Practical Advice For Those Considering Law School

The following is a guest post by Nick from Millennial Finances. Enjoy! 

I graduated law school last May and wanted to pass along some practical advice to anyone considering law school.

Hopefully you read the news and know law school is not a safe route to a high-paying job. You should have significant concerns about about law school, and I’ll try to address them here:

Aren’t law schools producing more graduates than there are legal jobs?

Yes. Only 64.4% of recent law grads had jobs that actually required you to pass a bar exam. Median law graduate salaries (of those who reported their salaries) dropped to around $62,000, down from $72,000 in 2008.

The problem is law schools are cash cows – very inexpensive to run yet you can charge a lot of money thanks the ease of getting federal student loans. For-profit schools are especially predatory in leaving students with high debt, low bar passage rates, and even lower employment rates.

It’s crucial to scrutinize the data of the schools you want to attend. Where do their students end up employed? What are their areas of specialty? With how much debt, and at what salary? Many schools fight these important disclosures, or try skewing the numbers. Even prestigious schools magically increase their students existing GPAs to boost their employment numbers. Villanova’s dean resigned after a scandal involving doctored GPAs and LSAT scores.

So don’t just rely on whatever the law school tells you. Spend hours with Law School Transparency school reports. It’s a terrific resource that includes everything you should know your law school destination.

 

Will lawyers be as relevant in the future?

The legal industry is an arcane cartel doing its best to resist disruption. (It is illegal to practice law without being a member of the cartel, i.e. admitted to the bar.) The Supreme Court still refuses to allow its sessions to be videotaped. Laws and regulations are still bureaucratic mazes written by teams of lawyers that require even more lawyers to help others navigate them.

On the other hand, products like LegalZoom and FileRight and more are making inroads into the profession. Discovery work can be done more effectively by combining computers and outsourcing rather than having high-paid associates combing through paperwork.

I have no idea how rapidly things will change, but keep an eye on legal trends so you won’t be blindsided by them.

 

Is law school too expensive?

Absolutely. Paul Campos, a law professor at UC-Boulder, explains the skyrocketing tuition:

“Faculty salaries have doubled in real terms over the past 30 years. Administrative salaries have grown by much more, and the sheer number of administrative positions has exploded. Facilities are much nicer (this is known as the amenities race), and at law schools faculty-to-student ratios are much lower because of the pursuit of rankings. It’s just a crazy business model, all of which is enabled by no underwriting standards for student loans.”

The law school model is flawed, and even President Obama agrees three years is too long: “The third year [law students would] be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much. [T]hat step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

What can you do? Consider going only if you get a full or partial scholarship at a good law school. And look into graduating a semester early by taking on a busier course schedule.

I know that sounds extreme, but it’s also quite extreme to be out of the workforce for three years, then saddled with lots of debt, and not have a job. Take the time to read all the criticism of law schools. Everything Paul Campos has written on this issue, always backed up by reams of data, is good to know.

As for me, I went to a pretty good law school and passed my state’s bar exam. I was very fortunate to land a legal job in government as a third year student.

If you’re ready to apply, here is what I think every applicant should know about the admissions process:

Concentrate on your LSAT score and essays. Law schools care about their rankings, and LSATs play a big role. Most admissions committees won’t care if it took you two or three tries to get a high score, so consider sitting for multiple LSATs. 2nd time LSAT test takers score highest on average (mean improvement is 2.8 points). LSAT courses can be a great investment if your higher score gets you an extra $20,000 in scholarship money.

Customizing your essays are also critical to show the admissions committee you care about their law school and are a perfect fit. You can’t change your undergrad GPA, but you can still get a full scholarship with a great LSAT score and essay.

Study LawSchoolNumbers.com methodically. On this site, applicants self-report their data (GPA, LSAT score, demographic info, etc.) and show what schools accepted or rejected them. You get a rough idea of how likely you are to get into different schools, and more importantly, how much scholarship aid you can expect to receive.

Apply as early as possible. As you’ll see on LawSchoolNumbers, much more scholarship money is offered earlier compared to those applying near the deadline. Applying early can be difficult if you’re still waiting for better LSAT results, so try to take your LSAT well in advance of applying to law school.

Read the fine print of any scholarship. The classic scam is the unsavory law schools that gives 50% of the incoming class full rides, but rescind scholarships from those that don’t stay in the top 20% of the class. The ideal scholarship has no strings attached.

A legal career can be very rewarding if are able to avoid the ugliness of high debt and pervasive underemployment. I hope this has been helpful, and I’m happy to answer any questions in the comment section!

***Photo courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:University_of_Notre_Dame_Law_Library.JPG

Comments

  1. Great advice! As a fellow recent grad, I agree with all of it. I’d also add what may be too obvious: not to take out more loans than you need. Tons of my classmates took out the yearly max when they didn’t really need to. Our dean was shocked to learn that when students electronically accepted their loans, they were already automatically filled out with the max amount and you had to intentionally reduce them if you didn’t want to take it all. Of course, not only does the interest on the debt accrue while you’re in school, but to take out the max you have to take out some portion of the loans at higher-interest Plus loans.

    It also might not be a bad idea to check out the career development office at any school you are considering. That was something I hadn’t thought about until I started, and fortunately my school had a really dedicated, innovative, and well-staffed CDO (they continue to be available to students after graduating, too). I think that could make a big difference for some students in terms of employability.

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