‘Which one of you is special?’

Today, the ATL Career Center launches its latest feature: a Pre-Law section, featuring ratings, inside info, and expert advice on law schools, LSAT prep, and the application process. Check it out here.

While law school applications continue to decline and legal jobs are scarce, the business of discouraging people from going to law school is positively booming. There is a mountain of data which would seemingly dissuade anyone from taking on massive debt only to then leap into the clogged toilet of this job market. (And yet, see this compelling analysis that now is actually a great time to apply to law school, especially for lower scoring applicants.)

But what about future law students — are the 0Ls getting these gloomy memos? And how is it shaping their choices?

Recently, in collaboration with our friends at Blueprint Test Prep, we conducted a survey of BluePrint’s summer students studying for the October 2012 LSAT. We had nearly 600 respondents. Our goal was to get a snapshot of these 0Ls’ perception of the legal landscape, including the realities of financing a law school education and the current state of the legal job market.

After the jump, see some of what we could glean from the 0L mind, including a striking disconnect between the “job market” and a “career path”….

Aspiring law students are not in denial about the steep cost of a JD. In fact, a majority of them are overestimating the expense. When asked how much student loan debt they believe the average law graduate carries, 69% estimated $120,000, and 20% estimated $200,000 (the real figure is closer to $100,000). A plurality of survey respondents also overestimated the average cost of private law school tuition. Forty-six percent estimated tuition to average $50,000, about $10,000 too high.

When it comes to researching their law school options, the aspiring law students cited the ABA/LSAC Guide as the most helpful, followed by U.S. News, and then top-law-schools.com. This finding is slightly at odds with what the 0Ls told us are their priorities in actually choosing a school. When it comes down to making a choice, USN rank is the No. 1 factor and “prestige/selectivity” (safely conflated with USN rank?) is next, followed by location. Bar passage rates and employment outcomes — the sort of hard data points that make the ABA/LSAC Guide so useful — are further down the list. (Presumably, this issue will be moot with the advent of the Pre-Law Files, which you should check out here.)

Unsurprisingly, most are going into debt to finance their JDs. In response to the question, “What is the primary way you plan to pay for law school?,” the responses were as follows:

When asked what do they planned plan to do with their law degrees, survey respondents were a diverse bunch, with the largest cohort planning to go into private practice, though not Biglaw:

The NALP stats on employment outcomes for the class of 2011 show roughly half of law grads heading into private practice, so these numbers above are consistent. However the 16.7% of pre-law students with aspirations for non-profit or public interest jobs are out of proportion with the 7.5% of law grads actually entering those fields.

In terms of salary expectations, a large majority expect to make between $50,000 and $100,000 their first year out:

Taken together, the responses concerning career plans and salary expectations reveal a few contradictions. NALP tells us that the median salary for the class of 2011 is $72,000. But NALP’s methodology only counts “full-time law jobs.” In other words, it excludes 45% of all the graduates. Other than that, no concerns.

All this suggests that 68% of the 0Ls have employment expectations for a sort of job that is largely nonexistent. Where are these gigs that pay between 50 and 100 grand? Sure, there are a limited number of AUSA and ADA gigs, as well as a handful of the most-sought after public interest jobs in that range, but many of these jobs derive from Biglaw. There are “staff attorney” positions, and more numerously, temp doc reviewers toiling in that proverbial windowless basement or warehouse.

Perhaps the most striking finding coming out of our survey is the contrast between the respondents’ assessments of the “big picture” and their views on their own personal career trajectories. In a pair of open-ended questions, we asked them their views on a) why fewer people were taking the LSAT and applying to law school, and b) why they themselves were interested in getting a JD. We dumped all the responses into word clouds and the results present a striking contrast:

Why are fewer people taking the LSAT and applying to law school?

Why are you going to law school?

Much has been said about the role of cognitive bias and personal exceptionalism in the law school context. Looking at these clouds above, it does seem that aspiring lawyers can perform a neat trick: uncoupling their own personal “career” ambitions from the mere “job” market. For when we asked 0Ls how sure they were about their decision to get a JD, let’s just say they weren’t exactly plagued by doubt:

On a scale of 1 – 10, where 10 means “very certain” and 1 means “not at all certain,” please rate how certain you are that you want to go to law school.

The mean “certainty” score was a strikingly high 8.74. In the face of the steep costs and uncertain prospects of embarking on a legal career, 0Ls are confident and unflappable.

If you’re one of these unflappable prospective law students, we encourage you to check out all of the information that’s available the Pre-Law section by clicking here.


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