Is a JD 4 me?
November 6, 2012 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Law school: over the years you've considered going to law school but were always put off by the horror stories of unemployed JDs. As a PhD student in another field, you took related classes at the law school and worked with their social policy program. You now have the benefit of knowing you are suited to and enjoy the law school environment. You drop out of PhD program to save the world, take career assesment tests which show you are service and cause driven, and work through guides to the non-profit sector. Most of your dream jobs in non-profit either require or prefer a JD. If you have no desire or intention to ever work as a practicing attorney, be part of a firm, but instead want to have a job like "court program manager" for a justice non-profit, is law school the next step? Is it the only possible path? Do those unemployment numbers for law school grads reflect all grads or only those not hired to practice?
posted by peacrow to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a thing worth knowing.

In California you can study and sit for the bar, without spending a day in law school.

California State Bar Law Office Study Program

The California State Bar Law Office Study Program allows California residents to become California attorneys without graduating from college or law school, assuming they meet basic pre-legal educational requirements.[17] (If the candidate has no college degree, he or she may take and pass the College Level Examination Program (CLEP).) The Bar candidate must study under a judge or lawyer for four years and must also pass the Baby Bar within three administrations after first becoming eligible to take the examination. They are then eligible to take the California Bar Examination.

Perhaps become a Paralegal and work in a firm, or with lawyers, and then sit the bar.

Helluva lot cheaper than going to Law School, and you can do it on your own time, while you work at something else.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:26 AM on November 6, 2012

The unemployment numbers vary by school and poll. Read them carefully. Check out the blog above the law for details.

A JD might help on that path. But, largely, it's going to depend on what kind of law school you go to, and what kind of debt you take on. If you know what town you want to be in, you may be able to go to a local, smaller law school without taking on debt. If you can do that, your choices will be much greater than if you go to a school that requires a lot more debt. Because the kinds of jobs you are talking about do not pay the kind of money you may need to retire your debt. For reference: I graduated from law school in 2003, from a top law school, with no pre-school debt. My law school debt, which is both government loans and private loans, is large. And that was 10 years ago - costs have inflated since then. You can easily go six figures into debt for a law degree.

Some law schools have good loan forgiveness programs for students that work in non-profit or who don't make a lot of money, but you need to really, really understand what kinds of jobs qualify for those programs. You also need to have a plan for what you do if you don't end up with one of those jobs.

Do you know people in the industries you want to be part of? If you do, you might talk to them and find out if there are "other paths." Lots of people go to law school with no intention of ever practicing law. That's not the deal breaker, necessarily. But be aware that the crushing debt may force you into practicing law.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:26 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do those unemployment numbers for law school grads reflect all grads or only those not hired to practice?

Short answer: All grads. "Alternate careers" for JDs are mostly nonexistent. Beggars can't be choosers, and literally tens of thousands of people who went into law school planning on working for a law firm would now happily take a job as a court program manager for a justice non-profit.

Longer answer: There are several different kinds of employment statistics, most of which range from meaningless to misleading to arguably fraudulent. For example, there's "employed 9 months after graduation", but that counts people working part time at McDonalds. Then there's "employed in a full time job that requires a JD" but that includes people 'hired' by their law schools to prop up the employment numbers, which can be as much as 10-20% of a given class at some schools. The statistics also get muddied by self-reporting bias and people not being counted because, e.g., they went back to school to pursue another degree, often a worthless LL.M.

I strongly suggest this book: Don't Go To Law School (Unless), written by a law professor at the University of Colorado.
posted by jedicus at 11:29 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

We cannot answer your question without first knowing whether you are independently wealthy. I'm not kidding.
posted by The World Famous at 11:37 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do not go to law school unless you are independently wealthy.
posted by downing street memo at 11:43 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

1) Don't go to law school if you don't WANT to practice law, period. If so,

2) Is there anything else you want to do? If not,

3) Do you have:
a) $150,000 burning a hole in your pocket, or a free ride? or
b) a good paying job in the bag (work for mom/dad etc.) or
c) bottomless reserve of hustle (i.e., are you ready to literally stand outside the courthouse and holla out for clients (no, really, literally do exactly that))?

In all seriousness, that's the rubric. If you don't make it through the end, don't go to law school.

The legal market is still bad, the schools are still hiding the ball on their employment numbers, and the competition is generally WORSE for public interest jobs, because of the scarcity of funding. When you get out of law school and apply for that court scheduling job, there will be a fourth-year associate who got canned, or who quit, or who moved across country or something, and they will get that job, not you. No one in their right mind hires someone right out of law school, outside of BigLaw (and even that's changing these days).

So, probably no, law school is not a good idea to get where you want to go.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:44 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can easily go six figures into debt for a law degree.

In fact most law students will do so. Unless you are going to Harvard/Yale/Stanford* or have a guaranteed job that will pay you enough to handle that amount of debt, going into debt in order to go to law school is a terrible idea. The cost is simply far too high for an extremely uncertain payoff, which likely isn't worth it in any case.

* Literally those three schools are the only ones still managing to provide reasonably good outcomes for the great majority of their students. The rest of the so-called T14 are showing significant cracks. Below that don't even bother unless you have a full scholarship.

But be aware that the crushing debt may force you into practicing law.

You say "force you into practicing law" as though someone with a JD can just decide "oh, well, guess I have to practice law in order to service my $150,000 debt." There are nowhere near enough jobs to go around, and most of the jobs that exist do not pay enough to service that kind of debt. The reality is that you may be forced into Income Based Repayment, effectively paying 15% of your income for the next 20 years, assuming the program stays available.

We cannot answer your question without first knowing whether you are independently wealthy. I'm not kidding.

This is very true. There are basically three kinds of people who should go to law school: the independently wealthy (i.e. people who can pay $150,000 cash without batting an eye), people going to Harvard/Yale/Stanford, and people who have a guaranteed high-paying job after graduation. For everyone else it's an irrational gamble.
posted by jedicus at 11:45 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

For the sake of the law school loan aspect of this, barring some massive financial catastrophe, within 3-4 years, which is my timeline to go back to school, I would be able to pay about half of my tuition for the 3 years in cash.
posted by peacrow at 11:52 AM on November 6, 2012

Jedicus makes a good point about the way I phrased that. I guess what I meant was, even if you go to a top school, and are competitive for public interest jobs, you might still end up "practicing law" at a firm just to pay your debt. And that's true even if you can pay half your tuition in cash. And does half your tuition include your room and board? Are you going to try to work while you go to law school?

The thing we're all saying is that debt, whether it's $50,000 or $150,000, limits your choices. And those choices are already severely limited by the economy, because there are fewer jobs, and way more people fighting for those jobs, people with more experience than you, and less debt than you, who will take less money than you.

I don't think the answer is for no one to go to law school. But I think that for the vast majority of people it should be the very last resort. This is especially true if you don't want to practice law.

If you are cause driven and want to work in non-profits, consider some other graduate degrees: public policy; public administration; non-profit management; MBA; urban planning; social work. I don't know what a "court program manager" is, but I work with a lot of non-profits, and most of the people I know have one of the above degrees, not JDs, unless they are specifically working for some kind of access-to-justice non-profit (and those jobs were highly competitive before the economy went to hell).
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:07 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

(also, if you're going to have $50,000 in cash by the time you go to law school, there are a lot of other things you could do with that money. Like pay for an entire other degree. Or buy a house. Or whatever. Add to that, no one can really tell you what the law school world will look like in 3-4 years.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:09 PM on November 6, 2012

How much do these jobs pay? Assuming you have $75K on hand in three years (and thus take out another $75K in loans) I'd guess your loan payments would be $500-600 per month when you get out of school. I took out about $150K, and my payments were over $1000 to start (though that was a higher rate environment).

Add another few thousand if you're taking the bar, and then assume you won't start work until November, when you get your bar results back.

So, all this time you've been living on loans/savings/credit cards. $600 is now due every month. These don't sound like great paying jobs to me--so, let's say $40,000. After tax, that's what, $25,000? Say $7000 in loan payments, $3000 in groceries and other related expenses, $8500 for rent ($700/month as a roomate, inc. utilities), $1200 for cell phone, $600 for internet, $700 for transportation, $500 for utilities. By my math, that's $21,500 out of your $25,000, not including any nights out, gifts, travel, or medical insurance or expenses.

And that's if you find a job. Seriously, a JD is the worst degree imaginable, unless you grab the brass ring. (Which I did, with 7/8 years in BigLaw before I went in house--so I'm not just saying this because I'm bitter, mind.)

By contrast, if you could actually find a way to get one of those jobs and actually work it for 3-4 years, you'd be far ahead of the game, with less money in loans and the valuable expereince under your belt.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:10 PM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd strongly recommend against it. Remember, you're not just paying three years of exorbitant tuition that goes up every year (so your initial calculations will be off), you're paying for your living expenses for those three years, and losing three years of pay and work experience.

Consider trying to get informational interviews with people who already have the jobs you're interested in, and ask how they got them and what they'd recommend for someone hoping to work in their field. There may be some other paths you could take over the three years you'd lose to law school that would get you to the same place without being so financially ruinous.
posted by asperity at 12:44 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


These days, I do not recommend that anyone go to law school. In particular, I do not recommend that anyone go to law school who does not intend to practice law. It makes no economic sense to take on six-figure non-dischargeable debt to work at a non-profit.

I join in everything jedicus and Admiral Haddock said.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:39 PM on November 6, 2012

Non-practicing JD here to say: For the love of all things holy, only go to law school if you really, really want to practice law. Public policy, non-profit management ... those sound like the best routes for you.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 2:07 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what you mean by "practicing law"? I am a JD and have only had public interest jobs, but they have all involved practicing law (eg, representing clients) or required a JD (legislative work).

If what you want is to be a public interest lawyer, there's a really broad range of possible careers. I would only advise you to do it if you can stay out of debt, and if you are confident you'll do well in law school, since public interest employers are very picky.

If you're aiming for jobs that don't actually require a jd ... Don't go to law school!
posted by yarly at 2:18 PM on November 6, 2012

I'm not sure what you mean by "practicing law"? I am a JD and have only had public interest jobs, but they have all involved practicing law (eg, representing clients) or required a JD (legislative work).

Exactly. The jobs I am interested in involve neither of those things. They are more geared toward: helping people navigate the family court system, scheduling and supervising court reps and case managers for non-violent offenders, working as a liason between the organization and the courts, etc. These all struck me more as requiring a MSW, but the employment listings specify a law degree, which caused a little surprise and consternation.
posted by peacrow at 2:53 PM on November 6, 2012

How much do they pay?

I wonder if the reason they're specifying a JD in the job listings is that there are so many unemployed JDs at this point who have never been able to get a job practicing law that they can basically have their pick of employees who never would have applied for such a job if their career of choice had not been destroyed by the economy.
posted by The World Famous at 3:01 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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