If You Want to Go to Law School, Now’s the Time to Apply
As part of the ongoing debate about the value of law school in the current market, Brittany Alzfan tells you why now is the time to go. For the flip side, check out Matt DeWilde’s take on why you shouldn’t send in that application just yet.
Now is a good time to go to law school, because things are looking up for future lawyers. Now I know most of you are skeptical, especially given the latest job statistics for the class of 2013, but just hear me out here. While the numbers put out by the National Association for Law Placement revealed a lower employment rate for the sixth year running, there was some good news: law school graduates in 2013 found more jobs overall than in 2012. That means that students who enter law school now will probably have more potential jobs at their disposal.
The huge drop in students enrolling in law schools over the past several years leaves graduates looking at a surprisingly strong job market. Let’s use the class of 2016 as an example here–39,700 students enrolled in the fall of 2013. If we take into account that about ten percent of each law school class generally drops out, then we are looking at no more than 36,000 J.D. graduates in 2016.
Compare that number to the 46,776 graduates in 2013, and we see a drop of 23 percent. With significantly less competition amongst the graduating class, graduates are far more likely to secure a decent job.
Does this mean that I’m saying that every law graduate will go on to work in the legal field right out of graduation? No, of course not. Like in every other field, some complete their degrees and pursue other things anyways. Many J.D. graduates end up pursuing careers in finance or business.
But the numbers can’t be ignored here. According to statistics put out by the American Bar Association, 32,755 graduates from last year’s class found full-time, long-term work lasting more than a year. Of those, 26,337 jobs required passing the bar, meaning that they were typical legal jobs that required a law degree. Another 4,714 students secured jobs in fields that did not require a law degree, but preferred to hire J.D.s, such as NGO organizers or congressional staffers. Lastly, 1,724 graduates ended up in jobs that were completely unrelated to the legal field.
If these numbers remain relatively steady, then we can expect that about 91 percent of the class of 2016 will find long-term, full-time employment. This is significantly higher than the 72 percent of graduates that found full-time employment last year. If we break this down further, about 73 percent of graduates will be in full-time legal positions, compared to only 58 percent last year.
This debate is pretty entrenched–some experts agree with me, others say the risk is still not worth the expensive price of a legal education. Kyle McEntee, the founder of the nonprofit Law School Transparency, said, “I do expect that the employment rates are going to improve greatly.” The issue is whether or not these job opportunities are worth the three years, and over $100,000 that it takes to graduate from law school.
Even when they do find jobs, law school graduates have to face the unfortunate fact that while starting salaries have fallen, debt is way up. Median pay right out of law school has dropped to around $62,000 a year from $72,000 in 2008. When you take inflation into account, starting salaries are actually lower than they were in 2000. On top of this, the New America Foundation estimates that the median student who borrows for law school–and most of them do borrow–finishes school with $128,000 in loans to pay back.
Yet, despite the cost of tuition and resulting debt, there is evidence that law school may be a smart financial decision in the long run. Michael Simkovic, a Seton Hall law professor, published a paper last year that showed that even for graduates at the 25th percentile of pay–such as those in jobs at small law firms or as public servants–law school was still a profitable investment, even if they spent $60,000 a year on tuition. In addition, President Obama has just announced a plan designed to alleviate student loan debt. His “Loan Forgiveness” plan is set up so that students with loans who meet certain income eligibility standards will only need to pay back 10 percent of their discretionary income for a maximum of 20 years. In some instances, if you work in public service, such as in a public defender’s job, you only need to pay back loans for 10 years. After that, the rest is forgiven. So if debt is what’s holding you back from law school, loan forgiveness might be an excellent option for you.
Now, of course, law school is not for everyone. It shouldn’t be a fallback if you don’t know what to do with the rest of your life, nor is it something that should be chosen on a whim. It’s hard work, and without passion, you probably won’t succeed. Additionally, some programs are not worth the cost. Most graduates from bottom-tier law schools will continue to have little success in the job market, just like they always have. Employers are more likely to hire a past graduate that has struggled to find a job than hire someone from a failing institution. It is important to do your research when applying, and ultimately deciding whether or not to attend, law school.
However, if you have thought it through and have decided that law school is for you, then your future is looking bright.
Brittany Alzfan (@BrittanyAlzfan) is a student at the George Washington University majoring in Criminal Justice. She was a member of Law Street’s founding Law School Rankings team during the summer of 2014. Contact Brittany at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [Penn State via Flickr]