Is Law School a Bad Idea?


Determining whether law school is a bad idea or not is as tough a decision as it has ever been. Law school is more expensive and the future of the legal industry is more uncertain than it has ever been before.

Law school is not a bad idea for every student, but it certainly can be a bad idea for some students. If you have unreasonable expectations of what a lawyer’s work entails, how much money you will make, or if you have the wrong reasons for wanting to attend, than law school can be a bad idea.

In this article I will delve into various reasons why law school may be a bad choice for you and discuss some things to consider before dedicating yourself to three years of legal studies.

Law school is for people who want to be lawyers

summer associate

Most students that attend law school, attend because they want to be lawyers. But there is a minority of students that start law school with no intention of becoming a lawyer and they finish with no intention of working as a lawyer.

Some people reason that a J.D is a great degree to have regardless of whether you ever practice law or not. I admit, the skills that you develop in law school can be helpful in a variety of jobs. Analytic analysis, concise writing, and an ability to parse through dense reading materials and pick out the important points. These are all useful skills to have, but a J.D is not a swiss army knife degree, not by a long stretch.

If you want a degree that transfers to a variety of different fields, the MBA is the way to go. There are tons of other advanced degrees as well that transfer to different fields such as: accounting, human resources, and computer science. These degrees all have better transferability than a J.D and they tend to be less expensive.

So what if you think you want to be a lawyer, but you’re not sure? If you are not sure you actually want to do the job I strongly suggest that you intern before you start law school. I interned for nine months; four months at a Public Defenders Office and another five at a District Attorney’s Office. During that time I learned as much as I could, not just about the mechanics of a district court room, but also about the attorneys I interned for. What made them decide to go to law school, what schools they went to, and what made them seek employment at the District Attorney or Public Defenders Office. Admittedly criminal district court encompasses only a small portion of the legal industry but it gave me a really nice glimpse into what it means to be an attorney.

Regardless of where you intern, if you intern for an attorney you will perform lots of legal research, writing, and reading. If you enjoy this often mundane work then you will likely enjoy working as an attorney!

If you don’t have the time to intern, than I implore you to at the very least talk with a few attorneys. The worst situation to be in is that you are a 3L law student with $100,000 in debt and you suddenly realize that you do not want to be an attorney!

Most lawyers do not make a lot of money

lawyers don't make a lot of money.

The unrealistic expectation that many law school students have is an enormous problem. Unfortunately, this false narrative of universal riches is promulgated widely in American culture and has been for a very long time. The stereotypical white collar professional is a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Maybe this high income stereotype contained some truth in previous generations, but it is extremely misleading today.

On average, attorneys do not make nearly as much as the public perceives. U.S News reports that the median amount of private sector compensation reported from graduates in 181 ranked law schools was $75,000. That’s not a small amount of money, but public sector compensation fared far worse. The average public sector compensation for graduates in 179 ranked schools was $58,000. Neither of these median salaries are puny, but consider the debt, lost income, and time you put into law school.

Of course there is a major exception to this rule. That exception is Biglaw. Biglaw firms are characterized by their massive size and geographic scope, and by their huge starting salaries. The top starting salary for many Biglaw firms as of this writing is $190,000. The Biglaw salary is certainly the pinnacle of starting salaries in the legal industry.

But because these salaries are so high and opportunities are limited, the competition for them is fierce. Some of the more prestigious firms don’t even consider students outside of a T14 law school. All of them focus on the cream of the crop. If you attend a lower ranked law school your chances of obtaining a Biglaw job are slim to none.

Another issue is that the average first year attorney might make somewhere around $75,000. But because there is such a vast discrepancy between Biglaw and public sector employment the data is skewed. Just be aware that there are a lot more people in the $58,000 and $75,000 buckets than people in the $190,000 salary bucket.

I am not expressing the dismal probability of obtaining a Biglaw job to hurt anyone’s feelings. If you were accepted into a T14 law school then your chances of getting a Biglaw job are excellent. If you attend Columbia Law School, you have a 70% chance of obtaining a Biglaw job just by virtue of the name.

If you don’t attend a T14 school or a near T-14 school, your Biglaw job opportunities are greatly diminished. Not making $190,000 out of the gate from law school is not such a bad thing, but it is important to manage expectations and not assume that you will pay all of your debt off in a year or two after you get a job with Cravath.

The job prospects for the legal industry are not good

The legal industry has changed substantially over the past decade. New technology and innovation is changing the way legal services are offered and performed. I have seen this first hand working as a summer associate at a law firm. It used to be that Biglaw first year associates could expect to work long hours doing grunt work, namely document review. Guess what? It is 2021 and doc review is largely a thing of the past for most incoming associates. Sure you might do it from time to time, but most of the grunt work is performed by an automated system.

Why do I mention the reduction in Biglaw grunt work? Because this phenomenon is endemic among the private sector legal industry today. More work being automated means less work available for incoming associates, which means firms need fewer associates today to get the same amount of work done.

Another strain on legal employment is the existence of innovative competitors in the internet age. Ever heard of legal zoom or legal shield? They offer online legal services such as LLC formation, wills and trusts, and IP patent assistance. These services have been around for years and are putting pressure on an industry that has never been known for its innovation.

Online legal innovators such as legal zoom and legal shield are not going to replace brick and mortar law firms anytime soon. But their services are taking business away from traditional attorneys and at a lower price.

You should be aware that the legal industry never really recovered from the legal industry crash during the Great Recession. For law students that were unlucky enough to graduate during such a time period, the job market was extremely challenging. There were many stories of grads having to take work as paralegals or outside of the legal profession to keep the lights on.

It is 2021 now, and although we have suffered through a pandemic for nearly a year it appears that we see the light at the end of this tunnel. The legal industry had recovered substantially up until the Coronavirus, and then the market took another thrashing.

Many of my friends had their 2L summer associate positions transitioned online or cancelled entirely in 2020. Many other internships in the public sector were also cancelled due to the pandemic. Even though the vaccines have been created and production has begun, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the industry.

Your prospects for entering into a fulfilling legal career post-graduation are not terrible, but you should certainly consider the risks I have mentioned. Risks such as automation, industry innovation, and general uncertainty help to create oversaturation until the number of incoming law students begins to decline.

Your GPA and LSAT score can make it or break it

There is nothing more important in determining whether law school is a bad idea than assessing your LSAT score and GPA. By the time you are reading this you likely won’t have the opportunity to adjust your GPA much, so I will focus on the LSAT score.

The LSAT is the single most important test you will take up until the Bar Exam. It is singly important because it has such an outsized role on what law school you can attend and how significant of a scholarship they will offer.

So what LSAT score makes it a bad idea to go to law school? There is no hard and fast rule with a categorical score dictating whether you should or should not attend law school. Instead, it depends on what your goals are, what you want to do after law school, and what law school you want to attend.

That being said, your law school options decrease substantially if you score too low on the LSAT. I would never recommend to someone with an LSAT score below 150 to enroll. The job prospects are typically going to be extremely low, and whatever job you do find is unlikely to be worth the three years of debt you have accumulated. If you do have an LSAT score below this threshold, I strongly suggest that you consider retaking the exam after taking a few more months to study.

You can check most law schools rankings and LSAT medians here. Law schools tend to stick very closely to their LSAT medians, I applied to nine law schools during my application process and I did not get into a single one with a median above my score. That is not to say that it couldn’t happen to you, but your chances for admission to a specific law school decrease substantially if the median LSAT is above yours.

Many law schools are not worth your investment

Building off of the last topic, it’s true that there are many law schools out there that are simply not worth your investment. Whittier, Arizona Summit, and Concordia are the names of several law schools that have closed their doors during the past three years. These schools were performing so poorly that they were in danger of losing their accreditations. The Thomas Jefferson School of Law had its accreditations revoked in 2019. There are also a number of schools that are functional law schools, but are unaccredited by the ABA.

Law schools that close, lose their accreditations or are never accredited all have two things in common: lousy bar passage rates and dreadful post-grad employment prospects.

Why on earth would someone go to a law school that is unaccredited or about to lose their accreditation? Because these law schools will take pretty much ANYONE. Cooley, Southern University, Appalachian, Texas Southern, and several more, all have LSAT medians below 150. Their bar passage rates are terrible, but if you really want to go to law school, their doors are open to you.

I strongly suggest that you stay away from these types of schools. Always educate yourself on employment outcome and bar passage rate before making a decision on a school.

Don’t go because you like to debate

lawyers do not debate that much

This is one of the biggest red flags. If you like to debate and argue with people you should strongly consider a career in politics, but you will certainly be disappointed working as a lawyer. Yes, some lawyers do become engaged in debate-like settings. But it is never as frequent as you would expect.

I have interned in a District Attorneys Office, Public Defenders Office, as a Biglaw summer associate, and as a DOJ intern. If you really like to argue I would suggest that you steer toward the criminal defense or prosecutorial side because you rarely see the inside of a courtroom in most other practice areas.

Being a lawyer is far more about reading and writing long briefs. Depending on your practice area you might have some negotiations and courtroom appearances thrown in. But even at offices like the District Attorney’s Office, I noticed that experienced ADAs tended to spend far more time in their office working on motions and preparing for court, than actually in court.

Social justice activism does not require a law degree

Please, please, please do not go to law school just because you want to change the world. I know, it is an honorable goal to want to help those in need. But explain to me why you need to spend three years of your life and potentially go into well over $100,000 in debt to do it?

The truth is that there are a variety of different pathways to take if you want to be a social justice warrior. Law school is one, but it is extremely expensive, time-consuming, and the job will be unfulfilling if you only want to be a lawyer to help people.

I am not saying that you should not go to law school if you want to be a social justice activist. There are lots of amazing clinics that are filled with social justice activists doing amazing work. The key is that you have to want to be an attorney as well.

If social justice activism is your calling, just make sure that you actually want to do the work of an attorney. If not, go down another avenue.

Conclusion

Law school certainly is not for everyone. The legal industry is more uncertain today and it is not as lucrative as it once was. But that does not mean that it’s necessarily a bad decision. I just ask that you strongly consider the various factors for and against law school. That way, you can make an educated decision that you will not regret down the road!

Determining whether law school is a bad idea or not is as tough a decision as it has ever been. Law school is more expensive and the future of the legal industry is more uncertain than it has ever been before.

Stephen Metellus

I am a 3L law student in Washington D.C and owner of theartoflawschool.com! I started law school with a lot of hopes and expectations, and it has certainly been a wild ride from the start! My goal is writing articles that help you in navigating through law school.

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