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Should You Go to Law School?

Aug 20, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

If you’re interested in going to law school, be really sure you want to go—and that you’re not just hiding from a difficult economy while earning a degree that will earn you a six-figure job. The reality is that your chances of gaining six-figure debt are relatively high—but those lucrative jobs can be tough to come by, even for graduates of top law schools.

Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether to go to law school.

A law degree doesn’t equal a lucrative job.

Many people equate the law with a steady, well-paying career path. This isn’t always—or even often—the case.

If you want to work in a prestigious corporate law firm, you’ll probably be well paid—even from the beginning. But lucrative corporate law jobs are highly competitive, and they’re usually centered in big cities. If you live in a more
rural area or want to go into a different career path—such as public defense,
nonprofit jobs, or private practice—you may not make a lot of money.

Man with Question Mark

If you own your own private practice, you could eventually make a good living. But running a private practice is like running any small business—you’ll need to have good business sense, and you’ll need to take care of all functions of the business including billing and getting new clients. And while you’re waiting for your practice to become profitable—which could take years—you could be stuck with six-digit loans to deal with.

If you work in public defense or other public service areas as a lawyer, your school may assist you with paying back your loans. But this isn’t a guarantee—and if you leave the law profession or leave public service, the help will stop. The Equal Justice Works has compiled a list of law schools that assist with student loans for graduates who go into public assistance.

In a bad economy, lawyers aren’t in demand

According to an article in the New York Times, there were half as many jobs available for law graduates in 2009 as there were in 2008. Global firms that once provided well-paying jobs for new law grads are drastically reducing hiring or even eliminating new hires altogether.

And competition for the jobs that remain is stiff. According to the same article, the Social Security Administration reported over 2,000 applicants for lawyer and clerkship positions in 2009—up by 1,200 from the year before.

Law school tuition is getting higher

It’s not unusual to graduate with over $100,000 in debt from law school tuition. According to the American Bar Association, the average law student borrowed over $76,000 in the 2004-2005 school year.

You don’t just borrow to cover tuition

When you’re a law student, it’s difficult to do anything else as well—especially work full-time to support yourself and pay tuition. Most students also borrow to cover living expenses, and the typical cliché is that if you live like a lawyer in law school, you’ll live like a law student when you’re a lawyer. This requirement can make the already-heavy debt burden most law students face even heavier when they graduate.

Law school may still be a ticket to a lucrative job—for a lucky few. For the rest—and for those who choose to go to school for any other reason than to be a lawyer—it could be a very expensive mistake. The truth is that a law degree isn’t necessarily a versatile degree that will open the door to many other careers outside of law—and even within law, the current job market for new graduates isn’t looking good. Be prepared to shoulder a huge debt burden—and keep a realistic outlook on what’s likely in the job market.


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