Biglaw, Job Searches, Law Schools, Midsize Firms / Regional Firms, Small Law Firms, Student Loans

In Defense of Going to Law School

Yale Law School stock photo by David LatWhen it comes to law school, “Hope springs eternal.” According to a National Law Journal article entitled Hope Drives Rise in Law School Applications, for this year’s incoming class, law school applications increased by 7% and the number of applicants by 3% — despite tough times in the legal profession and the heavy educational debt that law school often entails. Some law schools saw their applicant pools grow by 30 percent or more. See, e.g., the University of Alabama (70 percent), the University of Maine (65 percent), Cornell (50 percent), and the University of Illinois (37 percent).

Regular readers of Above the Law are no doubt familiar with the argument against going to law school. It’s fairly straightforward: given the weak legal job market and the high cost of law school, which often requires students to take on six figures’ worth of debt, getting a J.D. degree is simply a bad investment.

The argument against law school is typically made in these pages by one of my colleagues, Elie Mystal. But not all of your ATL editors are so anti-law-school. Speaking for myself, I think the case against law school is often exaggerated.

Here are five arguments in defense of going to law school — or, at the very least, five arguments against an extreme anti-law-school stance….

Our critical coverage of law school is well-intentioned. Along with the writers of the many antilaw-school blogs, we don’t want people to go to law school unthinkingly, only to wind up jobless and seriously in debt three years later.

But is this concern now overstated? Thanks to extensive mainstream media coverage, in outlets like the New York Times and Forbes, as well as all the warnings in the blogosphere, potential law students are more aware than ever of the risks involved in going to law school. Consider what a commenter on one of Elie’s earlier anti-law-school posts had to say:

Will you just shut up already, you [typical insults hurled at Elie on a random weekday in June]? Yes, [some people] probably shouldn’t go to law school. Yes, it’s hard to get a legal job these days. And yes, it’s expensive.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re all idiots for deciding to attend law school. Yes, a lot (the majority even) won’t earn back what they put into their degrees. But that doesn’t mean that no one will get a job. In fact, some of us will do very well. And even if you look at it as an over-priced lottery ticket, it still beats the alternative. What the hell do you do with an English degree anyway? Or a History degree? Or any one of the dozens of useless bachelors degrees out there? Not much of anything.

Yes, the costs of a legal education have gone up higher than the salaries. But the same could be said for every field. The legal profession isn’t that unique.

So stop acting like we all have unrealistic expectations. At least I’m not expecting to easily get a six figure salary with no actual skills. It was the classes before us that had the unrealistic expectations. Not us.

Fair enough. So let’s go through a few reasons why law school might be a good idea (or at least not as bad an idea as some claim). Some of these reasons are hinted at above, but let’s unpack them a bit.

Note: One could also argue in favor of law school as an educational and/or enjoyable experience. But let’s be honest: law school is a professional school, and it’s expensive. So I won’t mention the value of “learning to think like a lawyer,” or the argument that law school can be fun (especially after your 1L year), and instead focus on the more practical reasons for going to law school.

1. If a law degree is like a lottery ticket, remember: some people still win.

Biglaw is not the be-all and end-all of the legal profession. We happen to focus a lot on it here at Above the Law because it’s our target demographic (for various reasons, both editorial and business-related). But we don’t mean to imply, through our extensive coverage of large law firms, that other sectors of the legal profession aren’t worthwhile. Many of these sectors are very well-served by their own niche blogs — e.g., solo practitioners.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Biglaw is the pinnacle of the profession, and that your goal in going to law school is to wind up an Am Law 100 or Vault 100 firm, or maybe a National Law Journal 250 firm. Is law school a wise idea?

If you go to a highly-ranked law school, then the answer is “probably yes.” As we recently discussed with respect to Cornell Law School, which is #13 in the influential U.S. News rankings, around 40 to 50 percent of their graduates will end up at NLJ 250 law firms. A 50-50 chance of getting a six-figure salary — probably while you’re still in your twenties, in the worst recession that most Americans have ever experienced — is not a bad thing.

The “yes” option only gets stronger as you climb higher into the rankings. Students at the dozen schools that are higher than Cornell in the rankings have just as good if not better shots at Biglaw.

Even if you go to a law school that’s not very high in the rankings, if you kick complete ass excel academically there, you have a perfectly good shot at a large law firm job. If you are in the top 10 percent — or top 10 people, or top 5 people, depending on where you go — you can get a job at a place like Cravath or Sullivan & Cromwell. Or you can transfer to a higher-ranked law school, and from there get a job at a firm like Wachtell or Davis Polk.

CLARIFICATION: In the foregoing paragraph, I’m not trying to draw any distinction between the four named firms, which I use interchangeably as leading law firms. All I’m saying is that if you do well enough in law school, even at a non-top-tier law school, you can end up at a firm like one of these four (whether after transferring or not).

Granted, you would have had a better shot had you graduated in 2006. But you still have a shot — which can’t be said if you don’t go to law school at all.

In this sense, then, law school is like a lottery: you need to be in it to win it. And make no mistake; there are winners out there. Over the years, I’ve met many graduates of law schools not high in the hierarchy who have managed to land at large law firms (through their academic performance, post-graduate performance as practicing lawyers, personal connections, or some combination thereof).

(Or think of the graduates of schools outside the so-called “T14” who go on to clerk for the Supreme Court. There aren’t many of them, but they do exist — Justice Alito recently hired a Seton Hall graduate as a clerk, for example, and Justice Thomas in October Term 2008 hired all four clerks from outside the T14. To these Supreme Court clerks, aka “The Elect,” the legal world is their oyster — as are $250,000 signing bonuses when they leave their clerkships for firms. Had they never gone to law school, on the thinking that “I didn’t get into a top 14 school so it’s not worth it,” they would not be where they are today.)

Is winding up at Biglaw a likely employment outcome for someone who matriculates at what Elizabeth Wurtzel might regard as an “eighth-rate law school”? No. But it is a possible outcome for this person — and an essentially impossible outcome for someone who never sets foot in a school of law.

2. There are many great career options in law outside of large law firms.

Here’s another way of putting this point: Go to law school because you want to be a lawyer.

And keep in mind that there are so many ways to “be a lawyer.” The existence of viable options beyond Biglaw is a point I made in our earlier post looking at placement data for students at Cornell Law School:

There are so many options for law-related employment outside of Biglaw — midsize or small law firms, federal government (e.g., the DOJ Honors Program), state government, clerkships (federal and state), fellowships, non-profits / public interest, and in-house (yes, even for new graduates). And that’s without even touching upon the many career alternatives for attorneys — all the things you can do with a law degree that don’t involve practicing law.

And that listing wasn’t even exhaustive. For example, I forgot to mention legal academia, which is what a plurality of my law school classmates are doing. Being a law professor is a great gig: you get to think deep thoughts and be a Public Intellectual, while working nine months a year for a six-figure salary (for most law professors, at least those in tenure-track positions at ABA-accredited law schools). And, as even Elie would concede, the market for law professor talent is hot right now — thanks in part to the record number of people wanting to enter law school.

Granted, getting a job as a law professor can be difficult, given the academic credentials that are typically required. But there are so many other options, especially outside the big cities. For example, many law students come from families of lawyers, where law is the family business (and often a very successful one — Big Law isn’t the only source of Big Pay). These students don’t have to worry about breaking into Biglaw. They can simply join the familial law practice, learning at the elbow of a parent or grandparent or other relative, and inherit the practice and the clients when the relative in question retires.

That’s two reasons already — and I’m just getting warmed up….

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