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)