How Can You Avoid a Costly Law School Mistake? What the New York Times Says (and Doesn’t Say)

Sunday’s New York Times published a very long article on the troubled prospects for today’s law school graduates and asked in its headline whether law school is a “losing game.”  There’s little new in the article.  We and others have noted at length and often pretty much every element of the Times article—the significant average debt load of law school students, the ridiculously vague and deceptive employment data that law schools report, the flat tuition structure (virtually the same tuition at a bottom-tier law school as at a top 5 law school), the fact that most prospective law students believe they’ll beat the odds of a bad legal employment market and law schools’ polyannish view of that market, to say nothing of continued monitoring of the employment market itself.

But it’s nice to have the “paper of record” weigh in, even if late (indeed, the report ran just as the last couple of months give cause for a little optimism in the legal employment market).  And it’s good and important reading.  What it isn’t is subtle.

Scolding is fine and I understand that the Times isn’t an advice column.  But as with much of the Times’ semi-editorial reporting, a reader is left with a heavy dose of outrage and a dash of a “pox on all your houses”—it’s somehow the fault of all involved, with most of the blame going to law schools.  OK, but does that mean no one should go to law school, even those who really, really want to be lawyers?  Well, probably not.  Well, then, who should and who shouldn’t and what should a prospective law student do to protect herself or himself?  That’s the real issue—if you’re thinking about law school, what should you do?

Moral outrage aside, law schools don’t provide helpful employment data and, until someone makes them, there’s no economic reason for them to do so.  Indeed, it’s even difficult to get law schools to acknowledge that their graduates have had any trouble at all getting high-quality jobs in the last several years.  And because the cost of any law school is largely independent of the legal employment prospects of its graduates, the onus falls, fairly or not, on prospective students to assess the risks and rewards of attending law school.

That’s step one: recognizing that even in better times, attending law school is an expensive risk.  To that extent, it’s the same as an investment decision.  The cornerstone personality of the Times article illustrates pretty clearly some things not to do.  He did virtually no investigation of the data that law schools put out and went to his (fourth-tier) school because of some nice published numbers and good weather.

If you’re thinking about whether law school is a good investment for you, the second step is to ask yourself why you’re considering going.  If you want to go to law school because it seems like a cool thing to do (can we all just admit that few lawyers are cool, however hard we try?), or because you don’t know what else to do, or because you like lawyer shows on TV, you should take serious stock of whether cool or uncertainty are worth $100,000-150,000 in tuition alone—plus fees, plus lost income from whatever else you might have done, plus being locked into a career that you don’t know you want.

Even if you really, really want to be a lawyer—in which case the economics of law school will matter a little less to you—you should make sure you know what lawyers actually do with their day.  In other words, do you want to be a lawyer because you want to be one or because you want to be what your idea of one is?  Talk to as many lawyers as you can, in as many practice fields and as many levels of seniority as you can, and find out how they actually spend—or as new lawyers, spent—their days.

Then ask yourself if you’d be happy doing that.  If the answer is no, then almost regardless of the economics, law school isn’t the right answer for you.  If the answer is yes, how happy?  It’s hard to monetize that, but try—you’ll spend real money, and there are a lot of things that (I’m just guessing) would be more fun for you for a  hundred thousand dollars or more than they are for twenty thousand.

The next key is to commit to putting yourself in the best position to maximize your high-quality law school options.  Improve your GPA to the extent you can.  Get the best LSAT preparation available.  Hire the best application and admissions advisor.  There’s no point in scrimping on these investments—because that’s what they are, investments in your future that will pay dividends in multiples of the time and money you’ve spent if you and your advisors and instructors are fully committed to your future.

Next, have a realistic assessment of your prospects.  Don’t assume that you’ll beat bad odds—by definition, most people don’t.  Which law schools are your most likely prospects and what kind of career are you likely to have upon graduation from them?  The Times article focused on a young man who attended a fourth-tier school and currently lives in Manhattan.  The chance that he was going to get an east coast job (or even a non-local California job) coming from that law school were, I would guess, minimal.  If he left his heart in Manhattan (and I don’t know why or how he ended up in New York City), picking the school he did was just a bad bet (and a worse bet at the astonishing $250,000 debt tag).

Law schools often give prospective students data that is pure puffery.  But if they want you, you have plenty of room to press them for real, helpful data about their recent graduates.  I’ve mentioned just a few of the questions to ask law schools.

You and your advisors should attack the dearth of data nicely but aggressively.  It’s your future and if a law school is unwilling to provide real data, then it’s almost certain that you should not attend that law school.  You and your advisors should think carefully about what matters to you—from the type of job you want, the sector or sectors that you prefer, geographic location, the varieties of legal practice that you’re interested in, the debt that you’re likely to incur, the jobs that recent graduates have taken, how long they’ve kept them, and so on.  You should also be realistic about your likely class rank at each school you’re considering, so that you don’t end up hearing only about the great jobs that the top 5% of the class at a particular school got, only to find out that if you’re in the top 15%, you’re likely to have radically diminished opportunities.

Then you should devise a strategy for when to ask which questions.  That’s important not only to get the information you need but also to leverage admissions and financial aid prospects.  In my experience, most law schools won’t flat out lie to applicants but they often won’t volunteer information, either.  So, you need to be sure that you’re asking the right people for the right information and that you leave no question that you need an answer to unasked.

On the basis of the information you’re able to gather, as well as your admission and financial aid profile, you’ll also need to construct a series of average-case, reasonable best-case and reasonable worst-case scenarios for each school you’re thinking of attending.  In those calculations, you should also include various possible states of the legal employment market 2-4 years out (i.e., from the time you’ll be applying for second-summer positions to the time of a full-time post-graduation position).  You’ll also want to have a debt amortization schedule—once you start adding in interest, debt starts to look a lot bigger, and you need to know what your likely monthly debt payoff is.

When you’ve done all that, you’ll begin to see a reasonable risk/reward profile that can help you decide whether law school is the right option for you.  As important, you’ll also have a little information on whether it’s a good option for you now.  And you’ll have to factor in your likely happiness as a lawyer, which is the single most important factor in making a decision about whether law school is a good option for you.

There is simply no good general answer as to whether law school is a loser’s game or a winner’s bet.  It depends on who you are, what you want, and the jump (or drag) that your law school can give you.  But don’t be vague or a dilettante about your decision-making.  Get the best advice and instruction you can, position yourself as well as you can and make your best decision.  Anything less, as the Times horror story reminds us, is a mistake you’ll end up paying for dearly.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on January 10, 2011.

6 Responses to “How Can You Avoid a Costly Law School Mistake? What the New York Times Says (and Doesn’t Say)”

  1. […] Advise-In’s last two posts, parts one and two of “More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Ever Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked Law School?”, had their origin in a few e-mails back and forth with a retired partner of an elite international law firm (I’ll call him Arthur), who suggested the topic to me after reading a previous post. […]

  2. […] week, I published How Can You Avoid a Costly Law School Mistake? What the New York Times Says (and Doesn’t Say).  A former partner at an elite law firm wrote to say that he thought I might do a post about […]

  3. […] set you on the right road and help you generate questions you’ll want answered before making your best law school and career decisions.  Of the NLJ 250, I think it’s safe to say that no person would want to […]

  4. […] coming from this and other blogs, and more recently picked up by major media outlets such as The New York Times, may be having an […]

  5. […] either have done that kind of work or be able to put you in touch with people who are doing it.  Unrealistic expectations about what the practice of law actually entails are, in my experience, the chief reason why some […]

  6. […] this is the second recent article in the Times targeting law schools.  Like its last article on excessive law school debt, yesterday’s piece doesn’t provide a lot of new information to the well-informed but it’s a […]

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