Posts

A Reality Check for Law School Students

Law school represents a significant commitment of time and money. For decades, the perceived benefits have outweighed the costs, but in the second decade of the 21st century, the answer to the question “should I go to law school” is less clear.

Not so long ago, law school was the career of choice for a large number of liberal arts grads. The field favored those with strong critical thinking skills, and acquiring legal skills was deemed an advantage for any graduate—regardless of whether the law student ever intended to become a lawyer.

But rising costs, sky-rocketing debt, a changing legal field, and continued economic challenges, have changed the ROI equation.

For students with top grades, excellent LSAT scores, and a passion for becoming a lawyer, going to law school can still be an great choice. These are likely the students who will go to top twenty schools, or be awarded full merit scholarships. But, without the guarantee of a highly-paid law job at the end of three years of law school, most prospective law students need to carefully weigh whether the investment is worthwhile.

Reality check #1: How much debt will you have?

Borrowing for law school was high, but relatively stable, for many years. In 2004, according to a recent New America Policy Brief , the typical indebted law student owed $88,634 at graduation (expressed in 2012 dollars). But, thanks to a 2006 federal government decision that now allows borrowing up to the full amount of attendance, the median debt load of law students in 2012 soared to over $140,000—a 58% increase.

Reality check #2: How much do you have to earn, to be able to afford a median debt of $140,616?

Most students will expect pay off their debt over 15 years. Using the median debt, that means a payment of $1,248 a month, according to calculators on the website FinAid.org. FinAid! estimates you will need a salary of almost $150,000 a year to afford this level of monthly payment. Depending on your loan, there may be “extended” or “graduated” repayment options, but for many this feels like getting a mortgage without building equity.

Reality check #3: How likely is it that you will get a job paying more than $150K?

Nine metro markets have mean wages for lawyers above $150,000; the highest—in Silicon Valley—has a mean salary of $192,000, according to the American Bar Association Journal. In fact, six of the nine most lucrative legal markets are in California, which also doubles as one of the most expensive places to live. To even come close to the $150K salary, most graduates will need to find a job in large law firms, so-called “biglaw”—those employing over 100 lawyers in major metropolitan areas. An excellent article on “biglaw”, and its culture can be found at Top-Law-Schools.com.

Reality check #4: Can you find a job in “biglaw” from any law school?

If you are in the top 10% of your class, on Law Review at any good law school, and geographically mobile, you may have an excellent chance of finding a well-paid position as an associate in a large law firm. Your chances increase substantially if you can bring business to a firm, or if you have additional experience prior to law school that is of interest to the firm. But, the lower the ranking of the law school, the more likely your job will pay under 100K. Lower pay is also likely if you accept a job where a law degree may be an advantage, but which does not require you to pass the Bar.

If a law school has a US News ranking over 50 for example, you may find that fewer than 20% of the graduates are employed full-time in law firms with over 100 lawyers within 9 months of graduation. American Bar Association rules nowe require disclosure of career outcomes on law school websites, so search the school’s site under terms “employment statistics” or “required ABA disclosures”.

Another excellent source of comparative information can be found at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. On this site, you can not only compare the career outcomes and rankings of different law schools, you can also check the Above the Law rankings, which compare schools solely based on the number of graduates employed full-time, long term, in positions requiring Bar passage. Above the Law excludes School-funded positions–an increasingly popular way for law schools to help students find employment (usually for up to a year) while simultaneously increasing their standing in US News rankings.

The decision whether to go to law school is very different for the student without debt than it is for someone who will be paying back large loans for over a decade. Similarly, a student who intends to pursue a legal career in public service and apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program may view law school as an excellent investment.

Regardless of individual circumstances, all prospective law students owe it to themselves to do due diligence and research before signing on the dotted line of a loan agreement. Given current debt to potential income ratios, your future may depend on it.

How Can I Transition From a Career in Law to Business?

Q. After six years in corporate law, I have decided to go into business. I’m having a hard time getting my foot in the door. What do you advise?

A. The old adage that law is good preparation for any career may be true, but a legal background is not an obvious advantage to a hiring manager who’s looking for a track record in a particular industry and may think you’ll be too expensive! You have to go out of your way to make the case why the employer should hire you.

Does the way you’re presenting yourself shout out “law”? If it does, consider a “functional” resume format that allows you to demonstrate, for example, your management, financial, and strategic planning skills. You’ll still need to list your employment history, but it will come at the end of your resume, where it will be secondary to your relevant experience.

Use your cover letter to articulate why you want the advertised position, and downplay your desire to exit the legal profession. Make it easy for the employer to see how the skills you’ve developed can add value. Your volunteer work on boards of directors or organizing philanthropic events for your PTA association may be more relevant than your legal work.

Your applications will always be more successful if you have a champion in the organization who can endorse your candidacy. Build your base of professional colleagues online and through associations. Request informational interviews with executives to better understand a particular business and what it takes to be successful.

You may identify “competence gaps”—a lack of key knowledge or skills that make you less competitive than other candidates. If this is the case, consider the interim step of becoming an in-house counsel. Many lawyers have found this an excellent step towards senior management.

Getting out of Law

Q. I’m a lawyer who’s never taken to the legal profession. Can I look forward to other career options?

A. What your question does not tell me is if you’ve “gone off” the law entirely, or simply don’t want to work in a law firm, where you have to bill in excess of 2,000 hours a year and never see your family.

Let’s assume for the moment, that the mere thought of having “lawyer” or “attorney” in your title (or, for that matter, partner or judge) makes you break out in hives. Are there other options? Absolutely. By definition, you’re smart, you know how to think and reason, and can write well. The trick now is to convince someone to hire you and pay you enough to satisfy the student loan collectors or mortgage company.

Lawyers who are looking for jobs outside the law often believe that they can do anything, if only given a chance. They also tend to look for equivalent salaries to those they would have made in private practice. Here’s where you often have to eat some humble pie. To get your foot in the door, you must convince an employer that you can do the job they need to have done. Sometimes, that means you’ll be promoting skills, such as your marketing ability, that require far fewer brain cells than your legal studies. You may also have to consider a salary substantially lower than your peers in the legal world. Ultimately, your educational background may help you do your work better or more efficiently – and many law-trained graduates reach the pinnacles of industry — but there’s no guarantee that you’ll move ahead more quickly than your peers with bachelor’s degrees or MBAs. The good news is that if you really don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll be much happier in your chosen profession.

The trend now is for students to take off a year or two before attending law school. Given the numbers of lawyers who’d prefer to be doing something other than the law, having time to reflect on what you want to do before jumping into the next stage of education is a great idea!

Career Advice for Liberal Arts Parents

Over a million and a half students will become college students for the first time this fall. According to studies conducted by the educational consulting firm, Eduventures, two thirds of these students will have chosen their selected college in large part based on the assumption that it will prepare them well for a career. But within minutes of setting foot on campus, all thoughts of the future will be obliterated by more mundane problems, such as negotiating with roommates about where to put the refrigerator, or finding the best Thai food. And once school actually starts, thoughts of career recede even further.

Parents go through their own form of denial about their children’s futures. The logic of choice: it’s good that the economy is bad now, because my son has four years for it to get better. Many parents also erroneously assume that if their son or daughter goes to a good school and does well, they will automatically receive a top job after graduation. (Based on the recent lawsuit filed by an unemployed graduate against her alma mater, some students labor under a similar misunderstanding.)

After working with thousands of parents at Duke University and Brown University, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten things that every parent of a liberal arts student needs to know about education and career.

1) Your sons and daughters will probably change their minds about their major at least once, and probably multiple times. That’s normal.

2) Not surprisingly, most students change their minds about their expected careers, too.

3) Students do not need to immediately put themselves into a pre-med or pre-law “box”. There are no pre-requisites for law school, and students are increasingly taking a full four years to complete medical school requirements.

4) It is now almost the norm to work for a year or two before going to grad school, law school or medical school. And, most top MBA programs only accept students with significant experience.

5) The subject matter of the major may not have anything in common with a student’s career aspiration. If it doesn’t, your son or daughter will need to supplement the major with relevant experiences outside the classroom
.

6) Internships are now a pre-requisite for success in finding a good position. Students who are most in demand by employers have often had two or three internships before graduation, and have built work skills and knowledge throughout their time in college.

7) College provides numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to build skills that employers covet. Club leadership, membership on an athletic team, and study abroad can all round out the resume. The key is to use these experiences to demonstrate commitment, skills development and learning.

8) Students who build strong relationships with grown-ups—faculty, administrators, alumni and other parents—will be way ahead in the career game. Connections count.

9) Your son or daughter should not wait until senior year to start exploring careers, examining options, building skills and developing application materials. An ideal time for the first visit to the careers office is early sophomore year.

10) Today’s students use their parents as a primary source of advice on careers. You will be doing your son or daughter a huge favor by encouraging exploration and experience, while letting them do the work!