Law has historically been considered one of the safest careers to enter. With the rising costs of higher educations, stagnating wages, gluts of law school graduates, and, a global pandemic, that belief has largely been called into question. Even though law is not a 100% safe investment (there are no such things), it’s also not a recipe for disaster either. There are key steps that anyone pursuing a law degree should consider to reduce the risks of going to law school.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week “Law School Loses Luster as Debts Mount and Salaries Stagnate.” Lawyers are used to hearing news of the sad plight of lawyers, but it’s clearly too late for us to do anything about it.
It’s always a risk to go to graduate school. The biggest risks are graduating into recession and that’s not something one can predict 3 years before.
Reduce Your Risk By Prepping for Law School
1. Start Saving
Of course this is number one. You’re going to need money to apply for law school (application fees, LSAT fees). While tuition prices are astronomical, your expenses don’t end there.
If you’re really industrious, you can save enough money to cover your living costs, part of tuition, and maybe the summer while you’re studying for the Bar. I saved $65k in 3 years before law school working an entry-level job.
If you’re in college, consider a part-time job. You’re very likely to have more time in college than you will in law school. Even a simple part-time job will give you some much-needed cushion. Rememb
2. Raise Your GPA and Prep for the LSAT
A lot of people who apply to law school graduate college with a high GPA, but fewer get a high LSAT. How do I know? Look at law school rankings. The median LSAT score for the top 50 law schools is 165, which is the 90th percentile. So at least half of the law students at the top 50 schools were in the top 10% of the LSAT. That’s a group you want to be in.
The higher your LSAT, the better chances you have of gaining admission to multiple schools and/or the school of your choice and/or getting money. Also if you have a high LSAT score, schools will often waive their application fees because they want you to apply. And you don’t have to spend a lot of money. Buy second hand books or get books from the library. You can even use older books, but you need to practice, practice, practice. Learn from your mistakes, learn test-taking tricks, and get better at time management. Doing well on the LSAT is largely in your control so seize on this opportunity to improve your admission results.
3. Start Reducing Debt
While I talk a lot about law school debt on this blog, undergraduate debt doesn’t just go away because you go to graduate school. I was very fortunate to graduate with no undergraduate debt because I went to a state school and my parents had saved diligently.
If you’re still in high school and planning to go to law school, you need to think strategically about your undergrad in terms of debt as well as success. Work hard and fight for your GPA. And consider going to an undergrad where you believe you will do well and not graduate with too much debt. The name of your undergraduate institution is still considered in law firm hiring, but it’s not nearly as important as the name of your law school. Also there’s a much broader range of scholarships available for undergrad than for law school, so apply to as many as you can.
You’re going to have to use the same tips to reduce debt in law school, so you might as well hone them while you have more youth and gumption.
Reduce Your Risk By Picking the Right Law School
4. Follow the Money
I know people who took the scholarship money to attend a lower ranked school. Those people anecdotally do well. Honestly, the people who don’t take the money also tend to do well, but have a lot more debt. Scholarships are not readily available for most law students so it’s probably more a testament to the kinds of people who are offered money than it is to the schools themselves.
I think if you can get a free ride or a large scholarship at a well-ranked (top 50) school or go to a cheaper school, that’s your best bet. Your next best bet is going to a top-ranked school. Does that mean if you’re choosing between Georgia (#27) and Harvard (#3), you should pick Georgia? If Harvard doesn’t give you any money, and you’re thinking of practicing in the south, then Georgia, hands down. Three years at Georgia cost one year at Harvard, and Georgia is also cheaper to live in. At Georgia, the average debt is $75k compared to Harvard’s $174k. Can’t you make that up with a BigLaw associate salary? Sure. But that’s assuming you want to work in BigLaw.
I would avoid paying Harvard-prices at a lower-ranked school (below 50). Yes, it works out for some people, but it doesn’t work out for a lot of people. And this article is about reducing risk. The riskiest choice you can make is signing up for guaranteed astronomical debt without the corresponding bump in hiring potential that a highly regarded school confers.
5. Know the Worst Case Scenario Plans
What is your law school’s policy on withdrawing due to medical reasons? Some private companies will try to sell you insurance covering this type of occurrence but many law schools will offer partial or full refunds in their own policies.
What will you do if you hate law school? What will you do if you find that you’re having incredible difficulty obtaining a job? Do you have the grit to persevere? Do you know if you want to become a lawyer that badly?
Also interrogate your law school on their student loan forgiveness options. Not all law schools have these options and not all are as generous. If you’re going into public service, you’re going to want to know how their public service loan forgiveness program functions (also if the law school even has one). Further, you want to know about income-based forgiveness in case you obtain a job that is not public-service based but is not high-paying. Knowing that these are options gives you some clarity about your choices and future lifestyle upon graduation.
6. Plan for Being Average (or Slightly Below)
Yes you’re used to being exceptional, but so is everyone else in law school. Someone has to be below average. It could be you, and you don’t want to end up SOL because you hinged your plans on being number one in your class.
At a number of lower-ranked law schools, the top 10% or so will be able to nab highly sought-after jobs. But the 90% will struggle. At highly ranked schools (top 14 or “T-14”), nearly everyone will have the opportunity to obtain a reasonable (not necessarily law-firm, but reasonable) legal job.
Wherever you attend law school, plan to be in the middle. You should work like hell to be in the top, but you want to be assured that if you fall in the middle of the pack, that you’ll be ok. If you’re planning to go to a law firm, find out where the average or below-average graduate get jobs.
And if you’re planning to go into a high-paying career, plan to spend an average number of years there. Don’t hinge your debt load on staying at a law firm job for nine years, when the average is five. If you can’t make the numbers work at a law firm job for five years, well you’re going to have to think long and hard about your numbers.
7. Think About Your Future Job A LOT
Where do you want to work? If you want to work in Texas, for example, yes major law firms with Texas offices will recruit all around the country. But if you want to work in a smaller firm in Texas upon graduation or in the future, a Texas law degree will help give you a selling point. Further, it’ll be easier to meet for interviews, etc.
I bring up Texas because Texans are notorious for their state-pride. But all employers are trying to hire people who will stay a few years. Most associates aren’t profitable to a law firm until their third year. As mentioned earlier, the average graduate stays for five years so this generally isn’t a problem. But it’s a bigger problem the smaller the firm, and the more remote the locale.
Are you trying to work in public interest? If so, it really pays to save your pennies in law school. Public service jobs care a lot less about where you attended law school, and they pay a lot less too. Honestly, most of the people I know who went into public service after law school came from wealthy backgrounds.
8. Think About Expanding Your Job Possibilities
If your college major was in a technical field, you could be a patent attorney. This doesn’t mean you have to be a patent attorney, but this added credential expands your job options.
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams once attributed his success to being above average at the intersection of multiple fields. For him, it was drawing and comedy. He’s not the best artist or the best comic, and he was never going to be. But he was above average at both and he coupled that with his knowledge of the corporate world (and the desires of millions who work in cubicles) to propel him to success. Lots of people are going the “best at law school” route. It’s better leverage if you can combine “good at law school” with “knowledge in field” and “contacts in field.” Figure out what those fields could be and make a convincing case for you in them.
This is not only good advice for applying for jobs right after law school but also in distinguishing yourself in the future for jobs. You are becoming a packaged product – create your story and sell it.
Reduce Your Risk by Job Hunting like a Pro
9. Follow Your Career Office’s Guidelines
Law school career offices are notoriously conservative when it comes to advice about interviewing. Black skirt suits, conservative makeup, groomed hair, black closed-toe shoes, organized appearance. Is this stuff make-or-break? Surprisingly, sometimes yes. At my firm, we immediately turned down a candidate who was wearing silver open-toed shoes – every interviewer mentioned the shoes. Is it petty and unfair? I would argue not. This guidance isn’t new or secret. As an interviewer, you can’t help but wonder if this person failed to do their research or if they simply didn’t care – neither good attributes in being an attorney.
Lawyers tend to be conservative in this way too – we don’t want to hire a wild card, especially not when there’s a sea of other people in line to interview for the same job. My advice – don’t dress in a way that knocks you out of contention. You can dress more creatively after you’ve been hired.
10. Practice Interviewing
The more interviews you obtain, the better the chance of securing a job, right? Well, so long as you are a good interviewer. Plan for likely interview questions. Sign up for mock interviews, let the interviewer know that you want honest feedback, and listen carefully. I once interviewed someone for a mock interview who was so loud I felt like the walls were shaking and my emotional reaction was fear. That kind of impression is something you want to know about. You don’t want to bomb every interview just because of one jarring fixable personality tic.
You only need one place to say yes that you like. Maximize your chances of achieving that goal by practicing interviewing.
11. Put your Career In Your Own Hands
Your career services team is your best resource for your career search. They can point you to employers who have hired people with your credentials in the past or alumni at other institutions.
Only 10% of law school graduates do not get hired through on-campus interviewing (“OCI”). On the plus side, that means if you’re not on your game for the few days when OCI takes place, you’re not completely out of luck. Your career services office will give you access to a database of legal jobs to which you can apply to yourself. And then cast your net far and wide. Again, you only need one!
12. Play the Debt Game Right
The average law school graduate ends up with $145,500 in debt. Therefore if you’re going into a law firm, you should aim to pay your debt in five years. FIVE YEARS?!!?! Didn’t Obama say I have 25 years. Sure, but honestly this is the best time to pay off your debt. If you switch jobs, you’re unlikely to make more than in a firm, so you’ll be glad to have them out of the way. If you don’t switch jobs, then you’ll just have more money to spend. You’re welcome.
On this plan, you’re paying off $2,800/month in loans. It sounds like a lot (because it is a lot) but if you get a BigLaw or MediumLaw firm job, this is completely do-able.
Even if you’re on income-based repayment or public service repayment, it pays (pun intended) to keep your loan balances low. You’ll have to pay taxes on the portion of the loan forgiven. Also it’s entirely possible that your career changes and you’re not able to stay in that public service job or legal job for as long as you need to for complete forgiveness. Having a lower debt burden, eases some of that risk.
13. Plan Your Exit Starting on Day One
Even if you’re aggressively paying down your debt, you should simultaneously be saving and investing. Though it’s unlikely that your firm will fire you, firms will start to push out their lower performers in a few years. Plus, some people just can’t stand their jobs.
Whatever job you arrive at post-graduation, this is the point in your life when you are likely to have the fewer responsibilities and costs. You may not be married or have kids yet. If you are married and have kids, your parents are less likely to need care yet. And your health tends to be better because you’re younger. Even if you have a lot of responsibilities competing for your time and attention at this point, remember that it can always get worse, and it usually does.
That’s why saving at the beginning is so important (and so difficult). You’re starting your career and often moving to a new city or house. You have all the costs of work clothes and all the stress of navigating a new place. But you’re making so much more money than you did in law school so that’s a bonus. Keep that law school lifestyle for as long as you can until you build a cushion of money – in savings and investments – to fall back on. Too many people start with the lifestyle and never get the cushion. Put in a few years of hard work in reducing costs, and you will have so many more options in the future.
Conclusion – How to Reduce the Risk of Attending Law School
As a lawyer, I spend a lot of my time making decisions after assessing risk. Law school is a risky venture these days so, lucky you, you get to practice this skill even before you pass the Bar. It is because of the risky nature of law as a career that many lawyers warn others from pursuing this path. But if you want to be a lawyer, this is the only way to do it. Just follow these steps to reduce your risk as much as possible, and then just hope for the best. Every choice is risky but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be great.