The economic downturn and parallel downturn in law school applications has led many to question the viability of a law degree. This issue has been exacerbated by the ever-increasing tuition costs to attend. Schools appear to be mostly oblivious, or at least turning a blind eye to the issue that is being created by higher tuition and lower numbers of applicants (albeit some schools are reducing their 1st year class to compensate for this dilemma).
While this topic has been discussed excessively on various blogs and other news outlets, it has resurfaced in my brain as I currently sit in Houston while recruiting students at a the 8th National Black Pre-Law Conference. More specifically, I just left a session where the panelists were discussing whether or not law school is still a smart choice for students and professionals considering a career change. Not surprisingly, the consensus opinion appeared to be "it depends".
The biggest problem that the most panelists observed was that students are too busy reading the US News rankings and making decisions on where to attend school based solely upon prestige and less about financial implications (not surprisingly, the one panelist who say no issue with this was the Stanford grad). Many students are turning down partial or full tuition waivers/scholarships and 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier law schools in order to have the privilege to attend and pay full price at a 1st tier university. While career options might be better, on average, for graduates from a first tier university, some of those students still finish school with no job and horrific debt. One has to wonder would it have been better to be jobless and debt ridden with a Tier 1 degree or jobless and debt free with a lower tier degree. I know which option I would choose...
Another issue discussed is that some students do not enter law school with a definitive plan on how they will approach their career once school is over. Some students enter with only the thought of being a lawyer with no clear idea what they intend to do after graduation. For example, if you are a night student with a full-time day job and you want to be a lawyer, have you given consideration to how you are going to pursue clerkships during the summer months? Medium and large law firms recruit almost exclusively from their clerk pool and if you do not clerk, you are fighting an uphill battle for employment opportunities. What's your plan?
Other students fail to consider careers outside the law. They go to school with the notion that the only thing they should do with a law degree is practice law. Indeed, a cursory review of comments through the blogosphere will show that many people attack law schools because they are not placing enough people in law jobs after graduation. They fail to consider the fact that these law graduates make great candidates for well-paying jobs in claims, contract analysis, human resources, ethics and compliance, and a multitude of other jobs. And while some will argue that these jobs are readily available with an MBA, I would argue that a JD candidate will likely be viewed as the more prestigious candidate by most company recruiters (as a former human resource recruiter myself, I tended to prefer JD candidates to MBA candidates for these type opportunities).
If you enter law school without a definitive plan, you are probably making a mistake. If you think law school is a guaranteed ticket to living in the lap of luxury, you are not correct. It can be, but primarily for those with a plan, with focus, and with the drive and unrelenting determination to succeed. These are the people who would rather be online pursuing job opportunities instead of pursuing blog posts to rant and rave about the ripoff that is law school (allegedly).
The panel discussion was good and really gave these students much to contemplate. I wish more people took the opportunity to attend these functions and engage in live dialogue as opposed to simply relying on rankings, blogs, and opinions from solely optimists or pessimists.