For decades, individuals have weighed the pros and cons of whether to go to law school, while many others have plunged into the endeavor without considering the advantages and disadvantages as they relate to one’s career goals. Below are presented the pros and cons from key sources over the years. The arguments fall around the following questions: does going to law school expand opportunities, or does it merely hold-out the opportunity to become a lawyer? If I don’t want to be a lawyer, is law school still a good idea? What are some of the key non-lawyer career opportunities that a law degree can open? And, can these opportunities be equally or better opened through other approaches? Is a law degree an “all purpose degree”, and is legal training a transferable skill? How significant are the opportunity costs of going to law school and incurring significant student debt? Is the pay in law firms good, making the investment in a law degree a good one? What if you don’t get a big law firm job, what are the other job options, and are these an adequate return on the investment in law school? Are public interest law jobs well-paying? Do you have to go to top law schools to get a top firm job? Is the experience of law school worth it? Is it intellectually and philosophically rewarding? Or is it stressful and soul-sucking? Are law school loans excessive? How do they limit career choices and living-standards going forward? Are lawyers happy? Does it require too much of a commitment of time? Is the practice intellectually rewarding? Is the work environment healthy and does it breed positive personality traits? Overall, is going to law school a good idea?
“Lawyers can function in the business world, whereas M.B.A.’s cannot function in a legal position. And although lawyers cannot be doctors, neither are they as closely held to their “field” as are M.D.’s. […] A law degree gives you almost unparalleled mobility in your career&151;lawyers run movie studios, manage baseball teams, hold political office, serve in the foreign service, run Fortune 500 companies, and head a wide range of legal service organizations.”
“Even those who do totally leave the law continue to draw on the skills they developed in law practice, because those skills are broad-based and valuable. Legal training is very beneficial in the development of useful, transferable skills that are much in demand in the workplace. Both legal education and legal work provide excellent training in analytical thinking, communication, writing, and persuasiveness—skills that can be used in many endeavors.”
“There are so many options for law-related employment outside of Biglaw — midsize or small law firms, federal government (e.g., the DOJ Honors Program), state government, clerkships (federal and state), fellowships, non-profits / public interest, and in-house (yes, even for new graduates). And that’s without even touching upon the many career alternatives for attorneys — all the things you can do with a law degree that don’t involve practicing law.”
“An MBA JD degree is also useful if you are considering a career in politics or government. Even if you don’t plan to practice law or work in a business setting, there are many ways in which an MBA JD degree can help you prepare for a job in public service. Your range of knowledge will make you a valuable addition to any campaign, political staff or government office. In the same vein, government organizations are constantly working with private business and legal firms, and a JD MBA graduate is perfectly suited to such work.”
“sometimes there are opportunities within the parameters of these jobs to exercise other skills, such as legislative analysis and drafting, policy planning, or lobbying.”
“Some practitioners leave law firms to work as corporate in-house counsel, using their legal skills as part of a team to further the business of their employers.”
“lawyering in a nonprofit organization, one that promotes values and issues prized by the lawyer, can reinvigorate interest.
“Lawyers also are teaching legal subjects in law, business, real estate, paralegal, and court reporting schools.”
“many practitioners work within bar associations, universities, and colleges, handling the legal business of these entities.”
“they can explore the industries that serve law firms or produce products for use by lawyers, or even set up their own businesses providing consultations to other lawyers in areas of self-developed expertise. Businesses that provide services and products to lawyers are expanding rapidly—computer consulting, legal product development and design, law book sales, practice management, office design, jury consulting, and legal software development, to name just a few. Look at the display ads in various legal publications to get an idea about the varied businesses that cater to law firms, many of which hire former lawyers to service those firms.”
“even if you look at it as an over-priced lottery ticket, it still beats the alternative. What the hell do you do with an English degree anyway? Or a History degree? Or any one of the dozens of useless bachelors degrees out there? Not much of anything.”
“I know that you have heard that a J.D. is a ‘great all-purpose degree,’ but it isn’t. That’s a lie put about by parents who are trying to trick you into middle-class professionaldom and law schools who are trying to take your money. A J.D. is not an all-purpose degree, it is a law degree. It does not qualify you to become a diplomat, a ‘senior policy advisor’ to anything, a politician, a banker, an aid worker, a political operative, or any of those other jobs that seem like they might be a fun way to satisfy your West Wing fantasies. It qualifies you to be a lawyer, and it doesn’t really even do that -there’s still the pesky matter of the bar exam.”
“I loved law school, and I am incredibly glad that I decided to go. […But] when [people] ask me if they should go to law school, and why they are surprised when, instead, my response is: ‘Well, do you want to be a lawyer?,’ and then ‘no’ if they tell me that they don’t. […] I know that you have heard that a J.D. is a ‘great all-purpose degree,’ but it isn’t. That’s a lie put about by parents who are trying to trick you into middle-class professionaldom and law schools who are trying to take your money. A J.D. is not an all-purpose degree, it is a law degree. It does not qualify you to become a diplomat, a “senior policy advisor” to anything, a politician, a banker, an aid worker, a political operative, or any of those other jobs that seem like they might be a fun way to satisfy your West Wing fantasies. It qualifies you to be a lawyer, and it doesn’t really even do that -there’s still the pesky matter of the bar exam.”
“And not just the debt. But also the massive opportunity cost of three years of your life. Compare this to grad school, where top phd programs tend to be funded. Or to an MBA program which is a year shorter (and sometimes two years shorter). Or to working at something that you might find interesting, where you can learn, build human capital, and get paid, all at once.”
“I know: right now you are mentally listing the names of all of the diplomats, senior policy advisors, politicians, bankers, aid workers, and political operatives who have J.D.s. I’m sure it’s a long list. Having a law degree certainly doesn’t disqualify someone from holding one of those positions. It might even help a little. But it’s not a requirement, and it’s not the easiest or cheapest way in.”
“6. THE BAR EXAM IS BRUTAL – This beast is two or three days, depending on your state of hypothetical hypotheticals and nonsensical nonsense questions that you will never be confronted with again in your life let alone career. You will study like an animal for three months, only surfacing from your dungeon to eat and feel some sunlight on your face for one insane exam. Plus, if you fail and 40%of you overall will, you have to do it all over again in six months. That’s six months of telling your family and friends that you will pass it next time and you have it all figured out. Don’t fail it again as 33% of you will and then become suicidal. $120,000 in school loans, holding off on the $36,000 job and no bar certification. Damn! […] I failed the California bar on my first attempt and though it was close, the excruciating three months between the first bar and the next bar were brutal. Also, I was overly confident after my first attempt, thus maybe I deserved to be humbled by the almighty bar. Happy to note, that I passed it the second time and thus didn’t hit the suicidal mind state.”
“The legal profession is in crisis. Every year, more and more people graduate from law school, but there are fewer and fewer jobs. Even the largest and most reputable law firms are experiencing unprecedented cutbacks. I don’t expect the situation to improve in the coming years. You are better off saving the money you’d pay for law school and invest in a franchise or small business.”
Lawyers are often focused into very specific areas of the law over time. This makes it difficult to cross over to other fields, see a wide variety of issues, and be opened to a diversity of opportunities outside of that specialization.
Lawyers are some of the highest paid groups of professionals in modern economies. This is because companies and individuals are willing to pay massive sums of money to defend themselves and their interests in and outside of court. A law degree, therefore, offers a great way for an individual to achieve much higher pay, a higher standard of living, and to climb the social ladder for themselves and their family.
“Second, it increases the appeal of the possible options after law school. Sure, your chances of landing a $160,000 a year job at a major law firm may be slim. But how many non-legal career paths even given you a viable shot at that kind of pay (and prestige), just three short years down the road?”
“1. If a law degree is like a lottery ticket, remember: some people still win. […] let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Biglaw is the pinnacle of the profession, and that your goal in going to law school is to wind up an Am Law 100 or Vault 100 firm, or maybe a National Law Journal 250 firm. Is law school a wise idea? If you go to a highly-ranked law school, then the answer is “probably yes.” As we recently discussed with respect to Cornell Law School, which is #13 in the influential U.S. News rankings, around 40 to 50 percent of their graduates will end up at NLJ 250 law firms. A 50-50 chance of getting a six-figure salary — probably while you’re still in your twenties, in the worst recession that most Americans have ever experienced — is not a bad thing.”
“Many law school applicants who are already established in careers as news reporters, businesspeople, or even doctors, have found that they need a law degree in order to be more effective or influential in their field. “
“Although there are very few jobs that remain secure in today’s economy, the fundamental role that legal systems play in our increasing global working world is striking. Certainly a law degree has become a necessary prerequisite for a great many jobs that could have been done without legal expertise 20 years ago. Your training and skills can allow you to stay employed and prepare you for a variety of situations.”
“Businesspeople feel that a background in law will enable them to negotiate the deals they encounter in their jobs more effectively.”
“In short, law school is expensive, but its value far exceeds the mere value of a lawyer’s salary.”
“Companies used to depend on elite law firms to train new lawyers they could bring in-house years down the road. Now, some are just doing it themselves, hiring directly from law-school campuses rather than recruiting lawyers who had previously spent a few years at a major firm. These companies are growing weary of paying high hourly rates for inexperienced law-firm associates. Hewlett-Packard Co. was one of the first known companies to bypass law firms in recruiting new lawyers. ‘I think it’s the wave of the future,’ said Michael Holston, H-P’s general counsel.”
“We observe that higher firm profitability is associated with higher salaries, bonuses, and prestige. Yet, higher profits also have a statistically significant relationship with longer hours, a less family-friendly workplace, less interesting work, less opportunity to work with partners, less associate training, less communication regarding partnership, and a higher reported likelihood of leaving the firm within the next two years.”
“3. The Sucker. This is the club for those who don’t go to a top ten law school. You get the boring work and the moral difficulty of the corporate serf, with the terrible salary of the do-gooder, because you’re working in some small firm doing family law, or criminal law, or wills and trusts, or real estate. […] The point being that these job options suck. There are boring, immoral jobs that pay better (investment banking). There are moral, low-paying jobs that are more interesting (investigative journalist). There are boring, low-paying (or high-paying!) jobs that are less immoral (foundation fundraiser). Why take the worst of all possible worlds?”
Matthew A. Feldman, a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York said to the New York Times in January of 2010: “What has come to pass is that a law degree is not a ticket to a six-figure salary and a six-figure bonus.”
“Two lawsuits seeking class action status were filed in Michigan and New York on Wednesday against Thomas M. Cooley Law School and New York Law School. The plaintiffs, who are graduates of the defendant schools, seek $250 million from Cooley and $200 million from NYLS in tuition refunds as well as other damages and reformed methods of reporting their graduates’ employment numbers. The plaintiffs—three against NYLS and four against Cooley—seek “to remedy a systemic, ongoing fraud that is ubiquitous in the legal education industry and threatens to leave a generation of law students in dire financial straits,” according to both suits.”
There are more lawyers than ever before. This means that it is harder to find good law jobs, and that the prospects of getting a position at a lower paying firm, or no job at all, is as high as ever.
When the economy is weak, like in 2009 and 2010, law firms often cut back dramatically on their hiring, and/or cut pay.
“ It is not uncommon for attorneys to make major career changes after just five years. This significantly undermines the “investment” of a law degree, as the “investment” is predicated on the idea that one will stay in the law practice for decades.
“This essay treats a legal education as an investment, and asks the question of whether, based on known costs and expected benefits, such investment should be undertaken. The inquiry will necessarily differ from one potential law student to another. But for three posited “typical students” at private law schools, the investment is shown to generally be a bad one.”
A law degree creates major opportunities and offers the opportunity to make significantly more than would otherwise be the case. This makes a law degree a very good investment, which can pay for itself in five to ten years time. In the long-term, this can be a very worthy investment in one self.
“4. Not everyone graduates with debt (or with as much debt as some people think). I was lucky enough to graduate law school debt-free; my parents paid for my college and law school. And I’m not alone. According to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (figure 7), over 10 percent of law students will graduate with zero debt, and another 5 percent or so will graduate with less than $20,000 in student loans. So somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of law school graduates leave school with little to no debt — and a valuable professional degree to show for their efforts. There are several reasons why perhaps a fifth of law school graduates have little or no debt. Some have parents, grandparents or spouses who are willing to help out with educational costs. Some have savings from pre-law-school careers, in lucrative fields such as finance or consulting. And some attend reasonably priced state schools and/or receive very generous scholarship money. The dean of one top 25 law school told me earlier this year that about two-thirds of his school’s students receive some form of scholarship aid from the school. […] So the ‘sticker price’ of law school, in terms of the cost you see on the law school website or in brochures, can be misleading. Many students aren’t paying full freight — and many of the students who are paying full freight can afford to.”
Cameron Strachter wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Rather than keeping options open, the crushing debt of law school often slams doors shut, pushing law students to find the highest-paying job they can and forever deferring dreams of anything else.”
“‘Just for the record, by ‘gigantic student loan payments’ we generally mean ‘In excess of $1000/month, possibly $1500/month, for at least fifteen years.’ So if you have a job that pays $40k a year now, you’d need a job that pays close to $60k to maintain your current lifestyle with student loan payments. The math really does suck.”
“Lawyers who went directly to law school from college may not fully appreciate the perspective and skills that law school provides. After all, that’s all they know. They don’t know what it is like to go through life without legal training. I do. While in law school, I would learn something in my constitutional law, tax or corporations class and think: How could I possibly have survived for the past 40 years without knowing that? I also worked with a lot of lawyers during my first career. Just as a person who never went to college may overestimate what everyone else who went to college may have learned during those four years, I was always somewhat in awe of the people with law degrees. They seemed to speak a language that only they understood.”
“It prepares people to become leaders in our society, which makes it imperative that they be rigorously trained as thinkers. They will become stewards of policies that affect our everyday lives: in our schools, our jobs and our families. All of this responsibility, in diverse fields, comes from legal education. As Chris Judge, my student at Syracuse, reminds me, “there are many paths toward becoming a lawyer,” and students and administrators should reject the customer-provider model of education.”
“First, and most important, it can teach students to “think like a lawyer.” As any lawyer will tell you, this is critical. The practice of law demands a rigorous, self-critical (and critical), creative and empathic (how will my opponent and the judge see this issue?) mind-set. In general, legal education does this brilliantly. This is at the very core of a legal education.”
“Gone are the days of the gold watch at retirement or the lifelong stint with a single employer. In today’s “real world,” people change jobs, careers and fields. Training students for a specific job may work for the immediate future, but certainly not for a career of service.”
“that a legal education provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the intersection of private and public power, to explore the rationale for the organization of human society and to participate more knowledgeably and effectively in every aspect of human endeavor.”
“I know that college went by extremely fast, but that was college. Law school is a different beast, with a poor social scene and students who are so competitive that they do not leave the library ever. This time creeps by. Also, breaks are not spent on vacation, however they must be spent improving your resume so that you can get a good job when you graduate. Think of law school as working hard while in school, approximately 70 hours a week only to work during your summers 50 hours a week. They don’t want to work you too hard during your summers, because they are ultimately trying to hire you and then force you into their labor force.”
“Longitudinal studies suggest that law school has a corrosive effect on the well-being, values, and motivation of students, ostensibly because of its problematic institutional culture. In a 3-year study of two different law schools, the authors applied self-determination theory’s (SDT) dynamic process model of thriving to explain such findings.”
“9. THE SOCIAL SCENE IS PATHETIC – Generally speaking, law school students are competitive, anal, nerds. They certainly are not the guys and girls you had a blast with drinking, dancing and partying all night. Your new friends and classmates will live in the library and will not find much time away from their books.”
“10. FINAL EXAMS ARE BRUTAL – Generally, for most courses, your entire semester grade will depend on one final exam right before Christmas and one final exam right before summer break. Imagine the stress that will ride on your back as you prepare and then await your grade with no indication as to where you stand. Additionally, all your professors will be traveling and unreachable.”
Many law students are primarily motivated by the prospect of helping people, as attorneys are all about defending people or corporations in court.
“as a lawyer, you have the capability to contribute a great deal to society, and perform great social service by bringing offenders to justice and helping the innocent find justice.”
“Reporters develop urges to become part of the solution to the widespread social problems they have been chronicling for years [and so consider going to law school as a means to doing so].”
“Other benefits are specific to the area of law you practice. As a solo practitioner armed only with a legal degree and a deep-seated commitment to the rule of law, my wife has been able to hold multi-national companies accountable for dumping their waste on foreign beaches. She is currently suing the private contractors accountable for human right violations in the Middle East and Asia. I went to one of her hearings a year or so ago to find a scene right out of Erin Brockovich. One side of the room was filled with the defendants, lawyers from three or four different firms, company government relations and press people, and so on. My wife sat on the other side of the room with an associate, a paralegal or two, and a couple of law students who had been volunteering their time.”
“For me as a criminal defense attorney, there is nothing more gratifying than the moment in which you walk into the cell block and see the look of relief in your client’s eyes. There is also that stunned moment of silence after a not guilty verdict has been announced and your client turns to you and says, you mean that’s it, I am free to leave now? Nothing I did in my previous career comes anywhere close to that in terms of sheer satisfaction.”
“Our legal system was designed as an advocacy system for a simple reason: No other system of law delivers true justice on a consistent basis. An advocacy system requires, by definition, advocates. The only things that prevent a party in a legal dispute from being an effective advocate for his or her position are greed, self interest, lack of objectivity, and ignorance of the law. Thus, lawyers were born.”
“rather than creating modern discord, lawyers are key in helping society to avoid it. In the practice of the attorneys with whom I have had the pleasure of working, settlement of a dispute without resort to litigation is considered a success.”
“2. Underpaid Do-Gooder. You’ll work for a public interest outfit. You’ll make a pittance — you might still have roommates (especially if you want to live in a major city). You’d better hope your law school has a good loan forgiveness program.
“the work won’t be that much more interesting. Because litigation is still litigation, and contains an outrageous amount of discovery. But now you’re in an organization that can’t afford paralegals. Who does the dirty work? Who reviews the 12 bankers’ boxes of internal procedures from the government agency you’re suing for sex discrimination? Yep. You. The low lawyer on the totem pole. At least you’ll get to show up in court occasionally.”
“the work is more interesting. You get to fight for causes in which you believe — most of the time. But you’ll have moral ambiguities here too. Even an ACLU lawyer is sometimes asked to take up causes and clients about which (s)he’s not sure.”
“While lawyers do have the ability to affect change on a case-by-case basis, it is important to realize (as I eventually did) that there is a tremendous amount that lawyers can’t change. Deborah Aaron, author of What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside, & Around the Law, emphasizes that law school may not be the best way to make your dream of changing society come true. “It’s a very expensive way to contribute,” she said. “Law school is so expensive and public interest jobs pay so little that you can’t afford to go out and change the world and do good.”
Chapter 5 of Derek Bok’s book “Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More.”: “For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging….”
“Myth 4: I’ll be able to advocate for the little guy. If you are independently wealthy, you can advocate for the poor, fight for environmental justice, defend civil rights, etc. But if you are like the typical law school graduate today, you will finish with substantial debt. Public interest jobs are too low paying to accommodate a heavy debt burden. Some law schools have a debt-forgiveness program for people going into public interest jobs, but the salaries are so low that they are often hard to manage even in light of debt forgiveness.”