I get asked that question a lot by a variety of people — debaters and civilians alike — and the truth is, no one can answer that question for you but you. But (there’s always a “but” isn’t there) there is probably a lot more involved in answering that question than you probably think.
But before we get into the nitty gritty who the hell am I and why am I at all qualified to counsel you on your future career. Well, I am a lawyer by trade, after my own debate career I went to Columbia Law School and proceed to work at a top law firm for a number of years (what we refer to as “Biglaw” in the industry) all the while continuing to coach college policy debate (first at NYU, now and for the last 13 years at USMA). Now I’m a Senior Editor at Above the Law (“ATL”) the most widely read legal industry blog. Working at ATL allows me to turn a critical eye to the legal industry and legal education and come up with some pretty definite opinions on the subject.
So, should you go to law school? Well, the first question is really, “do you want to be a lawyer?” Maybe that sounds silly or rudimentary, but a surprising number of law school applicants don’t want to be lawyers or, perhaps more accurately, have no idea what it’s like to be a lawyer. See, a lot of people (myself included) go to law school because it seems like the thing to do. Perhaps you've considered and rejected an academic career, but you’re otherwise pretty smart, and law school seems like an easy way to jumpstart a career. Or you’ve taken and done pretty well on the LSAT and so it seems like the next logical step. Or your family has always presumed that your argumentative penchant means you’re destined for a career in the law. All of those are… not great reasons to go to law school.
So ask around (there are a ton of debate alumni that made their way to law school) and see if actually practicing law is something that you’re interested in before you go any further. And ask a lot of different sources because the work a litigation partner at a top firm does is different than working at a small firm in trusts and estates, which is different than working in-house at a hedge fund advising on deal. Also, to be honest, a lot — and I mean a lot — of lawyers are quite miserable. Substance abuse and depression are much higher in lawyers than other professions. For a lot of law firm attorneys, the long hours (we are talking a minimum of 2000 billed hours a year — note billed hours are a subset of total hours worked), high pressure, and terrible personalities are a recipe for disaster.
Next, you need to consider if law school makes sense for you financially. That’s obviously a very fact-specific inquiry, and I mean if you or your family are fabulously wealthy, then what the hell, go to law school, but law school is a giant financial investment that can/has ruined lives. You need to carefully think about a number of factors to see if it makes sense for you and I’ll try to give you a few guidelines to think about.
Law school is expensive — like, very expensive — and most law schools don’t give out a ton of financial aid. So you need to weigh the debt load you can expect to take on by going to law school compared with your expected salary when you graduate.
(Law School Transparency has some great school by school breakdowns on the debt load of graduates and employment rates that you should definitely be looking at before you make a down payment on tuition.)
People often, mistakenly, think a JD is a ticket to instant wealth. And there’s a reason for that — starting salaries at an elite law firm (AmLaw 100 level) are an eye popping $190,000, plus yearly lockstep bonuses. That’s a stupid amount of money for a 25 year old with no work experience to be pulling down — but not everyone is making that much money. Let me acquaint you with the bimodal salary curve. As you can see, a very small percentage of law school applicants are going to be making the really big money. The average starting salary for recent graduates is about $70,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at but it doesn’t go all that far when you’re servicing $200k in student debt.
Be honest with yourself about the job opportunities you have for the law schools you can realistically get into. The legal profession is very elitist (as if the Kavanaugh hearings weren’t enough evidence of this fact) and you will not have the same opportunities as a graduate from every institution. Elite firms don’t go to on-campus recruiting at mediocre law schools, public interest opportunities are just as, if not more, competitive as Biglaw ones, being a federal law clerk is one of the most sought after markers of prestige and those jobs are determines based solely on your grades your first year (if not first semester) and the name of your law school.
Here are the basics of what you need to know: the number one factor that determines what law schools you get into is your LSAT score — winning the NDT might have been cool, but if you can’t get over a 170 on that test, Harvard is probably out of your reach (Yes, a growing number of law schools accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT but it is a very new program and no one is exactly sure where the cut offs for GRE scores will be);
the top 14 law schools as defined by US News & World Report (referred to as the T14 ) are a tier unto themselves;
some schools have good employment statistics but only for a particular region of the country (for example I wouldn't go to University of Iowa unless I wanted to work in the midwest);
for-profit law schools are absolute trash more concerned with raking in tuition dollars than educating lawyers;
and, relatedly, look at the bar passage rates, you cannot get a job as a lawyer if you cannot pass the bar exam.
Obviously these factors are a bit of a sliding scale — should you go to a Tier 1 (but not T14 law school) with a full ride over Yale Law School with no financial aid if you want to practice in Biglaw? What about a solid regional school with $10k of aid versus school on the bottom half of the T14 if you dream of public interest work? You should check out The Decision series on ATL or the podcast Thinking Like A Lawyer for examples of how other industry pros answer these tough questions.
So should you go to law school? I don’t know. But here’s what I know: a lot fewer people than want to go to law school should go to law school, I am way happier being a non-practicing attorney than a practicing attorney, and I am still paying off my law school loans.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, policy debate coach at the United States Military Academy, and former Cross Examination Debate Association President. Feel free to email her and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).
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