Considering Law School
Why do you want to go to law school? Before you apply, you need to carefully consider this question and be able to answer specifically and purposefully. Here are some things to think about as you begin:
The Benefits of a Legal Education
At the end of law school, you will have earned a J.D., Juris Doctor, which can, as you may have heard, open many doors. You can use your J.D. in government, higher education, business, and many other fields.
Pursuing a law degree is an investment in your future. Starting salaries at big firms can exceed $100,000, while lower paid non-profit and social justice work can be highly rewarding. The legal employment market is currently strong, with over 90% of lawyers receiving employment within 9 months of graduating.
A Brief Reality Check
The reality of the legal profession is not what you see on TV. Lawyers often work long hours, including evenings and weekends. Many consider their work to be monotonous and painstaking. The profession can be both stressful and highly competitive.
Regarding salaries, depending on the type of law practiced, size of the firm, and location, your earnings may not meet your expectations. For example, lawyers employed in the public interest field, those who work for smaller firms and in smaller towns will earn much less than those who work for big firms in big cities.
Also, a legal education can be very expensive. As a result, many lawyers may feel compelled to take jobs with high salaries and high stress at big firms, rather than pursue social justice work. New lawyers, the majority of whom are not making over $100,000, feel severely burdened by their debt load.
Facts and Statistics
For the class of 2007, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP)
- The average amount borrowed for law school was $87,906 (and this does not include undergraduate and consumer debt!)
- The average law school tuition was $32,376 for private institutions; $26,691 for public non-resident; and $15,455 for public resident.
- The average living and book expenses for single students living on campus was $12,336
- The average starting salary was $86,400, while the median salary was $65,750
- 55.5% went into private practice, while only 5.8% pursued public interest work
- The average starting salary for private practice was $109,000, but only $42,000 for public interest lawyers
- 14.1% pursued work in business and industry (average starting salary $69,000)
- 10.7% pursued government work (average starting salary $50,000)
- 9.8% pursued judicial clerkships (average starting salary $48,000)
- The median starting salary in a firm with 501+ attorneys was $160,000
- The median starting salary in a firm with 2-10 people was $53,000
There are some very common (and not very good) responses to the question, “why do you want to go to law school?”
- I like to argue.
- I want to make a lot of money.
- I don’t know what else to do after graduation.
- I want to change the world.
- I want to help people.
- My mom told me I’d be a great lawyer.
- It seems like something I could do.
- It seems intellectually challenging.
- I’d probably be able to get a good job.
- I thought a J.D. would be more versatile than other degrees.
- I failed organic chemistry and can no longer go to medical school.
What is wrong with these statements? They contain erroneous assumptions about the legal profession and/or lack sufficient reasoning to attend law school. For example, while law school may be intellectually challenging, legal jobs can be technical and tedious. While many lawyers do make a lot of money, many also earn modest incomes. Also, there are many professions in which you can help people, change the world, and make a lot of money. The question then becomes, why pursue a legal career as a means to those ends? And given the amount of debt incurred, potential law students need to seriously reconsider the prudence of using law school as a “fall back” plan.
There are many good reasons for wanting to attend law school. It is up to you to articulate your own unique reasons, but here are some examples:
- You respect the work of someone who is a lawyer or who has attended law school, and the legal education of that person has been important in achieving that which you admire.
- You have interned at a law office or legal organization or collaborated on a project with someone in the legal field and have greatly enjoyed the work and the atmosphere.
- You have worked in politics, government, education, business, communications, etc., and believe that a law degree would help advance your career in one of those areas.
- You love school, and the idea of spending three more years reading, researching and studying excites you.
- You possess personality and character traits associated with lawyers who are satisfied in their professions (see below).
Characteristics of Good, Satisfied Lawyers
- Loves to learn
- Patient and persistent
- Not easily ruffled, stable
- Exhibits respect for rules
- Highly analytical
Do a significant number of these traits characterize you? If so, the legal profession may be a good fit for you.
What can you do to tell if law school is right for you? Consult the next section, “Preparing for law school: 10 Things to Do.” These steps will guide you in exploring the field of law as a possible career path, as well as give you some helpful advice if you’ve already determined that a legal career is right for you.