Whether and where to study law in this economy?
May 5, 2009 1:03 AM   Subscribe

Is starting law school (on loans) a terrible idea right now? Is getting an LLB in the UK/Australia a better idea?

I've been accepted at a top school and am waitlisted at a few others. I don't have any sources of funding, so I'm looking at at least $150k in loans by the time I walk away with a J.D.

I'm hoping for an international career, so I'm not tied to the idea of studying in the US (it's simply convenient because I have an undergraduate degree from the US and a great LSAT score, in addition to citizenship). I understand that an American J.D. would actually be more limiting in terms of international practice than an LLB - is this correct, i.e. could it be both cheaper and better for my career to enter an LLB program abroad?

What difficulties will I face getting a law degree from another country, from applying/getting credit for my undergraduate studies to financing my studies? Where should I consider studying and why? I have other language skills and don't actually prefer to be in an English-speaking country, but don't think I'm fluent enough in another language to practice law in it, so I'd need to consider English-language law programs.
posted by xanthippe to Education (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you afford to pay for the courses up front if you do them abroad? If you can't, presumably this would be an immediate deal breaker.
posted by ryanbryan at 2:08 AM on May 5, 2009

Based on an informal survey I've taken of a few hundred people in the last decade or two, student loans never killed anyone.

As long as you end up with a degree that makes you employable, it's always worth the debt.

Note: this won't cover those BA's in Music Appreciation.
posted by rokusan at 2:31 AM on May 5, 2009

I work in banking in London, but have academic associations here (taking a sabbatical to complete an MBA, teaching finance & econometrics part time while doing so) and it seems as though a little prudent planning may save you a significant amount of money.

In England if you're a EU / UK national you'll pay roughly one third of the annual tuition fees that a foreign national will be charged[ .pdf ].

You mention non English language skills, but do you have or can you acquire EU citizenship? Note that residence here, pretty easy to get for the purposes of studying, won't reduce your tuition costs.

This University has recently introduced an LLB that might interest you, but I'm a banker and don't know if this program would be appropriate for your background & aspirations; however I mention it as they've included their contact details so perhaps you can give them a bell and chat it through?

Funding - well, forget getting loans from financial institutions here, unless you've got UK based assets, as any advance for educational purposes will be unsecured. Someone who knows more about US student loans will have to add value here i.e., can a US sourced student loan be used to fund studies at a foreign institution? I suspect its ok (as we get loads of Americans that study here for a year), but I'm sure they'll have to approve of the University. Another layer of complexity, I'm afraid.
posted by Mutant at 3:17 AM on May 5, 2009

Don't do UK/Aus LLB. My perception is that the US JD is far more valuable. I've known people with European JD equivalents who then came here and topped it off with an LLM and couldn't get a job. One guy had an undergrad Italian law degree, had practiced in Italy for 10 years, came over for an LLM, passed the bar, and then was told by US firms he needed a JD--so he was getting his JD on top of an LLM.

US JD is the best law degree out there money wise. I'd go with that.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:51 AM on May 5, 2009

If you are going to a top ten law school that $150K is a dead sure winner of an investment as long as you will do the work at a firm for a few years after graduation (this is the best training so you really should despite the hours and you will be paid beyond your wildest dreams). Even if it is merely a good law school it is probably a good investment as long as you do well in school.
posted by caddis at 4:12 AM on May 5, 2009

The American legal system has, as far as I know, the single largest number of lawyers practicing in foreign jurisdictions in the world. Here's a list of the offices of just one US law firm, White & Case, with offices on five continents. Kirkland & Ellis has offices in Hong Kong, London, and Munich. DLA Piper, arguably the world's largest law firm, has offices on six continents. If you had a degree from a non-US jurisdiction, you might be able to get a job at that branch office of one of these firms, but with a JD, you could get a job at any of them.

Those are just four firms. Granted, they're four of the most prestigious firms in the country, so if you aren't going to a top law school, and "top" really does mean "top 10" if you want a better than even shot, your odds of landing a job at one of them is pretty low. By the time you're at the top 20 your odds are around 40%, and by the top 30 you're down to 25%. And mind you, those are the odds of landing a job at one of the 250 top law firms, not one of the top 20, which is what you'll need to pull off if you want a real shot at an international practice.

And actually, the odds of landing jobs at any of them is a lot lower than it was even last year, let alone two years ago. Most of these firms have laid people off, and many of them are canceling their summer associate programs and pushing this year's start dates well into next year. I'm about to graduate from a top 25 law school and I'd be surprised if more than 50% had a job or any description and if more than 30% were starting that job before 2010.

There is always the public sector, but hiring there is a lot more erratic, and I'm not sure I have any advice. It's good work if you can get it, but it can be, if anything, even more competitive than top firm jobs.
posted by valkyryn at 4:19 AM on May 5, 2009

My boss is an Australian lawyer who has lots of former colleagues practising internationally. Certainly an AU/NZ/UK legal qualification will be suitable to work in those markets, and in the other commonwealth offshoots.
He doesn't rate American lawyers practising in Australia, and has told me the only work a US qualified lawyer will get in AU is from US based companies Australian offices that have a global deal with Baker Mackenzie etc.
Study where you want to practice the most. If you see yourself ultimately settling down in the US, study there. Your US degree will be adequate to get you work to enable you to travel, but if you wanted to eventually settle in, say, the UK, you would do better to get your qualifications where you end up.
Just for reference, I just checked the full fee international tuition for UNSW graduate law program, and it is about $64000AUD for the min units to graduate, so I suppose you could save quite a bit of money by studying internationally, assuming your $USD150k is just tuition.
posted by bystander at 5:16 AM on May 5, 2009

Depending on the law school, you may get most or all of your student loans paid for by the school if you commit to doing public interest work for a certain period of time (typically in the neighborhood of 6-8 years) after graduation. I know NYU has a very generous loan forgiveness program along these lines, and I'm led to believe that other top law programs in the U.S. are implementing similar measures. You don't mention if you're planning on working internationally in the private or public sectors, but there are a whole host of public sector and governmental options available for graduates of top law programs.
posted by saladin at 5:51 AM on May 5, 2009

I agree with 'study where you want to practice'. I've got a couple of friends studing law at the moment; one's doing English law and one's doing Scots law, because that's where they want to live after they graduate. Yeah, there's transferrable skills, conversions and so on, but really it's far easier if you start where you mean to carry on!
posted by Coobeastie at 6:20 AM on May 5, 2009

What makes you think you're interested/suited for a more international career? You haven't really discussed what you've been up to before law school, but you may want to get some experience in international business/law first. That, or have some big-time connections lined up. While a number of the firms at the tippy-top do international law, and some patent firms dabble in it, it's not the bread-and-butter of most legal work, international economy or no. Of the 600 or so law students I'm going to school with, I know 1 that will be doing international work, and that's through connections he had at the Hague. Good luck with it.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:28 AM on May 5, 2009

This calculator shows that your loan payment would be about $1700+/month on $150k of Stafford loans paid back over 10 years. That's a little over $20k of post-tax income each year. If you chose the extended payback (30 years), you'd be looking at about $975 a month, or $11,700 of post-tax income each year.

I can't tell you what to do, but I'll give you the same advice I give all of my LSAT students (I tutor for Powerscore, although I am not an attorney). Do NOT go to law school and take out $150k in loans unless you know you will finish near the top of your class and are willing to work for 2000 billable hours (approximately 3000 actual hours) per year at a top firm. Otherwise, the student loans will choke you and really limit your options.

Insane debt and crazy hours are two of the reasons why lawyers, especially those at big firms, are among the most unhappy professionals. Be careful before taking that on.
posted by griseus at 6:51 AM on May 5, 2009

In general, this is a great time to go to school. Employment rates and wages are low. Base your choice on a balance of quality of school, cost, and financial aid. Be really, really sure you want to be a lawyer.
posted by theora55 at 7:11 AM on May 5, 2009

I may just be biased -- I'm a product of an American JD program -- but I don't think a US degree is particularly limiting in international practice. I have friends in London, I have friends in the pacific rim. all the truly global firms and most of the "international" ones all have significant US presences and recruit from the top US law schools.

that said, as caddis and valkyryn point out upthread, "top" really does mean top, if you're angling for a high-salary international gig. if you're admitted to one of the so-called T14 (top 14 -- why fourteen, I don't know) schools, you're pretty well positioned. lower than that, and it gets a little dicier -- you'll need to be one of the top students in your class (law review, high gpa in 1L) to really have a shot.

one thing that seems to help otherwise "meh" candidate is language skills, though. you mention you've got some proficiency, though not fluency. burnishing those skills will make you a much more desirable hire in some markets (or so I'm told by acquaintances bound for tokyo and hong kong.)

also, as far as an "international" law career goes, I feel compelled to point out there are plenty of positions based in the US that aren't US-practice-centric -- in trade matters, in international arbitration, cross-border deals and project finance (though less so lately.)
posted by theoddball at 7:33 AM on May 5, 2009

why fourteen, I don't know

They are the 14 that have ever received a top ten rating in U.S. News and World Report.
posted by caddis at 7:42 AM on May 5, 2009

Response by poster: Some points for clarification:

1) Definitely within the T14 - I wouldn't even think about the debt otherwise. I'm in at one and waiting to hear from a couple others.

2) US citizenship only; no convenient grandparents etc.

3) Have lived abroad for 4 years but uncertain where I ultimately settle - probably in the developing world, though. I like the Middle East most right now and would actually like to move to Iraq (later!) I don't see myself settling back in the US; if I live in the Western world again, it would probably be Continental Europe. On the other hand, if I had to pick a city to work in a law firm right now, I'd probably say something like Tokyo. This is why I want to keep my options as wide-open as possible right now.

4) Pretty darn sure I'm ready for the commitment to a legal career, but absolutely unwilling to tie myself to the USA or the UK (rather against it!)

5) I value freedom as much, if not more, than financial security.
posted by xanthippe at 8:00 AM on May 5, 2009

This calculator shows that your loan payment would be about $1700+/month on $150k of Stafford loans paid back over 10 years. That's a little over $20k of post-tax income each year. If you chose the extended payback (30 years), you'd be looking at about $975 a month, or $11,700 of post-tax income each year.

If you get the big job in a firm that is nothing. Plus, a lot of people believe that all the spending this country is doing now to dig out of the recession will lead to inflation. Inflation shrinks debt, relatively. As for job prospects, they stink now, but the economy will probably be better in three years and firms will likely be looking to hire. This is probably a tough year to get admitted so congrats on getting into a top school. Applications to graduate or professional schools often increase during a down economy as people look to get out of its way for a few years. The market at top firms is quite competitive and there is some luck in the process in terms of timing the economy. In good years those jobs come more easily and in bad years they barely exist. Where a lawyer starts his or her career can greatly influence the rest of their career. Trading up is difficult. I think now is a good time to go to law school if you can get into a good school. For B school it might pay to wait a year but it is a lot easier to trade up in business. Med school? The business of doctoring is not as easy or financially rewarding as it once was and the future isn't looking any better. I think the good part of that is that the people coming out of med school these days are more committed to the profession and less in it for the money than say a decade or two ago.
posted by caddis at 8:05 AM on May 5, 2009

In DC anyway, law firms are having a tough time right now and are reducing salaries, laying people off, sizing down their summer programs, etc. On the other hand, by the time you get out of law school in 3 years, all that may have changed. Plus, even a reduced firm salary is a pretty substantial salary that would pay off loans.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:48 AM on May 5, 2009

If you get the big job in a firm that is nothing.

That's my point. Don't take on the debt if you can't or won't get this type of job and thrive in it.
posted by griseus at 9:30 AM on May 5, 2009

I'm British and have an LLB 2.1 from a top British school, and so far it has proved completely useless. I'm earning less than I did before I went to university four years ago, not even allowing for inflation. I did a year abroad as part of my degree at an American law school, and without a doubt, if I had the money I would go to the US and get my JD, I think I'd have a much better chance of getting a decent job, and my opinion was that the course focus and structure on the JD level courses I took was a lot better than on my LLB.

Other than this, I would say decide where you want to go, and research which they would consider more valuable.
posted by nunoidia at 11:54 AM on May 5, 2009

If you value freedom, don't get yourself into 150k of debt. Go to a school that you'll enjoy where you get a full ride, then take advantage of the breathing space to go work on cool projects in areas of the world that interest you, building your knowledge, skills, and connections.

Okay, that depends on what type of personality you have. I think some people have a higher psychological tolerance for indebtedness than others. The best thing you can do is know yourself.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:47 PM on May 5, 2009

The number of proverbial "BIGLAW" jobs that pay six figures is shrinking, and not just because of the economy. The old ways of doing things - of billing out first-year associates at $300+ an hour to doc review - are changing. Anyhow, man, the lifestyle demanded by most big firms is extremely challenging. You're on-call 24/7, no breaks. Consider that before you take out $150K in loans.

Also, a very minor nitpick to what caddis said - the Top 14 are so-called not because each school has at one point made it into the top 10 (some haven't), but because no school outside the Top 14 has ever made it inside the Top 14. The ranks of the next 14 show lots of repeats from year to year, but schools enter and leave that group all the time. (And a number of different schools have been #15.)
posted by DavidNYC at 10:25 PM on May 5, 2009

Further minor nitpicking.

The top 14 and each one was in the top 10 at least once:

Columbia - every year
Cornell - 1999, 2000 and 2003 (each time tied)
Duke - almost every year, but not so much lately
Georgetown - 1993
Harvard - every year
NYU - every year
Northwestern - 2005, 2008
Stanford - every year
Berkeley - many years
Chicago - every year
Michigan - every year
Penn - almost every year
Virginia - almost every year
Yale - every year

source: 2000 - 2008 and 1987 - 1999
posted by caddis at 7:31 AM on May 6, 2009

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