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Law School: Best of Times or Worst of Times?

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By Laurie T. Baulig, J.D., Director of Legal Professions Advising

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“Is this a good time to go to law school?”  This is the question I posed to Prof. Ben Barros, a professor at Widener Law School, when he was at F&M on Tuesday to teach his first day of property law – often the very first day of class for first-year law students.  His answer:  “This is the BEST time to go to law school – for someone who really wants to be a lawyer - in 30 years.  Applications are down nationwide, and it’s likely that in three years, the economy will be stronger.”

So, in other words, it is a “buyer’s market” for students (and college graduates) who are applying to law school for the academic year beginning in the fall (AY 2013-14) and probably for the next couple of years.   And these students will likely be accepted to schools that are “higher ranked” (I prefer the term, “more selective”) than the schools similarly-qualified students would have been accepted to even two years ago.

The same points were made in an article on the front-page of today’s New York Times, headlined, “Law Schools’ Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs Are Cut.”  The article, citing data from the Law School Admission Council, reports that law school applications are down 20% from a year ago, and 38% from 2010.  “Responding to the new environment, schools are planning cutbacks, and accepting students they would not have admitted before.” 

Well, this certainly makes sense.  This is simple supply-demand economics.  Law schools will have to cut costs by lowering tuition or reducing compensation for law faculty and staff (or both), in order to deal with the current market.  But this should be good news for prospective students – very bad news if you are a non-tenured law professor, or making $900,000 a year as the dean of a law school.  In fact, today is probably not a good day to be the director of admissions at most law schools – can you imagine that $900,000 dean panicking that he may actually have to practice law for a living??

What about job prospects for law school graduates?  The Times states that the precipitous drop in law school applications reflects “increased concern over soaring tuition, crushing student debt and diminishing prospects of LUCRATIVE employment upon graduation.” 

Okay.  Don’t panic.  Did you note the word “lucrative”?  (Hopefully, you did, especially if you expect to do well on the reading comprehension section of the LSAT.)  In other words, NEWSFLASH:  not everyone with a J.D. is going to get a six-figure salary the first year out of law school.  People:  THIS IS NOT NEWS!

According to the National Association for Law Placement, MOST graduating law students get jobs in small  (under 25 lawyers) law firms, and this has been true even during peak years of employment.  Starting salaries for first-year associates are dependent upon the size of the firm.   So these lawyers will make less than their counterparts at the big firms (over 500 lawyers).  And many new J.D.s actually prefer working in smaller firms (or the public sector) because of factors other than compensation, like actually having a life.  So sure, if you work for Cravath, Swaine and Moore, you can zip to work in your Beamer, but don’t count on making happy hour with your buds (or dinner or dessert or . . . ).

The real reason students should pay attention to today’s Times story is that even though the chances of getting into law school are better than they have been in nearly two generations, it’s important that you think about how you would use your law degree.   Lawyers do change the world!  We write the laws, we interpret the laws, and – if we manage to get more than 270 electoral votes - we even enforce the laws.

So, is this a good time to go to law school?

Yes, but only for the right reasons. 

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