Newly Minted J.D.: Introduction
The transition has given me plenty of time to comment on topics relating to young lawyers, though, beginning this weekend, I’ll have to divide my time more evenly between that and being a successful fantasy football manager. Anyway, this past week, I came across a couple of articles that echoed the near-deafening warning against attending law school. Specifically, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has concluded (surprise!) that law school is an increasingly risky investment, while the ABA Journal reported more sobering news about job placement in the legal profession. In general, I think articles questioning the wisdom of law school are really important, but as a recent graduate, I believe they miss a couple of key points.
First, because these articles tend to discuss law school’s value solely in the context of paying for it, the focus remains on the likelihood of securing gainful (or, better yet, lucrative) employment to pay off the staggering cost of law school. Unfortunately, past information about employment isn’t always a useful predictor of the future, even if we set aside the idealists who attend law school without doing their homework. For instance, when I started law school in 2008, firm salaries and bonuses were through the roof and a JD was viewed by reasonable people as a safe way to make six-figure salary; the investment was only bad, for many of us, in hindsight. Using the Class of 2011 as a cautionary tale doesn’t help recent graduates (it actually just makes us mad), nor does it necessarily speak to the issues that will face graduates three years from now. Those of you who just made the decision to attend law school can probably relate–if things are picking up or will pick up, how much or how little should the past matter? [Ed. note: A huge recent bright spot for aspiring public interest attorneys concerned about the law school tuition debt is the powerful College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which reduces loan payments and allows for eventual loan forgiveness.]
Second, these pieces tend to concentrate on law students’ ability to gain employment at large law firms, but ignore the disappearance of other types of jobs that entice people to attend law school. The victims of the legal economy’s collapse aren’t just the people who didn’t get firm jobs: they’re also the people who saw DA jobs get slashed because of government hiring freezes, or those who wanted to work for civil rights organizations, only to see funding for fellowships dry up. Students who end up doing document review in BigLaw rather than working for the government may find a JD to be every bit as bad of an investment as those who takes sales jobs instead of practicing law. And while the latter is clearly more sympathetic than the former, it is no less true that both students feel substantial buyer’s remorse.