By Alison Monahan • February 14, 2012•Writers in Residence
What No One Tells You Before You Go to Law School: This Might Be a Bad Financial Decision
Thankfully, word’s starting to get out that law school might not be the way to make the big bucks (or even to make enough to eat while paying back your student loans).
But let’s break it down. If you’re a prelaw getting ready to accept an offer of admission, what do you need to consider?
- The school might be cooking the books. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that a bunch of law schools have been sued over their supposedly misleading employment figures. I express no opinion on the validity of these suits, but I do think many schools have been publishing misleading, if not outright false, information for years. Sorry, you can’t trust your potential school’s employment numbers, as a general rule. Do your own homework before you enroll.
- That great scholarship you’ve been offered may disappear. If you’ve been offered a law school merit scholarship, read the fine print VERY CAREFULLY. If the scholarship you’ve been offered has a GPA requirement, do not accept it until you know how many students keep their scholarships after the first year. Yes, it sounds easy enough now to maintain a 3.0, but what if the midpoint of the curve is below that? You could be an above average student, and still find yourself with no scholarship for the last two years. If the law school you’re considering won’t share this data with you, why not?
- You have very little idea what kind of job you’ll be able to get afterwards. It’s no secret that the legal employment market is in a state of flux. Structural trends, such as outsourcing and replacing lawyers with technology, are likely to continue, and will probably accelerate. Are there opportunities? Sure, if you’re comfortable with risk and entrepreneurial. (Hum, doesn’t sound like most lawyers, does it?) But many typical entry-level positions seem to be disappearing, and law schools are reporting a lot of post-graduation employment that doesn’t actually require a law degree. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for, but probably not.
- Your summer jobs might not pay much, if anything. Used to be, back in the glory days of huge summer associate classes, that many law students could count on at least one summer of high pay to offset some of the cost of law school. Now, not so much. Even the top schools experienced massive drops in summer associate employment when the recession hit, and although recent data suggests some recovery at the top schools, it’s a long road back. In the meantime, all of those top students who might have gotten highly-paid firm jobs are competing with the rest of the class for other summer funding.
- The LRAP program you expect to pay your loans might be cut back. When Yale Law School starts scaling back its Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), you probably want to pay attention. This can’t be a good sign for other schools. Personally, I think the reality is that loan burdens are just too high for many schools’ LRAP programs to continue as is. They’re going to have to cut back (or cut tuition). Which do you think is more likely?
- There’s a decent chance you might not even pass the bar. Depending on the state, you might go to law school, graduate, and then not pass the bar (repeatedly). This happens! And it’s not just students at low-ranked schools – it can happen to anyone. California’s pass rate, for first time takers from ABA-accredited law schools, is consistently around 50%. That’s a lot of people who had every reason to think they’d pass, and didn’t.
- Even if you get a BigLaw job, you probably won’t be able to stand it for more than a few years. Say all goes according to plan, and you get that coveted BigLaw job when you graduate. You’re all set for financial bliss, right? Not so fast. Check out BigLaw attrition rates. The reality is that most people can’t stand to work in these firms more than a few years, even if they are getting paid a lot (attrition rates are in the neighborhood of 20% a year). Sure, you might be the exception, but don’t count on it. Only about 20% of BigLaw associates are still around by the fifth year.
- You can’t get rid of student loans in bankruptcy. And, finally, the big one. You take out lots of law school loans, and can’t find a job. No worries, right? That’s what bankruptcy was made for! Not so fast. It’s almost impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. You take out student loans, you’re stuck with them!
So, what’s a potential law student to do? Time to step back from the excitement of being admitted, and evaluate the situation realistically. What’s the bar passage rate of the school you’re considering? How secure is any financial aid offer? Have you talked to current students and recent alums about their job prospects? Do you understand the limitations of the employment data provided by the school? Have you really thought about what a career in law is like, and are you sure it’s for you?
Unless you can answer these questions with confidence, DON’T GO. Law school is a big commitment, and it can easily turn into a huge financial mistake.
Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School. Stay tuned for her monthly Ms. JD column debunking myths about the legal profession.