Should You Go to Law School?

The economy is in the tank, things are down. Nobody was thinking about ‘transparency’ five years ago, because the job market was so rich there was no reason to quibble over statistics.

- Larry Kramer, dean of Stanford Law School to the Wall Street Journal ("Congress Gives Law School the Stink Eye," Nov 14, 2011)

I have a lot to say about that, and it ties in nicely with a follow-up I want to make to an interview I gave recently to US News & World Report, which was nice enough to quote me yesterday in an article called 5 Tips for Current or Prospective Law School Students in a Difficult Economy. (I'm quoted in tip #2 about submitting applications early in the admissions cycle.) The reporter's lead-in to the five tips caught my eye, most importantly:

The header of Third Tier Reality states that the blog exposes the "ugly realities" of law school. Paul Campos, a University of Colorado—Boulder Law School professor, writes a blog called Inside the Law School Scam, and Above the Law regularly covers topics such as law school "admissions fraud" and unemployment rates among young J.D.'s.

Whether a result or a symptom of the disparaging views of legal education and the job market, recent data from the Law School Admissions Council suggest that the number of law school applications dropped 11 percent this fall. Despite this trend and the competitive job market, some experts still advise people to apply to law school. Here are five ways applicants and law students can maximize their opportunities.... [bolding added]

In case that phrasing gives the impression that I'm an "expert who advise[s] people to apply to law school" in the face of all this horrible data, I want to clarify that I do not -- ever -- categorically advise people to apply to law school. Quite the opposite. For years now, I have been pretty loud-mouthed about my opinion that law school is a lousy investment for many applicants, and that was true even when the economy was good. Here are some examples of the advice that I've been giving consistently for years now:

My book -- which came out in hard copy in spring 2005, several years before the legal market tanked, and law school scam blogs gathered steam, and U.S. Senators started complaining about shady law school employment statistics, and law school tuition got even more eye-poppingly expensive -- had this to say:

The top fifteen [schools] also offer a level of job security that other law schools can’t. People at the top schools who find themselves in the middle of the pack or even below still do just fine on the job market, even at the highest levels of the job market. The further down the food chain you go, though, the less of a safety net you have. Once you get to the second tier and below, you need to be at or near the top of your class to end up at a top firm in your region or with a top judge in your region (the national market is a much more difficult proposition), and people in the bottom half of the class often face grim hiring prospects.


[L]aw school comes at a cost—a huge cost—and it’s very comfortable and easy to relegate that queasy reality to the fold in your brain labeled “Abstractions & Things to Worry About Later.” Three years at a private law school will run you about $100,000 to $150,000 these days, including living expenses. Public schools cost just about as much for people who aren’t state residents (you’re lucky if they are just $10,000 cheaper per year than private schools), and in-state residents sometimes pay just $5,000 to $10,000 less per year than out-of-state applicants do.

That’s a lot of money, any way you slice it. Call me a party pooper, call me a curmudgeon, but you’ll thank me later if you pull your head out of the sand now and figure out how you’re going to pay for this grand adventure. In a perfect world, you’d think about the finances before you decide to apply—indeed, you might make your decision to apply contingent on the financial analysis—but most of us mere mortals don’t work that way, so you owe it to yourself to tackle this subject before you send in your deposit and end up “married” to the wrong school or career.

You need to think of your legal education as an investment, and you should calculate your expected return on that investment. That’s why it’s so important to think about your career options coming out of various law schools. If you have to pay $1,000 a month in after-tax dollars to cover your student loans, you’d better be sure you will be able to find work at a well-paying law firm after you graduate. If you graduate $100,000 in the hole, don’t assume for a second that you can run off and work for a public-interest legal clinic. And until you’ve paid off that debt, or unless you attend a law school with a generous loan-forgiveness program (more on that later), you won’t have the freedom to go sit on a beach and stare at your belly button while you contemplate what you really want to do with your life. Think of it this way: Lots of people rush off to law school on the assumption that a law degree gives them freedom, but you don’t really have freedom when you’ve mortgaged the next ten—or thirty—years of your life. (Law school graduates who join large law firms don’t have much trouble repaying their loans on the ten-year payment plan, but most law school graduates don’t end up joining the big firms, and many end up extending their loan-repayment schedules to thirty years.)

And in today's market, I'd have to add "or defaulting entirely" to the end of that last sentence.

So Dean Kramer's attitude might be well and good for Stanford Law School students, but needless to say, most law school applicants don't end up at a top school like Stanford. 

The book also had this to say about the rankings (points that are equally applicable to the shoddy data that the ABA puts out about law school employment, and on which the rankings rely):

Take a look at the rankings criteria sometime. Those postgraduation employment statistics? They don’t distinguish between the law school graduate who clerks for Sandra Day O’Connor and the graduate who serves lattes at Starbucks. Those GPA stats? They don’t distinguish between a 3.5 in Interior Design from Chico State and a 3.5 in Astrophysics from Caltech (and by that I don’t mean to disparage interior designers or Chico State, but I do mean to point out that the number alone fails to convey a lot of important context). The rankings give weight to how many books take up space in the library (totally irrelevant in this day and age), and reward schools that generate and then deny as many applications as possible (creating a huge incentive to encourage applications from people who don’t stand a chance).

That last point is important. You’ll never hear an admissions officer tell you that you don’t stand a chance, or that you shouldn’t apply. If they reject you, they’ll never tell you that you shouldn’t reapply. They’ll tell you that even if your numbers stink, you can basically still write your way into law school. I appreciate the pressure they’re under—it’s their job to generate as many applications as possible—but it’s just not realistic to say that you can write your way into law school if your numbers aren’t in the ballpark. The numbers matter much more than admissions officers let on. Applicants sugarcoat themselves in their applications—that’s the nature of the beast—but don’t forget that law schools sugarcoat the application process, too.


Don’t get me wrong—I’m not ideologically opposed to rankings. I think they serve a purpose in helping people get a very general sense of the caliber of different law schools in the grand scheme of things. I’ve met plenty of applicants who really didn’t know that Cornell Law School and Brooklyn Law School are very different “products,” or that the University of Chicago Law School isn’t some commuter school. By all means—pay attention to the criteria you care about. Just don’t assume you care about the same things as the august editors of U.S. News & World Report. Law school applicants are about to spend a small fortune on an investment that will determine their future careers, and yet they are some of the most ignorant consumers around. They do more research when trying to decide between a Honda CR-V and a Toyota RAV4 than they do when picking a law school. You owe yourself more than that.

That was in 2005. And I know I wasn't the only one who cared about law school transparency or ROI back then -- far more important people did, too. Check out this paper by Professors Andrew Morris and Bill Henderson from January 2007, just about the same time Dean Kramer was suggesting that no one was paying attention to transparency or quibbling about statistics. Here's the abstract:

Measuring Outcomes: Post-Graduation Measures of Success in the U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings

The U.S. News & World Report annual rankings play a key role in ordering the market for legal education, and, by extension, the market for entry level lawyers. This Article explores the impact and evolution of placement and post-graduation data, which are important input variables that comprise 20 percent of the total rankings methodology. In general, we observe clear evidence that law schools are seeking to maximize each placement and post-graduation input variable. During the 1997 to 2006 time period, law schools in all four tiers posted large average gains in employment rates upon graduation and nine months, which appear to result from a combination of competition and gaming strategies. In addition, Law schools in tiers 2, 3, and 4 have increased 1L academic attrition, which may be an attempt to increase the U.S. News bar passage score.

And here's an interview I gave in early 2009 to the founder of the LSAT Blog:

1. In one [2007] blog post, you write, "Most ABA-approved law schools are not worth the investment." This is a rather shocking statement. When I first read it, I thought you made a typo and that you'd meant to say "most non-ABA-approved schools..." In your opinion, what conditions must be met for a school to be worth the investment?

I know it's strange for people to hear that opinion, because there are so many people out there who want to go to law school at any cost. There are also a lot of well-intentioned parents and pre-law advisors who treat a law degree as an all-purpose degree that's suitable for anyone.

But law schools aren't all the same, and they don't set graduates up for the same kinds of opportunities or income streams, on average. I would never say to someone, "Don't go to school X, ever," because some people really are just looking for the intellectual challenge, or to acquire a particular skill. And that's fine if money is no object, but for most people it is. For that reason, I encourage people to be rather ruthless in their cost-benefit analysis, and to be honest with themselves about the risks and costs involved.

At a very basic level, I don't think a particular law school program makes sense if it doesn't set up its graduates with decent odds to carry the loans they'll have to take out in order to attend. What people end up paying to go to law school varies tremendously, so each person has to make his own assessment about projected income vs. loan carrying costs. Many applicants are not realistic about what kinds of salary prospects they'll have coming out of a given program, or how far up the class rankings they'll need to be to make the kinds of salaries they're expecting to earn. If you have to be in the top 10% of your class to make the six figures you'll need right out of law school to start paying back your loans, that might be too risky a proposition, for example.

I'm actually not alone in having these reservations. If you look at some of the blog postings I've written over the years (here and here), I've referred to a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal as well as a law school dean who said, to his credit, that law schools should be ashamed of themselves if they take students' money without giving them good enough job prospects to justify that expense. Let me quote the dean of New York Law School:

"We should be ashamed of ourselves. We own our students' outcomes. We took them. We took their money. We live on their money to pay to come to San Diego [where the conference was held]. And if they don't have a good outcome in life, we're exploiting them....Maybe the chance at being in the top 10% is not a good enough lottery shot in order to effectively spend $120,000 and see it blow up at the end of three years of law school."

That's powerful language, right?

There's also a really interesting chart put out by NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals (don't ask me why their acronym doesn't match their name; go figure). If you look at the chart for graduates from the class of 2007, the line showing the salary distribution is pretty odd looking, with two peaks:

Here's what NALP says about that chart:

What this image makes visually manifest is the two very different legal employment markets that law school graduates face. While 16% of starting salaries were $160,000, far more, 38%, were $55,000 or less. The first peak in the graph reflects salaries of $40,000 to $60,000, with salaries of $40,000 and $50,000 each accounting for about 10% of salaries. Collectively, salaries in the $40,000 - $60,000 range (approximately the total area reflected under the left peak) accounted for 42% of salaries. Salaries reflected under the right peak, including the smaller bulge over $145,000, accounted for 22% of salaries.

Mind you, this was before BigLaw (the firms that pay the big bucks right out of law school) started imploding, laying off attorneys, and instituting hiring freezes (take a look at Above The Law if you want the grim and gory details), so that second peak for the class of 2009 might not look as rosy when the chart for 2009 eventually gets released. But in any event, most applicants I talk to don't think they're going to be the ones making $55K or less, and if they're taking out substantial loans, that's a tough way to go financially (see my blog posting here).

2. Along the same lines, what about applicants for whom the legal profession is a lifelong dream? Wouldn't you agree that not everything about one's career can be measured in dollars?

I'm very sympathetic to people who have dreamed their whole lives of going to law school. Of course not everything can be measured in dollars, but a law degree is a financial investment, among other things, and the math has to make sense no matter what your motivations are for going to law school. Applicants need to be realistic about what they're getting themselves into. I know it's not pleasant to hear "this might not make sense for you," or "this might not make sense for you given these factors," but I would argue it's better to do that analysis before making that big investment than afterwards.

I also feel an ethical obligation to be honest with people about their prospects, just as I would want someone to be brutally honest with me if I woke up one day and said, "hey, I know I'm pushing 40 and I can't touch my toes on most days, but it's been my life-long dream to be a professional ballet dancer. Will you help me spend six figures to pursue that dream?" If that ever happened, I hope someone would sit me down and have a very candid talk with me.

I also encourage people to get their feet wet in the legal world in some capacity before jumping into law school. They might have dreamed their whole lives of becoming lawyers, but many people have no realistic idea about what kinds of things lawyers do all day long, or what the different trade-offs are. Popular culture dramatizes and romanticizes lawyers all the time, so I understand the seduction of the law. But as with anything, real life is usually very different, and aspiring law school applicants owe it to themselves to have some understanding of what they're getting themselves into. Obviously you can't go out and practice law before you have a law degree, but you can observe a lot about the profession and different options out there even if you're just temping for a legal staffing firm in an administrative capacity, or you're volunteering for a non-profit legal aid clinic a few hours a week. Seeing legal practice up close and in real life can be a very clarifying experience, whether you end up loving it or hating it or just seeing some other side of it that you hadn't known about before.


5. Anything else?

When I look at the recession, and how quickly the law firm landscape has been imploding and the business model changing, I like to remind applicants that a JD does not mean job security. In times past it did to some degree, but those days are gone and might never come back. Law school often attracts risk-averse people, so it can come as a shock to them when they realize that they're not getting what they thought they were bargaining for. Law school applicants have to be prepared to be very entrepreneurial about their careers.

And I've writing on similar themes in my blog over the years, from several different angles:

So maybe that makes me sound like an anti-admissions consultant on many days, but it would violate my professional ethics to tell applicants that they should all be running off to law school. It's a big, important, and expensive decision, and that was true even before all this recent chatter about the law school bubble. I applaud efforts like the Law School Transparency project, Elie Mystal's beat on Above the Law, and the Inside the Law School Scam blog. They are doing a public service, and more power to them. And to applicants, I say: Those professors and schools (and attendees of ABA committee meetings on law school accreditation, for that matter) who pooh-pooh calls for transparency and sunlight? Consider the possibility that they have a vested interest in keeping the system the way it is, even at the expense of applicants. Don't assume they're advocating for your best interests.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.