Does law school make sense for me?
February 2, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

As a general proposition, law school is a losing investment. But I’m a specific proposition. Should I go to law school? Lengthly, probably annoying specifics inside.

I’m sort of embarrassed to ask this question, since it seems like we go through this biweekly and the answer is always don’t be a fool, run, save yourself, etc. But MeFite legal folk, I’d love if you would take the time to consider my particular situation.

I’ve been admitted to Cornell Law School for the upcoming fall. Actually, I was admitted last year, but deferred admission because the more I read/learned about the legal arena & employment prospects, the more unsure I felt about the wisdom of attending. As you see, I’m still unsure. I have, of course, read this and this and everything on ATL and seen this—and they scare me pantsless. But a lot of the warnings & horror stories are geared towards people going to T2 and T3 schools, which won't be the case for me. I hope that doesn’t sound hubristic, because I know the whole problem is that every applicant thinks they’ll be the 10% that makes good … but since I’m armed with specific knowledge, I don’t want to throw away a good opportunity because I’m scared to take a risk, or because of a, uh, climate of panic.

I would come out of school with about $155k total in debt, which includes LS loans, some remaining undergrad debt, and assumed bar loan. I have no credit card debt. After running numbers on monthly loan repayments (both IBR and not) and approx costs of living in expensive northeastern cities, it looks like I would need to make at least $80k coming out of the gate for me to feel comfortable about loan payments, living costs, and some savings (because I’ll also be in my early 30s by then, and would imagine that within the next 5 years I might want start a family).

I definitively do not want to work in BigLaw (putting aside the question of whether I’d even be lucky enough to snare a position). I do not care about making a sh*t-ton (er, by BigLaw standards) of money; work-life balance is more important to me. I’ve had jobs where I worked 50-65 hours a week, and I think that would be OK, but I don’t want to work 14 hrs a day, 7 days a week.

My goal in attending law school would be to get a degree that would enable me to have better long-term financial prospects and find work which is at least in part intellectually challenging or fulfilling—and, I guess, could “open doors” in the future to do other things.

So I guess my question isn't just "should I go," but: Does the kind of legal job I'd want to make law school worth it even exist—at least $80k starting, not super-crazy hours, and that someone with a degree from my school could get? What kind of positions are they? Could I find these conditions at a mid-size or smaller firm, and would I be able to get a position?

(Part of the problem is that I don’t know what type of law I’d be interested in practicing, though I tend to think I’ll do transactional work. I hope/assume that if I go to school, I’ll find something that fascinates me in the general courses you take during 1L. I’m not so worried about school itself; I love learning, accumulating knowledge, analyzing, and applying … I’m just worried about finding a job after graduation which will pay the bills without making me want to kill myself.)
posted by alleycat01 to Law & Government (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I know someone who was pretty similar to you - went to, in fact, Cornell; had as major priorities having a life outside of work; didn't want BigLaw. She graduated and, in less than a year, found her dream job, working for a high-profile public-interest nonprofit. I don't know how much she makes; probably somewhere near 80K.

She also emphatically, and consistently, tells anyone who asks that she was outrageously lucky to find that job, and she recommends that nobody, at all, goes to law school.

The kind of legal job you want exists, but it's under extreme demand. You may not want BigLaw, but because BigLaw jobs are also harder to find, people who might otherwise be interested mainly in BigLaw are competing with you, directly, for the job you want. And they will be willing to work crazy hours.

I know you're a specific proposition, but to be totally honest, you're not particularly unusual. There are things that can change the equation enough to make your decision substantially different from the general proposition, but you haven't described anything that makes you all that different from the bulk of other law school grads. You're not, for example, a working engineer with a Master's degree thinking about leveraging that experiencing for patent law. You're not using a huge windfall to graduate debt-free. Etc. So the general proposition holds true: It's very likely to be a very bad investment.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:18 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the question that you need to answer -- and that you sort of dance around in your AskMe -- is Do you want to practice law? You reference "the kind of legal job I'd want," but it's not clear to me (or apparently to you) what that would be, other than "Not Big Law" and "probably transactional."

Caliber-of-law-school you've got covered. Cornell is good enough for almost anything. Certainly good enough to score a Big Law gig if you want one and do decently well. For other stuff you have to be creative, and it helps to have some idea of what you want. I would focus on that. Don't hope lightning will strike and you'll be inspired by something in a 1L course. Talk to lawyers. Ask questions. Do research. Figure out whether you want to practice law.
posted by eugenen at 10:21 AM on February 2, 2011

My goal in attending law school would be to get a degree that would enable me to have better long-term financial prospects and find work which is at least in part intellectually challenging or fulfilling—and, I guess, could “open doors” in the future to do other things.

What I'm wondering is, why law then, when there are other kinds of degrees that, right now, lead much more reliably to good long-term financial prospects and won't require you to go $100k+ into debt. Don't forget to deduct the cost of paying off that loan and interest from your future 80k salary. Taking that into account, there are other things you could do where your earnings would actually higher even if the salary was a little lower.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:24 AM on February 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have all the information at your disposal (and I remember expressing my anti-law school opinion last time you asked about this, so I won't do it again here) no one can make the choice for you.

One thing you can do is work on what you really want to get from a J.D. You make it sound like the only thing you want from law school is a stable paycheck, which frankly is basically why I went and subsequently learned it wasn't the best reason for going. Shocker, right? Work on a real plan for what you're going for, do you want to help people with tax planning? Close real estate deals? Securities work? Health care administration? Elder law? Think of specific 'transactional' career paths that a JD will get you into...and make a real plan from the outset that that's what you want to do. Going in with a specifc idea of "I want to do ____, and Im going to talk to everyone I need to and take all the right classes to demonstrate to the right employers that that's what I want to do" will make the degree work for you. Most people, myself included, who went in thinking "well some area of law will jump out at me" end up floundering around, struggling to distance themselves from the 120 other people in thier class with the exact same plan. You sound like one of those 120 faceless law students, who are going to have a tough time explaining why someone should hire them at 80k/yr over the person who REALLY went in with a plan and executed it.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:28 AM on February 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

IANAL either, but among the friends I have who have been through this, it's reallly really tough to find the kind of job you are talking about.

Also, those kinds of jobs, at least that I've heard of around here in Texas, make a bit south of $80k, which makes it darn hard to keep up with law school debt.

The one law student friend I have who is having some success and multiple interesting offers is fluent in Mandarin.

All that being said, if you feel you MUST study law, I would say, do it

But if you're more looking for a lot of options and intellectual fulfillment and not specifically THE LAW, there are probably some less risky paths
posted by pantarei70 at 10:28 AM on February 2, 2011

if you want to do transactional law, then you should also think about where you want to live, and (ideally) go to the best school in that geographic area. cornell is a great school, and has a national reputation, which mitigates this need a bit, but it remains the case that much of the practice of law (and finding jobs) is about networking and knowing people in the field in the geographic area you live.

cornell is, as noted above, good enough for almost anything. but you'll still need very good grades to get a clerkship, and entering the academic job market from cornell will be tougher than it would be from other (top-ten) law schools.

most of the jobs in the legal market are at the smaller firms. and even now, a few smaller firms are hiring. that sounds like what you're looking for; a transactional shop in a mid-sized (or smaller) city. (you can expect to work about 55-60 hrs./week at such a shop.) but again, it helps to know folks. coming out of cornell, you'll be able to tap into their very fine alumni community, and that will help as well.
posted by deejay jaydee at 10:37 AM on February 2, 2011

Part of the problem is that I don’t know what type of law I’d be interested in practicing...

As far as I'm concerned, this is all of the problem.

Essentially the only people I would recommend go to any law school are people who either have experience in the legal field and know what practice is like, or people who have industry-specific knowledge (science-y IP stuff, finance, etc) in an industry they want to return to in a lawyerly role. The experience in the legal field part is important because even if you do kinder, gentler non-BigLaw you might hate it. It's not for everyone, it's not always intellectually stimulating, and regardless of what you hear about it/read about it I'm not sure you can know you'll like it until you've witnessed it/experienced it because it varies completely from person to person.

Now this is somewhat hypocritical, because I wasn't either of these types when I decided to go to law school. I had nothing but vague ideas of what lawyers do, and I'm now a 2nd year associate at a BiggishLaw firm who loves my job - but so many of my hard-working, smart, awesome coworkers hate the same job. And my point is that you can't really know whether that'll be true for you - even if you get the job you're dreaming of with ok pay and reasonable hours (a highly in-demand job, as Tomorrowful correctly pointed out), what if you just hate the work? I feel extremely lucky (like Tomorrowful's friend, above) to have landed where I am, and maybe the same will happen for you, but what if it doesn't? Will you be willing to stick it out in order to pay off your loans?
posted by wuzandfuzz at 10:42 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

What I would recommend, should you decide to go to law school, begin your job networking immediately. You will be limited by accreditation rules as to how many hours you can work as a full-time 1L and by bar rules as to what sort of work you can do--but that's not a problem. You don't need to start working right away; you need to start building professional relationships right away.

Research firms which do the sort of work you think you'd like to do and see if you can meet with their attorneys to find out if it really is the sort of work you'd like to do. Grab a coffee with them and ask for advice on how to generate business, once you are out in the working world. Explain that you realize there are important professional skills that aren't part of the law school curriculum and that you are looking for mentors and advice regarding those skills.

Join the student division of your local bar association and make friends--not with the students--with the practicing attorneys who organize your events. Volunteer with a local legal aid group, even though you want to be a transactional lawyer--and talk to the other volunteers about where they work, how they got there, what's rewarding about their jobs.

Do not under any circumstances rely solely on your career services office.

Join a local business woman's group and go to their happy hours. It will eat up a chunk of you entertainment budget and a lot of it will be useless, boring conversations with people you don't connect with. However, you will meet people you connect with and those people will be key to starting your new career. Get a professional sounding gmail address (if you don't already have one) and get some cards printed and always have them with you.

All things being equal--and they most decidedly are not--the employable graduates are the ones who are already part of the local legal community. It's hard work getting into that community, but once you do, you are on much better footing. If you're not planning to live and work near Cornell, you will have a much harder time doing getting integrated into your local legal community and a significantly harder time finding employment.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:43 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

f you're not planning to live and work near Cornell,

By this I mean "If you're not planning to live and work near Cornell after graduation, do not go to Cornell for law school."
posted by crush-onastick at 10:49 AM on February 2, 2011

Law degrees make you more competitive for non-law jobs.

Law degrees help you understand the underpinnings of the society and culture you occupy, and are excellent citizenship training.

Law degrees confer credibility, just because they aren't that common.

The richest people I ever met were lawyers who did not practice law, ever. One was a Harvard grad and the other, Wake Forest U. Both business people... MBA types.

I think a law degree is damned useful. I am not sure it's worth 150k. You can go other places, obviously, if you are able to get into Cornell, and you might qualify for a free ride or reduced costs. Then, you'd get many of the benefits without having to spend as much money.

"Cornell" on a sheepskin means a lot, of course.

IANAL, but am married to one who went through all of this, and loves her job defending criminals. She's good at it and very fulfilled. She is also in debt, but working her way out of it.

Look at it this way... you may not get a job in law with a law degree, but unless you are an engineer (i.e., really smart!.... (tee hee!)), you may not get a job anyway. Not many places are handing out money to liberal arts types. You'll need something to distinguish yourself, and a JD is pretty good in that regard.
posted by FauxScot at 10:51 AM on February 2, 2011

If you're not planning to live and work near Cornell after graduation, do not go to Cornell for law school.

I'm sorry, I've seen this sort of advice applied to regional, non-top tier schools, but find it pretty odd in this context. Are you saying that going to Cornell only makes sense if you want to be a lawyer in or near upstate New York?

For reference, here are their employment stats, the last page has the geographical breakdown.
posted by subtle-t at 10:57 AM on February 2, 2011

No offense, FauxScot, but the idea that law degrees make you more competitive for non-law jobs is pretty heatedly disputed and debated. Not to say it's categorically not true, but certainly not categorically true either.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 11:00 AM on February 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

OP, you're talking about a big gamble. You know you'll have $150K in debts when you graduate. You hope you can get a desirable job that pays $80K.

First, check your assumptions--an $80K job with interesting work and not crazy hours is, for many, a very desirable job indeed. I've been a lawyer for a while now (in BigLaw), making big money for 12 and 13 hour days almost every day (in this economy, not usually weekends, thankfully). I'd swap my job for that job any day of the week. I know a lot of unemployed lawyers with several years' experience who would do that job for $60K (or less). That sounds like a pretty good gig, and you are going to be in fierce competition for it. It's not a poor little unloved job.

Second, keep in mind that Cornell (#13, supposedly), may be more competitive than Gonzaga (#100, supposedly), but you still have to compete against the nearly 5,000 students graduating from higher ranked schools. Of course, a whole lot of those will be going for BigLaw or other ventures, but some will definitely be out to eat your lunch. I would say Law Review from may H/Y/S can be assured of getting whatever they want, and then it's a sliding scale down the rankings. I've worked in BigLaw all my career and it's really clubby, with a distinct emphasis on the top five schools. A JD from Cornell is not a guaranteed ticket.

Third, law school is a real pain in the ass. I know you know this. I went to school well before the crash and it was gruesome; the mood on campuses these days is worse (based on reports from the entering class at my firm). It's hard to beat the curve. Your entire grade can be based on a three-hour exam at the end of the semester. It's hugely unpleasant. Grades have metaphysical importance. You can't simply trust that you will do well because you are smart.

Last, you might want to double check your budgeting. Here's my estimate:

$80,000 Income
-$26,000 taxes (federal, NYS, and NYC, plus FICA, etc. Used this site.)
-$18,000 rent (@$1,500--assuming a roommate in a small NYC apt)
-$18,000 student loans (@$1,500)
-$1,200 cell phone and internet (@$100)
-$3,600 food (@$300 for groceries)
-$600 utilities (@$50)
-$1,000 clothing (annual, may be low)
-$1,200 subway pass (@$100)

I think my assumptions are relatively realistic, and I haven't included have of the expenses you might actually have--no travel, no books or movies, no restaurants or drinks with friends. No medical emergencies. No retirement contributions. Not budgeting for a kid.

People make due with less--much less--than that $10,000 left at the end of the year. The question is, is having that amount left at the end of the day worth it for you to take the gamble that you'll have all that debt, go through all the associated stress of law school and the bar, and not have the $80K dream job?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:09 AM on February 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

The question is "do you want to practice law." You should answer this question before you go to law school by working for some lawyers and understanding what lawyers actually do each day. If the answer to this question is "yes," sure, go to law school.

Do not go to law school before you have answered this question by spending a lot of time with actual lawyers during their workday. The days of law school being a good option for people who don't know what they want to do are over, it is too expensive and the market is too tough. It is not a place to find out whether you'll like practicing law. If you want to do something other than be a lawyer, you should not be in law school, period, but should be addressing your time/money to another field of study or endeavor. A JD will not help you get some other job outside of law-related fields (that you wouldn't have otherwise been able to get anyway). And I have to disagree with the sentiment that having a JD but not practicing law makes you stand out in a positive way. I would think most people would just find that an unfortunate expenditure of time/money on an unrealized professional degree.
posted by seventyfour at 11:09 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your only goal is to earn in the mid-five figures doing something mildly intellectual but not stressful, DO NOT GO TO LAW SCHOOL. There are plenty of other jobs that will be more secure and less stressful and earn you similar money without the debt burden. The only reason to go to law school is if you really want to practice law, or if you're aiming to make a bunch of money in BigLaw.
posted by yarly at 11:14 AM on February 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Does the kind of legal job I'd want to make law school worth it even exist—at least $80k starting, not super-crazy hours, and that someone with a degree from my school could get?

Not really. The salary distribution for law school graduates is highly bimodal. There's a big peak centered at around $50k and another at $170. In other words, you're probably either going to make too little money or have to work at a big law firm working super-crazy hours.

Further, many of the jobs in the middle are at smaller firms, which because of the recession are starting to see crazier hours than they used to. Lots of firms that used to tout 'work-life balance' no longer do so. And smaller firms tend to have only a few regional offices if they have more than one office at all. So if you do look to smaller firms you'll have to be prepared to be tied to a potentially less-than-desirable location.

So, yes, your dream job exists in theory, but the odds are against you actually landing it, regardless of which school you go to or how good your grades are. There just aren't many such jobs around.
posted by jedicus at 11:15 AM on February 2, 2011

Also, smaller firms often don't take new grads whom they have to train, often BigLaw expats or former gov't lawyers.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:19 AM on February 2, 2011

Also, smaller firms often don't take new grads whom they have to train, often BigLaw expats or former gov't lawyers.

Very true. Another example of that kind of filter is in-house counsel jobs. A lot of in-house jobs have (comparatively) modest salaries but (comparatively) good hours. Sounds perfect for you, right? But almost all of them require significant experience at a law firm first. They aren't interested in training someone.
posted by jedicus at 11:21 AM on February 2, 2011

I went to a highly-ranked law school without really knowing why. But I had hit a dead end and didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.

After law school, I didn't do BigLaw. I wasn't really interested in them, and -- even though I went to a highly-ranked school -- they weren't interested in me. And this was in the late 90s, when the economy was booming.

I wound up practicing in the public sector for a few years, and now I'm working in a law-related field that is pretty pleasant, but I'm definitely not making $80K. Fortunately, my law school debt was much less than yours would be, and I had a couple of other lucky financial breaks. Nevertheless, I just finished paying off my law school debt 11 years after graduating. And I graduated from law school at 25. You'd be graduating in your early 30s with way more debt than I had.

But none of that really matters.

Was law school worth it for me? Honestly, I have no idea.

I recommend you make this decision systematically. Ask yourself these questions:

(1) What is my goal in life? (What do I want? What do I really want? This is a very, very important question and I recommend spending a lot of time thinking about it.)

(2) Will law school help me reach that goal?

(3) Is there some other way I can achieve what I want without going to law school and graduating with $155K in debt?

I felt a rush of adrenaline when I got into law school. "I'm set!" I thought. "I don't have to make any more decisions about my future!" Boy, was I wrong on both counts.

It's really important to figure out what you want in life and how to get there.
posted by Tin Man at 11:25 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The main thing I learned after law school and passing the bar was that statistics lie, especially about employment rate of grads and income. Specifically, many top tier schools count their grad as "employed" if they work at McDonald's after they graduate.

You should talk to real lawyers who practice in your area. They can better assess how realistic your goal is. Also keep in mind that you will probably not bring in $80k in your first year if you have to hang your own shingle.

You should only do this if you really, truly, want to practice law and are ok with the risk. I did not win in the employment lottery, and have a lot of law school debt, but I eke out a decent living and enjoy my work. (I even have time for Metafilter.)
posted by Hylas at 11:30 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Twenty years ago or so, I thought I wanted to go to law school. I was going to be a human rights or civil rights or environmental rights kind of lawyer. I was going to save the world.

Before I made the jump, I fell into a job at a small law office - it was only three attorneys, and the bulk of their practice was school desegregation cases. Most of my job consisted of reading their chickenscratch notes of their billing hours, and proofreading briefs.

I nearly died of boredom. My eyes would glaze over after two paragraphs but I had to persevere. I realized at that point that no matter how awesome it would be to win a big case against some horrible system, 90% of my time would be spent reading and writing in a language I hated.

All the financial stuff aside, have a damn good idea of what your work life - even if you'd be working "only" 50-60 hours a week - would consist of before you start it.
posted by rtha at 11:58 AM on February 2, 2011

Yes, subtle-t, that's what I'm saying. Don't go to law school somewhere other than where you want to live and work. As Admiral Haddock and Jedicus (two of mefi's consistently most rational JD voices) point out, the best employment options are smaller firms and in-house and they don't hire newbies. Along with not hiring new graduates generally, this means they don't hire out-of-market graduates because they don't want someone without a local network of business. My point is: the work of getting hired starts the day you start law school, if not sooner. You can't start looking in a market where you aren't, for one thing. For another, the profession functions like a giant fraternity. You'd be surprised how little weight a big highly ranked East Coast school carries with the hiring partner at a small or mid-siized firm in the midwest or the southwest.

You also have to be barred in the jurisdiction where you're looking for work. Firms no longer hire new graduates and pay for their bar prep and wait for them to pass the bar. Sure, you can take any bar you like, but it's not reasonable to expect to take and pass several at once. Unless you're in one of those jurisdictions where bordering states combine the multi-state part and let you take the state-specific part back to back. Trying to move, without a job, sit for the bar and then start looking for work is a losing proposition.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:02 PM on February 2, 2011

I don't hear you going on about how you love the idea of practicing law, or that law is a great passion of yours. If that's true, then don't go. If you do go, recognize that you probably will end up in BigLaw for a while (because you don't have a plan. people with out plans go to law school; people in law school with no plan end up in BigLaw).

There's nothing wrong with that. I went to biglaw; I worked there for 7 years; now I'm at a boutique where I work 4 days a week and make six figures. It's awesome.

But the work is hard, and it never goes away, and the debt is crushing. I'd rather be my husband, who works 40 hours a week, never has to work on the weekends or at night, makes 60K, and has zero debt because he does it all on a bachelor's degree.

But only you can answer this. Cornell is a good school. But come up with a really good plan for what you're going to do afterward and how you're going to pay off that debt.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:03 PM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

It might be worth researching the salaries at organizations you could imagine working for. I'm pretty sure that entry level legal-services-type attorneys at nonprofits in NYC make somewhere between $30-50K. It's probably higher if you're working for the city or state government. I don't know how many years it takes to get to $80K and if lots of people burn out before that time.
posted by paindemie at 12:22 PM on February 2, 2011

[T]he best employment options are smaller firms and in-house and they don't hire newbies. Along with not hiring new graduates generally, this means they don't hire out-of-market graduates because they don't want someone without a local network of business.

Just from personal experience, your "local network of business" is completely irrelevant for in-house hires. In house counsel are cost centers, not profit centers. Banks/corporations are looking to their in house lawyers to do their internal legal work, not bring in legal business. The point about "not hiring newbies" means that, in order to get one of these small firm/in house jobs, you need to have trained for a few years, most likely in one of the large firms, which are pretty agnostic about the geography of your school (i.e., Cravath isn't going to refuse to hire someone just because he went to California).

My point is: the work of getting hired starts the day you start law school, if not sooner. You can't start looking in a market where you aren't, for one thing. For another, the profession functions like a giant fraternity. You'd be surprised how little weight a big highly ranked East Coast school carries with the hiring partner at a small or mid-siized firm in the midwest or the southwest.

I'll concede this point if you're (i) attending a school with only a "regional" reputation or (ii) attending a "top tier" school but want to avoid the path of least resistance (Biglaw) and pursuing a job with some sort of geographical or substantive niche. Again, there are many good reasons not to go to law school right now, however, I just find it odd that, since the OP wants to end up in NY or the northeast, you think that Cornell's location would be the biggest impediment to a job search.
posted by subtle-t at 12:32 PM on February 2, 2011

subtle-t--I don't speak for crush, obviously, but I'm sure she'd agree with your first point with respect to in-house counsel not needing a book of business. I disagree that most large firms are agnostic about the geography of your school, though. Boalt is a great school, but I rarely see Boalt on the CVs of my East Coast colleagues. Ditto for Chicago, for example--as I've said in other threads, when I worked at a Wall St. firm, it was viewed as a type of affirmative action to take someone from UChicago. There were more than enough Harvards, Columbias and NYUs to fill all the slots (Yalies are somewhat weird, and don't always end up at BigLaw, and Stanfords tend to end up on the West Coast).

To your second point, yes, Cornell is a well-regarded school and its graduates have good prospects compared to lower-ranked schools. But I really do believe that everything is regional. I'm in Boston these days, and, as you'd expect, this place is lousy with Harvard, BC and BU alumni. There are some Cornell people around, but not many, even though it's higher ranked than BC and BU. Given the clubbiness of the legal profession, I think crush is right in advising that the OP start from day 1 thinking of where she wants to be, and working to get there.

Remember: New York City has NYU, Columbia, Fordham, Cardozo, Brooklyn, NY Law and who knows how many other schools. Boston has Harvard, BU, BC, Northeastern, and several others. Philly has UPenn and Temple, and others.

Cornell has to export from Ithaca.

All the major NE legal markets have multiple law schools, and EACH has at least one law school higher ranked than Cornell.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:58 PM on February 2, 2011

Law school is like graduate school in the humanities right now--you should only do it if it's the thing you most want to do in the whole wide word, and you want it so much that you don't care about having a ton of debt and entering an incredibly challenging job market.

Is that you?
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:16 PM on February 2, 2011

This is also pure anecdote. I just did a search, by law school, of the attorney directory at my former (large, Wall st.) firm. Cornell and Stanford both had more people in NY than Fordham or NYLS.

The point I'm trying to get at is this: you can convincingly say that going to Fordham (or NYLS, or St. John, or one of the other non-Columbia, non-NYU schools in NYC) means you're making a geographical commitment to the NY area, the same way that going to BU, BC, Suffolk or NELS means that you're making a geographical commitment to Boston. I don't know if the argument really works well when you say that going to Cornell means you're making a commitment to Ithaca and surrounding regions.

Disclaimer: I didn't go to Cornell law school.
posted by subtle-t at 1:16 PM on February 2, 2011

"whole wide world" Ha! Ha! I is professional writer and editor person!
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:16 PM on February 2, 2011

subtle-t--I think we're on the same page. I agree 100% that a Fordham or St. John or Suffolk etc. really is limited to their geographic location, but at the top of the law school rankings (inc. Cornell), there are both powerful local networks AND great mobility.

I expect most Cornell law alums go elsewhere to practice--but doing so means that they have to fight against the higher-ranked local schools, and the lower-ranked but entrenched local schools. I have no doubt that there are more Cornell alums at your old firm than there are Fordham alums--but I'd also expect that H/Y/S/CLS/NYU/etc. are represented in orders of magnitude greater than Cornell.

It's just a tough row to hoe, and for not huge amounts of money, when all is said and done.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:32 PM on February 2, 2011

Look at what kind of loan repayment assistance program Cornell has. You might be able to get help on your loans if you make under a certain amount.

Cornell is a great school, but that appears to be a lot of debt. Were you offered any grant/scholarship money? You might inquire about that or try to leverage scholarship offers from other schools if you have any.
posted by elpea at 1:32 PM on February 2, 2011

I'm a computer programmer. I make pretty good money, the work is intellectually challenging, and the hours aren't too bad. My job has not yet been shipped overseas, although people have been warning me for the last 20 years that it will be. It's also cheaper to get a degree in CS than in law.

I'm just saying that there are options.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:43 PM on February 2, 2011

Cornell is a great school, but that appears to be a lot of debt. Were you offered any grant/scholarship money?

That's another thing. If you weren't offered much in the way of a scholarship, you might ask yourself what that says about how competitive you'll be within your class. Most law firms flatly require that applicants be in the top third if not the top quarter or even top 10%. They will immediately reject your application otherwise. It's non-negotiable because the applicant pool so far outstrips the job pool that the firms can get away with it. Attorneys do not get paid to look at job applications, so they will look for a reason (any reason) to throw your application out. Hiring partners at major firms (e.g. DLA Piper) have said as much publicly.

So bear that in mind. At most schools (I can't speak to Cornell, but I went to a top 20 ranked school and this was true) a rank outside the top third might as well be the bottom 10% because your application won't even be read. Basically only Harvard, Yale, and Stanford students can expect decent results regardless of their rank, and even that's a bit a tenuous in the current economy.

So you have to ask yourself: do you honestly think you can beat two out of every three of your fellow students? What was your undergraduate class rank? If you didn't manage it as an undergrad, why do you think law school will be different? If you did manage it, do you think you can pull off that same level of effort for another three years? How sure of all of this can you be? Sure enough to gamble $155,000 in debt, bearing in mind that with interest that's really more like $200,000?
posted by jedicus at 1:49 PM on February 2, 2011

My goal in attending law school would be to get a degree that would enable me to have better long-term financial prospects and find work which is at least in part intellectually challenging or fulfilling—and, I guess, could “open doors” in the future to do other things.

You sound like you don't want to be a lawyer. So don't get a law degree.
posted by ewiar at 1:58 PM on February 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, one can be trained as a high-tech medical diagnostics operator for far less money and time, and reliably find a job with the kind of paycheck the OP is talking about. Also, helping people.

Going to law school is a crappy way to increase one's chances of a well-paying job these days.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:15 PM on February 2, 2011

As strictly a financial investment, even Cornell, without a substantial scholarship, is not a great idea.

Law jobs tend to focus on higher paying biglaw jobs and lower paying jobs with the government and small firms. The 80K+, small to mid-sized firm (or agency or nonprofit) with a great work-life balance is kind of the holy grail... and it kind of doesn't exist. To the extent it does exist, it's harder to score a job there than in biglaw.

So for that reason, I don't think law school makes sense for you. More importantly, I also don't think law school makes sense for you because nothing in your question talks about wanting to practice law. I'm assuming some lawyer or former lawyer who's more articulate than I am has already explained this, but it really can't be emphasized enough -- if you don't want to practice law, enrolling in law school is a terrible idea (even if it's free and a top school).
posted by J. Wilson at 4:30 PM on February 2, 2011

That dream job of yours does not exist, really. It's not really about the "tier" of your school, it's about the debt itself.
posted by MrZero at 5:43 PM on February 2, 2011

I only have a BA, and have a unicorn law job as an account executive/paralegal for a major insurance company, handling toxic spill cases. My job is to read insurance policies, determine coverage, write carefully worded letters, hire lawyers in the event of a lawsuit, pay the lawyers' invoices, and negotiate on behalf of my company at mediations. The starting salary is mid 5 digits, which goes a LONG way in Texas. I work 30-35 hours a week. I never knew this job existed until I stumbled upon it reading my college job board. My point is, there are a lot of jobs, in the legal ecosystem and otherwise, that you do not know exist. The only way to find them is to make browsing your new free time activity.
posted by blargerz at 9:08 PM on February 2, 2011

You could work at a federal and/or possibly state government position that would have the attributes you want it to have. Not easy to get but not impossible. But you'd need to know which position you'd be interested in... DOJ? IRS? SEC? JAG? Research them and figure out whether you'd like the work and then figure out what it takes to get in (the competitiveness differs).
posted by shivohum at 9:27 PM on February 2, 2011

I have one colleague that I graduated with that I can confirm earns more than 80K. This is in a classic Big Law firm in Denver. The majority of my law school friends (who are lucky enough to have law jobs) are earning in the 30 - 50K region. Cornell is ranked higher than my alma mater, but my anecdata puts the cutoff for entry level non-BigLaw jobs at around 50K.
posted by freshwater at 8:52 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Blargerz's comment reminds me that paralegals at big law firms can earn in the high five figures, sometimes six figures. That might bet a better path for you. Paralegals can also sometimes do really interesting work - you find a niche, and you might know more in practical terms than many lawyers. However, you do have to work for lawyers, which could be miserable.
posted by yarly at 9:47 AM on February 3, 2011

Similar to yarly's observation--when I worked on Wall St., I worked with a team of paralegals on offering documents for different financial products sold by investment banks. It was a lot of work, but they had a good team and seemed to like working with each other.

To be clear--they paralegals works hours that were as bad as the lawyers' (i.e., could easily put in 12 hours a day, 6 days a week), and they were always on call by blackberry--but they were paid by the hour and got overtime. I think they made a lot of money. After a few years, a couple went to law school (I don't know why). Another couple went to the banks that were our clients--and then the paralegals were the boss, and got to tell all their former supervisors that they were being too slow, and that the bank would take their business elsewhere.

It was hilarious.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2011

"they paralegals works"? Sweet lord.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:00 PM on February 3, 2011

Just a data point:

I have a unicorn job, but I knew exactly what kind of law I wanted to do, went to a top (20? 25? 23? at the time) school in DC (where there are a lot of everything - Big Law, Small Law, all three branches of federal and local government, nonprofit, lobbying, consulting, etc ), was a little older than most of the other students (my priorities were a little better sorted out, I think), have a master's in my associated field, was an editor on one of the journals, and worked for a relevant government agency for a few years after law school that was essential in giving me the experience for my unicorn job.

Many of my classmates haven't been as fortunate.

I don't think it's impossible, but you'd really need to pretty quickly develop a laser focus that I'm not hearing in your question right now, with respect to type of law, location, etc.
posted by Pax at 12:00 PM on February 8, 2011

(although, I kinda felt like the government job was a unicorn job, minus about $20k.
posted by Pax at 12:08 PM on February 8, 2011

« Older XML me   |   Frozen pipe: is the damage done? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.