University Career Center

Susan Blakely's headshot

The First Installment of this two part series by Susan Smith Blakely, Esquire, provided an overview of the issues affecting the decision whether or not to go to law school.  The decision was put in context, including the high cost of tuition and the down job market for lawyers, but the discussion in part one also recognized that some students have very entrenched desires to follow law careers and that those sentiments should play important roles in the decision making.  Part one also discussed the one-sided approach that many of the negative Internet blogs take to the subject of law school and lawyers and the caveat that it is a mistake to listen only to the one side.  In making that case, the author offered the other side, the side that she knows having grown up as the child of a lawyer and the side that she has experienced in her own professional life. 

The Second Installment below is a more in depth exploration of the issues and the challenges presented by rising tuition costs, the high cost of student loans and a not-yet-recovered job market.  It also includes the author’s very personal thoughts on things in the law profession that have little to do with money but that make a great deal of difference for clients, communities and the lawyers themselves.   The author presents this as the “making a difference” factor that she believes cannot and should not be overlooked.

Law school loan debt is the major issue discouraging law students today--bigger than the dismal job market, which is the result of the recession that started in 2008.  The job market will improve, but the amount of student loan debt for any one student is not going to change without some major loan forgiveness legislation, and the payback starts six months after law school graduation--job or no job.

Student loans are directly related to tuition.  One report shows that tuition at private law schools has increased about 160 percent from 1985 to 2011. Paying back $150K in student loan debt would be crippling to most students, and law school debt is almost never dischargeable in bankruptcy.  There are some alternatives like grants and scholarships and what amount to signing bonuses at law schools in the lower tiers to compete for top students, but, for the many students financing their own law school educations, it is a really scary proposition.

The data on job placement and salaries is pretty grim, as well, and it extends to some of the highest ranked law schools.  According to an article in the June 19, 2012 edition of the ABA Journal, only 55% of the 2011 law graduates had full-time, long-term legal jobs.  Additionally, the latest National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) data indicates that, among law grads whose employment status was known, only 65.4% were in jobs requiring bar passage.  That same report included information that the number of 2010 graduates, who went into private practice, was 20% lower than it has been in 30 years. 

The salary situation is equally problematic. Salaries have not recovered since the recession of 2008, and it is unlikely that starting law salaries ever will return to the “normal” of the early 2000’s, when an annual salary of $160K was typical for Big Law.  The salary statistics that are provided by law schools are confusing and can be misleading.  Salary profiles for recent law graduates typically are “bimodal” and focus on median salaries, when, in fact, most of the salaries group on the high side and the low side of the median mark.  Most law graduates are making far less than the median salary, and those lower salaries are balanced out by a relatively few salaries on the high end.

So, with all of these challenges, why would you want to go to law school? 

For some very good reasons, I hope, provided that you have a reasonable plan on how to pay for it.  In taking the popular negative blog approach, it is easy to think of lawyers only in terms of money spent and money earned and to ignore what lawyers do.  Lawyers can follow many career paths.  In addition to the law jobs that focus on making money for those who already have lots of it--and there is nothing inherently wrong with that--many law jobs are uniquely designed to do good.  Lawyers fight for the rights of the less fortunate, lawyers help rid the world of criminals, lawyers protect the civil rights and individual rights guaranteed under our Constitution, lawyers help assure the safety of consumer products, and a lot more.  My book, Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer, includes profiles of twelve lawyers who transitioned from large law firm practice to other practice settings.  I recommend the book and the profiles for a discussion of the breadth of career possibilities for lawyers.

Quite simply, I hope that many of you will follow the path to make a difference.  You can make a difference on a global stage or you can make a difference locally for little people who cannot afford to protect themselves.  In whatever ways that lawyers make a difference, you have no idea how gratifying it is to know that you have made the difference and to know that you are one of only a small number of people, relatively speaking, who can.

I know that the bloggers disparage the “making a difference” approach.  I know that public service jobs are very hard to get today, and the Public Defender, District Attorney and other government jobs have been hit hard by the recession.   I also know that these jobs do not pay very well and will make paying back student loan debt very challenging.  For students who are really interested in public service as a career, there is a federal student loan forgiveness program that can be very helpful.

In addition, many graduate lawyers use their legal skills to become successful business executives, and the JD/MBA joint degree programs offered at law schools and universities around the country have become very popular.  A law degree also opens up many opportunities in politics, government, finance and the non-profit world.  It is a very versatile education and can lead to many satisfying jobs.

Yes, there are significant challenges in committing to a law school education today. However, the real question is whether you really want to give up on a professional dream based on a snapshot in time?  I hope not.  Look forward and make a plan.  If you are passionate about your desire to become a lawyer and your plan includes financing your own law education, you will have to be prepared to live very frugally--at least until you reach a salary level where the loan pay back is more manageable. You also may want to work for a few years after undergraduate school to save enough money to pay for some of your legal education and reduce your student loan obligation.  My husband and I asked our two children to do just that, not only to save money but also to prepare them for a world where every boss is not pleasant and every job is not desirable.  These lessons and experiences are invaluable for a demanding and difficult pursuit like law school.

The recession will get better--it always does--and hiring and salaries will pick up.  Senior lawyers will begin to feel comfortable enough about their financial futures to retire and free up opportunities for the mid-level lawyers.  As those younger lawyers grow their practices, even their student loan payback will begin to look better.  And, maybe, just maybe, the ABA and the law schools will attack some of the problems plaguing law schools and driving up the tuition costs, as discussed in Professor Tamanaha’s book.  If they acted fast enough, it might even benefit some of you.

So, think about all of this before you make the decision about whether to go to law school.  I can tell you that, as a second-generation lawyer, married to a lawyer, and the mother of the third-generation lawyer, I am hesitant to tell anyone not to go to law school--if that person has a real passion for the law.  I love the mental challenge and the contributions that I can make to society in unique ways that others cannot.  I am proud of what I have done to improve the lives of others, and I hope that all of you find that same kind of career satisfaction in whatever you do. 

Be prudent in your decisions, and do not let others dissuade you from your dreams.  The key to career satisfaction is having your own personal definition of success and keeping your eyes wide open.  Good luck to all of you. 


Susan Smith Blakely is a nationally-recognized author, speaker, and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers and law students.  She is the author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009) and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012) on the work-life challenges for women lawyers.  She is the Founder and Principal of LegalPerspectives LLC, the umbrella entity for her writing, speaking and consulting.  Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she had been featured in media, including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Virginia Lawyer Magazine, Georgetown Law, Huffington Post, Lawyerist.com and Smart CEO Magazine.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at national conferences on women’s issues and the law profession.  For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.

This paper was prepared for the University of Michigan Career Center.  All rights reserved.