Law School – Good Choice or Bad Choice?Posted: March 4, 2011
It seems like recently there have been a lot of articles criticizing law schools. To be fair, the articles do bring up some valid points– for example, the high cost of attendance, the inflated employment rates, and the depressed legal market. But if law school has taught me anything, it is to examine arguments critically.
Law school is expensive. Taking information from the US News and World Report, the average cost of attending a top 25 school is approximately $40,000-$50,000 a year. And that is for tuition alone. When you factor in that many of these schools are in large cities with high cost of living, and it is not uncommon for students to take out $60,000-$80,000 in loans in one year. Even schools which are relatively unknown are not shy about charging $30,000 (or more) a year in tuition. Much has been made of the fact that many law students graduate with over $100,000 in loans that do not go away, even with bankruptcy. In fact, over the past 25 years, law school tuition has increased at twice the rate of cost of living.
But is this any different than the inflation of cost for undergraduate courses? Higher education in general is becoming more and more expensive. The average cost of college tuition went up nearly three times as fast as the cost of living in the period from 1978-2008. I believe this is due to the increased availability of loans to students and the government backing of those loans. I will say this as plainly as possible: there are too many law schools out there. The current system allows for schools to charge whatever tuition they want. The schools walk away with cash in hand, and lenders are stuck with grads who can’t find jobs in a saturated market.
Many law schools add to the problem by intentionally inflating their statistics. This makes the law market market seem more active than it really is. Some of the third and fourth tier schools still manage to report 99.9% total employment after graduation. So why shouldn’t students want to go those schools? You have to keep in mind that many of these schools count ANY employment as “being employed.” Working at a top 100 international law firm making $180,000 a year? Flipping burgers making minimum wage? Employed. Relatively few students, even at large prestigious schools, end up making over $100k a year. I have even heard of schools hiring grads to work in the copy room of the law school so that the school can count them as “employed.”
The legal market is depressed. But so is practically every other market in the US right now. The American Bar Association has even issued a “warning” encouraging students to think twice about law school. It reported that while grads entering big firms were previously making an average of $160,000 by 2009, the average salary for a grad was down to $65,000. But look carefully at the report, because they are comparing vastly different jobs. Large firm salaries have always been disproportionate to the average starting salary of all law school graduates. Large firms may not be paying $160,000 any more, but they still paying over $100,000 for a starting salary. As I have said before, this is like holding a lime next to a pomelo and shouting, “LOOK AT HOW SMALL CITRUS HAS GOTTEN!!!!”
So what should a conscientious, intelligent individual who is contemplating law school do? Think about it. Make sure this is something that you are interested in. Law school is an arduous adventure, but I got into it knowing this. I have enjoyed my law school experience, and came into it with no delusions about the profession I chose. Be sure to weigh all of the factors that are important to you. For me, that meant looking at the cost of attendance, and making sure that the school had an honest and complete record of employment. Note how the BYU career report lets you know how many students got into degrees that are “non-professional” (that means burger-flipping jobs, folks). Law school can lead to a rewarding career in a number of fields. Like with many of important life-decisions, the decision to enter law school should be carefully and thoughtfully considered.