Look Before you Leap into Law School

Look Before you Leap into Law School


Why Undergraduates Blindly Follow the Law School Dream

For many undergraduates, law school represents the path to an ideal future.  Some tout noble social justice causes as their reason for applying to law school while others seek a comfortable lifestyle and stable income, proving that the American dream is still very much alive.  With these bright possibilities in mind, undergraduates flock to the gateway of promised fortune and prestige in droves despite the ever-shrinking number of jobs in the legal profession.  According to statistics published by the ABA, law school enrollment has been rising steadily over the past few years with a record 51,646 students signing up for the law school dream in the 2009-2010 academic year.[i]  In order to keep up with this high demand, new law schools are opening their doors to prospective students at an astonishing rate: since 2005, twelve new accredited institutions are open and eager for business.[ii]  But as attractive biglaw jobs - or any jobs that require a JD - become increasingly scarce, recent graduates are scrambling to pay off their massive student loans, and nearly 800 members of the Class of 2010 have resorted to working "other non-professional jobs" which include less than glamorous careers bussing tables at the Cheesecake Factory or filing transcripts at their alma mater's admissions office.[iii][iv] 

Despite these rather dismal prospects, a recent survey conducted by students at Stanford University and Stanford Law School suggests that current undergraduates remain generally optimistic about their careers after graduating from law school.[v]  A comparison of the collected data reveals three key trends:

  • 1) Undergraduates tend to underestimate law school debt. According to survey results, 67% of undergraduates expected to incur less than $100,000 of debt for their potential law school studies. In light of statistics that put the average student loan package slightly above $100,000 for private colleges and show that an increasing number of law students take out loans of $120,000 or more, these results suggest that undergraduates underestimate the debt they will incur for law school.[vi] Meanwhile, 46% of surveyed law students reported that they would graduate with a debt greater than $100,000, which further supports the idea that undergraduates are generally uninformed about the costs of attending law school.
  • 2) A large proportion of undergraduates hope to work in public interest law. When asked what they hoped to do with a law degree, 39% of undergraduates said they wanted to work at a governmental agency, non-profit/public interest organization, or district attorney's office. In contrast, only 17% of surveyed law students expected to work in these fields. The latter figure more closely resembles actual Class of 2010 employment statistics published by NALP that put the percentage of students working in government or public interest jobs at 18.2%.[vii]
  • 3) Undergraduates are optimistic about their post-law school financial situation. Finally, undergraduates hold overwhelmingly optimistic views about how law school would affect their future financial situation. 29.7% of surveyed undergraduates expected a law degree to have a positive effect on their financial situation without any reservations or concerns. 48.6% of respondents offered a more guarded appraisal of their future noting that their debt would likely have an adverse effect at first, but agreed that a law degree would prove beneficial in the long-term. This debt pay-off strategy might work for graduates going on to work for large law firms, but these high-paying jobs are becoming increasingly scarce in a post-recession economy. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of law students attending T2 and T3 schools anticipated difficulty in finding a job after graduation. One 3L attending a second tier law school admits that "a law degree offers fewer career options than I thought, both within and without the legal field, even with the top grades," expressing the growing sense of frustration and hopelessness common among many soon-to-be graduates entering the legal market.

This widespread misinformation about law school and career prospects in the legal field should be a strong wake-up call for university career centers and advising centers across the country.  Instead of focusing on how to get students admitted, advisors should provide the information necessary to address the common undergraduate misconceptions about law school.  Advisors should provide a breakdown of law school costs and possible payment options and explain that law school grants and scholarships are not as widely available as they are for undergraduate programs.  Advisors should also inform undergraduates that law school debt is a significant determinant of post-graduate career plans and show how few law students actually go into the public interest sector.  Only when an undergraduate still wishes to attend law school after receiving all this information should pre-law advisors proceed with the traditional advising process that maximizes a student's chances of gaining admission into the top law schools. 

Regret is a recurring theme in the law student survey.  "I now question whether I made the right decision," says a 1L while a 3L admits that she "should have talked to more people about what to expect."  Much of this regret stems from the lack of information available about law school prior to accepting an offer of admission.  Undergraduate pre-law advisors are in the best position to address this problem and must give undergraduates the opportunity to make informed decisions about attending law school.  Some people thrive in law school, but others - especially those with a demonstrated interest in working for the public good - are likely better off pursuing their passions elsewhere.   Advising centers must uncover the truth about law schools and the legal profession in order to fulfill their mission of allowing students to take full advantage of their education.  They must re-direct the endless stream of wide-eyed undergrads that gets sucked into the law school machine every year before it is too late.  

[i] The American Bar Association, "Enrollment and Degrees Awarded: 1963-2009," "http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/legaled/statistics/charts/stats_1.authcheckdam.pdf

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The Association for Legal Career Professionals, "Class of 2010 Graduates Faced Worst Job Market Since Mid-1990s," http://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2010SelectedFindings.pdf

[iv] Based on self-reported data, actual number likely higher.

[v] Survey was distributed to undergraduates interested in attending law school and current law students.  The undergraduate survey received 78 responses from students attending 38 different schools while the law student survey received 107 responses from students attending 42 different law schools.  Survey sample was not randomized, and results are nongenerizable. 

[vi] The American Bar Association, "Average Amount Borrowed for Law School: 2001-2009," http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/legaled/statistics/charts/stats_20.authcheckdam.pdf

[vii] The Association for Legal Career Professionals, "Class of 2010 Graduates Faced Worst Job Market Since Mid-1990s," http://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2010SelectedFindings.pdf


Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.

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