get a job. The lack of practical training at the law school level that Segal underscored (above) means that firms now have to supply on-the-job training, and clients don’t like it. As a result, new hires of law school graduates have declined, and those who do get jobs often have to complete unpaid internships or accept positions at very low salaries in exchange for practical training. You will need to figure out how to support yourself while gambling on the possibility that an unpaid internship will result in more employment opportunities.
4. There are no jobs. Even for those who complete a well-placed internship while in law school or attend a top or second-tier law school, unemployment is very high. CBS News reports that the research of University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos reveals “that of the 45,000 law graduates each year, almost 45 percent can’t get jobs that require a law degree.” There are several reasons for this. There’s a glut of lawyers, because so many people have gone to law school in the past few decades that even our litigious society doesn’t need all of them. Also, The New York Times reported that corporations are outsourcing more of their work to temporary employees both in the U.S. and foreign countries, because it cuts their overhead. That’s why CBS News can include this scary story in a report on the unemployment crisis among law school grads: “Kevin Johnson wanted be a lawyer all his life. He graduated from New York Law School last February. His lifelong dream is to serve the needy as a lawyer but, for now he’s serving pizza.”
5. You will incur huge debt. Law school isn’t cheap, and there are few scholarships that cover much of the total cost. According to the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal, “the average education debt for law grads at private schools last year was nearly $125,000, while the average for grads of public law schools was more than $75,700.” Bear in mind, always, that this is in addition to any debt you may have incurred at the undergraduate level. To add insult to injury, this debt figure does not include the tuition for a special bar exam study course, which after three years of law school courses focused on theoretical and philosophical issues in the law, you’ll still need to take in order to pass the state bar exam, which focuses on the more day-to-day interpretation of state and federal law. Most students have to take a “bar study loan” to pay for this, which is why almost every major financial lending institution offers them.
These are the biggest issues to consider if you are thinking about law school. But many graduates report other significant problems. For example, there are dozens of personal blogs written by disenchanted and bitter law school grads, who share their experiences with debt and unemployment; there’s even a movement among some grads to sue their former schools for fraudulently misrepresenting employment possibilities.
In addition, law school can be very demoralizing. One former law student I interviewed complained that his professors often played a game of “hide the ball,” which he described as a “phony Socratic method” in which every answer you give is the wrong one. He reported that the whole experience “hammered” his self-esteem so much that he often felt like giving up-even though this particular student was an accomplished scientist who had already earned a doctorate from Harvard. Given that earning a Harvard Ph.D. takes a certain amount of chutzpah and drive, if that student can get demoralized in law school, anyone can.
It’s important to take all of this into account when you make your future plans. Passion for the law and a desire to help people are meaningful and important, but they should not be the only factors in your decision. Speak to graduates, professors, practicing attorneys, financial aid counselors, and make a decision based on a more comprehensive understanding of the reality of law school.
Do you have any suggestions for those thinking about law school? Share them here–you may save someone a lifetime of stress!