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New Data On Law Opportunities May Serve As A Reality Check

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Attending law school is the worst career decision you’ll ever make.

Or at least that’s what the writers at Forbes magazine think—that astonishingly pessimistic statement was the title of a June 2012 editorial.

While the rest of the legal world may not be as cynical as Forbes, the weak job outlook, coupled with high tuition rates, is prompting many students to think twice about law school.

Historically, a law degree was a ticket to a high-paying job, with new grads often landing starting salaries of $150,000 or more. This vision is increasingly looking like a blast from the past, however.

“Back in 2008, major law firms were competing to see who could offer the highest salary to attract the best students from the best law schools to join their firms,” said Jeff Thomas, the director of pre-law programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

Because the job market for newly minted lawyers is the most competitive it has been in 30 years, Kaplan recently conducted surveys of pre-law students and new law school graduates.

“As a result of these lucrative salaries, we saw a major spike in applications to law school, and there were more students in law school than ever before,” Thomas said. “Three years down the road in 2011, what we see is an over supply of attorneys for jobs that have historically been available.”

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), only 55 percent of the class of 2011 had full-time, longterm jobs that required a law degree nine months after graduation. The ABA defines “longterm” jobs as those that don’t have a term of less than one year.

Compare this to the 78 percent of MBA graduates who landed jobs within three months of getting their degree.

Couple these figures with declining starting salaries. Since 2009 the median starting salary for new law graduates has fallen 17 percent. This salary decline is surprising in its scope—nearly all of the drop can be attributed to the continued erosion of private practice opportunities, with its salaries dropping 35 percent since 2009.

Maris Abbene, associate dean for academic, career, and student services at Boston College Law School, agrees.

“Anyone thinking about law school needs to take a long hard look at the data. Students need to understand that the majority of new lawyers are only making $50,000 or $60,000 per year, with the public sector much lower, around $37,000.”

But while salaries and job placement rates are declining, law school tuition continues to rise. With annual fees of $30,000 to $40,000, students are taking on enormous amounts of debt and are graduating law school saddled with over six figures of student loans.

So what is a pre-law student to do?
“Students should seriously consider working between college and law school,” Abbene said. “It is incredibly advantageous to get real legal experience before going to law school.”

According to Abbene, it is crucial for students to be in a legal setting before law school to gain a solid idea of what type of law they want to practice upon graduation.

Thomas agrees.

“The major lesson of this [Kaplan Test Prep’s] survey was that it is very important that students understand that a JD is not an end but rather a means to an end,” he said.

What Thomas means by this is that historically, many students applied to law school because pre-law students need few prerequisites other than high GPA and LSAT scores. They applied assuming they could figure out what they wanted to do later.

“Given the legal job market and its extreme competitiveness, students today need to be a lot more introspective about why they want to go to law school, what type of law they want to practice, and what jurisdiction they want to practice in,” Thomas said.

Dom DeLeo, associate director of career counseling at BC, agrees that today, more than ever, it is crucially important for students to do their homework before entering law school.

“The idea is that when you’re thinking about any career, you want to think about it in terms of not just the situation in the next two to five years, but you want to think about the long term goals as well,” DeLeo said. “Do you really want to do what lawyers do? Do you need a law degree to do what you want to do? There are other alternatives.”

DeLeo sees his job as helping students make effective choices for the career they want to take.

But despite these caution signs and warning bells, each of the professionals interviewed thought it was ridiculous for students to give up the legal profession altogether simply because of the job market.

“I would not give up a passion just because of the job market,” Abbene said. “It is those students who are undecided who need to take more time—talk to lawyers, talk to law students, get experience and find out what a lawyer actually does—in order to make a fully informed decision.”

DeLeo suggests a more philosophical approach.

“One of the things I hope BC has taught us is to judge for ourselves, to judge beyond the numbers and statistics, and take a longer view at who we want to be and what we want to do.”

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