Much like corporate finance, law has received lots of glamour in movies and TV over the past few decades. However, the law school and legal landscape are much more nuanced than the camera portrays. This article will highlight a few key questions to ask yourself before deciding if law school is a good investment for you.
1) Do I Want to Practice Law?
First, let’s dispel the myth that you are employable in a wide range of jobs with a law degree. Most businesses are not interested in hiring lawyers into non-legal roles, so you should really only pursue a law degree if you want to do legal work.
The best way to learn what legal work is like is to observe a practicing lawyer. While there are many different types of law that you can practice – tax, corporate, litigation, family law, and public defense to name a few – the nature of legal work will have similarities across practice areas. You need to be able to conduct research, think critically, and write effectively, all while working largely independently.
Take some time to evaluate if legal work is for you, exploring different areas of law and settings you can practice in. Working at a Big Law firm is very different than working at a small family practice; working for the federal government is very different than working for state government. Visiting a legal practice or job shadowing a lawyer for a day will help you determine if it’s a good fit for you. Even better, work in a legal practice as an assistant or paralegal before making your big decision.
2) How Motivated Am I to Become a Lawyer?
Once you decide you do want to do legal work, you need to critically evaluate your willingness and ability to get into law school and do well in it. Even though all law students will get a J.D. and (presumably) pass a bar exam, career opportunities and earning potential vary a lot depending on which law school you go to and how well you do there.
U.S. News & World Report is widely regarded as the premier ranking for law schools. The “T14” schools have elite career services and place graduates into Big Law firms and prestigious clerkships, whereas schools further down the list may have less than 50% of their class in full-time, legal employment within 10 months of graduation.
That doesn’t mean that you must go to a T14 school – there are many schools with good employment outcomes, and it depends on your own career goals as well. If you are geographically limited, then it makes sense to go to a law school that has a good reputation in the region you want to practice in. Regardless of where you go to law school, finishing in the top 10% of your class will provide attractive career options, but remember that 90% of law school grads don’t finish in the top 10%. The ABA mandates that schools report employment data about clerkships, public service, Big Law, and more, so make sure you reference that before deciding what schools you apply to.
Given that information, you need to be self-aware about your academic ability and work ethic. Law schools heavily consider LSAT and/or GRE scores, so you definitely need to do well on those to maximize your law school options. If you don’t do very well on the LSAT or don’t get into your top choice, are you willing to work harder to finish in the top of your class at the law school you end up at?
This is perhaps the most critical step – researching law schools to figure out which are within your reach.
3) Will I Get a Return on Investment with my Law Degree?
You should really calculate return on investment (ROI) before pursuing any graduate degree, but it’s particularly important for law school. Not only do law schools vary greatly in prestige, but lawyer careers do as well. For example, high-rolling Big Law jobs are what you typically see represented on TV. Many jobs in small firms, government, and nonprofit are less lucrative but still offer challenging and fulfilling work while practicing law.
Since you’ve already evaluated what kind of law job you’d enjoy in step 1 and what law school is attainable for you in step 2, do an ROI analysis. How much student debt will you incur? What salary can you expect to make given the employment data for that school and your own career goals? There’s no magic number or answer, but there are plenty of student loan payment calculators you can use to help determine if law school debt will be reasonable/comfortable for you to pay off.
Additionally, if you are passionate about a law career in nonprofit or public sectors, there are some options for student loan forgiveness. However, make sure you do extensive research on these options before pursuing a law degree because there can be some caveats. It’s an unfortunate reality that many law students graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt but have difficulty finding full-time, paid employment, or employment at the salary they expected.
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Ultimately, it is up to you to figure out if pursuing law school is the right investment in your career. The good news is there are plenty of resources available online to help you make an informed decision about law school and legal careers. Be smart, take advantage of these resources and use them to make a decision that will lead you to a fulfilling career that doesn’t financially burden your future.