[Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Othala Fehu, an attorney who writes a “Net Worth Blog” outlining the growth of his net worth and is enjoying his law career despite not going to a Top 14 law school. We have no financial relationship.]
I wanted to write a post about my take on the whole ‘Should I go to Law School?’ and if so ‘Where Should I Go?’ dilemma. I kept seeing articles about The Top 14 Ranked Law Schools and how competitive the market is for starting salaries above $100k. So What? I get that it is way sexier to read about a 25-year old making $150,000 right out of law school and hitting a million by age 30. Fun read, but not really plausible for most of us lawyer types.
I wanted to explore the larger more mundane path to law school and its more probable outcomes. Unfortunately, law school became a sort of default option for anybody who was kinda smart and not really sure what to do with their life. I went to law school in 1997 and this was certainly the case for me. I moved to a big city and went to a middle of the road law school.
Back when I went to law school, $20,000 a year was typical tuition for a private school. It was easy to break into six figures of debt because you were strongly encouraged to also live off loans for at least the first year.
According to U.S. News & World Reports 2017 law school rankings, the average cost of tuition and fees among the top 10 law schools is $60,293 per year. For private schools, it’s $46,164. For public schools, it’s $26,264 in state and $39,612 out of state.
Law as a Career
Yikes! I always tell people who want to go to law school, you must weigh these numbers in any rational decision-making process. If you are trying to go to law school to get rich, this is not your best bet. Finance has been the way to go for the last few decades. A law degree will get you clout, but not as much as it used to bring.
The real payout for a law degree is the possibility of a healthy upper-middle-class lifestyle where you get to use your brain. Maybe you do some good for a client or your community. You also get to meet and rub elbows with a more stimulating level of coworker/adversary. And plenty of lawyers still get rich even with the inevitable Bourgeoisie Creep.
Law School Debt
Law school debt is really just a problem of law school debt management. You account for the loan payments as an extra mortgage that does not come with any accompanying house. Live below your means and stack chips. $85,000 a year is still Baller money in the big picture.
So if you aren’t really ‘Top 14 material’, does that mean you should give up?
Not at all. It would be great to sit back on campus and wait for the big firms to come and recruit you for being special, but that just is not how it works for the majority of J.D.s.
Three Giant Things to Consider in Landing a Job After Law School
1. Jobs after law school have a lot to do with who you know.
While it is tangentially correct that going to a top law school will put you on the radar of ‘the right people’, it is not necessary. The people who could eventually lead you to a job are everywhere. They might be packed in tighter right outside of a better school in a big city, but that is just the deepest end of the pool.
My wife and I both directly got our first law jobs because of people we met, not grades or resumes or job fairs. My wife interviewed with someone who turns out was an alumni from her same undergraduate; boom got the job. I got hooked up with an unpaid internship with my future employer by a sympathetic law school professor.
Talent, personality, hard work, timing, and luck could each end up getting you where you want.
2. Most law jobs are local in nature.
Yes, there are international firms with a lobby in every port, but that is the exception. US News & World Report has to apply some rational filter to produce a list of the top 100 law schools. They have to organize around consistent criteria. But most law school reputations are built locally and they apply locally.
A mid-level law school in Chicago has way more alumni and connections looking out for its own student’s interest IN CHICAGO then some Ivy League school half a continent away.
3. Law school reputation benefit is limited
Your law school’s name may help you get your foot in the door for your first job, but after that, you are judged on whether or not you’re any good at being a lawyer. You can keep reminding people you went to Cornell, but if you can’t perform it eventually shows.
The converse is also true. Who cares that you went to Dr. Nick’s Upstairs School of Law if you are sharp, personable, and killing it in court. Success in the law is way more about what kind of lawyer you are then where you went to school.
Dealing With the Lawyer Factory
The real cautionary tale is that there are way too many lawyers already and they don’t ever retire. Old lawyers just seem to take fewer cases each year until they die. New lawyers are too hungry, like crabs in a barrel, vying to see who can take less money for the same services.
Take, for instance, Cooley Law School In Michigan (and Florida apparently). No less than four campuses, pumping out multiple batches of sub-par lawyers every year. Their theory was that they would give unorthodox students a shot at law school. Bad idea. They had years with 50% bar passage rates.
Law school admissions have been down for several years now and the law school factories seemed to have cooled their jets somewhat. In fact, according to the American Bar Association, law school enrollment fell 28% from 2010 to 2014 (60,400 vs. 43,500). Nevertheless, it is likely it will still take some time to adjust and re-calibrate the ideal lawyer saturation point.
I don’t think law school should be a default option. That being said, I like being a lawyer and am happy with the life my middle of the road law school has helped me achieve.
The ability to formulate the question, analyze the data and come to a final conclusion in light of the facts about whether or not to go to law school is a great problem for you to tackle with your freshly minted lawyer brain right after you graduate from an accredited law school.
What do you think? Does law school make financial sense? What about if you don't get into a Top 14 school? Does that change the equation? Why or why not? Comment below!