Why did you decide to go to law school?

There is an intense conversation going on about the cost of legal education as compared to its benefits. The New York Times is doing a series of articles, Paul Campos at Colorado is offering his views, and Brian Tamanaha is posting a lot on this topic over at Balkinization.  Almost all of this discussion, however, focuses on the law schools or on lenders of student debt.

I’m struck by this fact.  Applications to law school are not going down much (or at all) notwithstanding the sharp increases in tuition and the decline of the job market.  Demand for legal education seems relatively inelastic. So I’d like the students who read the blog to answer this question–why did you decide to go to law school given the current economic conditions?  The floor is open.

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15 Responses

  1. Joel says:

    I came to law school because I want to be my own boss, I want to have my own business and I’m just plain ol’ interested in practicing law. It’s more about lifestyle than it is about money. I’m disappointed to see so many of my colleagues who came to law school for the exact opposite reason–they want the security that comes from never having to work for themselves, from always having a more experienced partner giving them work and from having a guaranteed paycheck.

  2. Steve says:

    I’m a 1L as of today. Honestly the decision to incur the debt was not easy. I did the research on those purporting the law school scam, read the materials on the inacuracies of U.S. News and World report data, and have spoken with a few lawyers about the bare job market. I do believe (possibly in error) that there are some jobs for those who work hard enough. I also recognize that there are very few jobs availible to those who only hold a bachelors degree. Compared to the legal job market ten years ago things are dire but sadly that is also true in most other job markets. Given the “rock and a hard place” employment options I chose to pursue law because interests me and I’m certain will challenge me.

  3. Recent Grad says:

    Since I applied to law school in 2006 and enrolled in 2007, I can’t speak to the precise question posed–the economy was still in decent shape when I made the decision. But tuition was high (over $40,000 my first year, nearly $45,000 by my third year), so I can speak to that half of the question.

    When I entered law school (at a top 14 school), the implicit bargain was that all or virtually all of my class would land jobs in BigLaw. That’s what justified the expense; my $128,000 in student debt was an “investment.”

    I graduated in 2010 with a BigLaw job, but many of my peers left law school jobless. Ironically, I rationalized my law school debt because I thought it would guarantee me a high-paying job, but now that I have a high-paying job, the only thing that’s keeping me here is my enormous debt load. I’m sorry to say that the rumors of BigLaw’s hellishness are not greatly exaggerated. I’m grateful to be employed, but I wish I had devoted more thought to what exactly I was “investing” in.

    I frankly don’t understand what is motivating the current population of law school applicants. Law school is no longer an investment; it’s a huge risk, even at a top school. I suppose it must be irrational optimism (others might have a hard time landing a good job, but not me). But even those who win “the prize”–working at a prestigious firm for $160,000/year–are likely to have buyer’s remorse.

  4. Part-timer says:

    I am a 1l. Like Steve, I came to law school with the hope of someday being self-employed. I understand it is a risk, which is why I’m going part-time. My current position pays well enough that I’ll be able to make my loan payments even if I don’t land a high-paying legal job. It seems like a well-reasoned gamble, but check back in 4 years.

  5. 2L Prof says:

    I applied for law school in 2004 with the goal of becoming a law professor, and a tentative back-up plan of getting a BigLaw job to pay back the tuition. I did so with my eyes open. Had I been rejected at the T-14 schools to which I applied, I would have gone to one of the two law schools in the state of Utah, which both have reasonable tuition, in the hope of securing a reasonable job in that state. If both the T-14 and the Utah schools had rejected me, I would not have attended law school. My research led me to conclude that the proposed benefits of other schools did not justify the debt burden. I thought at the time (and still believe) that other law schools at public state schools with reasonable tuition would make sense for residents of those states.

    I worked very hard and I was very lucky (and it takes both), and I’m now starting my second year as a law professor. My debt load is significant. I’ll likely be paying it for the next 25 years. It turned out to be a good bet but I’m not sure how I would feel if I was still in BigLaw. I actually liked the firm I practiced at before I started teaching, and would have returned if academia had not opened up, but I don’t feel I was as well suited to client/partner service as I am to student/academic service.

  6. Applicant says:

    I am applying to law school for matriculation next fall. I decided to incur the debt and risk the job market because every career that interests me requires a law degree. I have worked in legal environments–as a legal assistant at a corporation, on the Senate Judiciary Committee as clerk, as a criminal justice policy associate at a think tank–and feel very comfortable with legal analysis. Additionally, I am married to a lawyer and dated him while he was in law school, so I know exactly what to expect. Finally, I performed extremely well on the LSAT and at a competitive undergraduate institution, so, statistically speaking, I will probably perform well in law school and will be competitive in the legal job market.

  7. Bill Reynolds says:

    Back in the late ’60s the options were bleak: The draft required you to stay in school, but grad ed promised a lifetime of genteel poverty, B-school seemed absurd (moving to different parking lots at GM as you were promoted), so Law School was left. I foud it a boring experience, but I drifted into teachi ng and have loved it

  8. Recent Grad says:

    As a follow-up to my earlier comment (#3)–

    I should note that, like 2L Prof (#5), one of my motivations in applying to law school was the prospect of an academic career. I had done enough research to know that breaking into the academy was difficult, but I didn’t realize just how difficult. I went to a top school, but not Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. So it’s going to be (even more of) an uphill climb.

    That said, I’m trying to write and publish like crazy in the hope that academia will become a realistic career option. My BigLaw gig is helping me pay down loans quickly, and I’ll be glad to have it on my resume, but I think it takes a certain type of person to survive in BigLaw for more than a few years. Sadly (or happily?), I am not of that mold.

    That reality could and probably should be communicated more effectively to law school students.

  9. Cause There's Still Too Much Noise says:

    I went to a T20 school and graduated in 2009. I did well (honors) but am still under-employed. Many of classmates are in the same boat of under- and unemployment.

    I went to law school because I believed the US News stats for my law school, which were apparently completely ginned up. (They base the numbers off the self-selecting group of alums who reply to Career Services’ inquiries). I’m in the Paul Campos/ATL boat of law schools being engaged in a giant Ponzi scheme.

    When I talk to people who are going to law school, they’re shocked when I point them to blogs that highlight how bleak the situation is. Most law students go straight from undergrad. They’re busy partying, studying, doing what undergrads do. A NYT series, some blog posts in farflung outposts of the blogosphere, are not enough to break through the noise.

    I think the general answer is: they are ignorant and they will get swindled as a result.

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    Paralegal here. I’m going to tell you why I decided *not* to go to law school.

    I have worked in both big and small law. In big law I saw an awful lot of associates who were absolutely miserable, but held prisoner there by their debt loads. Some of the partners seemed not to be miserable in the sense of being unhappy, but many seemed to be miserable as human beings. I have never decided how much firms tend to select miserable human beings for partnerships and how much it is that the environment changes formerly decent people for the worse.

    Things are different in small law. I know lawyers who are happy people, and whom I respect and like. So if I were to go to law school, it would be with a small firm as my goal. But the numbers don’t work. Tuitions are so inflated that they only sense if a biglaw salary is waiting at the end.

    So to review, the brass ring for which law students are reaching is the prospect of years of indentured misery, with the hope of coming out at the back end with no debt and a marketable skill which can be applied to a decent job. This is the best possible outcome. Other possible outcomes are much worse. Thanks, but no thanks.

    I made this analysis about eight years ago. The job market was better, but tuitions were already inflated. The same analysis today would come even more strongly to the same conclusion.

    While my income ceiling is lower than an attorney’s, I have a very marketable skill set, no debt, and I usually go home at five o’clock. Were I in a state that allowed one to read for the bar, I might be tempted. But law school? Not a chance.

  11. John says:

    I went at night while working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Assistant. I also decided to go after having been out of undergrad for several years. I decided to go because – after exploring other fields – I decided that I was most interested in politics and policy and (given my particular aptitudes) law was the best path to get ahead.

    In general, it has been worth it. Though I remain saddled with crippling debt (I did not go to a firm so I am not making $150,000 a year or more). I love what I do, and I needed law school to do it. But I feel bad for undergrads who go straight to law school – I think they make a huge mistake. If you don’t really want to be there and/or aren’t really sure that law is a field you want to pursue, then you are digging yourself a deep financial hole that you will pretty much have no chance of getting out of unless you opt for the big firm life that you may very likely despise. It is a depressing trap that I have seen many fall into.

  12. Kent says:

    I did not like the job I have right out of college (from 08-09) and knew I wanted to get another degree (MBA or LAW). Incidentally I got laid-off so it was the perfect time to pursue another degree. I took the GMAT and did average I took the LSAT and did above average so I went down that road. I also got the sense that an MBA was too easy to get and that it wouldn’t set me apart as much as a JD. Turns out, though my motivation to go to law school was only partly due to my interest in the law, I really like it and wouldn’t change it (even with the poor job market, as the job market was poor for me when I started).

  13. Tb says:

    I was on the track to go to law school eventually, but in 2005, I left my career as a paralegal and went back to finish my undergrad degree. I started law school in 2009, and despite the costs, know that it has been the best decision for me. I plan to practice special education law/disability rights law because of personal experiences with a disabled child. Sure I’ll have a ton of debt at the end of it, but I’d rather have a career that I’m happy with and proud of then buy a home.

  14. Carrie says:

    I spent a lot of time telling people I would never go to law school, but realized 2/3rds through undergrad that I would actually be amazing at it, and love it. I planned to work for a couple of years first, but in 2008 when the market crashed I realized no one would be hiring, so I decided to ride out the recession with grad school.

    I’ve very debt-averse, and I knew law school wasn’t worth anywhere near $180K. So I created a spreadsheet to maximize educational quality while minimizing debt. I’m at a T-20 school (I got into T-14 schools but refused to take on the debt load) with a large scholarship, and I’m at the top of my class.

    I love the law. I spend 12+ hours a day at the law school (excluding weekends). I sincerely look forward to being a lawyer. I have a stacked resume. I’m in exactly the position I expected myself to be in 3 years ago. (I wasn’t delusional…)

    Expect that no one will give me a paid job.

    Firms refuse to hire 3Ls. And due to budget constraints, while my summer government position would have loved to hire me, they don’t have funding.

    I have significantly less debt, and significantly greater prospects, than many of my friends — but I’m still looking at likely unemployment. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

  15. Current 1L says:

    I noticed that no one had posted on here in a while and I felt I had to give my two cents.

    I am currently five weeks into my second semester of 1L and I’m not going to lie, it’s tough. While the workload is manageable as a full-time student, there is tremendous pressure to do everything possible to stack your resumé, get the best grades and network like crazy, or face the more than likely possibility of unemployment or underemployment and crippling debt once you get that J.D. My father went to law school in the early ’80s and while debt was certainly a concern then as well, law school meant almost a guarantee of a high paying job when you passed the bar. Times certainly have changed. In light of the circumstances I chose what law schools I applied to carefully, weighing the cost against the prestige and so on, and I could not be happier with my choice. I am not in a T20 or above law school like the preceding posters, but I pay less a year now for school than I did for undergrad, and the overall job situation for graduates of my school is on par with almost all other law schools, including the T20 and above.

    Now don’t misunderstand the point I am trying to make here. I love law school. The classes are challenging but fascinating, and I have wanted to be a lawyer my entire life. I just think it is important to know what you’re getting into before deciding that law school is for you.