Kurtz: The case for thinking twice about law school

Michael Kurtz

You might have read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and dreamt of becoming a latter-day Atticus Finch. Perhaps you saw “Legally Blonde” and came to idolize Elle Woods. Or maybe you watched every episode of “Law & Order” and put a poster of Jack McCoy on your wall. But, aspiring lawyer, be warned: It’s time to think twice about law school. Even though anxious college grads flock to law school as a refuge from the brutal realities of the recession, causing the number of LSAT takers to peak in 2009, a legal education no longer guarantees a long, stable and lucrative career. It remains the right choice for only a select few.

Let’s start with the bleak employment figures. Law schools frequently fudge their self-reported employment data and publish employment figures of 98 percent. This trend has alarmed leading legal organizations and law professors alike. The American Bar Association has proposed that law schools standardize and regulate these statistics. In a similar vein, Prof. Paul Campos, who teaches at the University of Colorado, recently analyzed National Association for Law Placement statistics on employment for freshly minted J.D.s and found that just 62.9 percent held full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation. At one top-50 school, Campos discovered that number was as low as 45 percent. At Georgetown, the law school paid several unemployed graduates $20 an hour to work, irony of ironies, in its admissions office. And Duke recently initiated a “Bridge to Practice” program whereby it provides unemployed recent graduates with stipends to support them as they work unpaid legal jobs.

And have I mentioned that the supply far outstrips demand? Last year, law schools awarded 43,588 degrees, an 11.5 percent increase from the year 2000. But the elite, global and well-paying firms, colloquially known as “Biglaw,” which employ around 28 percent of recent grads, have laid off nearly 10,000 lawyers since 2008 and rescinded offers and deferred start dates for thousands of others. The number of people employed in legal services fell by nearly 8 percent between June of 2007 and the fall of 2009. This outpaces the 5.4 percent loss in the broader economy over the same period.

Plus, the astronomical cost of law school exacerbates the difficulties of securing full-time employment. The highly exclusive top-14 law schools – the Ivies, plus Northwestern and its ilk, which typically require at least a 165 of 180 on the LSAT – will set you back around $150,000 for three years. But a recent NALP report found that 34 percent of starting salaries for new associates ranged from $40,000 to $65,000. The average debt load hovers around $100,000, which can be a crushing burden for an individual in his or her late 20s or early 30s looking to buy a home and start a family. One particularly distressed third-year law student at Boston College made national news when he asked the dean for a full tuition refund: “With fatherhood impending, I go to bed every night terrified of the thought of trying to provide for my child AND paying off my J.D., and resentful at the thought that I was convinced to go to law school by empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career.”

However, law school might be the right choice for those who can excel in the pressure cooker of a T14 school. If you graduate in the top half of your class at an elite law school, your chances at securing lucrative, prestigious employment improve dramatically. Between 40 to 50 percent of Cornell Law grads – ranked #13 in the all-powerful U.S. News and World Report rankings – get jobs at one of the National Law Journal’s top 250 firms. The possibilities only improve further up the list. To have a 50-50 shot at a six figure salary in the worst recession in living memory – while you’re probably still in your late 20s – is pretty impressive. Plus, not everybody graduates with crippling debt. Depending on your socioeconomic background, your grades and your school, something in the realm of $20,000 may well be a manageable load.

A top law school is expensive, grueling, hard to get into, and might not even help your career. So if you go, go because you love the law. Enough to suffer for it, enough to lose sleep over it, enough to miss your kid’s birthday party for it. Go to law school because you want to be a lawyer, not because you’re a high-achiever who wants a BMW and can’t think of a better way to get one. This isn’t the kind of decision you make on a whim.

Michael Kurtz is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected] Illustration by Kaitlin Svabek.