How bad is the job market for lawyers (especially with T6 degrees)?
January 30, 2014 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Peaking probably 2 or 3 years ago, tales of employment doom for lawyers were everywhere across the internet, with various stories of newly-minted graduates who were $150-200k in debt and either jobless, or working at 40-60k/year jobs where they could never pay back their debt. I remember reading predictions that this wasn't merely a usual and temporary fluctuation, but was a sign of a permanent contraction in the legal job market. I was speaking with an acquaintance who recently graduated from Harvard Law School, who told me that in her opinion, the negativity was overblown, and everyone that she knew in her graduating class had either a job or a fellowship without too much difficulty. This got me wondering whether the situation now is still as bleak as it was a couple of years ago - for lawyers generally, but especially for lawyers from top schools. Are lawyers generally still in such difficult straits in terms of finding a job?

Is the problem mostly for those graduates of ballooning bottom-tier law schools? Are those about to graduate from, say, a top 3 or a top 6 law school having trouble finding employment? If so, it is across the board, or in particular fields or types of jobs (BigLaw, etc.)? Is it mostly those lawyers just starting out, or are veteran lawyers affected too? Are begining BigLaw salaries for top grads anywhere near the $150-160k that they were before the crash, or has the oversupply dampened salaries across the board? What (if anything) can someone in law school do to make him/herself competitive on the job market and increase his/her chances of employment? What would a typical job offer look like now for an graduate from a top law school, and how does that differ from a few years ago? Is it better/worse in other English-speaking countries (Canada, the UK)? Is there a general consensus about how the future will trend, in terms of legal jobs? How does this compare to other fields that have become insanely competitive? My reference point is academia, which by now - at least in my field - might as well hand out its tenure-track jobs by lottery. Is law as bad as that? Is law academia as competitive as other fields in academia (my understanding is that other fields of academia that have lots of funding and where people have the option to become more highly paid practitioners [e.g. engineering, medicine, law] are in general less competitive to get jobs in)?
posted by ClaireBear to Work & Money (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just an answer to a small part of this, but I think at least 2 or 3 years ago the T6 students who were having trouble finding jobs--and there definitely were more than a few--just weren't talking about it.

People who graduated from top schools during that time but didn't end up with a firm job paying the top market rate are still having trouble finding jobs that put them back on the track that used to be expected for those graduates, definitely.
posted by rustcellar at 9:10 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Canada is a bit different because you can't get a licence without articling (i.e. apprenticing) first. Many people can't get those positions, especially in Ontario, with the result that they've accumulated debt on the assumption of earning a high salary, but now have no way to pay it off. Our job market is also different because we don't have bad schools as such--the most "prestigious" schools just so happen to be in and around the two largest cities, with the biggest job markets.

The UK is different because you, again, have to apprentice. So people get their law degree, take a professional course for a year or so (either barrister or solicitor) and then try to obtain (if they haven't already) the relevant apprenticeship position. What happens is many people want to be barristers, pay $20k for the course, can't find a job, and then have to retrain as solicitors. What's more, the market for junior barristers is affected by legal aid, which is currently being cut. I don't know as much about working as a solicitor there.

The U.S. has a very different system. At the very least you could graduate and become a sole-practicioner. I suppose you have similar trends with large firms, client expectations, etc, as compared against Canada/UK, but you have to be careful with the scope of your comparison. As Rustcellar says, one problem is that people who were caught during the crisis are having trouble getting back on track, whereas people who are graduating now are a bit better off. That's my own sense up in Canada (I entered law school in 2007). Of course "better off" doesn't necessarily mean pre-crash levels of student intake.
posted by maledictory at 9:16 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


An NY Times article (1/24/2014) about a bankrupt lawyer has a lot of info about employment dynamics in Big Law. It's also been a frequent topic at the Volokh Conspiracy, a blog that just relocated to the Washington Post.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:19 AM on January 30


You may also want to look at discussions of the bimodal distribution of starting salaries for lawyers, which has been exacerbated by the contraction in the market. The top rate is the same but even fewer people are getting those jobs, and there's not much between those jobs and the one that barely pay (or pay far less than) enough to cover student loans.
posted by rustcellar at 9:21 AM on January 30


As a T6 graduate who settled into administrative work in a variety of law-related institutions: I agree with rustcellar that the 'musical chairs' effect goes way back, and is simply getting much worse. I also say without bitterness that schmooze rules, whether it's getting a law firm job, or a clerkship, or any other law-related job - I've seen people from smaller schools with charming personalities and connections triumph over super-skilled introverts in landing jobs and keeping them. That applies to keeping the job once you get it, which is almost as big a problem - job insecurity in the legal professions is probably worse than in others. As important as a thorough legal education is, I would never advise a young person today to go to law school as a route into the working world.
posted by mmiddle at 9:22 AM on January 30


I know about four T20 grads who either didn't get a job, or worked for a year and got laid off (in Los Angeles). My cousin graduated from Yale Law a few years ago and makes about $40K a year doing advocacy work, but that may have been her plan all along.

I have two other cousins and a couple friends who went to a totally bottom of the barrel law school, and they all have jobs, but the jobs are not what a T6 grad would want.

The three lawyers I know who are making good money are patent attorneys. But even then, one of them who went to MIT and BC Law was laid off after four years and had to start her own firm about 10 years earlier than she had planned.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:24 AM on January 30


Not to threadsit, but: so it sounds like several of you are saying that the top jobs are still similar in quality and pay, but there are now far fewer of them to go round, even for the top students. In other words, prospective lawyers are lured into taking a 3-year and 200k gamble on the shiny but slim possibility of a top job, and if they fail (and most of them will), they will be stuck in 40-60k jobs where they can't pay off their debt? Because if that's the case, it sounds very much like academia (sure, there are still some tenure-track jobs, and young idealists are swayed into sacrificing 5-10 years of a PhD and debt chasing them; but only a few will actually win big, and the rest will barely scrape by). Is this right?
posted by ClaireBear at 9:27 AM on January 30


Lots of questions here. Let's start with the fact that your friend from Harvard isn't having problems -- I'd say you can disregard a fair amount of legal market advice from anyone graduating from Harvard, Stanford, or Yale. If anyone can get a job or fellowship without too much difficulty, it's the graduating classes of those three schools.

Are lawyers generally still in such difficult straits in terms of finding a job?
The market is tough, but it's a little better than it was 2 years ago.

Is the problem mostly for those graduates of ballooning bottom-tier law schools?
It hits them harder, but not exclusively.

Are those about to graduate from, say, a top 3 or a top 6 law school having trouble finding employment?
See above, it's an issue, but less of an issue for those graduates.

If so, it is across the board, or in particular fields or types of jobs (BigLaw, etc.)?
Biglaw has been hit the hardest, and there continue to be rumblings that the biglaw business model as a whole is in trouble.

Is it mostly those lawyers just starting out, or are veteran lawyers affected too?
It impacts everyone, but the classes that have graduated in the past 3 years were hit the hardest. Less of an impact the further away you get from those classes.

Are begining BigLaw salaries for top grads anywhere near the $150-160k that they were before the crash, or has the oversupply dampened salaries across the board?
Just about all of this information can be found on NALP.

What (if anything) can someone in law school do to make him/herself competitive on the job market and increase his/her chances of employment?

Have a job pinned down before you enter law school, or attend Yale/Stanford/Harvard. Or have lots of family friends who have hiring powers in law firms.

What would a typical job offer look like now for an graduate from a top law school, and how does that differ from a few years ago?

As compared to before the crash, you'll fight harder for any job on the market.

Is there a general consensus about how the future will trend, in terms of legal jobs?
It doesn't look great.

How does this compare to other fields that have become insanely competitive?
See above.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:28 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Sorry, one more question. So would the general consensus be that if one attended Harvard, Stanford, or Yale Law, you'd be virtually assured of a well-paying job upon graduation (i.e. it would be a wise gamble)? If you attended, say, Columbia or Chicago Law on a full-scholarship, would that also be the case?
posted by ClaireBear at 9:32 AM on January 30


T6 is not a useful categorization.

Yale is one bucket, Harvard and Stanford another, and Columbia, Chicago and NYU are a third.

Virtually no one at Yale has or ever will want for a job at graduation.

Harvard and Stanford grads need as always, at least two of three strikes not to be certain of getting a good job: terrible grades, terrible job search strategy, and terrible interview appeal -- and that applies to few people and is, to a certain extent, voluntary (someone good enough at school to be admitted needs to work at it to get grades that bad or ignore sound job search strategy that badly). The change versus the glory years is maybe half the people who do nothing as 1Ls but smoke pot and road trip to Foxwoods / Tahoe (as the case may be) struggle to find jobs verus a quarter of them.

There has been an absolute change at Columbia, Chicago and NYU. The Harvard / Stanford 2 of 3 strikes used to govern, and they absolutely no longer do. You need at least middling grades, solid job search strategy, and nice interview presentation to be a sure thing. Even one strike can put a very serious bar in your way, and two strikes starts to push your odds way down. I'd argue that the time (if you don't have a great career) and tuition is still a solid return-on-investment, but it is not at all the way it was when I was at Chicago in the late 90s with tuition 40% lower than now and maybe the bottom single digits (of people, not percentage) of the class had any kind of trouble getting jobs.
posted by MattD at 9:39 AM on January 30 [5 favorites]


As someone who works for a non-profit (and has lots of friends that do), I have to say there are loads of jobs for lawyers who've graduated from Columbia/Chicago/NYU who are looking to Do Good and can afford to make 60-80k a year because they didn't go in debt to finance their education.
posted by Oktober at 9:42 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


The school you go to and how much you pay to go there are not the only variables. You need to be the right sort of person. My grades at my third-tier school should have landed me at least a very decent local position during OCI; they didn't. The people who were gender-conforming and upper/upper-middle class did noticeably better. (And this was after mock-interviews where nobody could give me any constructive places I needed to improve.) Now, at a top-tier school, you are probably looking at something along the lines of where you're still probably going to get a job, but it's not going to be as likely to be BigLaw. And then it trickles down to where I was, where if you didn't have everything they wanted they were not giving anybody the benefit of the doubt because if they wanted a weirdo they could at least get a weirdo from a better school. But that's iffy; it seems easier overall to get by on mediocre grades but good presentation than on great grades but poor presentation.
posted by Sequence at 9:44 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


It's still pretty bad out there for everyone, but obviously, less bad if you're in the T3 anywhere, and T10 or so if you're staying local to your school. I.e., NYU grads have a harder time in SF than a Berkeley grad, and vice versa, despite being excellent schools. Yale is, to many practitioners like myself, reserved for eggheads who would rather think about really interesting intersections between X and Y provided that X is not "them" and Y is "doing real legal work."

But the problems in the legal market are somewhat intractable. The BigLaw jobs are, almost exclusively, the province of the T10 schools--maybe more the T5/6 schools, given the preference for H/Y/S/NYU/CLS, since so much of the work is done in NYC. Chicago firms like UC. MoFo likes Stanford and Boalt. Those jobs are harder to come by because the Biglaw firms are getting squeezed by clients on their historic billing practices (high leverage, for one) and are being pressed to take fixed fee arrangements or piece work.

A Harvard law grad is not going to be unemployed in Boston, but they may not make the Biglaw salary. The salary remains $160K to start in Biglaw, and the bonuses start (pro rated) at $10-20K, and going up to about $50/60K for an '04 or '05, if I recall. Bonuses used to be about twice as much, but were cut in '07/'08 and have never rebounded.

So, HLS grad is not going begging, but he's not making $180K right out of school like all of his friends. So maybe he gets a job at a regional firm and makes less--a lot less, and maybe doesn't work a lot less, and maybe there's less stability. Or maybe not, etc.

The other problem is that most schools up and down the rankings charge more or less what the private T10 schools charge, with little or no hope of getting the Biglaw salary. When I worked in NYC there were a couple of kids from Cardozo or Brooklyn or whatever, and here in Boston, I've worked with some great lawyers from Suffolk--but these guys grabbed the brass ring.

So, a "lesser firm" may snap up an HLS grad and then not hire the Suffolk candidate, who moves down the scale and displaces someone from New England School of Law or whatever, and it's just a bad show.

When I was in private practice, for example, I was in the bathroom next to a "bullpen" where we kept the contract attorneys doing doc review. Someone had scrawled on the bathroom wall (at a fancy firm, mind) "Harvard Law Degrees" with an arrow pointing to the toilet paper. You can imagine all sorts of narratives to explain that graffiti, but the most likely to me is that a newly minted HLS grad was dismayed at making $25 an hour (or whatever) instead of $180K/year.

I went to a top ranked school and I saw a lot of grim faces in the halls after the crash, let me tell you.

It's different in Canada and in the UK--where law is an undergrad degree and where there are apprenticeships, and where, frankly, the money generally is less than on Wall Street. I know a number of Magill grads in practice in the US who are here for the money.

What to do?
If someone is going in to a T6 school with the hope of getting a biglaw job, do the following:

1) Go to Harvard or Yale, Columbia, Stanford, NYU, Chicago, or Michigan, in that order (in my opinion, assuming you are looking to work in Biglaw in NYC)
2) Be in the top 25% of the class
3) Be on Law Review, or at least be on the editorial board of another business related journal.

If you do that, and are not a total nutjob, you will likely get a biglaw job. Of course, each of those three simple steps is very, very difficult.

So would the general consensus be that if one attended Harvard, Stanford, or Yale Law, you'd be virtually assured of a well-paying job upon graduation (i.e. it would be a wise gamble)? If you attended, say, Columbia or Chicago Law on a full-scholarship, would that also be the case?

Harvard is the standard. Stanford is the Harvard of the west, and has somewhat less pull in the east. Yale is for eggheads who don't thrive in Biglaw, in my opinion, see above. Columbia grinds out business lawyers and sends them to Biglaw. Its connections to wall street are deep. Chicago is a great school--I'd say the Columbia of the Midwest, and as such has less pull in NYC. NYU is an excellent school but has less of a business reputation than Columbia. Michigan is good, but less good, and far away. Same with UVA. I don't remember the rest of the T10.

Parting thoughts:
There are two people who do very well in law school. The first group are the "everything comes easy to me geniuses" and "total grinds."

The geniuses are real, bona fide geniuses. Not "smarter than the average bear" above average type A people, but real next level kind of personnel. Of the three of these I knew at school, all three became Supreme Court clerks.

I was a grind. I got mostly As and A-'s in law school, and did virtually nothing other than study. I think I allowed myself one hour of television a week as a 1L, and that was all the relaxation I got. I think I threw up most days from the stress.

And final, truly final thought:
I worked at a white shoe firm when I graduated, making the Biglaw salary.

I got that job because I worked at that firm in my 2L summer.

I got that 2L summer job because I had good 1L grades, was on a journal, and had had a good, paid 1L job at another firm.

I got on a journal because of my 1L grades.

I got my 1L job because of my 1st semester 1L grades.

1st semester 1L year I worked endlessly and got three As and an A minus.

I got those grades because a family friend who was an associate at Wachtell told me his version of the same story. There is no greater investment in one's future as a lawyer than kicking the ass of the grade curve your first year of law school.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:55 AM on January 30 [34 favorites]


you'd be virtually assured of a well-paying job upon graduation (i.e. it would be a wise gamble)?

Edit to add: Definitely not. If you do well, you'll likely have a job, which is more than many can say. If you follow my 1/2/3 above you'll most likely have a high paying job, but just the sheepskin doesn't cut it.

Ironically, T10 schools are often at a disadvantage in non-Biglaw because the education is much less practical than in "lesser" schools--which tend to have a strong local alumni presence compared to the much more mobile T10.

If one were desperate to go to law school and could do nothing else, and were not certain that they were an actual genius destined for the federal bar and were admitted to a T10, I'd see if I could get in at a regional school with a full ride instead.

I personally wouldn't play the lottery with $200K.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:03 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


If you go to a top 5 school and do marginally well (3.0 or higher) then you shouldn't have a problem getting a job in Biglaw in a normal market. Classes 2008-2010 from those schools did have a hard time getting/keeping jobs, and the summer associates for those years (generally a laid back, stress-free, high pay gig) had to actually do work and compete for associate positions. A LOT of people were laid off or had offers rescinded from those classes, even from the top schools. If you're in litigation and spend your first 3-4 years working exclusively on a big case, you're probably going to be laid off when the case settles.

So, even though the market has stabilized and grads from top schools don't have to compete nearly as much as their lower-tier counterparts to get a job, they still have to be concerned about job instability esp. in a market downturn.

There's also the issue of passing the bar. Most firms give you two tries before firing you; I knew people from top schools who failed twice and then were out jobs.

On top of this, working in Biglaw sucks. The only upside is that you're highly compensated. If you have 200K in student loans, you have to work there for at least 5 years, devoting 50+% of your after tax salary to your loans, so your take home pay is relatively quite small (especially for living in a city like NY). Meanwhile, people with wealthy parents are throwing 50-60K per year into savings. Most people can't sustain 2400 billable hours per year and maintain their sanity/personal relationships.

So, yeah, you can get a job, but you might decide you don't want that job.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:05 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Oh, and on the point of academia, check out TaxProfBlog -- yes, it's about tax law, but has a lot of information on the state of the legal academic market.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:13 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I'm about to graduate from a pretty mehh school (T-60ish) in NYC. My first year GPA was 3.55 which was not good enough to land me more than one big-law interviews. I picked up my grades my 2nd year and was lucky enough to get a summer associateship with a mid-sized firm, but that is certainly not the norm. When I graduate, I'll start in the $70k range, and I think they expect about 2100 hours in billables per year. Not great, but not terrible either. I'm also lucky that between my parents and my scholarships, I only have a minor amount of debt to worry about.

Of the people that I know in my class, maybe ~5-10% got biglaw jobs (which works out to be about 15-30 people in my whole class), and the vast majority of my friends (2nd semester 3L) are still in the job hunt, with prospects narrowing every day for people. A good number of these people also worked invaluable connections, either friends or family or other. It goes without saying that connections in biglaw are worth their weight in gold.

Realistically, if you get into a T-6 school, i.e. Harvard, Yale, etc., then your job prospects are certainly better than those in lower ranked schools, but it's not as much of a slam dunk as it used to be. But, if you miss the biglaw boat, you're stuck competing with the top students of lower ranked schools, and your competitive advantage is greatly diminished.

As far as legal academia, only one of my professors have never actively practiced law in some nationally recognized firm, and this prof had a PhD in Law from Yale. I imagine like any other cushy legal job, it's extremely competitive to get into even a middling school like mine.

Through pure speculation and anecdotes, it does seem that the job market is picking up, though at a much much slower rate than after previous recessions. There seems to be some consensus that the law field is in a transition phase, but law is dominated by old people with old ideas so I don't expect much to change. Firms are utilizing contract attorneys at a much higher rate than they used to be.

My advice? Don't go to law school. Law school is less a meritocracy as it's a game, where the best players aren't always the smartest, and the smartest often are not good at the game. You'll find very very few lawyers who actively enjoy their jobs, and not just the money the jobs bring. And a good chunk of them are still carrying around tons of debt.
posted by Geppp at 11:15 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Biglaw has been hit the hardest, and there continue to be rumblings that the biglaw business model as a whole is in trouble.

I believe this wholeheartedly. BigLaw is already much different than it was when I was there 10 years ago, and I bet it will continue that way for the foreseeable future. I am GC at a company that before me had routinely used BigLaw firms for nearly everything, and I think we are down to only a handful of matters now. We just can't afford the rates, and we find that BigLaw firms bill more time as well.

I still have a number of friends at my old firm, and they say that once you get outside of the published, lockstep salary ranges (say, years 1-6), there are significant drops in salary. Even within those ranges, there is fierce competition for hours and those that don't hit their targets may keep their job but they are veered away from the published salary schedule too. Back when I was there, the feeling was that an enterprising young lawyer could fill his or her plate, and if they could not it was the firm's failure. Now, it seems that there's less work to go around and the firm is quietly taking that out on the younger lawyers to maintain a rich profits per partner number.

TL;DR: BigLaw is changing. Even if you get the $160K job it's not necessarily up from there.
posted by AgentRocket at 11:28 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


No, you're not "virtually assured of a well-paying job upon graduation" if you go to HYS. Are the odds good enough to make it worth the gamble? Probably, I think, with some heavy caveats. The thing you need to realize is that the debt you're swallowing if you're paying sticker price at those institutions is enormous.

But just as important, the other thing you don't seem to get is that the whole job market has been affected. There are no sure things anymore. It's more competitive for people at those schools (and even more so for low-ranked schools), but beyond that, there have been structural changes. The lateral job market has slowed. Prospects at making partner have slowed. The legal profession is in a state of transition, and you're not going to be able to coast anymore -- at any point.

So, is it worth the gamble, if you go to Stanford, or you go to NYU with a big scholarship? Maybe. Financially, it's not stupid. But you really have to want to practice law. And that part of the equation is notably absent from your question and follow-up comments.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:42 AM on January 30


Thanks all - these answers are very helpful and illuminating! Really appreciate hearing about people's personal experiences and impressions. I'd love to hear more if anyone has more to share. Just to clarify, I'm actually not looking to enter the legal profession myself (although I am not committed to academia either - another issue for another AskMe...). I asked this question because many people that I know in recent years have made the move from academia to law, either after their PhDs, or occasionally mid-PhD when they realized how awful the academic job market is. I have for several years been under the impression that the legal job market is essentially akin to the academic one, and that people making that sort of move are like rats jumping from one rapidly sinking ship to the other. But my HLS acquaintance's words made me wonder whether I had underestimated the job prospects of a lawyer. (The job prospects of people hoping to enter academia nowadays truly cannot be underestimated.)
posted by ClaireBear at 12:21 PM on January 30


TL;DR: BigLaw is changing. Even if you get the $160K job it's not necessarily up from there. Boy howdy. I work at a legal nonprofit and I was hobnobbing with our board the other night who are almost exclusively BigLaw. Mostly we were talking about lack of hiring and lack of promoting at BigLaw and how so many people are at the point with BigLaw where they Would Have Been Made Partner 10 Years Ago But No-One Makes Partner Anymore.

The bubble has burst, but career expectations are starting to fall in line with the new normal. This is mostly a good thing, but tuition is not in-line with the new normal in terms of what sort of employment or salaries that new lawyers can get. There is also, sadly, a bunch of people who graduated right at the worst moment of the market who will never get a legal career on track because--like the longterm unemployed in any field--they are not attractive as a new hire compared to a recent grad.

Also, Admiral Haddock is right on the money about how to make law school work. If I had it to do all over again, I'd've taken the full ride at the regional school over the Big Name because of everything he said which I did not know at the time.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:36 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I didn't know any of that stuff when I matriculated either--I was just lucky to get that advice from that family friend.

like rats jumping from one rapidly sinking ship to the other.

I'd rather be a tenured professor than any kind of practicing lawyer. I'd rather be any kind of practicing lawyer rather than an untenured professor.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:28 PM on January 30


The bottom line is that law schools are still graduating far, far too many students. In the fall of 2013 American law schools enrolled 39,675 students. Almost all of them will graduate. But a few years ago the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 218,800 new legal jobs would be created between 2010 and 2020. That's only about 21,800 jobs per year. Even assuming every one of those jobs if for an entry level position (which they assuredly aren't), that's a shortfall of about 18,000 jobs per year, or nearly half of every graduating class.

It is highly unlikely that the market for legal services is going to nearly double any time soon. The market for legal jobs will not substantially improve until law school enrollment falls by about 50%. This will require a significant change in the way law schools are run. Many will fold, nearly all will have to reduce their class sizes. But until that happens (and it has already started) the job market will be extremely bad, particularly for anyone outside Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
posted by jedicus at 3:11 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


So you're just asking out of general curiosity, but if I had to distill your questions, I'd phrase it as: "are my friends making a bad decision jumping from academia to law school?"

I think J. Wilson gives you the answer to that question--if your friends are getting full rides to Columbia/NYU, it's not always the wrong decision, but it still could be wrong for any one individual:
So, is it worth the gamble, if you go to Stanford, or you go to NYU with a big scholarship? Maybe. Financially, it's not stupid. But you really have to want to practice law. And that part of the equation is notably absent from your question and follow-up comments.
If your friends are thinking, "based on my experiences, I really believe I'd enjoy a career being a biglaw lawyer," then they are taking a path which, while not riskless, makes a lot of sense to me.

If your friends are thinking, "lawyers make a lot of money, and law school could be fun, so maybe I'd enjoy being a lawyer, and after all lawyers do make money," then they are not making a smart decision. Law schools have both types of people these days, but I don't think that's new.
posted by _Silky_ at 3:21 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I'm a very very recent grad from a T3 school and I believe MattD's assessment is accurate for HYS. Admiral Haddock's should draw a greater distinction between HYS and CCN in my opinion, because strong grades and journals were not remotely necessary for biglaw at my school (aside from a handful of EXTRA selective firms). Those two things did come into play for federal clerkships, FWIW.

I'm happy to provide more details via MeMail to anyone who's interested!
posted by Carmelita Spats at 3:30 PM on January 30


I've worked in the legal field for about a decade now and here's what I noticed: processes and procedures that used to require lots of time and energy are now much easier. With online databases, associate attorneys don't have to look through old law books or drive to the local law library to find case law. This means that firms simply don't need as much "grunt" work as they used to, and can hire less staff than before.

Add in other technology changes - like the ability to get faxes delivered to your email inbox or the ability to file court documents online in some jurisdictions - and you have less staff all around at firms.

I used to manage a mail/copy/courier department at a law firm. I had a staff of 13 to do those jobs. But two years after I left that job, the staff was dropped to 7, and now I think it is even smaller. There just isn't a need for as much staff as there used to be.
posted by tacodave at 4:28 PM on January 30


I'm a little late to the party, but I also recommend considering why you want the law degree. It is not a general, fall-back, prestige degree anymore (don't know if it ever was). If you enjoy litigating, enjoy tedious technicalities, if you enjoy tax minutiae, and other such pursuits then it may be rewarding even if you are saddled with mortgage levels of debt (non-dis-chargeable and without refinancing options).

Apart from the above, if you go to those top-tier schools, it's more likely to work out than not (very much more likely, probably). However, if you have the grades and LSAT to get in to the top-tier, you can probably get full-rides at the regional schools (which can often work out well with their reputations/alumni relations). The other thing about full-ride is you come out with little to no debt and your job options are more open. You can work for cheap or cheaper at an entry level position, gain experience in a field you want, and then build your own career -- instead of having to jump on the biglaw bandwagon. I went that route and was able to work for a company as entry level compliance, gain experience, make connections, and add to my resume (a law degree plus certain area of expertise is generally pretty attractive to certain employers). But that's because I took the cheaper option at the supposedly worse school (which we did have our share of less intelligent people but after reading my fair share of articles, briefs, and opinions of top-tier grads I'm not sure their special sauce is all that special).

And most of my engineering and nurse friends just did undergrad degrees and have been making good money for three years with less stress and sometimes more life-affirming work. Those fields may have their own complications concerning employment, but it at least doesn't seem -- from an outsider's perspective -- to be as bad as law school (especially considering debt levels and time investment for a law degree versus an undergrad degree like engineering or nursing).
posted by yeahyeahyeah at 7:53 PM on January 30


Just one small point about one of your follow-ups: I don't think it's really analogous to PhDs in academia. For one thing, it is pretty rare to go into huge debt while getting a PhD -- you should be getting your tuition paid and a stipend on top of that. The stipend may not be big, but it's certainly altogether different for law school tuition. Then, once you finish a PhD, if you don't get that "dream" academia job, you are likely to get a job in industry, which by the way, probably pays better than the academia job.

I'm talking sciences (and social sciences) here; maybe the humanities are more like you implied. Not that anyone's asking me, but I would never advise paying tuition to get a PhD (in the US).
posted by freezer cake at 8:59 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Also, a very large percentage of the people who do make it to Big Law are out in 2-4 years and miserable into the bargain. Guess what you can't pay back in 2-4 years of Big Law salary? Your law school loans. And you'll never uncry those tears either. People never take that into account when they consider the statistics. The problem isn't just getting a highly paid legal job, it's surviving it and keeping it if you do get it. My class of lawyers at a very big firm is over 100 people, and it's going to produce 1-2 partners. Everyone else will exit, large portions of their loans very much intact, plus ten extra stress-eating pounds.
posted by prefpara at 8:00 PM on January 31


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