Saturday, November 26, 2011

Should I go to law school?




Having gone to law school and now working as an attorney, people frequently ask me some variation of: "Should I go to law school?" And sometimes I have conversations with people who want to go to law school but haven't really thought it through, and I tell them they really need to think about that question. My answer to that question usually goes something like this:

Law school is ridiculously expensive and incredibly risky!  So you need to decide: 
  1. Do you want to be an attorney (and if you don't know what that means, you should find out)?
  2. Are you willing to do whatever it takes (i.e., 20-hour days) to succeed in law school, land a good job, and then maintain a career in a field that is largely up-or-out (i.e., keep climbing or die)?
If the answer to those questions is no, then find something else.
I know several people (smart people, went to top law schools) who ignored that advice and will be paying for it (literally) for the rest of their lives.  And there are tens of thousands of those people out there in the market right now.  I don't mean to be a downer at all --this path has worked out well for me (so far) and I like what I do, but that's because I answered the above questions in the affirmative.


I bring this up now because:  (a) I know a lot of people who are thinking about law school, especially as an option to ride out the tough economy/job prospects; and (b) I just found the below article by Vanderbilt Professor Herwig Schlunk, which I think realistically portrays the risks of law school and the prospects coming out of law school.  Note that one of the realistic prospects is that you come out with $200,000+ in debt, the opportunity cost of lost earnings during the three extra years of school, and then no job at the end (or a low paying job, or a job you don't like).

*****

Mamas 2011: Is a Law Degree a Good Investment Today?

There continues to be an active debate on the question of whether or not law school is a good investment. I prefer to think of the question not in terms of “whether,” but in terms of “when.” In this essay, I conduct an analysis for three current undergraduates who are considering attending private law schools. I demonstrate how such individuals should take all known costs and all expected benefits into account in making their “investment” decision. As the calculation necessarily differs dramatically from one potential law student to another, my conclusions are far less important than my methodology.
[I]n terms of lost salary, the opportunity cost of law school attendees will vary greatly from one potential attendee to another. To reflect this variation, I will undertake an analysis for each of three very different but hopefully somewhat typical potential attendees. My first such potential law student is a college graduate whom I will name Also Ran. Also Ran achieves above average grades in a relatively nonmarketable major from a middle-of-the-pack undergraduate institution; he could have earned a mere $35,000 in a non-legal job. Also Ran manages to claw his way into a third-tier private law school (with a blended US News and World Report rank of 88th) and has only a poor prospect, which I will set equal to 5% in the current market, of landing an NLJ 250 job (i.e., a “Biglaw” job). My second potential law student is a college graduate whom I will name Solid Performer. Solid Performer achieves relatively good grades in a somewhat more marketable major from a better institution; he could have earned $42,500 in a non-legal job. Solid Performer makes his way into a second tier law school (with a blended US News and World Report rank of 50th) and has a better prospect than Also Ran, but still a relatively small prospect, of landing an NLJ 250 job. Specifically, I will assume that there is an 8% chance that Solid Performer ends up starting at Biglaw. My third potential law student is a college graduate whom I will name Hot Prospect. Hot Prospect earns strong grades in a relatively marketable major from a highly-ranked undergraduate institution; she could have earned $50,000 in a non-legal job. Hot Prospect attends a first tier law school (with a blended US News and World Report rank of 19th) and has a relatively strong chance, which I will set equal to 25% for purposes of my analysis, of ending up in an NLJ 250 entry-level position.
Chart G
Chart J
Chart K
These numbers are bleak. What they say, in plain English, is that with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, two-thirds of the graduates from Also Ran’s institution, four-fifths of the graduates from Solid Performer’s institution, and two-thirds of the graduates from Hot Prospect’s institution will know, as they are receiving their diplomas, that they made what has turned out ex post to be a bad investment!
Finally, it is interesting to turn the mode of calculation on its head, and thus directly confront the question of how much a legal education is worth. ...
Chart Z
[L]aw school is a very risky (and expensive) investment; it should not be entered into lightly. However, as I have already mentioned, and worth repeating again, each potential student’s calculus will be based on a host of factors unique to him or her. For some, like an English major (relatively low opportunity costs) who gets some scholarship assistance (somewhat lower out-of-pocket costs) to attend Harvard Law School (relatively high pay-off), the investment in a legal education is almost surely a no-brainer. Moreover, even for individuals facing a more challenging calculus, it may be the case that a legal education confers benefits beyond the incremental compensation that I have used to analyze the pure investment decision. For example, a law degree opens up many more avenues of potential employment, including importantly self-employment, than does a typical undergraduate degree; lawyers are found in all parts of the workforce performing all manner of jobs. Does this imply, perhaps, that some option value should be added to a law degree’s payoffs? If so, how would one measure such option value? And lastly, of course, a law degree is a professional degree; it confers considerable prestige. But alas, as I first pointed out two years ago, you cannot eat prestige.

*****

Which takes me back to my usual questions:  Do you want it, and if so, how much?

35 comments:

Ro Ro Riot said...

I know several people that need to look at this blog. Jordan probably wishes he looked at it before he went to law school. :)

ninjapirates said...

Good advice. I'm printing it to share with all my friends and family who say "But, you got into both GW and Georgetown Law, why didn't you go?" And since the response I usually give "I looked around at my cohort and decided they all suck" is true, this is more eloquent and informative.

ninjapirates said...

p.s. Didn't realize it didn't print my name. It's Andalynn

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