Should You Go to Law School?

Posted on March 19, 2014

‘Tis the season for acceptance letters from schools of all levels. Here are some thoughts on possibly going to law school.

I base these comments not only on my own observations, but on talks with lawyers in private practice at firms of all sizes, solo attorneys, judges, government attorneys, law professors, and company lawyers.

• The lawyer and law-school marketplaces have changed.

Clients increasingly don’t want to pay for on-the-job training of new lawyers. Consequently, law firm hiring for new graduates is down and declining. There are fewer entry-level positions at big (well-paying) firms.

Experienced lawyers increasingly are hesitant to make the investment in training new lawyers because young people job hop more than before.

Law school applications and total enrollment are declining. Law schools are shrinking entering classes. Faculty are being laid off and retired early. Non-elite law schools are suffering financially.

• Understand what it’s like to be a lawyer.

To see what it’s really like, work as a paralegal for at least a year. If that’s not possible, talk to as many lawyers as possible.

Practicing law is often solitary. It’s rarely like TV with important meetings and trials. It’s mainly sitting a desk alone reading and writing, doing tedious work. Even talking on the phone is less common as people rely on (or hide behind) email. This is especially so for high-paying private-practice jobs.

Going into private practice is going into sales. You have to build a client base loyal to you or you probably will be pushed out eventually. Some escape to a job as a government or company lawyer, which usually pays much less.

Practice is quite different from an undergrad law class and from law school. For example, most of non-criminal litigation is discovery (trying to get information out of the other side against its will) and motion writing (writing papers to the court on why the court should or should not do something). One wag once described discovery as a “knife fight in suits.”

You will deal with many difficult people and circumstances. Usually a lot of money and risk have to be at stake to make it worthwhile to pay a lawyer. You will be confronted with a lot of stress, anxiety and concern about legal fees. You will deal with adversaries even if you don’t litigate.

• Understand the economics of practicing law.

Private practice generally pays much more (perhaps two or three times more) than other lawyer jobs, such as being a government lawyer or a company lawyer.

In private practice, the income distribution curve is bimodal. There’s a higher salary grouping for lawyers who work at big firms or in certain niche practices, then there’s a lower income grouping for the rest (small firms and solo attorneys doing commonplace things like real estate closings, personal injury, family law, auto accidents, and criminal cases).

The lower grouping often does not pay more than you could have earned in a non-law job without going to law school. The starting salaries are usually much less than $100,000 a year and often don’t rise much later.

Making the big bucks in private practice means working long hours, often on short notice. Big firms demand 2000-2400 billable hours per year. When you factor in that about 25% of work time is non-billable, that’s 2500 to 3000 working hours per year. Do the math.

In a Forbes survey in 2013, the unhappiest job was found to be associate (salaried, non-partner) attorney in a large law firm.

You might plan to work really hard for a big firm only until the debts are paid off and then cut back. Some do that successfully. But many shackle themselves with expensive obligations and must keep working hard.

Even if you’re willing to take a lower-paying government, corporate or non-profit legal job, one will probably not be available straight out of law school. Those employers tend to cherry pick lawyers who distinguish themselves elsewhere. (That’s why people compete fiercely to become judges.) Many lawyers would like to make that jump but can’t even find the opportunity despite being willing to take a big pay cut.

Going straight into solo practice after law school isn’t really an option. You have to get hired. Law school does not train you to practice law.

• Understand the economics of attending law school.

You’re looking at $100,000 to $180,000 in total cost. Run a calculation on what paying that back will be in terms of monthly payments, accounting for interest. It’s like having a mortgage without a house. That could be on top of significant undergraduate loan debt. Law-school debt could trap you in a long-hours private practice job that you end up disliking.

Consider the opportunity cost too. You will be foregoing three years of earnings and work experience.

Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy with rare exception.

If you are not sure whether you want to practice law, don’t go to law school. Having a law degree for a non-legal job might provide some benefit, but that benefit almost never is worth the cost. It is unlikely that a job for which a law degree is a resume enhancer but not a requirement will pay enough more to make the cost of law school worthwhile.

Some people escape the law to go into lucrative non-law business, such as into management of a company. That happens usually only after 5-20 years in private practice, and only the best and most entrepreneurial tend to find those opportunities.

• Beware of law-school data on employment.

Many law schools are hurting for customers so they try to sell you on attending law school.

They might give you data on the mean and median earnings of new graduates, but the bimodal distribution of pay makes that information deceiving.

Some law schools do questionable things to manipulate employment data to make it deceptive, such as temporarily hiring some of their own graduates just to inflate their hiring ratio. Some graduates have sued law schools over this. The American Bar Association has proposed annual audits of placement data.

• Generally speaking, go to the highest ranked law school you can.

Going to a top-ten law school is the goal. It is now easier to get in than any time in recent decades.

The high-paying starting jobs at big law firms go disproportionately to graduates of top law schools. Even there, you generally need to be in the top half of your class. The most elite law firms usually will not hire anyone who didn’t attend a high-ranked law school. Generally only the cream of the non-elite law schools get those jobs – perhaps the top 5 to 10% of the class.

Even when you have been in private practice for 40 years, fairly or not, you’ll still often somewhat judged by the law school from which you graduated.

Thus, accepting a partial or full scholarship to attend a lesser-ranked law school might not be worth it in, depending on your aspirations.

If you are not committed to practicing law for the long term in the private sector, or if you want a law school degree for non-practice reasons, it might be better to take the lowest-cost option even if it is less prestigious.

• Think ahead to specialization after law school.

Specialize. You need to be known as the “go to” person for a specialty to attract good clients.

Law specialties pay vastly different incomes. Some are very low. Some are lucrative but hard to get established in. Also, it’s more mentally rewarding to be a master of a specialty than a dabbler.

Some sexy specialties are nearly impossible to find business in, such as sports or entertainment law.

In some specialties, the only jobs available may be working on the side opposite of what attracts you. For example, you might want to be an environmental lawyer because you want to protect the environment, but most of the paying work will be in representing companies vis-à-vis the government.

For some kinds of specialties, there are either educational credentials or business experiences that you need or, at least, should have before going to law school.

Law schools have begun developing specialty programs. Find a law school that is strong in your specialty, especially if you can’t go to a top-ten law school.

Being a lawyer is a fine career choice if it’s a good fit. I enjoy being an intellectual property lawyer and in my practice situation. Just study it carefully beforehand.

Written on March 18, 2014
by John B. Farmer
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