“Being a lawyer is so much fun. I’m going to law school so I can be the next Elle Woods or Harvey Specter.” Many have had a friend who said something along those lines once upon a time. I say once upon a time because the life of a lawyer is nothing like what Hollywood glamorizes it to be. So despite lawyers living a life nothing like Elle Woods or Harvey Specter, should you go to law school? Here is a legal minded answer: It depends.
This past spring semester in this column, an article advocated avoiding law school. The author believed that law school was right for him but wrong for many. I agree but only because people head into law for the wrong reasons. If you are going to law school to be rich, the odds are stacked against you. While the highest paying jobs exceed $160,000, these positions make up around 15 percent of jobs available first out of law school. But over half of entry-level jobs are in the $50,000 range. So while law can lead to riches, it can also lead to debt and a salary that may not cover the interest payments.
Others go to law school because they like to debate and believe they would enjoy the life shown on Law & Order, Legally Blonde or Suits. Again, the life of a trial attorney is likely to be little like what is shown (not to mention a large majority of attorneys are not trial attorneys nor will they ever see the inside of a courtroom). For attorneys who practice criminal work, most of the cases will end on a plea bargain. A plea bargain is a negotiation leading to a compromise of the charge. The defendant will accept a lesser charge and a lesser sentence, often involving little or no jail time. The prosecutor gains a conviction without the threat of losing at trial. For those attorneys who practice civil litigation (lawsuits whose end is often a money reward for the plaintiff), most of these issues end before trial as well. With many attorneys charging over $300 per hour of work, it is often more efficient (meaning cheaper) for the one being sued to simply settle the case for less than the legal fees it would cost to fight.
Others want to go to law school to make a difference. A valid reason, but with a caveat. Legal jobs in public interest tend be around or under the $50,000 salary range. While many would enjoy being paid these salaries, many don’t have six figures worth of debt that many, if not most, law students graduate with. I myself will have six figures in debt from law school alone at the end of this school year. And I still have a year left to go. So while going to law school to help make a difference is noble, financial aspects must play a role in your decision to follow that path. Some schools may help with loans, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
So why should you go to law school? If law seems to be your calling. If you find the yes/no answers of hard sciences and mathematics to be a little boring, law may be for you as there tends to be no right answer. If you intern or work at a law firm, don’t find that work mind-numbingly boring, recognize the hours may be long and none of it scares you away, law school may be for you. If you are a risk taker the possibility to strike it rich may play a small-part as well.
If you decide to take the plunge, there are several factors to consider. First, employment statistics. I don’t mean the inflated statistics that most law schools like to throw around. Use the statistics several former Vanderbilt law students collect at their website www.lawschooltransparency.com. While the site does not have complete numbers, you will find the most accurate depiction of law school employment possibilities, including schools which place less than half of their class into jobs requiring a law degree. Next, decide where you want to practice. While some use the US News rankings as the dispositive factor in their decision, decide where you wish to practice and go to school there (note that there are exceptions to this rule at the top of the US News rankings). If you want to practice in New York, and are admitted to Cornell and higher-ranked UC Berkeley-California, come to Cornell. But if California is your end destination, don’t come here if UC Berkeley is an option.
Law school was the right option for me. And it may be for you. When you make your decision, be informed before taking on a risky and expensive experience.
Michael J. Milazzo is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He may be reached at email@example.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.