So What if Law School is a Good Financial Deal After All?

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Anyone who’s nerdy enough about legal issues to read this blog has probably heard of a paper published last summer entitled “The Economic Value of a Law Degree.” It revealed the conclusions of a study by Seton Hall University law professor Michael Simkovic and Rutgers Business School economics professor Frank McIntyre. It’s the paper that caused quite a stir by purporting to burst the bubble of the haters who’ve been heaping scorn on law as a worthwhile course of study for today’s college graduates. In a nutshell, the authors examined official statistics about the earnings of law graduates and found that, hey, maybe law school is a good deal after all. Apparently—among other findings—the average JD can expect to earn about one million dollars more than he or she would have earned without having gone to law school.

Of course, the talking heads who’ve been making the biggest stink about the pitfalls of legal education for the past several years wasted no time putting the Simkovic and McIntyre study in their crosshairs. Above the Law’s Elie Mystal was particularly harsh, dismissing the report as an “advertising piece for law schools still hoping that they can trick prospective law students into making bad choices.”

Frankly, I share at least some of the misgivings about the validity of the study. Like Mystal, for instance, I think it makes no sense to compare law school grads’ earnings to those of college graduates who never pursued any postgraduate study. I think your average college student today is painfully aware that a bachelor’s degree by itself won’t give him or her enough coinage in the job market. I imagine that most of them probably contemplate law school as one of at least several other postgraduate study options, among them being journalism, business, accounting, economics, and any number of scientific and humanistic disciplines. So it doesn’t strike me as very meaningful to point out that today’s average college grad can expect to make a lot more money by going to law school than by simply diving headlong into the workforce and never leaving. It would be much more helpful to compare law school graduates’ earnings with those of people who’ve gone to business school, medical school and what have you.

Even so, I’ve always been a lot more sanguine about the study’s findings. While I habitually caution young people I know against charging headlong into law school, I’ve never done so for mercenary reasons. It would think that it would go without saying by now that earnings potential isn’t the only factor worth considering when choosing a career path. It’s critical to take other issues into account, such as job satisfaction, work-life balance and overall sanity. By those metrics, it seems, legal practice scores rather poorly. A 2007 survey by the American Bar Association found that almost half of the respondent lawyers were dissatisfied with their careers. They complained about long hours and dwindling civility among lawyers, as well as increasingly cutthroat competition and the poor work-life balance that comes with it. In the end, only 4 out of every 10 of them were willing to recommend a legal career to young people. (Remember what I wrote last month about none of the lawyers I’ve known ever encouraging me to study law?)

Keep one thing in mind: these results were gleaned in the late 2000s, before the so-called “Great Recession” and the squeezing of the legal industry (along with so many other professions, Lord knows) that it’s engendered.

So anyone tempted to dismiss warnings about lawyering based on the McIntyre and Simkovic study should take heed. As its title makes clear, the professors were only considering the monetary value of a law degree; the question of whether legal practice is worth its non-financial costs was beyond their ken. A college graduate who takes my advice, gets to observe lawyers’ daily toil and doesn’t develop any kind of passion (or at least a high tolerance) for it would be ill-advised to study law anyway simply because of the pay.

What’s more—as I learned the hard way—it’s damned hard to do well in law school if you have a hard time focusing on the turgid, deadening prose that you’ll find in most casebooks. Actually, I should have included this insight in my first article about advice for prospective law school applicants. When I was in high school, people who encouraged me to go into law—again, always non-lawyers—typically cited two facts: that I was a pathological bookworm and that law school involves a lot of reading. Dear God, if only it were that simple! You should never, ever listen that advice from a non-lawyer…at least not without asking, “But what kind of reading would I be doing?” When your advisor stares at you blankly (or has the decency to admit that he or she doesn’t know), that should tell you all you need to know about how valuable his or her advice really is. As for the actual substantive answer to the question, let me put it this way: Rare is the judge who knows how—or is inclined—to write an opinion in a way that won’t make you feel like your brain is melting and spilling out of your ears.

Even if Simkovic and McIntyre are right, and any college student not sure what to do after graduating would be several kinds of stupid not at least to consider going to law school, the inquiry doesn’t end there. It would be even stupider to dive into law school, chasing the almighty dollar, only to belly-flop into frigid, unforgiving waters. You’ve got to learn more about the profession than just the pay before deciding to pursue it. I think renowned actor Tom Hanks put it best during an appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio, when asked what profession he wouldn’t like to try. His answer: “A lawyer. That’s doing homework for a living.” Heed well his wise words!

Featured image courtesy of [Andy via Flickr]

Alexandra Saville is the Media and Writing Specialist at Law Street Media. She has experience in the publishing and marketing worlds and started her own publishing company right out of college. Her blogs, The Capitalista and Capitalista Careers, focus on the young and the entrepreneurial.



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