Is Law School Worth It?

By: Lawrence Gridin · May 19, 2010 · Filed Under Law Career, Law School · 6 Comments 

Following up on a New York Times article about the rapidly depreciating value of a law degree, Concurring Opinions has some advice on whether going to law school is a good career choice.

The gist of Sarah Waldek’s opinion is:

I’ve been thinking hard about what advice I would give prospective students and this is where I’ve landed:  Only go to law school next year if (1) you have always dreamed of being a lawyer; or (2) you are accepted by a very prestigious institution; or (3) you are offered a full scholarship.

Of course, this year law school applications will be partly driven by the lack of opportunity costs. Graduating college students face generally dismal employment prospects regardless of what field they want to enter.   But I suspect that optimism bias plays just as large a role in student decision-making.   No matter what the economy, some lawyers will be wildly successful.  Many prospective students are inclined to think that they will be part of this group, no matter how daunting the odds against it.  On the more rational side of the analysis, it’s also true that law school historically has proven itself a relatively good place to weather out bad economic times.

What is different this time around, however, is that no one is yet sure whether the changes in legal markets and in law firms are permanent, or whether things will eventually return to what we had come to think of as normal.  If you haven’t always wanted to practice law, or if you’re considering a law school that is not one of the best in the nation, or if the law school isn’t offering to pay for you to attend, my advice is to wait to see how this plays out.

Some of the comments on the article are also deeply troubling. Here’s a sampling:

Native JD: Don’t bother. There are no jobs for you. It’s a racist profession dominated by white men (I’m Native and Biglaw wouldn’t even interview me (Top 50 school, 3.0+, 5 years of Capitol Hill experience and heavily involved in ABA diversity efforts).

This profession is doomed.

Unemployed OVER A YEAR NOW: MEMO TO PROSPECTIVE LAW STUDENTS: THERE ARE NO JOBS! I have been out of law school three years now. I spent 2 years at Big Law (Cravath) and the past 14 months looking for work and doing lousy temp jobs. I had a 4.0 in college and law school (that is how I landed the Big Law job) and all the volunteer, pro bono, language skills, etc you could dream of. None of that matters. THERE ARE NO JOBS FOR LAWYERS. Go to Med School if your brain works.

LAC: I have been giving people who wanted to go to law school this advice since my 1L year. Except I say that you shouldn’t go to law school unless you are already rich (meaning you have about $200k just lying around), you can go to a Top 10 school, AND you can go for free or for less than $30k.

I was one of those poor kids who decided to be a lawyer when I was young so that I could grow up and support myself and my family. I went to law school with no debt—my college education was paid for with federal grants. I am now-$100k, and that only accounts for 70% of my tuition, which means NONE of my living expenses. The last $40k is one year of tuition in my LL.M program. One year. Frankly, I was in a better financial position when I was on Welfare. And at this rate, I will be again soon enough.

There are no entry-level jobs anymore for anyone. Not for finished fed clerks, not for LL.Ms (like me), and not even for Harvard grads. I have a degree in tax from one of the best programs in the country and about 10 people in my graduating class of more than 100 are employed 6 months later—more than half of those people are foreign nationals who have jobs in their native lands. Now, my friends who were lucky enough to get government jobs to take advantage of the public service loan repayment program are being told they make too much money to qualify (less than $70k/yr) and are left with $100k+ of student debt and a low-paying job. Frankly, many of us are taking paralegal jobs (and some firms now only hire JDs for such positions), thus effectively nullifying our credentials and Bar status just to put food on the table. At this point, my education is a curse. It automatically disqualifies me for lesser work elsewhere, and the loan load is oppressive to say the least.

There is no upside any longer. There needs to be a moratorium on law school admissions for at least 5 years to stop the excess flood of lawyers into an economy that cannot remotely support the supply it currently has.

I’m not sure how applicable Waldek’s concerns (or those of the commentators) are to the Canadian context.

First, Canadians pay far less for a quality legal education than Americans do. Tuition at the most expensive law school in Canada (U of T) is roughly $22,000. It’s considerably less at other law schools. You can get a top notch education at McGill, for example, for under $7000/yr (it’s even cheaper for Quebeckers). Out west, you can hit up UBC for under $10,000. Or try Dalhousie out east for under $13,000. American tuitions are 3-5x higher!

Second, the job market here appears to be better. To be sure, Bay Street recruitment has definitely dropped, salaries have dropped, and hire-back is no longer guaranteed for summer and articling students. But even so, the impression I get from my colleagues on the Street is that we are far from the nightmare scenario being described above.

Most importantly, it appears that although this past year was one of the worst in recent history, the storm is passing. The economy is now improving. Legal recruitment and salaries should begin to rise. Of course, it will be a long while before firms are throwing around money and perks like candy, as they were before.

I’d say the Canadian situation calls for cautious optimism.

Comments

6 Responses to “Is Law School Worth It?”

  1. Sapna on May 19th, 2010 1:57 pm

    True the economy is improving – but looking at this year’s hirebacks, Bay Street;s hirebacks (the bigger firms) is still pretty dismal.

    Also, another thing Canadians need to consider is the articling requirement. Without articles, you can’t practice law, even if you plan to hang up your own shingle. From what I’ve heard, this year’s articling numbers were relatively low. So while the economic situation down south is way worse than here, our more entreprenuerial American counterparts are in a better situation than their corresponding Canadian graduates. Just something to keep in mind.

  2. Erin on May 20th, 2010 3:47 pm

    I am a graduate without an articling job. I went to an Ontario school. The situation is really frustrating. It recently came out that approximately 20% of grads in Ontario don’t have articles; and some of the firms I’ve heard through the grapevine are having as many as 200-300 applicants for one position for the 2010-2011 year.

  3. KC on May 21st, 2010 1:40 pm

    Wow I didn’t realize how bad the situation was out east. Out in the west I don’t know of many people who graduated without articles (or didn’t find them within a reasonable time). Furthermore almost everyone I know got hired back. And I graduated in ’08 from a law school a lot of people out east would scoff at.

  4. Lawrence Gridin on May 27th, 2010 1:50 pm

    This year’s Bay Street hire-back figures have been published by Precedent Magazine:

    http://www.lawandstyle.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1151

    Looks like some smaller firms maintained fairly high hire-back rates, while some of the Sisters were at about 60% hire-back.

  5. Racism at Law on August 26th, 2010 3:16 am

    The law firms are still racist. I applied to all the labour/employment firms in toronto…A- in labour and B+ in admin, no call backs from interviews. im not white and my name is visibly not white…hence the rejection.

  6. VEC on September 8th, 2010 7:14 pm

    I agree with the above comment; I graduated in 2010. My last name is unusual–I was born in eastern Europe. I have practical experience and am interested in criminal law. My grades are ok to very good in the relevant courses. However, I received few calls. Those that called me in for an interview did not select me. I can’t help but wonder if my last name has anything to do with it. Little else makes sense anymore. It seems the profession does not need talent. Rather they are choosing the popular types. This does not bode well for the future quality of lawyers in Canada.