Due Diligence and Reasonable Expectations Before You Apply to Law School!

There’s been a lot of attention focused recently on whether a law school education remains a worthwhile investment, given the ever-increasing rise in law school tuition combined with challenges newly minted law school grads face in today’s job market. Much of the discussion follows the release of a recent LexisNexis survey, revealing that “one fifth (21%) of law school students say that based on the changing legal marketplace, they regret attending law school.” The National Law Journal’s recent article, “Going to Law School? Proceed with Caution” adds to the debate by reporting that “[o]n the Internet and in academic circles, debate is flaring over the value of a juris doctor, and whether the degree is a wise investment for many of the thousands who flock to law schools each year. Law schools have always had detractors, but the rising cost of legal education and the dearth of jobs available to new graduates is prompting more people to urge prospective law students to think twice before they write their first tuition check.”

The irony, of course, is that all this debate seems not to have slowed the stream of applicants to the growing number of ABA-approved U.S. law schools. The National Law Journal noted that “applications to law schools accredited by the American Bar Association increased by 5 percent for this year’s incoming class, according to the Law School Admissions Council, and the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test this October shot up by nearly 20 percent.”

So, what’s someone considering law school supposed to make of all this?

We share some words of wisdom from guests on recent Law School Podcaster segments. Their collective message is worth hearing. It’s not all bad, but applicants can no longer head to law school blissfully uninformed about what their career options might be after graduation, while simultaneously taking on enormous debt. Gone are the days when law school is the default graduate degree for those unsure of what it is they want to do or for those seeking a stable, comfortable living. Whether you choose law school, which law school you choose and how much debt you can afford to take on in light of potential job prospects has to be evaluated before you go.

Listen to what recent guests have to say on this topic:

•Johann Lee, Dean of Admissions at Northwestern Law: Those considering law school must “do some due diligence about whether a career in the law and a law school education is really for you and, if that’s what you really want to be doing, there’s a place for you in the profession.” He reminds applicants that “law school is a professional school, it’s very similar to medical school but no one ever goes to medical school without thinking about what it means to be a doctor. Well, a lot of people go to law school without thinking what it means to be an attorney. They don’t go through that particular due diligence. So I think, as an applicant, definitely I’d think about what it means to go to law school.”

•Assistant Dean of Enrollment Services at Fordham School of Law, Stephen Brown: Law school is an investment and you should treat it as such. “It can be a good or bad investment, depending on what you’re looking to do with your life, depending on your choices. So pay attention to this as you would at any other investment. You find people to do more research on cars than law school, so that’s important.”

Washington University Law School’s Dean of Career Services, Michael Spivey: Applicants should think carefully about what they want to do with a JD before they start signing loan papers. “Do they really want to work for a law firm, for example, or would they be more interested in prosecutorial roles, as prosecutors. The starting salary there is $50,000 a year. That’s the 2008 medium starting salary, but even that has grown 51% since 1996, and some people are much, much happier in litigation roles than they are working for large firms. Judicial clerkships, that’s another position where people, some students really are excited about, and that starts at $50,000. So we try to couple, keeping up on financial burdens. We try to couple how much financial debt they have with what sort of lifestyle they want to lead, whether they want to work for legal services or they want to work for a judge or they want to work what I would call nontraditionally or asymmetrically, and we counsel them what the lifestyle is at a big law firm. Some people love that, some people don’t want to jump on that boat.”

•Jim Leipold, Executive Director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP): Students should carefully consider the amount of debt they take on and how they will pay off that debt after graduation – even if they do not land the job they might want after graduation: “I think the biggest problem for law students who are graduating right now will be figuring out how to manage their debt, among other things, until such time as they can find a job and enter the economy. So I think careful financial planning is going to be really important.”

•Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com says don’t just sign the stack of papers without knowing what you’re signing. This is important: Be meticulous. “A common problem that I encounter is students who figured that they’d worry about their loans after they graduated and ask them who your loan is with, what are the interest rates, how much did you borrow, and they just don’t know the answers. A mistake in which loan you borrow or how much you borrow can cost you severely after you graduate.”

•Johann Lee, Dean of Admissions at Northwestern Law: Students must combine due diligence with reasonable career expectations. “There was this thought that these huge law firm jobs were just growing on trees right outside the law school, you just go outside and you pick whatever job that you wanted. Now, it’s more like your regular job market. You have to work a little bit at it but still, the opportunities are still available. So in the end, it just means a little more due diligence is involved as a law school applicant but in the end, the careers are still out there. The sky isn’t falling really.”

Check out our full shows “The Current Economic Environment: What It Means for Law School Applicants and Students,” and “”Financing Your JD” to hear more on this topic.