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What You Should Know Before Applying to Law School

Sep 15, 2011

As tuition costs rise and employment opportunities disappear, more and more people are questioning the value of a law degree. For some, the debate centers on the time, cost and quality of a legal education, while others cast doubt on the efficacy of the entire educational model.

By Megan Driscoll

law school tuition inflation

A Weak Investment

There are many reasons people attend law school: An interest in the criminal justice system. A passion for civil rights. Political aspirations. A talent for navigating bureaucracy. And, for most people, the desire to earn a good living.

But even the American Bar Association (ABA) has started to question the financial return on law school. In November 2009 they posted a paper on their website titled 'The Value Proposition of Attending Law School' designed to warn students that 'attending law school can become a financial burden for law students who fail to consider carefully the financial implications of their decision.' The ABA estimates that the average student at a public law school graduates with over $71,000 in debt, and the average student at a private law school graduates with over $91,000 in debt, while many students accrue well over $100,000 in debt - and those figures don't include undergraduate loans.

In the past, the high cost of law school has been justified by high potential earnings. But with the number of law school graduates far outpacing the need for attorneys, high-paying jobs are disappearing. Quoting the dean of Northwestern Law School, the ABA estimates that most graduates need to earn at least $65,315 per year just to begin to see a return on their investment. While most entering associates earned well over that before the recession - an average of $160,000 at top firms - about 42% of the graduating class of 2008 started with an annual salary below $65,000.

In other words, young attorneys aren't even earning enough to break even on law school costs, let alone begin to see profit, and that's assuming they have a job at all. The New York Times reports that many law schools have been falsifying their employment data, artificially inflating the rate at which recent grads are finding jobs.

The Three Year Debate

In a recent debate published in The New York Times, a number of lawyers and legal scholars argued about a potential solution to the law school problem, as well as the nature of the problem itself. For some, the issue is quality. They contend that the three year educational model works as long as it confers the unique set of critical thinking skills required for practicing attorneys, as well as practice in legal writing and analysis.

Others question the need for three full years. Some schools have been offering accelerated programs that allow students to complete the total number of credits in two years and a summer. While tuition costs are typically the same, this gives graduates the chance to start earning money (and stop taking cost of living loans) much sooner.

Still others contend that there's no need for a third of the curriculum at all. Many students (and practicing attorneys) feel that the 'core competencies' of the practice of law are taught in the first two years, and that the third year would be better spent gaining real world experience as a junior attorney.

Some of the suggestions made in the debate draw from historical precedent. There was a time when attorneys learned through apprenticeships like other skilled trade workers, and one writer argued that the third year should not be spent as a fully practicing attorney, but as an apprentice.

And there was even a time when law school was not a requirement for being a lawyer. Anyone who could pass the bar exam could receive a law license, and for many, preparation for this exam involved a combination of some law school and some apprenticeship. Students rarely completed the three costly years of law school until the ABA successfully lobbied most states to require a law degree as a prerequisite for taking the exam. In The New York Times debate, one author points out that returning to this model would not eliminate law schools, but it would require them to be more efficient and offer a better investment return in order to compete.

So Should I Go to Law School?

For some, the high cost of law school may still be a worthwhile investment. Students who are truly passionate about becoming attorneys should still pursue their dreams, while very carefully considering the cost of their prospective schools and the availability of grants and financial awards.

However, those who see law school purely as a ticket to financial success may do well to pursue another field.

In spite of increasingly grim employment numbers, law schools are still seeing record enrollment.

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