Concerns about the legal profession extend far beyond the reports of high dissatisfaction among practicing lawyers. Several articles from legal professors and media outlets, such as the New York Times, have told the stories of scores of unemployed law school graduates and the unimaginable debt that burdens them. A typical law student could expect to have over $100,000 in federal loans and interest by the time of graduation—an amount that can easily balloon to over $250,000 for students who fund their entire education and living expenses with loans, otherwise known as paying “sticker” cost. With a 7.9 percent interest rate on federal GradPLUS loans, it’s easy to see how so many students end up beneath a mountain of increasing debt that they simply cannot financially recover from; also, because student loans are non-dischargeable, even claiming bankruptcy cannot erase the debt these students incur.
Surely law students do not end up in bankruptcy from their loans because lawyers earn a lot of money, right? Not quite. Since the 2008 recession, law jobs have been declining while law schools continuously graduate more students than the market needs. Those jobs that do pay enough for students to afford sticker-price loans are very demanding, tumultuous associate positions at the most prestigious law firms in the country — jobs typically reserved for students at the very top of their class or graduates from the top 14 ranked law schools according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Even those students fortunate enough to land one of these “BigLaw” jobs as they are called, run the risk of being laid off in the first few years of employment and losing the ability to pay off their student loan debt.
What happens to the vast majority of law students who are not in this small group? According to the employment statistics of even the lower-ranked law schools, their graduates are mostly employed. Unfortunately, many schools consider any employment to be adequate for their metrics, even if this means their law graduate with insurmountable debt is a part-time barista at Starbucks. More reliable sources of employment statistics, such as the American Bar Association or the Association for Legal Career Professionals, provide more valuable employment reports and the results are grim for aspiring law students. At some law schools, as few as 31 percent of graduates have law-related jobs nine months after graduation.
So why should you go to law school in this economic environment? Well, you shouldn’t—unless your situation fits certain criteria. If you can attend one of the top 14 schools, you should probably go. If you can attend a school that is important in a regional market and you have substantial scholarship opportunities, then you should probably go. If you can attend a highly ranked school with very little or no student loans, that’s even better. According to the New York Times, this year’s application cycle is expected to have the fewest applicants since 1977, so the timing is right for top students to cash in with large scholarships as law schools scramble to maintain class sizes.
However, no student should attend law school without a genuine interest in the legal profession. The risks are too high for a student to spend three years “feeling out” the possibility of becoming a lawyer. More importantly, every potential law school applicant owes it to him or herself to intensely research the subject before taking the plunge into additional student-loan debt. Only a smart consumer can avoid becoming a cautionary tale. Law school is not a dead end for everyone; many students can and will succeed even in these troubling economic times. Just be careful before you assume you will be one of them.
Pellegrino is a member of the class of 2013.