Should I go to law school?
May 8, 2012 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Should I go to law school? I'm leaning towards no, but maybe you all can see something I can't.

I have a full ride plus a small stipend to Brooklyn Law School that I will keep if I'm in the top 80% of my class. We'd be able to get housing on campus which would be nicer than we could otherwise afford, but not that much nicer.

I have a 7-month-old, which is my job right now, and so even without a full ride I'm looking at $1500 a month in daycare costs, at the low end. More than 2k for a full-time nanny. Right now we're treading water. Not going (further) into debt, not saving anything. This means that to pay for daycare, books, etc. I'd have to take out a significant amount of loans, despite my full ride, but I would be able to stick to just the loans with income-based repayment. Of course, they'd count my partner's income too, so even if I get a low-paying job I might end up paying a lot on my loans on a monthly basis.

My employment history is spotty enough to make getting a job right now an iffy, but doable prospect. It would probably be something temporary, and would cost me money due to childcare.

However, the multiple-year-gap I'd be looking at if I continued to stay at home with my son is daunting. I also don't like the financial insecurity of only having one wage-earner.

I have some contacts in the public interest legal world and am working on setting up both a summer internship at a highly-regarded non-profit and a fall internship at another, related non-profit. I am passionate about the specific kind of law that they practice, as well as the lobbying/legislation that they do.

However, I have the impression that the non-profit/public interest world in NYC is very name- and status-oriented. Columbia, NYU, the Ivies--I'd be competing with all of them.

This makes me think that I might do better WITHOUT the law degree, and that it would actually keep me from doing what I'm interested in and stick me in, say, personal injury. Nothing against that, it's how my parents made their living, but it's not what I want to do. I definitely don't want to be stuck in NYC doing a job I don't like for not much money.

posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em to Work & Money (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I always tell people that if they want to go to law school now, they should only do so if they're going to a very top-tier school; or going for free. You sound like you're close to going for free.

Would you have to pay for housing? Would you save money on housing? Are you sure you'd need full time daycare? Does the school have day-care options? Are there evening classes? Could you schedule your classes so that you only had to be in class on a couple days a week? What's your husband's schedule? Can he take the kid in the evening so you can study then? Can you work part-time to help cover the day care costs (I always worked part time while I was in law school).

Nothing in this post tells me that you think you would LOVE being a lawyer. It's not worth going into debt for a job you might not like. Are you planning on staying in NYC? A Brooklyn law degree (without additional experience) might not be worth much outside the state/region. You say that the law degree might keep you from doing what you're interested in - is the only think keeping you from doing that the childcare issue? Maybe take night classes in that field to further your education while you're home until the kid reaches school age?
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:48 AM on May 8, 2012

See Mefimail.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:48 AM on May 8, 2012

I would also lean towards no, for many of the reasons you mention - including specifically that it is also my impression that well-funded and well-run non-profit jobs are as competitive as you believe.

However, why not put those contacts in the public interest legal world to work for you and speak to them about it? Ask to take them out for coffee so you can learn about their work and in the process, pick their brains about whether they think a law degree is necessary for the type of work you want to do and whether this specific law degree would make you competitive.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:49 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

This makes me think that I might do better WITHOUT the law degree, and that it would actually keep me from doing what I'm interested in

It's not clear to me what you're interested in. The only thing you mention in your question is a specific kind of public interest law (and lobbying/legislation).

Can you keep that scholarship? Might you be better off going to say Queens and paying low resident tuition for three years than going to Brooklyn, paying no tuition in year 1 and high tuition in years two and three?
posted by ThisIsNotMe at 9:51 AM on May 8, 2012

You've looked at these threads?

I keep quoting myself on this topic, but it's really the only way.

Having a full ride is good, but it sounds like you'll still be looking at getting out with loans, which you should avoid if at all possible.

Public service jobs aren't just something you can walk into. They are subject to funding crises, and a lot of qualified people from good schools want those jobs just as much as you do.
posted by gauche at 9:51 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I always tell people that if they want to go to law school now, they should only do so if they're going to a very top-tier school; or going for free.

This. But I'd add to that the consideration of the opportunity costs associated with going to law school. If you go to law school, you will be giving up the opportunity to work in a field that will develop your skills and abilities. Three years of experience in this economy is worth a TRUCKLOAD more than a law degree. Giving that up is a huge cost and means that this "free" ride is far from free. Don't go.
posted by jph at 9:58 AM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think all of your concerns are valid, and I really don't see anything in your post that suggests you should go to law school, other than a scholarship that will partially offset the all-in costs.

The competition for jobs with Columbia and NYU is a real clincher, in my mind--those are schools with prestige and known public interest programs. The competition for public interest jobs for lawyers has always been brutal, and all the more so now when 1) people who would have preferred the private sector can't get jobs and instead look to public service and 2) funding is more limited.

But, as you say, if you have connections to organizations, you'll probably go further and with less cost by diving in now in a non-legal capacity and working for three years, versus someone who goes to law school. At the end of those three years, you'll have great experience, and--more importantly--may be able to reapply to law school and get more funding, or get in a better program.

(Much love to Brooklyn Law, one of my best, best friends went there--but if you could enroll at NYU or Columbia in 2015, you'd be doing yourself a favor.)
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:01 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

have a full ride plus a small stipend to Brooklyn Law School that I will keep if I'm in the top 80% of my class.

Just so you know, these scholarships are notorious scams -- they give far more scholarships than people can possibly keep them after the first year. The way grading works in law school you have no guarantee that you'll remain in the top 20% no matter how hard you work.
posted by gerryblog at 10:05 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Three years of relevant experience is infinitely more useful to your job prospects than a degree, three years from now, from Brooklyn Law School. You can always go to law school once you have the experience; and you'll get more out of it, too, having worked in the field and come to understand what the real issues are, what the career options are, etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:08 AM on May 8, 2012

OP, does your grant require you to be in the top 80%, or in the top 20% (i.e., 80th percentile)?

If you have to be in the top 20%, certainly don't go--it's exceedingly difficult to rise above the curve, all the more so when there are babies and real lives, drawing your attention away. There internet has many stories of people who were given great funding for law school only to have it pulled for 2L and 3L because they didn't maintain the required GPA.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:13 AM on May 8, 2012

Response by poster: Top 80%
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:17 AM on May 8, 2012

(Sorry, I commented before but incorrectly thought the scholarship required you to be at least in the 80th percentile rather than just avoid the bottom 20%. Reposted here without that part.)

I also don't like the financial insecurity of only having one wage-earner.

But what about the financial insecurity of having two income-earners? If you raise the child, you save on daycare costs and law-school costs. Some of the extra income could be offset by taxes. More income means more money coming in to your home -- but the arrangement will also require more money to go out of your home too. Be skeptical of the idea that having a single-earner household is some kind of dead-end. Having one person bringing in income while another person focuses on raising a child is very often the most efficient arrangement. Yes, you miss out on that time when you could have been getting a degree and work experience. But if you go to law school, you'll miss out on time you could be spending with your child. Which is more valuable?

I've been to law school and talked to a lot of law students. If your plan for going to law school and having it be worthwhile is that you have to stay committed to a specific niche in public-interest law, you might be setting yourself up for a fairly likely disappointment. That's a very common aspiration for people who are just starting law school. It's great that you have some connections and a focus on what you want to do. If you go to law school and end up practicing in that area, great. It's possible. But don't count on it. You're in that mindset now, but your conception of what you'd like to do for a job is likely to evolve once you go to law school. You'll be in an environment with lots of temptations to take other kinds of jobs that offer more money. Many students end up rationalizing their decision to work for a law firm in areas they're not passionate about because, hey, I have to pay off all this debt, and then eventually I'll go into public interest and make-the-world-a-better-place.
posted by John Cohen at 10:19 AM on May 8, 2012

Things have actually gotten a bit worse since I posted this. There are big firms out there that haven't hired a cohort of graduating law students since 2008. And while you may not have wanted any of those jobs--to be honest, at Brooklyn your odds would never have been all that great--the fact that those firms aren't hiring means that a bunch of very qualified people are now going to be angling for the jobs that you might have wanted.

I think the fact that you've gotten a "full ride" is disguising just how expensive this is really going to be. If you're borrowing to pay for your day care costs and books, you're looking at an easy $75k over three years. That comes out to about $490 a month for thirty years or $665 for fifteen. Comes to almost $10k of income--after taxes--that you'd need to earn over what you're making now just to break even on the proposition. Since you aren't currently working, figure what you could be making. But remember that you're still going to need to pay for day care, so really, once you finish law school you need to make $30,000 just to cover loans and day care. If you get a job that pays $60k--which is right around the national median and by no means guaranteed--this means that, after taxes, day care, and debt service, you're clearing about $22.5k. If you can get a job that pays more than that now without incurring day care costs--or one that pays $45k with day care costs--you're better off just doing that.

True, incomes do increase over time, and legal incomes more than most. But only in private firms. Public interest salaries don't even generally keep up with inflation, if they go up at all. So you'd do well to ignore salary increases when doing your math.

Further, these sort of "full ride if you make the cut" things are frequently straight-up scams. Make very, very sure you're reading the language right. Is it "top 80%" or "80th percentile"? Because the two mean opposite things, and law schools are by no means above using misleading language to attract students. Call and confirm. Law schools, particularly outside the top fifty or so, routinely offer these deals to many more students than can numerically keep them all three years. They might even offer them to half of an entering 1L class, knowing full well that only 20% of them will ever be able to keep those scholarships. By definition. This is often by design, and it's a way of luring in the unsuspecting.

But really, it sounds like you're looking to go to law school out of lack of anything better to do. This is unquestionably a terrible reason to go to law school. One should only go to law school if one wants to be a lawyer or has some reason, i.e., money, why being a lawyer is not necessary. Because in the absence of either, law school is only a guarantee to financial hardship.
posted by valkyryn at 10:23 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Short answer: "No, you shouldn't."
posted by valkyryn at 10:34 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It is definitely the top 80%. It's new this year. I have no illusions about getting into the top %20, which is another mark against going, as that is what I would need (at the very least) in order to be competitive for any kind of legal job that I'd like to do.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:01 AM on May 8, 2012

I agree with everything above. But as another nay vote, look into what it takes to kick ass as a law student (which you need to to get a job) -- the willingness to sacrifice everything else in your life for three years. As a new parent, that's a terrible thing to do to your family.
posted by freshwater at 11:06 AM on May 8, 2012

Based on what you've written, I don't think you should go to law school. You would borrow to pay for daycare, your chance of working in the relatively narrow fields that interest you aren't that great, and you don't sound like you have much interest in practicing outside those areas. Given all that, there's a good chance you'd owe a lot and end up doing unsatisfying work.
posted by Area Man at 11:09 AM on May 8, 2012

Not as it stands today. There is a glut on the market. Three years in law school now, to add to that glut in the future? Now you're a lawyer among thousands, and you're even more unemployable than you are now!

If you've got a network and can get into the agencies you like, doing other work you like, bail on law school.

Stay home for a bit with the little one, if you need to add an income, I'll bet you can make more money temping with no loans, than you can as a lawyer with loans.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:23 AM on May 8, 2012

My employment history is spotty enough to make getting a job right now an iffy, but doable prospect. It would probably be something temporary, and would cost me money due to childcare.

Law school would cost you far more money due to childcare because it would debt-financed rather than income-financed. And at least if you were working you'd have three years of career-building rather than three years of opportunity cost.

However, the multiple-year-gap I'd be looking at if I continued to stay at home with my son is daunting.

If you go to law school and can't get a job that requires a JD, then you've effectively got the same multiple-year-gap, except now you've got one that's even harder to explain. "I chose to stay at home to raise my young child" is a much better explanation than "I went to law school (and failed to get a job)."

I also don't like the financial insecurity of only having one wage-earner.

Going to law school has the same financial insecurity problem while you're in school. And once you graduate, well, law school is not exactly a ticket to financial security.

If you had no dependents, then I might advise you to take a chance on Brooklyn, given the full scholarship. But under these circumstances I don't think it makes sense.
posted by jedicus at 11:24 AM on May 8, 2012

Honestly, it sounds to me like you're disinclined to go (and given your concerns, I'd say rightfully so). I'm in law school right now, and I've got enough regrets - I can't imagine how I'd feel about my prospects if I had a family, major loans, etc. to work with.

Seriously think about what it is that interests you about the work your public interest contacts do. Do you like the ideological stuff? Or do you like the actual substantive legal work - the hours of research, the reading of tons of long (often boring) cases and statutes, the writing relatively formulaic papers.

I say this because I went to law school thinking about the ideological, while having no idea what the actual day-to-day work can be like. I'm sticking it out, but I don't know that I would've chosen this path had I had this perspective earlier. I may have gotten a Master's in something policy related instead.

Just really think why you would do this. If it's because of fear ("one wage-earner") I would seriously advise against it.
posted by Sakura3210 at 11:57 AM on May 8, 2012

I'm going to graduate from law school in four days. I was relatively happy during law school, and overall I think it aw a good choice for me.

Don't go.

I think that the only people who should go to law school are the people who are sure that this is what they want to do and are really committed to it. It's hard, it sucks a lot sometimes, and the job market is bad. You aren't sure, so you shouldn't go.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:08 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to law school, I regret it, but I have to say, go.

Brooklyn Law School is a nice place, I didn't go there, but I visited several times while going to law school. You're not going to graduate with a large amount of debt over hanging you, which is why I regret going to law school. And, for some people, law school itself is actually really pleasant.

You learn a lot of interesting things about the nuts and bolts of how our society organizes itself in law school. If you're of a philosophical persuasion you learn a bunch of interesting takes on things such as "What property really is" and "What duties do people owe each other, and when do they owe them."

I actually found myself wishing everyone in our society did the first year of law school. It's civics on overdrive.

What I'm saying is I found law school fun. Yes, it was a good time and worth the time I invested in it. It's the debt I regret and since you're being given a free ride, I say go for it.

For specific recommendations on pizza places right around Brooklyn Law School feel free to memail me.
posted by bswinburn at 12:30 PM on May 8, 2012

Law school will keep. If being at home is working for you, could you either defer for a year (at which time you may have a better idea of whether you want to go, and daycare should be a little cheaper as your child ages) or think about going to law school after your child is in school and you don't have to pay for full-time daycare?
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:52 PM on May 8, 2012

I don't get the appeal of law school for pretty much anyone right now. The market is brutal. The debt is extensive. Not to mention that there are so few jobs out there for newly minted attorneys. If you love the law or want to make a difference, there are tons of other ways you could do those things without incurring the debt and going through the hassle of entering law school. And that scholarship thing they're giving you is also not likely to work out. As other posters have noted, being in the top 80% of your class is notoriously hard at just about any law school. Most law schools give out these scholarships as bait to both flatter you and your abilities and to make the initial entry into law school not as much of a financial burden as it'll end up being.

Finally, the advice about going to high tier law schools is also a bit misguided. I have friends who went to Columbia, NYU, University of Chicago who weren't able to get internships during the summer to buttress up their resume and are still unemployed as 3L with graduation right around the corner. What this means is that even going to a T-14 school isn't going to protect you from the hardships of not finding a job. The only I personally would go to law school is if I got into the top three, Harvard Stanford or Yale, and even that's a crap shoot. See when you get into a top school, all it might do is catch a recruiter's eye to see that you graduated from some elite institution. The next thing they look for is your class rank, in what quartile you graduated, all your extracurriculars, participation in law review, etc. In other words, once you get into a decent law school, the fun just begins and the competition is brutal. BRUTAL. You're around brilliant people who are not only good test takers but also genuinely smart and very socially polished, knowing precisely how to present themselves to the recruiters out there and snag that last job you've been dying for.

I too thought about law school and thank God I didn't go. At this point, the glut of attorneys is astronomical, the value of a law degree isn't that high, debt is the national malady, and legal opportunities aren't that readily available. As an additional note, a friend of mine whose father is a partner at a prestigious law firm, a man who was a Rhode Scholar and achieved amazing academic recognition, is currently experiencing a brutal slowdown in revenue, to the tune of 30%. And this is for a PARTNER in a law firm, something everybody seeks to be for the job security and high pay. Don't go to law school. There are other ways to mess up your life or accrue debt and waste 3 years.

In summary:

The only ways I would go to law school
1. Get into a top three school
2. Have financial backing from family or some institution
3. Studying a lucrative field of law (if there is one left) where the demand exceeds current supply.
posted by RapcityinBlue at 12:58 PM on May 8, 2012

My very limited experience is that you can get farther in the lobbying/legislation world by working on lobbying/legislation for three years than by going to law school for three years. If you can break even instead of going into debt for three years, while volunteering on work you're passionate about and spending time with your kid, that sounds pretty awesome, and I bet gets you closer to where you want to be.

(This is way off-topic, but people who make good lawyers often make good programmers, and programmers are (1) incredibly employable, at higher wages than most lawyers; (2) useful to have around nonprofits; and (3) often self-taught. Just throwing it out there.)
posted by Honorable John at 1:16 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't sound particularly sold on the idea, which is reason enough not to go. But here's an anecdote: I'm a public interest lawyer in NYC and we're in the process of filling a staff attorney position right now. We got over 200 applications for a job that will pay about $60K. That's a unionized position--entry-level staff attorney jobs at other places pay less. A few years ago, we'd get about 70 applications for the same position. We also have all kinds of people who want to work for us for free. A few years ago, we might have gotten a volunteer attorney once in a blue moon; now we always have several.

My employer is not hung up on big-name schools, but a lot of public interest places are very status-conscious. The industry has always been competitive, but funding cuts have made it even more so. Places are laying people off, not hiring. I would absolutely not go to law school right now unless I had an absolute fire for being a lawyer, a guaranteed full ride or rich parents, and a spectacular pre-law school background that would help me stand out on the job market after law school.

If you're really into lobbying and/or legislation, then look into ways to do that without a law degree.
posted by Mavri at 1:28 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're not going to graduate with a large amount of debt over hanging you,

Yes, she is. Well north of $75k. Granted, this is less than many law students, many of whom wind up with $100-200k (or more!) in the hole afterward, but as I discussed above, this is still quite significant and represents hundreds and hundreds of dollars per month in debt service for at least a decade.
posted by valkyryn at 1:28 PM on May 8, 2012

people who make good lawyers often make good programmers

As someone who has done both - absolutely true.
posted by moammargaret at 1:29 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a mother and a former grad student (assuming law school life is not dissimilar to grad school life), I wouldn't do this unless your partner is willing to take on the bulk of the childcare outside of the times that you pay for.

Weekends. Evenings. You will not be caring for your child.

(I put my kid to bed 1.5 nights a week, approximately.)
posted by k8t at 3:30 PM on May 8, 2012

Tucker Max, that frat-boy party animal and best-selling author, posted this article called "Why You Shouldn't Go to Law School" on April 30. FYI.

I think the guy is scum, but this post was dead-on.
posted by tacodave at 3:47 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I talked to my college adviser and others about possibly going to law school, the advice they gave was almost word-for-word the advice my mother used to give people who asked her about going into the theatre as a profession: "If there is anything else that you can imagine yourself doing and being happy at, do the other thing. Go into this field only if there is nothing else you can imagine yourself doing and being happy."
posted by Lexica at 5:19 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read Paul Campos's posts at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. He is strongly discouraging anyone from going to law school unless it's their dream and they can do it on zero debt. He has very detailed arguments as to why.

This is not your dream. You will be taking on a bunch of debt. In order to enter a field where unemployment is really high. Why?
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:48 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

And to be honest, if you want to do something in public policy or the non profit sector, you'd probably make a better investment in learning to write grants and doing that very part-time as a way back into the workforce. Good grantwriters have much better employment prospects than unenthusiastic lawyers, and it is something you can get into on a primary caregiver's schedule.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:53 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you really, really, really, really want to be a lawyer? Is it all you've ever wanted to be? Have you researched the realities of finding a job or starting your own firm, and you still want to be a lawyer more than anything else? Do you mind ten or twelve hours a day away from home and the kiddo while in school -- and to be continued in your career?

Yes? Go to law school. No? Don't go to law school.

When I started law school five measly years ago, there were a lot of people saying, "Well, a law degree would be really valuable outside of the legal field." They're unemployed or in nursing school, to a one. Even the people who really, really wanted to be lawyers are frequently unemployed or underemployed.

By the way, I went to law school on a "free ride" as well -- my loan repayments for living expenses are $370 a month, plus the loan I had to take out to pay for the bar and live off of it while studying all summer is another $125 a month. And every time I pay that, I thank my lucky stars I saved $104,544.00 in tuition.
posted by mibo at 5:53 AM on May 9, 2012

You sound just like me, before I decided to waste three years at Brooklyn Law because they offered me a free ride. You aren't addressing why law school makes sense for you, other than that "free tuition" is an incredibly hard thing to pass up. I know this is an aging thread, and I'm sorry if you've already made your decision, but if I could talk myself out of making that decision again I would. So instead I can only hope these nice folks have talked you out of it!

Money is fungible. Time is fleeting. How much farther along on your path will you be in three years. How much more time will you spend with your child, and/or working on your career.

It's not worth it, most of the time, for most people. Are you an exception?
posted by thejoshu at 8:50 AM on June 9, 2012

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