Will the Law Degree Pay off One Day?
August 24, 2012

By Carlin Sack for Tuition.io

There are too many law school diplomas floating around out there.

Not that having a highly-educated workforce is a bad thing – but if you are a recent law school graduate with a long trail of student loans following you around, 45,000 other grads each year searching for similar jobs may not be a good thing.

With only about 25,000 to 30,000 new jobs in the law field every year, according to “The Los Angeles Times,” law school graduates are having an increasingly hard time finding permanent, full-time, JD-required employment. Only 55% of the class of 2011 was employed in these types of jobs nine months after graduation, according to the American Bar Association.

But it’s not just the unemployed or underemployed who are in financial trouble these days. (That would be much too simple, wouldn’t it?) Even graduates who have found full-time lawyer gigs are in the red zone too.

It’s because there is a “disconnect between law school graduates affording their debt and the jobs that they’re obtaining,” Kyle McEntee, a 2011 law school graduate and the Executive Director of the employment data transparency organization, Law School Transparency, said. Because even a perfect world with 25,000 law graduates for 25,000 jobs does not mean that graduates can afford the debt they have taken on.

It’s all due to the high cost of law school – law graduates average $100,000 in student debt – and the lack of high-paying jobs to match. There just simply aren’t enough open jobs at high-paying law firms.

The $100,000 mark is “a sobering starting point” for recent law school graduates, David Yellen, Dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, said. “Most graduates are not earning over $100,000. And if they’re earning even $60,000 to $70,000, paying a quarter of their income to loan repayment is very substantial,” Yellen said.

Students already complete their undergraduate degrees with an average debt of $12,000 at a public university and $18,000 at a private university, according to The College Board. So how willing should students be to hike up their loans into the six-digit range?

“Only go to law school if you really want to be a lawyer,” Yellen said. “We all know that law school can be a fallback for people. And in an environment like this, I think that’s a really bad idea. Too much time, too much money to do it, unless you are enthused about the idea of being a lawyer.”

Carl Hessler, an associate at Lowenstein Sandler in Palo Alto, said that undergraduate students often go to law school because “it seems like a good thing to do.” He said that is never a good reason to take on extra debt.

Data shows that students may already be listening to advice like Yellen’s and Hessler’s: there was an 8% dip last year in law school graduates, and numbers point to a probable 10% dip this year, according to Law School Transparency.

But not all prospective and past law school students’ minds are on the money. Some law school graduates aren’t looking to snag jobs in super high-paying law firms, but rather looking to work for non-profits or for the U.S. government.

“Not all people go into law school to get the high-paying jobs,” Hessler said. “There are a lot of people in my graduating class who wanted to be a district attorney. Right out of law school, they’re not necessarily going to be making the type of money where they can pay the maximum on their loan each month.”

And for those lawyers not in top-paying firms, not making bank within one to two years of graduation is no indication of a graduate’s ability to pay off student debt. “Incomes go up over time and their student loans are a bigger burden the first few years out of school than in subsequent years,” Yellen said.

But McEntee points out that if students don’t find employment in the law field – and quick – then they will be frozen out of the field in the future. “If you don’t find a permanent law job pretty soon after graduation, maybe one or two years, you’re probably not going to have much of a shot ever,” McEntee said.

Unemployment, underemployment, low pay and high student debt – something’s got to give, right?

Private law schools are attempting to do their part to break this cycle, Yellen said. Loyola, for example, is making efforts to limit tuition increases to 2-3% per year (because making more drastic tuition decreases can be tricky without laying off staff or cutting pay). Both schools and students alike recognize that tuition prices cannot stay this high forever.

Meanwhile, what can current law school students and recent grads do? Yellen’s advice is to “live frugally to minimize the debt that you are taking on.” (Well, what do you know, the Tuition.io Blog can help you with that one!)

Carlin Sack writes for Tuition.io and attends Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism