Dear Maybe JD,
Hopefully, the negative media coverage of law school has disproven the myth of JD rags to lawyer riches. And I’m glad that hasn’t entirely discouraged you from considering this profession. Having faith that law school will work out is irresponsible. But it doesn’t mean you should blindly heed the advice of the naysayers.
Ordinarily, the pursuit of a legal career is like buying a home with a six-figure mortgage. For others, the burden may be more modest. Either way, know what you’re buying into before putting in a down payment. Unlike buying real estate, nobody will buy back that degree if it turns out not to be your cup of tea. Let’s chat about how you can evaluate this prospective purchase.
The Real Deal
Given America’s adversarial legal system, for the truth, consult two dueling perspectives. Read Patrick Schiltz’s "On Being a Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession." Then take a gander at Kathleen Hull’s "Cross-Examining the Myth of Lawyers’ Misery" (both were published in Volume 52 of the Vanderbilt Law Review).
Why is a legal career so attractive to you? Not having a 30-year career blueprint is okay. Plenty of successful attorneys don’t. But realize that pursuing legal practice without any direction can lead you toward dangerous waters. Lawyers do lots of things, so read more about it. Major, Lindsey and Africa’s Law Firm Practice Area Summary is a great start. The earlier you give it some serious thought (read: now), the better-informed your decision will be.
What are your lawyerly motivations? Consider whether it is important enough that you would invest three years of school and possibly years or decades of loan repayments toward this pursuit.
The intellectual hoops are alluring. Undoubtedly, critical thinking is honed in law school. You will learn how our political and legal system operates, and your writing will never be better. Also, acknowledge that the JD experience is not all roses: students can face demoralizing and draconian grading curves, too much work, and uncertain full-time employment prospects. The process can take a psychological toll.
Knowing that you have a passion for legal work from prior experience is one of the better reasons for pursuing a law degree. Disillusioned investment banker to SEC prosecutor. Convict to public defender. Union rep to labor lawyer. It’s great to enter law school with specialized experience that few others have and with a specific goal in your sights that you know will be worth the work.
Who can resist a transformation from barista to big-law associate to rainmaking partner? Forbes reports that among America’s richest, JDs fare decently. Out of a recent publication of the Forbes 400, 35 are JDs. Though you may have been better off not pursuing a college degree: 63 of them dropped out or didn't attend altogether. If millions are all that you’re after, a 2013 LinkedIn article notes JDs do well too, but trail engineering, MBA, and economics degree holders.
What if you simply want a stable job with a decent salary? Out of 800 professions classified by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, attorneys do well. The average US lawyer’s median salary is $136,260, which places us (generally) ahead of nearly every other non-medical employee. But unlike your future 1L professor, I won’t hide the ball: the average is deceiving. Knowing the distribution of salaries is equally important. A birds-eye view of legal salaries is pretty clear. According to the National Association for Legal Placement, legal salaries fall into a “dramatic bimodal distribution.”
In other words, you’re likely to find yourself at one of two salary points. Nearly half of 2014 JDs earned salaries in the $40,000 to $65,000 range. Alternatively, 17 percent of graduates made many times more, approximately $160,000. Ergo, to make bank straight out of law school, there’s less than a 20 percent chance (with the caveat in the next section). If you don’t hit the jackpot, your most likely outcome is a $20 to $30 hourly wage.
The Pecking Order
Your career trajectory and financial stability will primarily be shaped by three factors: your law school’s ranking, your ranking in law school, and your total debt.
School rankings matter because they matter to employers. There are always exceptions to the rule, but generally, students at higher-ranked schools have better post-graduate outcomes. According to the ABA, for the Class of 2015, only 14 law schools had at least 80 percent of graduates pass a bar exam and gain employment in a full-time, long-term job. Virtually all of them are perennial leaders in school rankings.
Visit the Law School Admission Council website, which has a handy UGPA and LSAT Score Search that will provide a rough-and-dirty probability of admission to most law schools. Sterling LSATs and GPA will make you competitive at a top school. Better yet, if you can graduate from a leading school with little or no debt, you can make career moves unencumbered by financial need.
Let’s say you’re not accepted to a crème-de-la-crème program. But a school will likely take you. Each year, thousands of newly minted attorneys enter the profession, vying for a relatively stable number of legal jobs. While becoming a 1L doesn’t guarantee a career or bar passage, don’t be disheartened; plenty of students graduate from law school and embark on great careers.
The Investment Horizon
As I’ve mentioned before, it takes a big investment to get a law degree, one that will likely not be paid off immediately. Along the way, your own priorities will inevitably shift. Legal practice itself will change, too. Think about how those things will look by the time you will pay off your law school loans. You want the professional home you’re buying into to withstand the long haul.
It’s true that technology and globalization are disrupting the legal field. And that’s true for virtually any industry; every organization must adapt. That being said, certain jobs may be in higher demand than legal positions as the landscape continues to change.
If you ever hope to work abroad or in another state, legal practice can be limiting. Each state has its own rules on admitting attorneys, not to mention the language and legal barriers outside America.
Legal positions can be grueling. Burning the midnight oil may be invigorating today. But consider if that is sustainable, especially as life’s priorities may change. And certainly, some practice areas and practice settings are more flexible than others in this regard.
Dabble Before You Deposit
If you’re still set on law school, take a few extra steps before you make this huge investment:
Work at a law firm. Observe court. If you can afford it, get relevant work experience for free. VolunteerMatch.org lists plenty of nonlawyer opportunities that will give you a flavor of legal practice.
Rub Elbows with Lawyers
Find attorneys doing what you want to do. Shadow them. If you don’t know many attorneys, reach out to your state/local bar association for leads.
Ask Them Questions
What are your hours? How much of your work is sexy, and how much is drudgery? Ever canceled your vacation because of a deadline? Would the lawyer you’re talking to have done anything differently career-wise? Content as a lawyer? Still paying off student loans?
Use calculators (see websites of the University of Michigan and the Washington Post) to see how long it would take you to pay off your loans.
Prospective JD, if, after considering all of these items, you’re not really sure about law school, consider circling back to the beginning and asking yourself why you want to practice law. Focus on your reasons for this pursuit and be honest about your career prospects.
PS: The wild card? Grit. Take Angela Duckworth’s grit scale and listen to her compelling TED talk.