job prospects for public defenders or civil/real estate lawyers
January 26, 2009 10:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently a sophomore in college. Will there be jobs for public defenders or civil/real estate lawyers by the time I would graduate law school, if I were to go to law school?

I've always wanted to pursue some altruistic career that would actually benefit society in some way. I thought my best option was research scientist, until I experienced a semester of semi-advanced physical science courses (organic chemistry, calc-based physics, ect.).

Although I did well in the courses (managed to maintain a 4.0), I was completely miserable all semester. I was not at all interested in the material and found it impossible to pay attention in class, so this meant that I had to devote disgustingly huge chunks of my own time to force-feeding the material to myself. When I actually had time to have fun, I was tired enough that I didn't feel like it. The only thing that got me through it was my ability to critically read the material and teach it to myself. (Also, I hated lab, and I didn't feel at all at home in the department.)

This semester, I decided to back off and take some general courses to see what else I may be interested in and to gain some general knowledge, if nothing else. I really enjoy my literature, history, and economics courses, plus I have more free time. This is partially because I have a lighter course load but also partially because I'm more suited for the kind of work involved.

Now I'm wondering if I could possibly pursue one of these subjects in undergrad and then attend law school. My grandpa was and my dad is a real estate/civil lawyer, working with mostly rural low-income clients. I feel that they do good work for people who need it, and although the salary isn't great, I feel that I had a perfectly comfortable childhood.

I think I would like to do the same kind of work. I'm not too worried about money, as long as I can make enough to live decently. I more concerned with things I've been hearing about the inability of many lawyers to find jobs at all. Just wondering what the prospects are for this kind of legal work.

(I apologize for the somewhat unecessary, extensive buildup.)
posted by goodbyebluemonday to Education (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
An awful lot of these public interest jobs go to accomplished lawyers who have alternative money, either from a spouse's income or a trust fund etc. I know people who pay the rent this way, but it is tough, and the jobs are often tough to get. Don't think they are easier to get because of the low pay. That being said, they will likely still be there in a few years. People who have them feel rewarded by the work, but often the jobs are overwhelming, such as a public defender. Your caseload would be several hundred per year, almost all of which you will get to spend no more than a few hours on and then plead them out. It is only slightly better for your adversaries though.
posted by caddis at 11:27 PM on January 26, 2009

I think a good deal of the answer to your question will depend on where you want to practice. Can you give us a major metropolitan area or even a state if you're talking really rural?
posted by BuddhaBelly at 11:27 PM on January 26, 2009

It may be apocryphal, but I'm constantly hearing stories about lawyers who go into law school altruists and come out corporate attorneys.

If you want to help and are looking at a field that is likely to grow in the coming years, being a teacher might be a better choice. You'll make less but there's probably more job security. The fact that you enjoy "teaching the material to yourself" might suggest an inclination towards teaching.

The other consideration is cost. Law school is very, very expensive. You can go into serious debt, and if you don't like it (someone I know discovered he hated lawyering after law school) then you are really stuck and often in over your head.

You are still young and the world is your oyster. If your careers office is any good they may be a good first stop, especially since if they are any good they will tell you which programs in the school are best suited to move you forward. If your school doesn't have a good program in a certain area, it doesn't serve you to take it.

If your school is flexible, maybe a interdisciplinary program might be best. Obviously you have had some interest in math and science, and are able to comprehend it. This is a fairly rare talent. So maybe integrating some science and some other courses might give you a balanced bachelor's degree that would lend itself towards become an attorney dealing with technology (bio or electronic), which would probably be more in-demand than your standard middle-of-the-road law.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:32 PM on January 26, 2009

Depending on how well you do in law school, whose placement is dependant upon your GPA and LSAT, you will have a plethora of options to engage in various fields of law. There will always be work. How altruistic it is, will come down to your own personal stomach for the debt/earning ratio that you'll be carrying after 120k+ in law school tuition.

posted by stratastar at 3:40 AM on January 27, 2009

Obviously you have had some interest in math and science, and are able to comprehend it. This is a fairly rare talent. So maybe integrating some science and some other courses might give you a balanced bachelor's degree that would lend itself towards become an attorney dealing with technology (bio or electronic), which would probably be more in-demand than your standard middle-of-the-road law.


It's my understanding that people with technical domain knowledge plus a law degree (and bar certs) are in very high demand in IP practice.

Law school is very, very expensive. You can go into serious debt, and if you don't like it (someone I know discovered he hated lawyering after law school) then you are really stuck and often in over your head.

This is the big problem. Everybody I know who went to law school left with well over $100k in debt. One guy even has something like $300k of debt. There's little financial assistance available at most law schools, and there're no RA/TA-style appointments to cover the tuition through work. Your only option is to pay for it.

Which means that, unless you had the cash in your pocket to begin with, you're a certified wage slave when you leave law school. Private practice is not likely an immediate option. Many people have to take a corporate sharking job or join an existing practice simply in order to keep the collection agents away. Since lots of people go into law school thinking it's a good way to save the world (which is debatable, but beside the point), the jobs that aren't soul-sucking slime pits are in very, very high demand. And as an untried (heh) newbie lawyer, you're probably not going to be very high on the candidate list.

So, in making this decision, you should consider that you're looking at (in the most likely viable case) 3-4 years of law school, and then another five years of associate practice at someplace, anyplace, that will pay your massive loan payments before you're financially free enough to take one of those low-pay, high-reward jobs.

[I've also heard horror stories of senior partners in firms enforcing lifestyle policies that essentially ensure continual debt for junior partners and associates so as to keep them "loyal". Things like requiring encouraging country club membership and home ownership, when the person would really prefer to be paying off their law school debts. But, I don't know if this is true or commonplace... I've merely heard it said.]
posted by Netzapper at 3:57 AM on January 27, 2009

Your grandfather went to law school when there weren't nearly as many law schools and law school wasn't nearly as expensive. In 1996, the distribution curve for law school graduates' starting salaries looked like this. The median was $40,000, but no one was making more than $90, and the biggest spike there is at $30,000.

But in 2007, it looked like this. A huge spike at $160,000, but with the majority of people at $100,000 or below. Though the median is technically $65,000, almost 40% of graduates made less than $55,000, and very few earn anything between $85k and $135k.

Thing is, only the most prestigious and largest law firms in the country, known in the profession as "BigLaw" pay those top salaries. And who gets those jobs? Well, if you don't go to a top 15 law school, your chances are less than 50/50. And if you aren't in the top 50, it's about 15%. By the time you fall out of the top 100 it's less than 10%.

These numbers were for 2007. 2008 and 2009 are going to be the years where this starts to change. The BigLaw firms are bleeding. Laying people off, canceling summer hiring programs, pushing back start dates, rescinding offers of employment, cutting or canceling bonuses, merging, even going out of business completely. This is going to get worse before it gets better, but the underlying fact is that paying people just out of law school $160,000 as soon as they walk through the door is completely unrealistic.

But the problem with not paying them that much is that unranked schools don't really cost all that much less than the very top ones. It's hard to go to law school for less than $30k in tuition per year, and only a handful of schools cost less than $25k. Add in $14k or so of living costs--works out to about $1500/month with nothing left over for the summer--and that's $40-45k in loans every year. Granted, many law schools have some kind of fellowship program which gives a break on tuition, but you're still looking at at least $30k/year.

For three years, you're now at least $90k in debt. Which works out to almost $1000/month unless you're willing to kick out your repayment to 30 years, but even then it's almost $500/month. So graduating from law school with a standard amount of debt and earning $40k/year means that, after taxes and debt service, you've got about $18k/year to live on, which is about what you were living on while a law student.

More likely, you'll finish with about $120k in debt. The numbers here are even grimmer. $1200/month for 10 years, or $650/month for 30 years. That $40k/year salary would only leave you with $15k to live on. Which is just over the poverty line and well below any kind of middle class lifestyle.

This situation isn't viable long term. The ongoing depression is going to force law schools, law firms, and potential law students to radically reshape the way the system works. This will probably mean that a significant number of the unranked schools will close, and while tuition will go down at the top schools, admissions criteria will go up significantly.

But for the moment, you need to seriously consider your options before going to law school. It is not a means of guaranteed employment, and it certainly isn't a guarantee of a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Not the way it used to be. In another decade or three it might be again, but we'll just have to see.
posted by valkyryn at 4:50 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It may be apocryphal, but I'm constantly hearing stories about lawyers who go into law school altruists and come out corporate attorneys.

I've been to law school, and I assure you, it's not apocryphal. You write in your law school applications that you want to "make the world a better place," and 3 years later you're a corporate attorney. That happens all the time. That's why people praise Obama for deciding to bypass the lucrative law firms, implying that most people wouldn't have.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:56 AM on January 27, 2009

There are many career paths where a law degree is helpful. A number of hospital administrators that I've met have law degrees, so there are definitely multiple paths to good work with a JD.

Law school is generally very expensive, but it doesn't have to cost a fortune. Look into public schools. Here in New York, CUNY Law costs between $4k - $8k per semester. At private schools, there are a few scholarships available for people with astronomically high LSAT and GPAs who are committed to public service. I've heard of people getting free rides to Georgetown and Brooklyn Law, so it is possible to pay less than $30k a year.
posted by abirae at 6:07 AM on January 27, 2009


Will there be jobs for public defenders when you graduate? Absolutely. For civil and real estate lawyers? Yep.

I couldn't agree more with those who say that 1Ls start off ready to save the world and then find themselves making six figures and working 60 hrs a week at the bottom rung of a BigLaw firm a few years later. It could be greed, it could be that they honestly enjoy the nature and atmosphere (and power and prestige) of such a firm, it could be desperation stemming from the burden of educational debt.... I have tons of friends who went this route, and most of them are genuinely good people (all of whom are still required to do - and generally enjoy - pro bono work at the firm).

That said, if you consider standard firm work "selling out," there a few good ways to avoid heading that way. As a college sophomore, it's not too early to start paving the way to a career of public service (whether end up working in the public or private sector). Ask your professors about sponsoring you for an independent study (summer or academic semester) with a nonprofit -- or just spend your summers working for one (if you're not trying to get academic credit, they may or may not offer you a small stipend). When you get to law school, pass up the $2500/week legal clerkships during the summer to work as a law clerk in the public defender's office, with a civil rights nonprofit, or with another office whose cause you believe in; once you start at a BigLaw clerkship, it's going to be hard to turn back. Take classes related to public service (Family Law, Human Rights, Civil Rights, etc) -- you'll have plenty of opportunities to learn about Corporations and Transactional Law when you study for the bar. Take as many clinics as possible (these tend to be related to public service work -- everything from low-income criminal defense to street law to children's rights) during your law school education. You usually make your connections and do lots of your networking when you are IN law school (or beforehand -- a record of volunteerism, etc in college is always helpful), so make it easy on yourself and give yourself the best opportunity for working in a field that you believe in by laying the groundwork now -- not after you graduate from law school.
posted by roundrock at 6:11 AM on January 27, 2009

I actually suggest that you seek out these offices and handle some administrative or assistant work yourself to make sure it's what you want to do. I did an internship in undergrad for civil lawyers and I realized it's not the type of law I wanted to practice. If you're able to work at a law firm, then perhaps you can work for some lawyers in the fields that interest you. In addition, they can help you find a job after you graduate from law school. Not necessarily at their firm, but their colleagues, classmates, etc.

Don't worry about money now, if you feel that you want to make money after having worked for low-income community, you'll find a way to do that. You're young, and you have plenty of time to make money. I know a public defender who graduated from georgetown. She has unbelievable amount of debt, and while she doesn't like the fact that she's in debt, she's very rewarded by her work and is very good at what she does (crim law).

In law school, make sure you don't limit yourself to just what you are interested in at that time, but diversify your knowledge with at least 2 focuses.
posted by icollectpurses at 6:12 AM on January 27, 2009

I have to agree with Jaltcoh - there are more than a few people at law schools who are unsure of their goals and without focus on such they accept / pursue large civil defense firm work because it is viewed as the "top" job or because it offers the top pay. Even those who attend planning on something else sometimes find these positions to be necessary to pay off student debts or to afford a lifestyle they're told they deserve or for hundreds of other rationalizations (some more reasonable than others).

BuddhaBelly is also correct that availability will depend largely on where you want / are willing to practice. In some areas public defenders are paid very little and you may not be able to repay your student loans. In other areas (mostly coastal or metropolitan) they are paid very reasonably and you will be able to afford a great life style while engaging in great work.

Also consider that more and more law schools are offering Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP) which would allow you to work in a public interest/sector field and have the school cover most of your loans .... look into these programs while you're applying/considering schools, let them know you're considering it too. However, you'll have to look harder for a program that covered "low bono" work like rural or low income civil legal services. Also consider a public interest organization that provides a similar service.

Best luck, you sound like you're in a similar situation to mine from (oh hell) 7 years ago. You're added competence with math and science will serve you very well as an attorney, there are many in practice who are a bit put off by hard sciences so you'll have an added skill set.
posted by unclezeb at 6:18 AM on January 27, 2009

You're getting a lot of good information about the current state of law school admissions and law school graduate employment. How good is that information for 5 years from now? Who knows.

Do not select your undergraduate major to make you "better" in law school. There's no such thing. Your philosophy or criminal justice or english major isn't really going to be that huge of a benefit to you, and certainly isn't going to give you some major competitive advantage.

Major in something that you find interesting and provides its own job market. Then decided if you want to go to law school in a few years. This is not a decision you need to make now, and how good of an idea it is depends almost entirely on whether or not this economy turns around quickly or gets much worse.

Also, to clear up some things, valkyryn's grim numbers are a little off for jobs like prosecutors and public defenders who are currently eligible for up to 10k a year in federal loan forgiveness up to a max of, I think, 60k. This takes a huge dent out of those loans. It also assumes you're going to be making the same salary for 15-30 years. Yes, your first three or four years out of school might be tight, but you should be just as weary of the doom and gloom descriptions of a lawyer's life as you are of the sunshine and roses descriptions.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:07 AM on January 27, 2009

When I say rural, I'm talking about Southern West Virginia.

Thanks for the valuable insights/suggestions. I'm definitely not set on this as a career path yet, just postulating, exploring, and responding to my pre-pharm and pre-med friends' incessant nagging about how I need to get my life together. I'll take all this into consideration as I try to make some sort of decision.
posted by goodbyebluemonday at 7:27 AM on January 27, 2009

Will public defender and rural real estate jobs be around in five years? Probably. It's good that you have a diverse skill set in case those two particular fields are temporarily not hiring when you get out of school. At least for the public defenders on the federal side, there will always be public defenders, as far as I can tell. Funding is not as fickle as those agencies financed at the state/local level.

If not these two things, there will always be some kind of public interest law jobs. If you don't see something that appeals to you in five years, get grants and start your own!
posted by *s at 7:37 AM on January 27, 2009

Certain fields are always going to be needed. Health Care - People will always get sick.

Education - People will always need to learn

Criminal Justice - People will always commit crimes.

So yes, there will always be a need for public defenders.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:38 AM on January 27, 2009

Just a note on the loan forgiveness programs: while I think they are great, I would advise being extremely careful before relying them on any way in choosing a school, career path, and even whether to go to law school. I have learned, as a recent law grad in a public service job, that even though my salary is around half (or less) than what my classmates are earning, it's still too much to qualify for many LRAP programs. It also doesn't help that my spouse earns about the same amount of money I do, which most programs would count against me. And, finally, from what I can tell, I also earn too much to qualify for the new federal programs. Those do not seem to be adjusted in any way for geography/cost of living, so even though my salary is pretty low for my metro area, it is higher than whatever criteria they use for those programs. If I could earn this salary more toward the center of the country, I'd be making a pretty good living and more able to save/pay off debt.

That said, I've found ways to make my loan payments manageable for me (I'm looking at you, extended repayment plan!), and am not planning to leave public service... so maybe these programs weren't designed for people like me in the first place.
posted by pril at 7:45 AM on January 27, 2009

There's a lot of good advice here. I just wanted to say again that you shouldn't in any way choose your undergraduate major based on what you think might help for law school. For my part, I wish I had taken more math, science, and language classes (and interesting electives in other departments) rather than political science classes, which didn't prepare me for law school any more than sciences would have. Also, I strongly recommend taking at least a year off between college and law school. Maybe take a long backpacking trip, or work at a law firm to see if you really like it. You won't have nearly as much freedom to do what you want after you get saddled with student loans from law school, so take advantage of that time while you have it. I also think that if you enter law school motivated knowing exactly what you want to get out of it you'll be ahead of most of your classmates.
posted by stopgap at 8:28 AM on January 27, 2009

Yeah, as far as the undergraduate major goes, I'm also considering maybe a liberal arts and sciences degree, which basically just requires that you have upper-division coursework in all areas- humanities, hard sciences, and soft sciences.

I figure that if I decide not to go to law school, I might look at grad programs in higher education administration, and that would appear to be a decent background for that as well.
posted by goodbyebluemonday at 8:41 AM on January 27, 2009

If you are really serious about going into non profit law work. You have 2 options that depend heavily on you doing well to very well on the LSATs.

First option, you get a scholarship to a lower ranked school. I did decent (not amazing) on the LSATs and was offered several large scholarships at Tier 2 school. If I had done better or applied to Tier 3 schools I probably could have gotten a full ride. However, if you do this you will be cutting yourself off from a lot of other opportunities so you better be very sure this is what you want.

Second option, you go to a REALLY good school, I'm talking T13 here. One where the grads have so many high paying jobs right out of law school they literally can't pay their students to take a non profit job. They have amazing loan repayment programs. Partly because they are endowed to the hilt and partly because no one takes advantage of them, so the lone public interest grad has no competition.

Sidenote, schools are notorious for propping up their loan repayment numbers. Mine had apparently "never turned down any grad who qualified" of course the requirements are so ridiculous that only 1 or 2 people a year qualified.

I went to a decently well know, law school that is known for being a public interest school. At least 1/3 if not more of my friends came there with very solid intentions of going into public interest. Another 1/3, like myself, were strongly considering, but not set on public interest. Maybe 1/4 if even are actually in public interest now. I think there are a few reasons this has happened and no it's not because law school makes you evil.

First, a lot of kids came and found out they didn't actually like the work. Or they found out that they didn't want to be raising money for their non profit for a living. I personally hate the touchy freely aspect of a lot of non profits (I actually had to write a paper on holistic lawyering once, I wrote that I thought being emotionally involved in your cases was borderline malpractice, I didn't do very well on that paper...). As one of my friends put it law school made her realize that she was way to pragmatic and business oriented to work at a non profit. And that she could do a lot more good making 6 figures at a big law job and just giving a lot of money to the non profits she cared about. Honestly, I think she's right.

Second, the cost of loans simply can't be ignored or nullified, no matter how many speeches I heard while graduating from well meaning professors and judges about the one true path of public interest work. It's one thing to live on 40k debt free. Quite another to live on 40k and pay every month 1X to 2X your probable rent in loan payments. Also, people tend to go to law school in a very transitional period in their life. Mid 20's you start to realize that hey wait you would like to have a family and kids one day, and you start to realize just how much money that is going to cost. Very quickly a lot of people realize that getting a corporate law (or similar) job isn't merely a good choice, it's the only choice if you want to pay off your loans and have any financial security.

Overall, I wouldn't go to law school to go into public interest work. Or at the very least I wouldn't start my public interest career there. Except perhaps for being a public defender, you can do very similar public interest work without being a lawyer. I would try to get an internship with an organization you are interested in and work there for a couple years. Then you can really decide whether 1) you want to do that for the rest of your life and 2) whether a 10k pay raise is worth 3 years of hard work and 100-200k in debt.
posted by whoaali at 9:03 AM on January 27, 2009

Law school does not necessarily have to be that expensive. I went to what is probably consider a third tier law school (although it's bar passage rate exceeds Vanderbilt's every year). The in-state tuition is approximately $10K per year these days. Unless you want to be hired by a big name law firm and start out at $100K+ passing the bar is pretty much all that matters. It took a few years but, I ended up in the same ballpark salary-wise. I would recommend looking at the cost of in-state tuition at public law schools in your state. I would expect there are plenty of opportunities for legal services type jobs (with low pay) in the less developed areas of W. Virginia. Taking such a position may also offer some loan forgiveness opportunities.
posted by Carbolic at 10:10 AM on January 27, 2009

A little addition. Even though US News may consider it third tier the school is well respected within the state. The 10 or so people people who graduated at the top of our class of about 150 did obtain $100K+ per year salaries straight out of school.
posted by Carbolic at 10:14 AM on January 27, 2009

I'll chime in; I'm a third-year student at a top 25 law school. I'll be graduating with no debt, which is unusual, especially for someone from a middle-class family. I've had the good fortune of good scholarships and parents who started saving for my education when I was born, which I realize is an anomaly. I know of two other people graduating with me who will be debt-free, out of a class of 200. I'm sure there are others, but it's uncommon. I'll be clerking for a judge for a year, then hopefully working for a state DA's or AG's office. I see both as public-service positions, though depending on your attitude toward the criminal justice system, you may see it differently.

The BIGLAW draw is a powerful one, and I have only one friend who plans to turn down a biglaw job for something more public-interest focused. I almost had a biglaw job, but our hiring class was slashed when the economy tanked. In hindsight, I'm happier about the path I'm on than the path I would have taken, though if I would have been offered the $120k starting salary (more midlaw than biglaw), it would have been tough to turn down.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:47 AM on January 27, 2009

Just a note on the loan forgiveness programs:

Loan forgiveness programs are not the same as LRAP. One of them is a third party paying your loan back for you, one of them is the party to whom you owe the debt basically making it go away.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:56 PM on January 27, 2009

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