Stop the presses. Law school enrollment is declining.
Law school enrollment has been on a steep decline for years, and anyone who thought that this would change anytime soon has been or remains delusional.
Thinking about going to law school? The outlook for top-tier-high-paid legal employment gets gloomier and gloomier, and no knowledgeable person should expect to earn $160,000 by some Divine Right of Law School Graduation. There are no Special Snowflakes.
But wait! The need for legal services is growing exponentially, and there will always be work for law-trained people.
- the middle class (income too high for legal aid and public defense; need legal advice for small businesses, real estate transactions, wills and trusts, etc.)
- young people (all aspects of juvenile justice, child protection, special education services, mental health services, child nutrition, child labor…)
- Chronologically Enriched-but-not-rich people (income too high for legal aid and public defense, small business assistance, wills and trusts, age discrimination in employment and housing, elder abuse protection, elder law…)
- poor people and the entities that serve them (legal aid, public defense, social services, housing assistance, benefits assistance and protection…)
- immigrants (legal and non-legal)
- small businesses (most small businesses cannot afford to pay $200+/hour for legal advice, yet they have issues including tax, employment, real estate, zoning, premises liability, environmental [talk to your dry cleaner], employee benefits…)
How to think about going to law school
Do you want to be a lawyer? During most of the years that I worked directly with law students and lawyers, at least 25% of each class had not yet decided to become lawyers by the time they entered law school. I learned to ask 1Ls: “When did you decide to come to law school? How did you make the decision? When, if it all, have you decided to become a lawyer.” Their answers made a difference.
Do you know what lawyers do? Research, please. Talk to actual lawyers about what they do all day beyond the basics of read, write, talk on the phone, and go to meetings. Do at least as much research for this career path as you would for the purchase of a used car: how long and wide? how many miles-per-gallon? safety record? accident and repair history? how many passengers? how much cargo space? gas-diesel-electric-hybrid? cost of insurance?
Do you know what you want to do? You don’t need mathematical and moral certainty that you will be practicing law in 30 years, but you should have a reality-based sense of how you want to arrange your early working life. Do you want to serve or otherwise interact with individuals? Rich? Poor? Do you want to work on arcane areas of public policy? Do you have the substantive body of knowledge that you would need for the work? (Tree-hugging in summer camp is not the entirety of the prereqs for environmental law.)
Is there something that you MUST do that can only be achieved by being a lawyer? Health care, for example, is a huge-and-growing field. If you don’t want to be a doctor, do you need to be a lawyer to do the work or make the change that you seek?
Can you afford to go to law school? No one except the super-rich can afford to pay cash for law school, so if you need to go, you will have to borrow money. Find out what the median first salary is for the job that you want, and then explore the income for more experienced attorneys in that job description. Ask questions. Get answers from law school career services professionals and from the actual, real, live, living lawyers who hold those jobs. Make a budget. Plan to live like a student while you are in school. There is an old saying among career services professionals which may or may not be precise, but it remains an excellent guide: every $15 pizza costs $75 in repaid student loan money.
How can I think about this debt? If you must go to law school to achieve your dreams, then welcome your debt to the table. Get used to it. One of the wisest uber-debt-burdened lawyers I know considered the family school debt (a law degree and his wife’s Ph.D) as another child at the breakfast table. Always there. Always eating. Eventually leaving home,
The more information that you gather about what lawyers do and how they do it, and what you want to do and how you might achieve it, the better informed you will be when you decide whether or not to go to law school.