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Is Law School The Worst Career Decision You Could Make?

It’s not uncommon to read articles in mainstream publications about the pros and cons of the decision to practice law. Interestingly, a number of the most recent articles on the topic haven’t made the profession sound very attractive. The numbers can often appear pretty discouraging. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that “members of the law-school class of 2011 had little better than a 50-50 shot of landing a job as a lawyer within nine months of receiving a degree.” Analyzing those numbers, Forbes also concluded that “the most lucrative and highly sought-after” jobs may be “all but out of reach for the average grad of a school outside the top tier.” Both articles focused on numbers that demonstrated that “a scant 8% of 2011 grads are working at firms that employ 250 or more attorneys.”

The job market for lawyers certainly hasn’t been pretty for some time now. In fact, I considered myself relatively lucky when I graduated in 2005 because I’d landed one of those allegedly “plum jobs” as a firm that employed well over 250 attorneys within nine months of graduation. Meanwhile, I had classmates still hunting for their first gig a year after graduation. A couple of years after that, a colleague who worked with me at at the big firm told me that he was the only person from his graduating class that he knew of that had a full-time job as an attorney a year after his graduation.

Nonetheless, although the job market isn’t great, the numbers reported by Forbes and WSJ are slightly misleading. For example, it’s worth remembering that in some states (such as California) the Bar passage rate is below 50%. If you don’t pass the Bar exam, no matter which school you attended, you can’t technically land a job as a lawyer. That makes it less surprising that grads had a 50-50 shot of landing a job. Until you pass the bar you pretty much have a 0% chance of landing a job as a lawyer. In my experience, most firms won’t even return your call until you are a licensed attorney. And, speaking of the Bar, it’s worth noting that test takers often don’t receive their results until nearly six months after graduation. So the grads reviewed by the WSJ had only been qualified to land a job as a lawyer for, at most, three months. Since most Bar applicants receive their results in November, that means that the remaining three month period overlaps with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. A typically slow time for hiring in the legal industry. Moreover, it’s worth noting that, in my experience, most associates wait until after they receive their yearly bonus before making a lateral move to a new firm (thereby leaving a vacancy at their current firm). As a result, I’d expect most firms to really start considering new hires after the first of the year. Finally, it should be noted that the job market is bad for everyone right now. The job market is tough for many professionals.

So while the experience of my friends and colleagues suggest that the picture is far from great, it also doesn’t appear as ugly as it may seem. I have friends who’ve attended every type of law school ranging from top tier schools, lower ranked schools, and even unranked schools. And, of course, I’ve known a few friends who struggled to land that first job. However, I don’t know anyone who passed the Bar exam and didn’t eventually find a job as an attorney if they wanted one.

The bottom line is that I don’t think those numbers should discourage would-be attorneys from attending law school. Similarly, if you’re already in law school: don’t freak out. I believe that you’ll almost certainly find a job. And, despite what Forbes suggests, that job won’t be at Starbucks (unless you are their corporate counsel).

Nonetheless, would-be-attorneys should recognize a few truths. First, there is a good chance you won’t get a paid summer internship during your second or third year of law school. I knew very few people who did, regardless of the school they attended. Also, you probably won’t have a job lined up until after you’ve passed the Bar exam. Again, I knew very few people who did. Finding that first job make take a little while. Don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. One of my classmates took well over a year to find his first job, but once he did it was a very lucrative gig as corporate counsel for a very hot tech company. Over night the guy everyone pitied became the guy everyone envied.

Now a few more interesting questions to consider include whether you actually want to be an attorney in the first place and whether you really want one of those “highly sought-after” gigs at firms employing more than 250 attorneys. Personally, I think the BigLaw career path isn’t all it is cracked up to be. I’ll be exploring those topics through the context of my own experiences in a series of upcoming posts. In the meantime, if you are a practicing attorney or recent grad it’d be incredibly useful for our readers who are in law school or considering law school if you’d share your own experiences in the job market in our comments section.

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One Comment

  1. Adrian Baron says:

    Great post Matt. When we originally published our take on this subject on my “The Nutmeg Lawyer” blog, the response was overwhelming from readers. I called the post “There is no Crying in Law Practice. It led to a few threats towards yours truly. They included fond wishes that I lose my job, wistful dreams that I get my tie caught in a paper shredder and forlorn prayers that I choke on a Skittle. I decided to go the small practice route and have generally been happy with the decision. With the glut of competition, it’s a horrible job market. You really need to make yourself stand out from the competition. Instead of emailing a generic resume to the HR department, try to get it directly to the people that matter. Network. And if that doesn’t work, hang your own shingle. All you need is a card table and a client and you are in business. 🙂