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In Defense of Going to Law School

3. What else are you going to do with yourself?

The Great Recession has affected career opportunities not just in law, but in numerous other fields — many of them the main alternatives to law school and the legal profession. In the words of the blogger behind The 30-Something Law Student:

[T]ell me, which job market is good right now? Medicine? Engineering? Even those have been hit to some degree. The truth is, there is no good job market right now. The whole country is in a depression, and every field is tough to break into.

See also this New York Times article (a profile of Scott Nicholson, a recent college graduate who went to a good school, studied political science, and got good grades — i.e., the kind of person who goes to law school — and who hasn’t been able to find a job for months).

Or consider the case of Emily Johns, one of the incoming law students featured in the NLJ article. Johns states that she is going to law school because “I want to be a lawyer, not because I’m running away from these scary times in the journalism industry.” But Johns admits that law school started to look much more appealing after her employer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, declared bankruptcy. Law firms aren’t always the most fun places to work, but they are (usually) solvent.

In other words, law isn’t the only field that’s suffering. And many of the professions that are in similarly dire straits, such as journalism and publishing, are the ones that used to welcome the humanities and soft-sciences majors who flock to law school. To quote the great song from Avenue Q, “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” (No offense to English majors — I was one myself.)

The lack of opportunities in other fields affects the decision to go to law school in at least two ways. First, it reduces the opportunity cost of the three years you spend in law school (as noted by Professor Sarah Waldeck over at Concurring Opinions, among many others). Thanks to the awful economy, most kids fresh out of college aren’t forgoing three years of a six-figure salary in order to go to law school; they might instead be missing out on a significant period of unemployment (a la Scott Nicholson).

Second, it increases the appeal of the possible options after law school. Sure, your chances of landing a $160,000 a year job at a major law firm may be slim. But how many non-legal career paths even given you a viable shot at that kind of pay (and prestige), just three short years down the road?

4. Not everyone graduates with debt (or with as much debt as some people think).

I was lucky enough to graduate law school debt-free; my parents paid for my college and law school. And I’m not alone. According to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (figure 7), over 10 percent of law students will graduate with zero debt, and another 5 percent or so will graduate with less than $20,000 in student loans. So somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of law school graduates leave school with little to no debt — and a valuable professional degree to show for their efforts.

There are several reasons why perhaps a fifth of law school graduates have little or no debt. Some have parents, grandparents or spouses who are willing to help out with educational costs. Some have savings from pre-law-school careers, in lucrative fields such as finance or consulting.

And some attend reasonably priced state schools and/or receive very generous scholarship money. The dean of one top 25 law school told me earlier this year that about two-thirds of his school’s students receive some form of scholarship aid from the school. See also UC Irvine, where the first entering class received full scholarships for all three years, and the second entering class will get scholarships covering at least half of their tuition for all three years. In some cases, the scholarship money in question may be large enough to affect your choice of law school.

So the “sticker price” of law school, in terms of the cost you see on the law school website or in brochures, can be misleading. Many students aren’t paying full freight — and many of the students who are paying full freight can afford to.

5. You get to put “Esq.” after your name.

Okay, that’s a pretty lame reason. Unlike doctors or professors, we lawyers don’t get titles before our names. In my ancestral homeland of the Philippines, lawyers are addressed as “Attorney” — e.g., “Attorney Lat.” Not so here in the United States.

But despite the lack of a fancy title, being a lawyer has a lot to recommend it. There are plenty of bad reasons to go to law school, but there are plenty of good reasons, too. Have other good arguments in favor of law school? Please provide them in the comments, or email us (“Reasons for Law School”).

Depending on a person’s individual circumstances — there is no “one size fits all answer” to the question “Should I go to law school?” — it is a perfectly rational decision, for very many people, to go to law school. If you’re thinking about it, just do your homework before you go. Don’t take everything you read in law school propaganda recruiting materials at face value. Instead, you should independently research — in objective, clear-eyed, rigorous fashion — what it will cost you, why you want to go, and what you might gain.

Good luck!

P.S. This may be our first lengthy pro-law-school post, at least in quite a while, but it won’t be our last. We’ll continue to cast a critical eye on law school and try to get people the information they need to make informed decisions about whether to go to law school (and where). But at the same time, going forward, we will also strive for greater balance.

The law is a learned and a noble profession, and some people truly are meant to be lawyers. In order to become a lawyer, you (generally) need to go to law school. So law school isn’t all bad — or is at least a necessary evil — and fair coverage of the world of legal education should reflect this.

Hope drives rise in law school applications [National Law Journal]
Am I making a big mistake? [The 30-Something Law Student]
2009 Annual Report [Law School Survey of Student Engagement]
Who Should (And Shouldn’t) Go to Law School [Concurring Opinions]
No Longer Their Golden Ticket [New York Times]
Half Tuition or Less for a Law School’s Second Class [New York Times]
Maybe It’s Time to Rethink Applying to Law School [Forbes]

Earlier: College Grad Exposes Everything That’s Wrong With 0Ls
Biglaw Employment Prospects for Graduates of Top Law Schools: A Cornell Case Study

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