It’s a Good Time to Go to Law School? Really?

Oh, sweetheart, you don't need law school. Law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious. And you, button, are none of those things. Slate.com, the website we know & love for its consistently contrarian attitude, has upped its game, declaring that we should once again consider applying to law school. Really! Forget everything you’ve heard over the past five years about how it’s a terrible field to try to break into because there’s a surplus of struggling, desperate wannabes competing for every spot. Read crisis as opportunity.

Here is the key number to keep in mind: 36,000. That is roughly the number of new J.D.s we should expect to graduate in 2016. Getting to that figure is pretty straightforward: In the fall of 2013, 39,700 students enrolled in law school. Given that about 10 percent of each law school class generally drops out, we should expect no more than 36,000 to reach commencement. (I’m actually rounding up the number a bit to be conservative.) In comparison, 46,776 law students graduated in 2013. So we’re talking about a potential 23 percent plunge. With less competition it should be far easier for graduates to find decent work.

As the daughter of two lawyers, the sister to another, and the wife of a fourth, not to mention a friend to countless others, let me assure you, law is hardly “decent work.” You want to spend 80 hours a week protecting the interests of cigarette companies and oil conglomerates? Surely there’s a way to do that without going six figures into debt first.

The Atlantic backs me up with a tart and timely article today subtitled, “For work that doesn’t feel meaningful, become a lawyer.” Slate ignores us both, though, gets all wonky with some data, and concludes that ACTUALLY, despite appearances, we’re back in the rosy Clinton years. (Goody! We have the Bush II years to look forward to!)

we can expect that about 91 percent of the class of 2016 will find long-term, full-time work, compared with about 72 percent last year. About 73 percent would be in full-time, long-term legal jobs, compared with 58 percent last year. Essentially, employment rates would look similar to those in 2007, when the mid-2000s legal hiring wave crested. That year, about 92 percent of graduates were employed, and 76.9 percent obtained legal jobs. (Both those figures included part-time and short-term positions).

Some would argue that I’m painting too rosy a picture, because law schools themselves have been pumping up their employment numbers by hiring their own graduates for yearlong jobs, for example, or funding fellowships for them at nonprofits. In 2013, schools funded 918 of these kinds of positions. If we subtract them out, the picture is a bit less optimistic. About 88 percent of all grads would have full-time, long-term work, and 71 percent would be in legal jobs.  Essentially, law grads would be partying like it was 1997.

Ah, 1997: the year of Titanic, of Ellen coming out of the closet, and Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook, possibly the worst book I’ve ever read.

What do you think? Are you tempted? Do you have dreams of being Elle Woods, even though everyone you know is Lionel Hutz? Do you regret your law degree? Or is your practice of law meaningful as well as lucrative, and if so, what’s your secret?

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18 Comments / Post A Comment

A-M (#4,317)

Does the Slate article consider that there are currently law school grads who would be filling these positions that magically appear? I’m skeptical about law school, unless you go to a Top 10 school where they recruit for you.

nevertooyoung (#961)

No lawyer I’ve talked to (including hiring partners) expects anything to get better any time soon. There are still hordes of unemployed lawyers out there, and the law schools are still doing everything they can to pump up their short-term employment numbers.

I’m a lawyer entering my 4th year of practice… and my last friend-classmate without a job just recently got one. like 2 months ago.

Things might be getting better, and I might actually love and feel fulfilled by my profession, but I still discourage anyone seeking my advice from actually going to law school. Right now the cost-benefit balance is way out of whack.

thegirlieshow (#5,285)

I get a little defensive when I see these kind of articles. I graduated from law school in 2010 and I had a great experience there. It was hard to find a job afterward, yes, but I eventually did and I’m pretty happy. I wouldn’t advise everyone to go to law school but I would also not issue a sweeping statement to the effect that it’s a waste of time & money or that you’re bound to end up doing soul-killing work. There are many fine public interest lawyers out there, including the Billfold’s own Josh Michtom.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@thegirlieshow Agree, plus I don’t think being a critical part of the rights-based justice system that defines our nation is “soul-killing” by nature.

cjm (#3,397)

@thegirlieshow I agree- Go to law school if you believe you want to be a lawyer and you believe you know what “being a lawyer” means. Do not go to law school because “it seems more practical than an MFA.” Do not go to law school because, “it seems like a stable, good paying career.” Do not go to law school because your parents want you to “be a professional.” It is not a guarantee of any of those things, so like nursing school, beauty school, and a masters in teaching, you should only do it if you actually want to do the job that it is allegedly preparing you for.

@fo (#839)

@cjm: “you should only do it if you actually want to do the job that it is allegedly preparing you for.”

*exactly* this. There is no other right question to pose in thinking about law school. Especially the “allegedly preparing” part.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@@fo I don’t know how people decide to go to law school without having some idea of what lawyers actually do. That’s disturbing!

boringbunny (#3,260)

If you’re going to go to law school, now is a good time to go. Fewer people are applying so you will have an easier time getting into a top 10 school. Also, hiring is much better now than it was a few years ago and every year it seems to be strengthening (at least based on anecdotes from my top 10 school). Further, many law jobs continue to hire nearly exclusively out of law school – they don’t take people who’ve been unemployed (which is sad for the unemployed but shouldn’t be a detriment to people going to law school who assume the unemployed will take all the jobs).

However, if you don’t know if you want to go to law school, it’s a huge risk. You’re basically just guessing at the future economy. When people applied to law school in 2006, they didn’t know the law industry was going to collapse right when they wanted to find a job. I started law school in 2009, really the first class to come in with eyes wide open and it worked out for me (I enjoy my job and will finish paying off my loans by my next paycheck!) but it’s been a huge regret for others. But again, that’s pretty much all professions – nay all choices. They work out for some and not for others. The choice itself is not clearly bad or good and you have to figure out what will work for you.

aetataureate (#1,310)

I don’t think law school will survive as a sustainable industry until we deprogram our cultural “this is the next step for unemployable smart people” mindset. Same for library school I guess.

@aetataureate This! I’m happy as a lawyer because I went in knowing I actually wanted to do a particular kind of law work, not grasping uncertainly toward a marginally suitable career. My debt (as I have chronicled here) is large and perennial, but after ten years in practice, I’m finally making enough to live within my means and I’m happy doing what I’m doing.

Essentially, people should go to law school because they understand the costs and understand what lawyers do and want to do that. Whether it is a good or bad time to go to law school should be a very secondary consideration.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Josh Michtom@facebook For sure. As much as I hate when people say “I could only defend innocent people,” thanks for knowing that so you don’t go to law school and become a terrible attorney, okay cool.

@aetataureate I agree – a professional masters is the way people who have not been able to do anything with their bachelor’s degrees have attempted to establish themselves in careers. I knew when I was still in undergrad that I wanted to pursue librarianship, it wasn’t a default “I guess this is something I can do” decision, but I still feel unbelievably lucky that it worked out for me. I was told “not to bother” by people with MLIS degrees and I was terrified of the stories of post graduate unemployment that were EVERYWHERE while I was in school, but it’s what I really wanted to do so I stuck it out. I don’t know why people who were clearly ill-suited for the job, and many who were seemingly not even interested in it, stayed in the program or got in to it to begin with. Maybe that’s why a lot of degree holders tell others not to pursue their degree – if the person really wants to they’ll do it anyway, maybe because its something they actually want to do and will be good at.

peutetre (#2,641)

I work at a big law firm, and while I don’t think I’ll do it forever, I don’t go into work every morning feeling like my soul is being crushed. I am sure there are clients I would not want to represent and work I wouldn’t want to do, but you can find fulfilling work outside of the non-profit sector.

That being said, I don’t think the legal market will recover to where it was before the crash. Applicants should really calculate how much they’ll need to make per year to pay off their loans, and not rely on law school admissions offices’ numbers on what graduates make. The numbers are hugely skewed by the inclusion of people who work at big law firms, to say nothing of all the other ways they’re manipulated. Research the area you want to live after grad, and what different types of lawyers ACTUALLY make there (small firm, medium firm, government, etc.). Is the life you want to live sustainable on all of those salaries, or just some? I went to school with a lot of people whose only plan was to get a job at a big firm, and when that didn’t happen, they were left with an extraordinary amount of debt and a salary not much larger than what they had made before they got a JD.

Trilby (#191)

I work as a paralegal and make a very good living. I make overtime, unlike the attorneys! I actually have a law degree. I went to law school at age 50, taking night school for 4 years while continuing to work as a paralegal. Law school was wonderful, I loved it, but when I transitioned to working as a first year associate, it sucked so hard! What a nightmare. I was happy to go back to being a paralegal. I wouldn’t recommend lawyering to my worst enemy. I now have 14 years experience as a paralegal and make a 6-figure income with great benefits. I heartily recommend paralegal school instead of law school. Paralegals are always in demand. The working conditions are relatively pleasant. You work with intelligent people in nice surroundings and you have no contact with the public.

@Trilby I was an attorney for a few years and then became a paralegal. I make more money and work less as a big firm paralegal than I ever did as a small firm lawyer. Although, still not close to 6 figures. There is so much less stress in my life and I don’t have to worry about business development. Really the only downside is my mom can’t brag about her lawyer daughter anymore.

If anyone has an interesting story they’d like to tell about what they did with a JD besides / after / instead of being a lawyer, btw, email me! ester@thebillfold.com

Taylor (#1,339)

@Ester Bloom My story involves using my JD as a lawyer, but…I have a JD and six figures of student loan debt and work in a low-paying public interest job while aggressively paying down the loans, using the Public Interest Loan Repayment program, and being broke but happy a lot. And I love my job and don’t regret my degree/debt. Maybe this could be an interesting perspective- a case in which the debt situation looks not great but it’s working out okay, and I found the job I imagined when I decided to go to law school.

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