Jun 28, 2013

Thinking of Law School?

Earlier this week, I posted about the poor job market and the trap that high debt loads can pose for unwary students.  Yet I am not completely pessimistic about the state of legal education, nor do I believe that this is a bad time for anyone to go to law school. To the contrary, while it is a poor job market and the price of legal education has not dropped to keep pace with the real value of legal education, I believe that this may be a great opportunity for those God calls into the law.

I've said much of this before, but here are some (somewhat contrarian) factors to consider if you have law school on your mind in the next one or two years.

1. Do not presume upon the future and hamstring yourself in future job choices by going into more debt than you can service on a the median salary of the left hand curve of this salary chart. The "chart" is the salary distribution curve for law grads from 2007 and 2011 (posted last summer at TaxProf Blog), and the bottom line is this, from the NYT last summer (quoted from the link above):
The median salary for graduates of the law school class of 2011 was $60,000, which was 17 percent lower than it had been just two years earlier, according to a new report from the Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP).
But if you know anything about the bizarre market that is legal hiring, you know that the median salary tells you zilch.
Few people actually earn anywhere near the median (or mean). Instead, for years salaries for newly minted lawyers have been “bimodal,” meaning they’ve generally sorted into two levels: the $160,000 earned by first-year associates at big, white-shoe law firms, and the $40,000-to-$65,000 range earned by lawyers at smaller law firms, government jobs and so on. ...
In short, if you garner a debt load that can be serviced on a $40,000 to $60,000 salary, then you're at least thinking realistically.

2. Find out about what lawyers actually do and evaluate your likelihood of happiness in the profession. If you know a bunch or lawyers or have practitioners in the family, this is likely not a problem for you. But if you are unfamiliar with what lawyers really do, find out. Law practice is different from law school, and liking one is not always the same as enjoying the other. Shadow a lawyer. Read a book on the legal profession or law school. Interview an attorney in your church.  

3. Take advantage of the decline in law school applications and find a school that will give you a full or partial scholarship, regardless of its ranking. The quality of the legal education that you will receive does not vary as much as top-tier law schools would like you to think. Sure, if you want to clerk for the Supreme Court, you need to go to Harvard or Yale or a handful of other schools, but you also need to finish in the top of your class there and be very fortunate-- and have a heck of a back-up plan if you don't win that lottery.

4. Find a school that fits your personality and goals. Looking at the US News rankings is almost always a short-sighted approach. Have you considered nationally-known schools that teach from a Christian perspective, like Regent Law or St Thomas? Have you considered underrated regional law schools like Alabama or Kentucky or LSU? Have you visited a law school to find out the sort of community that is being built there? Have you looked at the Princeton Review rankings on quality of life, quality of community, and student/professor relationships? Do you care about a school's fundamental or core values? Look closely, and you'll see that the "tiers" don't tell the whole story, especially when it comes to Christian perspectives, quality of campus community, and the integration of faith and learning.

5. Consider alternatives to legal education to meet your goals. If you want to go to law school in order to build a foundation for political action, consider a masters in public policy. If you want to be able to meet the needs of families or do justice overseas, consider a masters' degree in criminal justice, international relations, or social work.

6.  Reject the following bad reasons for going to law school:

*My parents think I'm great at arguing
*I'm super smart, like to read, and don't have other options
*I want to make a ton of money
*I want a job where I will be respectable
*I want to be a Christian political activist

7. On the other hand, embrace approaches for deciding whether to go to law school that focus on calling, gifts and talents, and a heart for service through law.

If you're not completely sure, take a year or two off before you go to law school. To quote Stanford Law Dean Larry Kramer, from a TaxProf blog not too long ago: 

Many college graduates jump into law school because they don’t know what they actually want to do. Parents and friends suggest it because they think it’s a safe default. But a grad should choose his life’s path only once he knows himself well enough to be sure of what he wants. I think people should first spend a few years exploring to figure out what engages their passions....

There are great reasons to go to law school today, and there are great schools from which to choose. Do your homework, think carefully, ask questions, and seek guidance.

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