When should you go to law school?

As the new year is approaching, I will start getting back to the core of this blog- helping people with information about Education. I have decided to start with “Law School” as my first topic after a long break from Educational topics.

Both in the US and abroad, becoming a lawyer is a very worthy goal. Even people who live in countries like India and China travel all the way to the UK and the US for law degrees. Most notably, Mahatma Gandhi studied law at University College London Law School, way back in the late 1880s

President Obama and former President Bill Clinton (lawyer Presidents). It’s known that President Obama (Harvard law) had student debt. It’s unclear if President Clinton incurred student debt for his law degree at Yale.

In the US, a lot of Presidents have had law degrees, so do Senators and Congressmen/Congresswomen. It makes sense that some of the lawmakers of the country (Legislative branch) will be lawyers by profession. Needless to say, the judicial branch (the law interpreters and justice administrators)  is composed of lawyers. Given all this, it is not surprising that people in the Executive Branch (law enforcers) also tend to have law degrees. Many (obviously not all) of these people listed above come from wealthy families whose degrees were paid for by their parents.

But what if you don’t expect your parents to pay for your cushy law degree. How do you make a decision regarding pursuing a law degree in the United States then?  As far as international students are concerned, I would not recommend this pursuit if they intend to go back to their home countries. Law is country-specific and it doesn’t make sense to pursue the degree in a country where you will not be practicing it. The domestic US students should look at the employment outcomes and the cost of attendance. Remember, this is an additional 3-year degree in the US, post the undergrad, and any debt the students accumulate during law school will be in addition to their undergraduate debt. I recommend looking at the following metrics:

  1. Student Debt: A rule of thumb is that total student debt should not be > 1.5 times 1st year’s salary. Law school debt goes as high as $250,000 (if not more) and only a small percentage of graduates will be making more than $167,000 in their 1st year of work. A more conservative rule of thumb is for the student debt at the time of graduation to be less than the 1st year salary. How many of us can reasonably expect a 250K job after graduating from law school? I am not saying that this rule should be followed religiously. But this is a good indication of where your prospective law school lies on the debt/salary ratio continuum. To take an example, if the debt accumulated from your law program is $240,000 and the job you can score with this degree pays $60,000/year, the ratio is 4, which is a clear indication that on this career trajectory, you will have years and years of repaying the debt, with harsh financial opportunity costs.
  2. Job opportunities: If you want to make money from a law degree, there are two types of jobs- high paying big law-firm jobs or Federal judicial clerkships which lead to big law-firm jobs. Both are hard to get by. If you want to change the world and want to become a social justice/civil rights lawyer, there won’t be much money in it (President Obama practiced it and he shares his financial story in his memoirs). There is another path of pursuing a state and federal government job which is desirable because of both the nature of work and the Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. The nature of work is more desirable because it is in the Public interest even though it doesn’t pay big bucks. The money part could be offset by the Debt Forgiveness program, which means that you hold on to the job for at least 10 years and after 10 years of reduced rate loan payments, the rest of your student debt is forgiven.
  3. When and where to go then? Law Professor Paul Campos suggests the following and you can use this as a rough guideline based on what portion of the sticker price will you be paying.
    1. Paying the full price: To a handful of 3-6 top tier schools.
    2. At a significantly reduced price: 7-10 truly national schools.
    3. At no cost other than opportunity cost: Three dozen regional schools.

In conclusion, if you will be incurring debt for attending law school (aka your parents won’t be footing the bill), you will have to consider the metrics presented above seriously if you want to avoid harsh financial opportunity costs (remember, you can always go to law school without worrying about these metrics, if you can get into one and are willing to take on any amounts of debt, provided you don’t care about your long term financial well-being). On the other hand, if by virtue of the lottery of birth, you are in an advantageous position of not incurring student debt, your choices can be more flexible. You can even afford to become a public defender/prosecutor in that case without much worry, if that’s what floats your boat, without incurring harsh financial opportunity costs. 

Happy law school hunting!