Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When Is It Reasonable To Go To Law School? Part 1

On the blog "But I Did Everything Right Or So I Thought", Angel recently posted an article entitled "Who Should Go To Law School?".  In the post, several criteria are set out and if the potential law student satisfies the criteria, then the author is " on board with you going to law school and I'll dance at your graduation."  The criterion are generally very sensible, but I have some structural differences with regard to the consideration and a somewhat different take on the criteria.  Read below for my take on whether you should go to law school!

In terms of approaching the issue of going to law school, the first question is whether you are independently wealthy or whether you need to earn money.  If you are independently wealthy, then do whatever you want.  You don't need to practice law to eat, so do whatever entertains you.  There is actually a significant proportion of people that attend law school that are independently wealthy.  At my law school, it seemed to be about 25%-30%.  These people often go to law school for a variety of reasons, like personal fulfillment, wanting to show their families that they can do something, etc.  That's great for them, but it may not be your situation.  Also, these people typically skew the numbers for "average debt upon graduation" because they don't have to take on any - but that's a topic for another post!

On the other hand, if you need to earn money, then the question is "Do you want to practice law?"  If not, then do not go to law school.  Period.  I know that law schools market about how a law degree is great to have and will provide all kinds of benefits.  Unfortunately, in the overwhelming majority of instances, there is very little benefit to a law degree if you are not going to practice law - and for at least several years.  In the few instances where people actually report that their law degree gave them a benefit outside of law they are often either 1) people who didn't need the law degree to eat in the first place (i.e., not us) who may be overstating the benefit, or 2) misled and not wanting to own up to having wasted two years. 

Also - in order to actually be able to answer the question of whether you want to practice law, I would submit that you actually need to know what you are talking about.  For example, have you been a paralegal in a law firm for at least a year?  That will give you a great insight into what practice is actually like - as well as giving you an opportunity to save money and potentially avoid a bad $200K decision.  Just talking to friends or even a few lawyers is not sufficient to know whether you want to practice.  I want you to be in the law firm situation for long enough that the shine wears off, the grind sets in, and you get to really start thinking about it.  Frankly, I think that if the ABA passed a rule that says that everyone that wants to go to law school has to be a paralegal for a year first, the number of students going to law school would drop by about 50% due to people re-evaluating the opportunity.

If you do want to practice law and you know what you are talking about, then we proceed to do two calculations 1) will law school provide me with the minimum amount of money that I need to sustain the lifestyle that I want, and 2) which would provide me with more money, going to law school or the "backup plan".

With regard to the "minimum amount of money that I need", some people still need to eat, but as long as they can provide a minimum level of income, then they can proceed to satisfy their need for personal fulfillment by representing the indigent or the environment (or whatever gives them fulfillment).  However, even if you like the concept, you won't like the sensation of not being able to get married, buy a house, or pay for your kid's college.  Our first calculation should assure that going to law school will allow you to make enough to satisfy your life's goals.

To do this, you would perform a realistic calculation of the impact of the cost and return of going to law school. You would not give yourself the benefit of "well, I am better than anyone, so I will make partner."  Instead you will just take the 50th percentile of what happens to people graduating from law school and assume that it will happen to you - warts and all.  That doesn't mean you just take the median starting salary - oh no - you have to take into account the people that didn't get hired - what is the 50% percentile of everyone who goes to law school, not just those who go who actually get jobs.  That means that if fewer than 50% of the people that go to the law school that you are considering were successful at getting jobs, then you have to assume that you will also be unsuccessful.  You will also take into account the total cost, including interest.  This post will help you.   Use the total cost to determine your loan payments.  You now have an estimate of how much you are likely to make and what your payments are likely to be.  Is the amount left greater than the minimum you need?  Does it remain greater than the minimum you need for at least 10 years, including increased expenses for family and adjusting your salary at the rate of inflation? If not, then don't go to law school.  (Note: Yearly reported salary raises that are higher than inflation might be more a product of lower salaries dropping out of the distribution, than all salaries getting raised.  Remember - you need to use the 50% percentile of the whole distribution, not just 50% of the top 25% that remains employed after 10 years.)

The second calculation is for the majority of people who are thinking about going to law school as a way of maximizing their personal utility.  They want the largest number of dollars in exchange for the very limited resource of each hour of their lives.  No shame in that at all.  In this regard, we need to determine whether going to law school is a financial plus or minus.  Do the same calculation as above with regard to cost and expected salary after law school and compare it to salary with no law school.  Go with whatever is greater.  Don't forget to include the impact of taxes that could take 30% of your post law school salary but only 10% of your backup plan's salary.  Also, don't forget to include the additional earnings and raises to your backup plan during the 3 years you are in law school.

Now that we know the general structure of our inquiry, we can now consider our variables that may influence some of the number above, such as rank of law school, undergrad degree, etc., which we will consider in Part 2


  1. I think the requirement of being a paralegal for a year is brilliant, but would also require that before you can apply to law school, one must be 2 years out of undergrad. There are simply too many young adults in law school who do not know what they want to do and are "finding themselves." Trust me kids, even if you are independently wealthy, this is not the place to do it. Law school is like "The Shawshank Redemption," except there is no kind black man to befriend you or narrarate your experience.

  2. 6:07 - The two-year aspect sounds like good advice. There are definitely too many people that set themselves up for a lifetime of hurt be making a poor decision. On the other hand, if they are independently wealthy, then I figure that they can do whatever they want - they can always leave at any time if they don't like it, right?