By Other Means

Should You Go to Law School?

The good, the bad, and the ugly about getting a J.D.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Younger readers, you may have noticed a quiet conspiracy among Foreign Policy writers to discourage you from pursuing the career of your dreams. In February, I cautioned those interested in White House jobs that the path to becoming a political appointee is opaque, arbitrary, and nepotistic, and Nicholas Kralev inveighed against the State Department, where professional development is "largely non-existent" and younger diplomats consequently "don’t really know what is going on around them." Meanwhile, Tom Ricks’s blog has for months been intermittently given over to the complaints of junior military officers, who assert that the military is rigid, anti-intellectual, and un-family-friendly. Then there’s Dan Drezner, who on April 15 warned that most international studies Ph.D. candidates are unlikely to make it all the way through grad school, and the job market for those few who survive is "brutal" and "abysmal."

What’s left?

Law school, of course! Well, how about it: Should you consider going to law school?


I’ve taught law since 1997, with various detours along the way, and I’ve seen almost 15 years of law students graduate and struggle to find jobs that satisfy them. So here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. And since law professors are renowned for taking perfectly simple things and turning them upside down, I’ll take those in reverse order.

Here’s the ugly:

You probably know this already, but I’ll say it again. America has too many law schools charging too much tuition and turning out too many lawyers. This has three consequences.

First, some of those so-called "law schools" are so mediocre that they’d bring a blush to the cheeks of even to the most shameless diploma-mill operator. Don’t go to an unaccredited law school — really, don’t. The sole exception to this? Every now and then, a very reputable and distinguished university that lacks a law school decides to start one, and there will inevitably be a short period before that new school can gain full accreditation. But if an unaccredited law school is a stand-alone enterprise or affiliated with an equally dubious "university," avoid it like the plague. Your degree will be close to worthless.

The same is true, unfortunately, for many accredited but crummy law schools, and here in the land of the free, crummy (but decidedly un-free) law schools abound. How do you know if a law school is worth your time? Do some research. What’s the first time bar passage rate? If it’s routinely under 60 percent, be afraid. How many graduates have full-time jobs 9 months out? More important, what are they doing?

If they don’t have jobs as lawyers, this in itself is not a reason for concern: Lots of law students (you too, maybe) aren’t interested in becoming lawyers, but instead see law school as providing the training and credentials that will pave the way for interesting business, policy, or advocacy jobs. Georgetown Law, for instance, where I teach, produces plenty of high-powered non-lawyers, including career ambassadors, senators, and media moguls. US News and World Report doesn’t give law schools any credit for their graduates in such non-legal jobs, but you should — as long as those jobs are good jobs in and of themselves. Thus, if a law school’s graduates seem to go into banking or tech companies or NGO jobs as much as (or more than) legal jobs, don’t panic — this might be a neutral thing or even a very good thing. But if they’re all working at McDonalds, run like the wind.

Ask law schools about average and median salaries of graduates one year and five years out. If they’re low, compare them to the law school’s tuition and graduates’ average debt load. Ask about loan forgiveness programs. Ask about the kinds of jobs top students get — and also ask about the job prospects for those who graduate in the bottom half of the class. Ask for names as well as numbers: The best way to understand a law school’s culture is to talk to students and recent graduates. They’re a lot more likely to tell you the truth than admissions office employees. And in the career field you’re interested in, also speak to professionals in the city or state where you hope to work: What do local lawyers say about the reputation of the law school you’re considering? Do they hire its graduates? Do they know any of its graduates? Do they snicker when you mention the school’s name?

Here’s the second bit of ugliness: Most law schools charge exorbitant tuitions, and tuition has risen relative to starting salaries. It’s one thing to borrow or spend $80,000 if you’re likely to get a job with a starting salary of $120,000. It’s another thing to borrow or spend $125,000 or more if you’re likely to get a job that pays $40,000. We call the first expenditure an investment. We call the second an act of near-suicidal folly.

There are only two things that might possibly justify such apparent folly: a) you’re rich (or your parents are rich and will happily pay your debts for the rest of your life); or b) your school has an excellent loan forgiveness program. Most of the top-tier law schools do have such programs, and they have enabled many young lawyers to take low-paying public interest jobs. But read the fine print: Does a school guarantee the availability of the loan forgiveness program? If the program contracts, will you be grandfathered in? Does the loan forgiveness program restrict your career choices in a way that may cause problems for you later? (This should be a particular concern for those interested in policy and advocacy jobs: Some schools with generous loan forgiveness programs restrict them to graduates working in jobs that require a J.D.)

Also consider your likelihood of actually graduating. Law school is three long years, and not everyone finishes. Do you want to spend three semesters in law school and leave with three semesters of debt but no degree?

Third bit of ugliness: There are too man
y lawyers, and not as many legal jobs as there used to be. Worse, conditions and pay in many of the remaining jobs have deteriorated. Here again, think hard about yourself and your skills and qualifications. Do you expect to end up in the top half of your class at a decent law school? If so, you’ll probably get a decent job. But if you know in your heart that you’re not much of a student, think twice and then think ten more times about whether law school is right for you. At all but the top-tier schools (and even at some of them) students in the lowest quarter of the class will struggle to find work.

There are exceptions, of course. Grades aren’t everything. Some students go to law school, get the specific skills they want, and start their own businesses or non-profits. If you’re smart and entrepreneurial (or just rich, or just super lucky), mediocre grades won’t necessarily hold you back. But this applies to a tiny minority of law school graduates, so think hard about whether you’re likely to be one of them.

That was the ugly. How about the merely bad?

If the ugly news is that you might end up unable to find a job, the bad news is that you might actually end up becoming a lawyer. (Second prize: two weeks in Philadelphia!)

But wait, you say — isn’t that the point? Don’t I want to become a lawyer?

I don’t know. Do you?

There are happy lawyers in this world — I know many — but, statistically, lawyers are a pretty miserable lot. Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of them — particularly associates in large, lucrative firms — hate their jobs. In a 2013 survey, Forbes found that there are plenty of happy workers out there in the United States. Network engineers like their jobs. Real estate agents like their jobs. Salesmen like their jobs. But law firm associates? They were the least happy workers of all, ranking their job satisfaction only 2.89 on a scale of 1-5. And please don’t imagine that this is a temporary state of affairs, a product, perhaps, of the pressures on young law firm associates during a period of economic recession. Law firm associates have been miserable since the dawn of time.

Here’s what this means for you. Let’s say you’ve been admitted to a top-50 law school. You’re a strong, highly motivated student, too, with grades and test scores at or above your law school’s medians, so you can reasonably expect to graduate in the top half of your class. If you’re counting on a lucrative job as an associate in a big law firm to pay off those staggering tuition debts, you may well get that lucrative job. But is it worth it?

Maybe, if you are passionate about the type of law you can practice at big firms (hint: it doesn’t involve a lot of time defending the downtrodden), and you don’t mind working long, punishing 14- or 16-hour days as a routine matter. This description actually fits some people, so if you’re one of them, have at it.

But do you want to have work that contributes to the public good consistently? Or friends? Hobbies? A pet? Or, God forbid, a spouse and children whom you actually see from time to time? If so, this probably isn’t the right path for you.

Here’s the other thing about law school. Like Ph.D. programs, law schools are intense socializing experiences, and you should consider the possibility that law school — particularly a top tier law school — will change you in some ways you won’t like. In my experience, about 75 percent of students enter top law schools saying they plan to pursue public interest careers, and about 75 percent graduate from law school planning to pursue law firm careers. Maybe most of them lied about their ambitions on their admissions essays — some of them surely did — but I don’t think that’s the primary explanation for the shift. Law school changes people.

That’s partly a function of that fabled process, "learning to think like a lawyer." But it’s also a function of the way most law schools are structured, and the career services they offer. Law schools depend on wealthy alumni to make donations, and those wealthy alumni tend to come from big firms — which means, you guessed it, that buildings, classrooms, and programs are a lot more apt to be named for big firms and big-firm lawyers than for public defenders. The big firms also have the money to invest in elaborate recruiting programs: They have well-funded summer associate programs, and can afford to send a team of recruiters to participate in on-campus interview programs and host cocktail parties for interested students.

There’s a clear and well-trodden path from good law schools to jobs in big firms, and the career advising offices at most such law schools excel in guiding students through the process of getting law firm jobs. Meanwhile, the public defender’s office of Southern Kentucky may have the funds to hire only one new lawyer every few years, and they certainly can’t afford to send recruiters out to dozens of law schools. The same is true of small, local five-person firms, and of human rights NGOs, and even many federal government employers. Consequently, these jobs (which are also, of course, far less lucrative) are very hard to find: They take initiative and legwork. You may have to finance your own summer internships; you may have to finance your own trips to job interviews. Little wonder that so many graduates of top law schools end up going into firms.

Unless you are one of those rare individuals with the strength of character to avoid following the path of least resistance, you’re likely to find yourself, a few years from now, doing something you never much wanted to do, and feeling pretty rotten about it. You’ll enter law school full of high ideals: You’re going to use law to defend the wrongly accused on death row, or become an advocate for the human rights of oppressed indigenous peoples in China. But odds are high that you’ll come out of law school planning to work for Dewey, Cheatham & Howe — or maybe for Status, Quo & Annual Bonus. "Just for a while," you’ll tell yourself. "Just to pay some debts. Just to see if I like it." But eight years later, you’ll have a mortgage on a big house, a fancy car, a nanny, and two kids in expensive private schools. You’ll have trapped yourself nicely, and you’ll be pouring out your sorrows to someone doing a survey on career satisfaction among law firm associates.

I promised some good news at the end. So here’s the good news: if you’re smart, tough, persistent and a little bit lucky, you can enjoy law school and end up in a meaningful, interesting, reasonably well-compensated job. You don’t have to work for Big Law. In fact, you don’t even have to be a lawyer at all if you don’t want to — and many law school graduates don’t.

Here’s what’s good about law school. The classes at any decent law school will push you to sharpen your mind: to think rigorously and logically, and express yourself cogently and succinctly. These skills are less common than you might think, and
skeptical as I am about law schools and the legal profession, law school does help develop them. At any decent law school, you’ll also be pushed to get behind the "rules" and think about how rules are made, how they operate, what social and economic assumptions they reflect, and what behaviors they drive. At any reasonably good law school, you can — if you’re motivated enough — find faculty and alumni with experience in a diverse range of fields, from criminal law to cyberlaw, and from defense policy to environmental policy.

And some legal jobs do make lawyers happy. Studies suggest that lawyers in government and public interest jobs are, by and large, a pretty contented lot: They make less money, but their work is interesting and meaningful, and their hours generally far less brutal than those in private firms. The small fraction of law school graduates who go into teaching are happier still. (And why not? You have job security, a more than adequate salary, and the great luxury of teaching what you want, writing what you want, and spending your days interacting with bright, curious young people.)

And here’s the best news of all: Going to law school doesn’t mean you have to become a lawyer. Plenty of non-legal employers also value the skills bright law school graduates bring to the table. If you’re interested in foreign policy or national security-related careers, for instance, there are plenty of opportunities outside the State Department Legal Advisor’s Office or the DOD General Counsel. When I worked in the Pentagon’s policy shop, several of the most impressive action officers I met were young law school graduates (who seemed to regard their avoidance of legal practice as a narrow escape). A J.D. isn’t needed for those jobs — but it sure doesn’t hurt. And among the Georgetown Law alumni I know, there are foreign service officers, television journalists, entrepreneurs, CIA analysts, management consultants, human rights advocates, and congressional staffers. These alumni are among the happiest law school graduates I know.

Bottom line? If you want to go to law school, go — but only if you get into a good law school, expect to be a strong student, have a rational plan for paying all those bills, and consider yourself persistent and tough-minded enough to refrain from tripping down the path of least resistance.

Good luck!

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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