Dear Undergraduate Considering Law School,

You have already read innumerable things about law school – from U.S. News and World Report's rankings of the top law schools to Kaplan LSAT prep books to mind-numbing tracts on how to write that Perfect Cover Letter – and you don't need one more thing to read. But think of it this way: before you spend three years and $100,000+ on the ol' JD, you can spare five additional minutes to read this.

I am not an "expert" on law school. What I have is personal experience and ongoing experience teaching and advising droves of undergraduates who march toward it (and through my classes) each semester. My intent is not to dissuade you, but merely to be honest with you (and get you to be honest with yourself) because I have found the overwhelming majority of undergrads to look at law school with expectations that range from Delusional to merely Unrealistic, Confused to merely Ambivalent.

Why do you want to go to law school? Your answer to this question falls into three general categories:

1. You have a deep and substantive interest in the law; being a lawyer is your dream career. You picture yourself in a courtroom, defending the downtrodden. You see yourself getting a nice, "ethical" job (helping people and whatnot), disregarding the fact that such jobs are about 0.01% of the profession and you will most likely end up doing bankruptcies or criminal defense of defendants who, unlike those in the movies, are guilty as fuck.

2. You want to make a metric crapload of money, and being a lawyer seems like the easiest way to do it without having to use math. Many people (parents and older relatives in particular) have told you repeatedly that you'd "be good at it." Since lawyering kinda sorta doesn't seem too bad, you figure "What the hell. Why not."

3. You have a useless BA (political science, history, etc) and, as you look beyond graduation to the vast, uncertain future offered by a post-industrial economy, you can't think of anything else to do. Your options are to go to law school, do Americorps for $5,000 per year, or return to Seymour, Indiana and work in the H.R. department at the screen door factory.

All three of these are valid reasons for going to law school. Unfortunately, that does not mean they are all good. First, we need to critically evaluate the myth that law school is a great way to ensure a high-paying career for life (i.e., #2). Let's look at what it will cost you and what you'll get back from it.

1. Law school is expensive. If you go to a "top tier" school you can count on borrowing a cool $125,000 to pay for it. Lower-tier (and often public) schools may run you a more pedestrian $60,000+ over a three-year period. At the current Federal Student Loan interest rate (6.62%) borrowing $125,000 would leave you with a $1,427 monthly payment. For ten years. Going for the cheapie school ($60,000) would put you on the hook for a mere $685 per month. For ten years. So making a big salary isn't just desirable; you're going to be pretty fucked if you don't.

2. About one in ten law school graduates (that's actual graduates, not applicants or enrollees) will make a starting salary in six figures. In 2006, for example, the ABA reported that 42,676 law degrees were awarded. Do you think that there are 43,000 plum job openings every year, waiting to absorb another throng of 26 year-olds who are balls deep in debt? Only about 4,800 of those new JDs made over $125,000. The people who make that much go to the Top 15 schools – Stanford, Harvard, Yale, etc – and finish in the top of their classes. So on the one hand, this can be encouraging. Nearly 5,000 law school grads each year can end up in high-paying jobs. Can you realistically expect to be one of those 5,000? Are you going to go to a top program and/or finish at the top of your class?

Another portion of the 43,000 grads got decent-paying jobs ($50-75,000) at small or medium firms or working for the government. That's not bad, although the loan payments will be crippling on a $50k salary (and many public defenders / prosecutors can start as low as $30,000). But here's the important part: nearly half of the 43,000 JDs reported in 2006 found no work in the legal profession at all. Only about 22,000 of the degrees had reported starting salaries. As for the remaining 20,000?

Given the bias in the way these statistics are accumulated (schools try very hard to account for every graduate with a high paying job in order to brag about their placement records), I suspect that close to 0 out of the missing 19,989 law school graduates had high salaried legal jobs, and the majority of them have no legal employment at all.

As many as half of the new JDs in 2006 were unable to find work in the legal profession at any price. They are on the job market, overqualified for wherever they end up.

I have personally known dozens of people who have entered law school. Most quit. Some finished. Exactly none of them – bright, dedicated people one and all – are making huge money or working for big firms. Should my anecdotal evidence be given much weight? No, but it explains my motivations. I'm trying to get you to confront the disconnect between what you think is going to happen when you go to law school (starting in a big firm at $150,000) and what is likely to happen. Sure, you could land a plum job. But that is the exception, not the rule.

The the legal field is like the rest of our economy: the top five percent are doing exponentially better every year. Salaries at "the top" are skyrocketing. The most common reaction to this fact is "Wow, I'm gonna get in on that!" Statistically, no. No you won't. The top students at the top schools will, and the rest of your cohort will get the scraps.

And the punchline: if you do defy the odds and get one of the rare $125,000+ starting gigs, you'll be working 80 (billable) hours per week for the next ten or fifteen years. Fun? Fun!

So that's it. If you are going to law school because you want to help innocent people, make a ton of cash, or because you can't think of anything better to do, I sincerely hope you will pause and put more thought into your motives and expectations before you start incurring mountains of debt. My intent here is not to insult, discourage, or deter you. I have simply heard too many undergraduates speak of law school as a combination Lost City of Gold, career utopia, and get-rich-quick scheme. It is not. It's difficult, expensive, and with the exception of the elite, not as rewarding as you think.


(PS: h/t Mike, who also helpfully recommends this graph of the gloriously bimodal distribution in starting salaries)


  • If you ever update this or do a round two, cause freshman need to see this, I'd recommend throwing in this chart.

    The big thing to really emphasize on this graph, besides how much of the distribution is below $60K, is that it only includes 22,000 students, or about half of graduates. There's no distribution at $0, but really, an additional 50% of the graph is at $0 in a way. Or certainly less than $40,000.

    Who do you think the program secretaries are going after to fill out their placement surveys? (The very top of the class.) Who do you think are purposely not filling out their placement surveys? (Those who aren't working in law.)

    Might want to tag this public service too.

  • ladiesbane says:

    Fortunately for the JDs, if they keep their wits about them, they'll realize that their non-law careers can be significantly boosted by that extra set of initials behind their names. (Did I say "careers"? I meant "incomes".)

    Like any other advanced degree, it convinces some employers that you are capable of grinding away at something for a few years (a good harbinger for their own open position) and doing sufficiently well to be given a certificate. Very rarely do they see a degree as a receipt for a series of checks that cleared and/or a positive credit history…even if they sometimes should.

  • I have been researching law school for quite a while now and all of this information is pretty accurate. One thing, however, is that schools out of the top tier can be just as expensive as top tier schools. There are plenty of Tier 3 and Tier 4 schools (Cooley, for example haha) that can still run you 120K plus in debt if you go without a scholarship, and the job prospects are bleak… to the point where I would categorize them as money making scams. As Ed eluded to, even some Tier 1 (top 50) schools can lead are bad employment prospects and high debt, unless you graduate in the top 10-15% of your class (cough…Indiana…cough). Without a scholarship, I don't think it's worth going to a law school ranked worse than Top 20.

    Since most undergrads who apply to law school tend to be very, very misinformed, an excellent resource for pre-law applicants is the website: (not my site and i'm not trying to shamelessly plug, but it does contain a wealth of important information.).

  • One more thing that I forgot to mention:

    a lot of newly minted JD's who cannot get a job tend to do something called "document review". This underclass of attorneys work through temp agencies in cockroach infested basements of big law firms for around 30 dollars an hour with no health insurance. the only thing they do all day long is look at hundreds of thousands of documents and click "relevant" or "not relevant" (to the case). but hey, since you will be working about 80 hours a week (or you get dismissed from the project!) you might make six figures. yay!

    and once you do this, it's basically like smearing shit on your resume, no firm will ever take you.

  • I take issue with your calculation of what law school graduates should expect to pay in student loan interest. You're an idiot if you try to pay back $120k over ten years, and I think hardly anybody is going to do that. I have $10k in student loans, and the guv'mint is letting me pay it back over twenty years.

  • Ed- I'm not sure that your first point is entirely accurate. When I was seriously considering law school (not anymore, thank god) I read that top schools are promoting generous loan forgiveness packages. If you decide to go into public service for a minimum of five years, the school essentially pays off your loans. In this case, if you're really serious about helping the indigent, a hefty price tag may not seem as daunting.

  • It's been almost a decade since I applied, but I didn't get much exposure to the phenomenon of loan forgiveness plans. It's not surprising, though. Good to know.

    Matthew, I find the concept of making 20 years of payments on something far too depressing to calculate, even in a hypothetical, what that might look like. Let's do $125,000 at 6% for 20 years = $895 per month FOR TWENTY YEARS = $215,000. Not only is that a horrifying thought, but you're paying about 190% of the principal by the time you're done. Ouch.

  • That's the thing though – You're dumb if you get your student loans with a tiny window for repayment, because your monthly costs are through the roof right out of school, when you have the highest odds of being in a position in which you're unable to afford it.

    HOWEVER – you are also dumb if you continue to make the minimum monthly payment after you've settled into a life that allows you to do more, because then you end up paying so much in interest. On the other hand, student loan interest is tax-deductible, so really it's not all that bad, either way.

    You're getting loans for your graduate schoolings, right? I assume they're deferred until you graduate, but do you know what your repayment plan is going to be?

  • Sounds like you could also dissuade a lot of people from going for undergraduate studies with this type of argument. People can also accumulate a mountain of debt say, going out of state for college, and get out without much hopes of a job offer or a decent paying job or a job that is fulfilling. I don't think undergraduate studies are a magic wand either that magically gives people the opportunity to make mountains of money after they graduate. I remember you posting once that you basically repossessed people's property after they couldn't pay their medical bills after you accumulated mountains of debt after college. Would you suggest that people do this type work instead, just say fuck it, sell their souls, and become a slave for the man for a meager wage? Should people just not go to college period and start working at Taco Bell for the rest of their lives? Should people pursue an academic career? What should people who aren't part of the richest 5% do now? I don't think the economic outlook is great right now for anybody that is an average Joe.

    I think about all you've proven is everybody, whether they go to law school, get an undergrad degree, or don't go to college, have about the chance of a Horatio Alger novel of making over 125 K a year and working at a rewarding job. The system is set up for most people to not be successful and do the bidding of the richest 5%. No, your job probably isn't going to pay very well, be very rewarding, or be perfect 100% of the time. Yes, the top 5% will probably get richer no matter what, and most everybody else is going to struggle.

    I think if people are passionate about going to law school, then go for it. This is about the only thing I've learned concerning a profession in life, and it should be, ideally, the number one motivation for pursuing a career.
    You are correct that people should not pursue law school if they are not passionate about it or uncertain due to the risk. Anybody who believes law is the holy grail job without evidence and decides to go to law school is stupid. People should probably do an internship first where they see first hand what being a lawyer is like, and use actual experience to help decide if they want to pursue law or not. But, most people are going to be in debt somehow, whether they buy a home, go to college, use credit cards, etc. This is the American way now, and 100K + debt shouldn't dissuade somebody from pursuing their dream.

  • I think if people are passionate about going to law school, then go for it. This is about the only thing I’ve learned concerning a profession in life, and it should be, ideally, the number one motivation for pursuing a career.

    Chris I think you bring up some good points, but two responses – (1) life would be more interesting if everyone made their choices on a strict "I'm passionate/I'm not" scale, but many, especially of a certain type of person, kind of fall into law school. I know many who have. That's not bad or wrong, but it is important to understand what the actual field is – the "I'll become a lawyer and it'll eventually work itself out" approach, which is a valid way to do a lot in life, is problematic here.

    (2) The debt is a giant form of social control. The only firms that can pay enough for students to pay off quality-educations are the firms that charge fees that only large corporations can afford. This is very important. Numberwise, it isn't the same as undergraduate debt, which can be mitigated in a lot of ways. An undergraduate degree opens the door to the managerial class (at least in theory); a law degree opens the door to be a lawyer – a very select skill set that doesn't transfer well.

    Being aware of this debt issue is double for those who who want to do social justice work – the PS tuition discount is contingent on being able to sign up for a large number of years year of public service work, and is in general tough to find outside of elite schools top-15 (though this may be getting better). Even Harvard's 1/3rd off for PService still leave a ~$500 monthly bill at 30-years, which is much, much worse considering you will probably make $20,000/year.

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