Despite Uncertain Job Prospects, Law School Applications on Rise
Despite the terrible job market, some 55,000 individuals (the second highest number of test takers ever) took the most recent LSAT and, according to the Law School Admissions Council, the number of law school applicants increased from 85,600 in Fall 2009 to 87,500 in 2010. Are these prospective students rightfully optimistic or blind to the current state of affairs for the large number of unemployed recent grads? Do they believe that the market will have rebounded by the time they graduate, or are they simply buying into the inflated employment statistics put forth by many law schools? According to a recent survey by Veritas Prep, it appears that an awareness of the dismal job market is not a deterrent to many applicants. The survey found that 81% of respondents would still apply even with the knowledge that a significant number of grads would not be able to secure the jobs they desired upon graduation. So why are they applying? Seventy-five percent of the respondents said they want to go to law school because they are interested in the law, and 69% said they want to use their degree to help their community. While their intentions are noble, these prospective students seem to fail to realize the necessity of supporting themselves and paying off what for most will be a staggering debt. Their salary expectations also seem somewhat unrealistic in light of the current job market, with 44% expecting 75-100k, 29% expecting 100-145k, and 11% expecting over 145k.
The recent “Open Letter to Dean Brown” has sparked intense discourse over the motivations of prospective law students, the motivations of law schools themselves, and the purpose of a legal education. Some Eaglei commenters have criticized the sense of entitlement of law schools grads. Other commenters have also critiqued the value of a law school education, noting that a JD is an “overvalued investment.” One went so far as to state that,” if given the choice to give up my JD and Bar membership in exchange for a refund and better job security, the choice would be easy: Give me job security and take back my J.D.” However, not all are so down on the worth of a JD. Some offer an idealistic defense of the value of a legal education. For example, John Farmer Jr., the dean of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark argues that, “the real value of legal education is not, and never has been, primarily economic. It’s not about money; it’s about freedom…it’s a license to express that freedom in service to other people. The virtue of our legal system is that justice is done one case, one client, at a time. Lawyers express their individual freedom by helping other people protect theirs. There is no more honorable calling, and no better or more important education.” While this may be true for some, it would be an easier proposition to accept if the cost of law school weren’t so high. The freedom Dean Farmer posits certainly comes at a price. It is also limited by economic realities. Many will not be able to pursue a career they are passionate about upon graduation due to the debt that they will have incurred.
I think the best advice for prospective students is to think critically and realistically about their reasons for heading to law school, and to take into account their own financial situation. A legal degree is no longer a guarantee of lucrative career prospects. If you will be taking on a large debt, you need to think long and hard about how you plan to pay it off. Students can’t bank on securing a 100k+ salary upon graduation because competition is fierce, especially with the current glut of lawyers and an influx of applicants. In addition, graduates will be competing with more seasoned, newly unemployed lawyers who are looking for work. In any case, prospective students should be sure to approach the decision to attend law school with eyes wide open.