Part 1: So you want to go to law school?
- People have varying reasons for wanting to go to law school, but let me put it as plainly as possible. Only go to law school if you want to be a lawyer. Let me repeat that. Only go to law school if you want to be a lawyer. Got it? Good. But a lot of people don’t get it and there are varying reasons why. A lot of it has to do with how our society portrays lawyers and the general population’s perceptions of law school itself. So let’s get into the most common problems.
Law school won’t make you rich. The fact is that the majority of lawyers are not rich nor will they ever be rich. I am not saying that there aren’t exceptions, but the vast majority of lawyers are not wealthy individuals and you are unlikely to buck that trend. Not to say that lawyers are suffering, most of them are doing fine, but the image of your average lawyer "making it rain" is a gross distortion of reality.
Law school will not help you in areas other than the law. Like the above, there are exceptions, but this is even more universal. Don’t go to law school because you want to get into politics or you want to work at Goldman Sachs, there are much better ways at getting those sorts of jobs and if you go to law school with the intent of doing those jobs, you will likely be disappointed. As I said in the beginning, go to law school because you want to be a lawyer.
Law school is not a shelter from the economy. Well, I guess it is in a certain sense since you are delaying having to find a job, but it is an expensive shelter than can cost upwards of $70,000 per year. Most law schools cost well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the job prospects in the legal field aren’t any better than the rest of the economy. The current unemployment rate for recent college grads is around 20% and it is about the same for recent law school grads. So you shouldn’t go into law school thinking that your employment prospects will magically be better on the other side and that you can wait out a bad economy in law school because it simply isn’t true.
Finally, being a lawyer isn’t like what you see on Law and Order. When I say that you should go to law school because you want to be a lawyer, I mean an actual lawyer, and the only way you can know whether you want to be a lawyer is if you know what they actually do. When I say that it isn’t like Law and Order, that’s actually an understatement. The vast majority of high paying legal work is transactional and those lawyers never see the inside of the courtroom. Even for those involved in litigation, actually being in the courtroom counts for only a fraction of the time they actually spend on a case. Talk to some lawyers, find out what it’s like and realize that even if you get your dream legal job it is won’t be anything like the lawyers you see on television.
Part 2: What gets you into law school?
- I’m not going to get into the specifics here or how to exactly do it as there are plenty of guides on that. I will point out some simple advice that people often either do not know or tend to ignore. And yes, there are exceptions to these things but they are few and far between.
There are two things that matter above all else in law school admissions: GPA and LSAT. That means that if you want to get into a good law school you need to get the highest possible GPA you can and that it doesn’t matter whether you are a triple major in polymer science, mechanical engineering, and finance or whether you are a single major in underwater basketweaving. It also doesn’t matter much whether you went to Bumfuck State University or Harvard, it is the GPA that matters. This is even more true when it comes to the LSAT which is a more important admissions factor than GPA. You need to get the highest LSAT possible and a difference of even a couple points is often huge.
The reason that a few points in either GPA or LSAT can make a big difference is that law schools are constantly trying to raise the median GPA and LSAT of their incoming class. This means that they will tend to take people who have numbers above both of their current medians, or at least above one of them. They very rarely take people who are below both medians because those people drag down both numbers. This is the reason that a couple LSAT points can make a huge difference. If you have a 3.5 GPA and 164 LSAT, and the school you are applying to has a 3.6 GPA median and a 165 LSAT median, you are an autoreject at that school. On the other hand, if you had a 166 instead of a 164 LSAT score then you would have at the very least a 50% shot at admittance if not higher. A couple LSAT points can literally increase your odds of acceptance at certain schools by over 50%. For a graphical representation of this, take a look at Link #1.
And this is the reason why you should retake and often reapply. While most people don’t drastically improve their LSAT score, they do improve by at least a bit and a couple points makes a huge difference. For example, there are not many 168 LSAT scores in the top 14 schools, but there are a lot of 170 LSAT scores. Because law schools only take the highest score, the difference between a 168 and 170 could be the difference between getting admitted to Washington University and getting admitted to the University of Michigan. It is in your best interest to retake. Using the example above I often ask people, would you rather graduate from Washington University 3 years from now or from the University of Michigan 4 years from now? Of course the answer is generally Michigan, and that is why retaking and reapplying is so beneficial because just a few points on the LSAT and you are looking at a whole new caliber of schools.
Part 3: Which law school should you choose?
- There are a few things about law schools that need to be noted:
1. They are regional, meaning that they generally don’t place outside of their area. There are exceptions (the top 14-18 schools don’t necessarily follow this trend), but by and large it is true. If you want to work in California, go to school in California. If you want to work in New England, go to school in New England. For lower ranked schools it doesn’t matter that one is ranked higher if it isn’t in the area that you want to work after graduation.
2. Employment stats are fudged, especially things like median salary that you see reported on their websites or by USNWR. This is because these stats only take into account a tiny fraction of their graduates and they don’t have to take into account those who don’t respond to the employment survey and those that don’t report salary information. It is invariably these people who are most likely to unemployed or underemployed. So you really shouldn’t believe those numbers when you see them because almost every law school in America says that its median salary is six figures when this isn’t even true at some of the best schools in the country. Take a look at Link #2 and notice how much of the class doesn’t even report salary information and the data from this website doesn’t even count the people who don’t respond to the survey which makes these numbers even further from the truth.
3. The USNWR rankings should not be strictly followed. While they do tend to come close to the truth, they should not be used as more than a rough guide at first.
Some other things should be noted before choosing a school. The first is that law school is insanely expensive. The cost of attendance at most schools is either getting close to $200,000 or has already passed it. This is true of both the best schools and the worst schools. Tuition at many schools is already far higher than $40,000 a year and couple with cost of living that is often in the range of $20,000-$30,000 it is easy to see how 3 years of law school can add up to a lot of debt. The second thing to note is that the salary distribution for fresh law school grads is bimodal. This means that there are two major peaks, that is around $160,000 and the other that is around $30,000-$60,000. For a graphical representation of this, check out Link #3.
The reason that these two things are important is that when choosing a law school, you need to take on an amount of debt that you can reasonably pay back. At the vast majority of law schools, the amount of grads who get six figure jobs (which is colloquially known as biglaw) is a very small percentage. While at some of the top 30 or so schools it gets around 20-40% and at some of the top 14 or so schools it can be as high as 50-60%, this is not the case for the lower ranked schools. And because of the bimodal salary distribution, when a law graduate fails to obtain a biglaw job that pays six figures, they are then most likely to end up in a job that pays $30,000-$60,000. While this is not an absolute, it is generally true and even though some of these jobs qualify for loan assistance in the form of LRAP or 10 year IBR, the vast majority of them do not because they do not meet the qualifications for those programs. This means that there are many new lawyers who are living off small firm salaries and are paying back their loans without the assistance of either loan assistance or the salary of a biglaw lawyer. If these small firm lawyers took out $200,000 to go to school, which is the sticker price at many law schools, they could be looking at 20 years or more of making payments on their loans.
This matters because of the cost of law school. When the majority of grads are making this little money, it is foolish to go into a lot of debt. Outside of the top 10-20 schools, due to the fact that a majority of the class ends up with these low paying jobs, I would advocate not taking out more than $100,000-$120,000 dollars in loans because that is roughly the maximum amount of loans one can pay off in 10 years off of a salary in the $30,000-$60,000 range. The other thing is that I would avoid scholarships with stipulations that require you to be any higher than top 50% of the class due to the difficulty in keeping them.
Plenty of people respond to this information by saying “I’ll just do really well in law school and end up at the top of my class so I can keep my scholarship and get a biglaw job” or by saying “I’ll get in the top 10% of my class the first year and transfer to a much better school.” However, these people are sorely mistaken because you cannot predict how your grades will fall. Because law schools are graded on a curve and because everybody has GPA/LSAT numbers that are very close to each other – at many schools the LSAT range for the majority of students only differs by 4 points – you cannot guarantee that you will get good grades. Everyone else is just as smart as you are and you do not have an edge, even if you think you do. What makes it even harder is that you cannot outwork your classmates because more work doesn’t necessarily equate to better grades and the fact is that almost everyone is already working quite hard as it is.
To put it bluntly, you should not go to law school planning on transferring because it will take roughly top 10% grades to do that and you only have a 10% chance of that happening. This is also why you shouldn’t plan on getting biglaw out of schools that only place a small fraction of their class into biglaw because this generally goes to those who have top grades and the same logic applies. Finally, this is also why taking a scholarship that requires you to be top 1/3 of the class to keep it is a bad idea because 66% of the time, which is more often than not, you are going to lose that scholarship.
Part 4: Conclusion
- This leads to some pretty simple maxims:
1. Go to a school that places in the region you want to work in. (e.g. Don’t go to a school that places in the Midwest if you want to work on the West Coast.)
2. Don’t take out much more than $100,000 debt for most law schools, with the exception that it may be justifiable to take out more debt than that for the top 10-20 schools because they place a large amount of grads into biglaw and those people end up with a salary that makes paying off $200,000 in debt manageable. When you are taking out significantly more than $100,000 and you have a high chance of ending up in a job that pays $30,000-$60,000, you are very likely to end up taking several decades to pay back your loans which is quite a soulcrushing position to be in.
3. In the end, know what you are getting yourself into and set reasonable expectations. If you want to work in a very rare or niche practice area, such as environmental law, then understand that you probably won’t get it and have a backup plan. Also don’t assume that you will get grades that are any better than median and thus probably won’t have access to the highly selective employers that tend to only take people from the top 10% of the class. There is nothing wrong with wanting to clerk for the Supreme Court, but know that it probably isn’t going to happen so make sure you have other things that you want to do with your law degree lest you be disappointed.
1. Law School Numbers
2. Law School Transparency Data on Starting Salaries (LinkRemoved)
3. NALP Graph of the Bimodal Starting Salary Distribution