Should You Go to Law School, Part II

An article from last Thursday’s Atlantic Monthly — "Law School Applications Are Collapsing (as They Should Be)" — has caught the attention of a lot of people in the legal profession. I’ve had it sent to me by a half dozen friends and colleagues since it came out, and discussed it with attorneys who are practicing in private firms and the public sector.

If you’re even considering the possibility of applying to law school, you should read it too.

Executive Summary: the legal market is flooded with attorneys, there are fewer jobs available, student debt is increasing, median salaries for attorneys are decreasing, and — perhaps as a positive result of all of this — applications to law school are dramatically decreasing.

The article concludes with this depressing but accurate statistic:

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that around two thirds of recent JD recipients were employed in full-time jobs that required a law degree. That, unfortunately, was a bit overly optimistic. In fact, NALP's table states that around 65 percent merely have jobs that require bar passage, which may mean part-time work as contract attorneys, who often earn around $25 an hour. I regret failing to convey the severity of the situation. 

One friend working for the Department of Justice summarized his thoughts to me this way:

If you think that being a lawyer is the best job in the world and the only one for you, apply wherever you want, but know that the cost will be going up as the “return” on your tuition goes down.  You may not even get a job when you graduate.

If you are drawn to law school mostly by the money and prestige, you’d better be getting into a really, really good law school. Otherwise, you won't be making much money and you won't feel very prestigious.

Another friend at a top-10 law firm was just as blunt:

The idea of the attorney being near the top of the salary food chain is a thing of the past. If your happiness is going to be measured in dollars, go into finance instead.

So what does this mean for you as a potential applicant?

  • If you’re considering law school, the pool of competitors you’ll be facing is shrinking. But there is a very good reason for that: simply obtaining a JD will guarantee neither employment, nor financial stability. And people are starting to realize that.
  • Why do you want to become an attorney? If you cannot provide a very good answer to this question, you should stop and think before rushing into applications and committing the time, energy, and financial resources that are involved in becoming an attorney.
  • Unless you are going to a top law school (with “top” being a bit of a moving target), your chances of landing a high-paying job after graduation are getting worse by the day.
  • If you are definitely going to apply to law school, “getting in” should not be your goal. You need to aim for the best possible law school, which means your applications need to be perfect. Otherwise, the three years and thousands of dollars you commit to the process may not get you anywhere close to where you want to be. 

What do you think? Please share.

From the archives:

Should You Go to Law School?

Feast or Famine for Law School Grads

"We Should Be Ashamed of Ourselves"


Gregory Henning is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Virginia Law School. After graduating from law school, he clerked for Judge R. Lanier Anderson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and then became an Assistant District Attorney in Boston. As part of the Ivey Consulting team, he counsels law school applicants through the application process.