Once upon a time, students who followed the yellow brick road to law school were guaranteed bright futures: jobs at private downtown firms, paychecks that made a dream apartment in New York a reality, and a prestigious place in society. If one put in enough effort, passed the bar, and made sure to wear the right shoes to the interview, then a stable career was within reach.
But it seems the days of securing a shiny partnership at a prestigious firm are now a mere fantasy. Just 55 percent of the class of 2011 found full-time legal jobs within a year of graduating.
Arguments against attending law school run the gamut from job scarcity to the debt crisis, with Forbes recently declaring, “Attending law school is the worst career decision you'll ever make.” This statement is backed up by statistics showing the decrease in starting salaries (35 percent since 2009), the percentage of students who successfully make it to large firms (8 percent), the average amount of debt that law students graduate with ($98,500), and the threat that job prospects will only worsen as law firms continue to cut back. Bearing these facts in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify financing a legal education.
President Barack Obama attempted to mediate this issue in August by encouraging law schools to cut their third year, proposing instead that students get experience “clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they aren't getting paid that much.” Obama argued that this would save students a substantial amount of money while also giving them practical experience in the legal field. Professors and students responded to Obama's proposal with shock, arguing that students would lose the opportunity to take specialized courses and that a J.D. program with fewer credits would drastically reduce the value of their degree.
Professor Jennifer Arlen of NYU School of Law argues, “We should not underestimate the value of time spent in the classroom. Legal practice has gotten more specialized and many areas of practice require in-depth knowledge of multiple complex statutes. ... Lawyers also now are expected to have greater financial sophistication.”
Arlen also believes that many more students would benefit from legal expertise combined with financial literacy. “This is helpful in one's career and in their personal lives, and it is relevant for students interested in Wall Street firms as well as public interest,” she says.
Most lawyers agree that, when interacting with students, third-years stand out. They conduct themselves more professionally, think more analytically, and communicate more effectively. Recent University of Denver Sturm College of Law graduate Jonathan King believes that “if law school was reduced to two years, students would lose an entire year of networking, which can have huge effects on job prospects. Students would miss the chance to familiarize themselves with the nuances of the legal system. ... I think the larger amount of debt in three years of schooling is worth the education.”
Sturm College of Law, like many other law schools, highlights the importance of real-world experience by allowing students to receive credit for work (even though it still makes students pay for all 90 credits). Attorney and acclaimed author Douglas Morris acknowledges that concerns about the cost and quality of law school are valid, but claims it would be lazy and paradoxical to address these problems by merely shortening the degree: “Qualified students should not be precluded from law school because they cannot afford to attend. However ... shortening the degree would be an oversimplification of the problem and a disservice to the profession.” As expertise and specialization become increasingly important, some law schools are worried that even three years may not be enough.
Nonetheless, many law professors, law students, and attorneys argue that a J.D. is still a viable option if pursued with the understanding that the definition of “success” in the legal field must be understood more broadly than it used to be. As recent years have revealed distressing job rates and growing student debt, societal cynicism about the usefulness of the law degree has grown. This doubt has led to a drastic reduction in both law school applications and class sizes, with little to no effect on the dismal job prospects. “A J.D. is not an assured way of attaining a viable career if we limit the definition of a viable career to big private law firms. ... There just aren't enough jobs in that field,” explains Ashley Basta, a first-year pursuing public interest law at Sturm College of Law. Basta proposes that “increased creativity and reflection in students who are pursuing law school ... can help alleviate the reliance on big-firm jobs and the resulting disappointment when those jobs are not available.”
Arlen has 20 years of diverse financial law experience under her belt and believes that even in the current economy, a J.D. is a practical career choice. “A law degree opens the door to a wide range of genuinely interesting and rewarding careers,” she says. “For example, one cannot be a federal prosecutor pursuing white-collar crime cases or a legal counsel on a large merger and acquisition without a law degree.” She stresses the importance of attending a good law school, making wise choices in selecting courses, and working hard, pointing out that these values were “always true, they are just more important now.” The “big-firm dream” can still be a reality, but the road to it is rockier than ever before.
One of the reasons that jobs at large firms are further out of reach is because of the increase in the number of actual law schools, and especially in the number of middle- and lower-tier schools. There are more law students than ever before, and thus more students than jobs. This growth in the number of law schools also led to what many believe to be a problem of systematic elitism within both the law school admissions process and the hiring practices of large firms. Admission to both law and medical schools depends substantially on one's undergraduate degree; but law school graduates experience even harsher repercussions based on where they attended law school. The focus of large firms on hiring only lawyers with impressive alma maters perpetuates a system in which only the students going to top-rated law schools have a chance of being hired at large firms. When it comes to deciding between a highly rated law school and a more affordable one, students are faced with a tough choice. Of Columbia Law School's class of 2012, 97.7 percent of students found employment within 9 months of graduation, a number that dwarfs the 55 percent national average for the class of 2011. Of course, attending Columbia Law School isn't exactly the most feasible option for the average law applicant.
Yet there is still reason for hope: Alexis, a 2013 law graduate of the University of Denver, which is rated 64th in U.S. News & World Report's list of best law schools, is the exception to the norm. Alexis received large scholarships, earned an income while in school by working as an associate in local firms, is one of two students in her graduating class to receive a federal clerkship, and has been actively recruited by big firms. Alexis' story is certainly an exception to the elitism present in law schools, but perhaps similar exceptions will continue to defy the norm. Alexis performed well on the LSAT, but chose to attend a middle-tier school that offered her large scholarships, enabling her to graduate debt-free, instead of attending a top-tier law school and paying approximately $100,000 in tuition. Her hard work and passion still scored her a position at a prestigious firm even though she did not attend one of the elite law schools. To be fair, Alexis was also an exception in that she was in the top 10 percent of her class.
Despite all the worry about the law job market, some analysts believe that the seemingly hopeless prospects for law students are temporary and will change drastically in the coming years. “Statistics are grossly misleading and don't take into account the constant flux of real life. As law school applicant pools have decreased in recent years, and as hundreds of baby-boomer lawyers will begin to retire, the unbalanced system will slowly right itself through supply and demand,” says New York attorney Theodore Levine.
Levine believes that his own success as an attorney is due in large part to treating law school as something to engage passionately in, rather than as a necessary evil that leads to an eventual career. He thinks law school will be easier and more rewarding for students if they are focused on more than just the final destination. By writing papers on their personal interests and engaging with professors for enjoyment rather than as a means to boost their GPA, law students can gain valuable connections and learn holistically.
So while the golden dream of working at a prestigious firm may appear more unattainable than ever before, it is still achievable through hard work, impeccable grades, and intensive apprenticeships. Law schools continue to represent a doorway into a world where young lawyers will find satisfaction in diverse ways and therefore will continue to hold a particular attraction to intellectual, hard-working students.
But just being hard-working is no longer quite enough.
We are in an era when students should apply to law school only after careful and deliberate consideration—and with a concrete goal in mind. Shoshanna Ehrlich, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, stresses that students need to “think carefully and specifically about how they wish to apply their law degree, rather than just having a general sentiment of social justice.” This is not the time to attend law school simply because it seems like the next logical step in a procession toward some vague career related to the humanities.
Perhaps instead of being guided by media reports regarding the marketability of a law degree, it would be better to simply heed the advice of recent graduate King. “Before even getting to the LSAT, go out into the world and really think if this is what you want to do,” he says. “Law school is not a small or casual investment.”