Should Law School Come With A Warning Label?

It is an interesting question Ari Kaplan asks in his latest column. And he brings in a host of great minds to answer the question, ‘Should Law School Come With A Warning Label?’.  This includes law school faculty, some deans and some practitioners including our own faculty member, Jay Shepherd.

This is such a hot button issue, transparency about what one is really getting into (and going to get out of) when they attend law school, it has generated much spirited debate amongst those who say, ‘you should have known’ versus those who feel they’ve been victimized by the process.

I’ve been guilty of being in the ‘should have known’ camp even though I have railed against the law schools for their lack of transparency and deliberate misrepresentation of job statistics while they are on bended knee worshiping at the altar of U.S. News and World Reports.

Here’s my story.  Maybe this will help those who are considering law school or considering getting out of law school while they can.

I never was dreamy-eyed about L.A. Law or The Practice or Damages.  I wanted the education and originally had no idea whether I would practice law or not but knew if I chose to practice it would be in my own business.  I also believed the degree would be an excellent one to help me navigate through life. And there are a lot of people just like me who go to school without fantasizing about ‘THE case’ or appearing before the Supreme Court.  There are a lot of students who go to law school and do well in law school (and after) with a particular mission in mind or simple love of a particular practice area or get their degree and become in house counsel for their family business or the degree assists them in their current job or it is a second career after being pensioned out of a previous career.  And then there is a significant majority who go into law school by default, lack of anything better to do but figure having a graduate degree is better than not having one.  The latter is the group who gets most injured.  They go into school in spite of the number crunching, in spite of the job market, in spite of the economy expecting they will be different. They are different. They are the ones who get crushed.

When I taught my class, ‘How to Hang A Shingle Right Out of Law School’ at Quinnipiac University School of Law, on the first day of class I reminded the students that chances are they will be in the botttom 95% of their graduating class who don’t get the Big Law job offer or clerkship.  Do they have a plan ‘B’?  This was a real wake-up call. I also asked, ‘how many students are here simply because you need two credits and this is a perfect filler class?’  Several hands would go up.  I would then tell them, ‘this may accidentally be the most important class you will ever take.’  (End of the semester most confirmed this to be true :-)

So, back to when I went to school.  I had taken my LSAT’s four years prior, got accepted to two local schools and decided not to go.  I wanted to work for a while.  When my LSAT scores were about to ‘expire’ almost four years later, I reapplied to law schools in my area ( excluding Yale because that just made absolutely no financial sense to me if I wanted to go solo).  My work trajectory was not satisfying and I was being offered more of the same.

I remember the day so clearly. I was offered a very high paying job with the state doing ‘more of the same’.  I had just received the phone call offering me the state job, went downstairs to get my mail, was about to toss out what looked like junk mail and decided to open it instead.  Inside was my acceptance to University of Bridgeport School of Law (now Quinnipiac).  I remember standing over the trash can, letter in hand saying, ‘a job or poverty – job or poverty’ – meaning three years without income and moving back in with my parents (even though I would fully pay for law school myself with loans while working a side job to pay my ongoing responsibilities).  I did the cost benefit analysis.  I knew if  I went to law school and decided to practice law it would be in my own practice.  This would be the only way I would practice law, as my own boss.  So, $60,000 in loans plus loss of income for three years had to be considered.  I remember saying to myself, ‘if I can’t earn back $60,000 in a year or two I have no business being a lawyer.’  I took my acceptance letter and went back upstairs to continue crunching the numbers.  My decision was made.  But I did the analysis.  It made sense for me.  If I stopped being a lawyer I still had a good chance of weathering those loans without killing myself trying to pay them if I didn’t want to practice.  I can honestly say if the degree were to cost me $150,000 I would not have made the decision to go to law school.

As it turned out I LOVED being a lawyer and opened my practice with two others right out of law school eventually going solo…and, well, you know the rest. I backed into my legal career practicing full time for 13 years and always in my own firm.  I more than paid back my loans from earned income as a practicing lawyer as well as made up for the three years of lost income while I was in law school (which was substantial) and earned a very good living. I could afford to figure my life out this way because I did the all important cost benefit analysis and the marketplace and economy were more accommodating.

Today, things are very different.  The costs associated with getting a law degree, the job market and the availability of information to make an even more informed decision are plastered across the internet.

Potential students need to do their homework and do a cost/benefit analysis AND the law schools should be more transparent and accountable for providing real information.

Students also need to remember law schools are businesses.  They have one motivation, truly.  That is profit.  The professors may love what they do but unless the school is run like a business it won’t survive.  So they will market, market, and market.  They will soft-peddle less desirable job placement numbers and push under the rug facts and statistics you need to make a truly informed decision.  Law schools  have a different agenda than you.  Once you are through the system ladened with debt you are no longer on their radar except for alumni fundraising.  They are laser-focused on the next group of paying students.  They owe you nothing.

This is the truth.

Therefore, how badly do you want to be a lawyer?  Do you have a game plan for the debt?  Does it make sense for you?  If all you’ve ever wanted to be is a lawyer, you know no other passion and you are willing to figure out how to handle the debt, then at the very least go to a school which provides the best education based upon what you can reasonably afford after you’ve crunched the numbers.  And more importantly for all students, if you get into law school and it isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to walk away after your first year.  Cut your losses and move on.

What’s your story?

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4 comments on “Should Law School Come With A Warning Label?

  • It should come with a warning label:

    Warning: May cause excessive consumption of alcohol.

  • – More than a warning label, this “majority” are those that should not be accepted into law school in the first place. This won’t happen, of course, as long as law school (and for that matter lawyers) continue to consider the practice of law (and running a law school) to be a business first and a profession a distant second.

    State Bars need to start taking a much heavier hand with regard to how many law schools there are and how many students they are pumping out. We all know the law schools in our respective states that ought to be closed. It really is past time for the bar to stand up and take responsibility for who is allowed into our ranks.

    Bottom line: If you are considering going to law school just “to get a good-paying job,” please don’t. You are likely to be disappointed and the bar could frankly do without you.

    ” And then there is a significant majority who go into law school by default, lack of anything better to do but figure having a graduate degree is better than not having one. The latter is the group who gets most injured. They go into school in spite of the number crunching, in spite of the job market, in spite of the economy expecting they will be different. They are different. They are the ones who get crushed.”

  • Susan, that hides a very important line of reasoning. It is important to comparison shop the schools based on the value of each school to you, rather than to U.S. News U& World Report. Cost-benefit analysis would leave Yale & many others out for a lot of people. I didn’t do this myself because geography left only one possibility in my specific situation. But it was clear to me that a lot of my young classmates also not done it, but should have done it in a period when our school was raising its tuition 15-25% each year and there was no apparent reason for many of the students–particularly out-of-state students–to attend this rather than some less expensive school.

  • Students going to law school now will be competing for jobs or clients against lawyers like me who had no undergraduate debt because I went to my home university for an undergraduate degree and won all of my tuition in grants and scholarships and then went to law school when the economy was still booming, later consolidating student loans for law school at under a 2% fixed interest rate. Law school tuitions have gone up since I graduated, interest rates have gone up, and clients have less money to hire lawyers during a recession. I was very fortunate, along with the rest of my class and the classes before mine. I do not know how new lawyers will survive without putting in 16 hour days doing paperwork and rainmaking.

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