A relatively recent law grad and UMass alum (ISOM, mid-2000’s) contacted me earlier this month with a desire to share with prospective law school applicants from UMass some of the harsh realities he’s faced as a new attorney in today’s economy. I asked him to write up his story for the blog, and the result is below. (He’s asked to remain anonymous for this post, but he’s happy to be in contact with any current applicants who would like to learn more—if you’re interested, just email me for his contact information.)
Following my graduation from UMass a few years ago I enrolled at a Top 60 law school in New York City. Having not known any lawyers growing up, I did not know what to expect or what I wanted to do – only that I enjoyed reasoned arguments and that many of the jobs I aspired to were filled by persons with law degrees.
I realized law school would cost over $40,000 per year in tuition with at least an additional $20,000 in loans annually. Nevertheless, I was reassured in brochures and in person by law school personnel by the near 100% employment rates, the quoted starting salaries of $160,000 and the summer associate positions worth $30,000.
Indeed, many of the graduates I talked to or heard about in my first years at law school had obtained positions with this range of compensation from large NYC law firms. Then, in the fall of 2008 the bottom fell out of the global economy and the legal employment market.
Unfortunately, law school is not like college – you cannot wait until the third or fourth year to figure out what you want to do. There is a predetermined track to obtain gainful legal employment beginning with the summer following your first year. Generally, you have to get in as a summer associate with a firm and eventually be offered a full-time position. Failure to follow this path can leave you scrambling down the road.
I did not think I ever wanted to practice law. However, I eventually realized (a little bit too late) the tremendous value of practicing law for a few or several years. Even many of the positions I was interested in that are non-legal are often nevertheless filled by persons who practiced law for at least three or four years. In some ways it is a further continuation of your education, just paid and with a lot more stress.
Perhaps most importantly, by your third-year of law school the loan amounts will be menacing. Practicing law is one of the few realistic ways in which to even begin to pay off your loans. By the time I graduated I accumulated over $200,000 in loans. $200,000! That’s the equivalent of a small house and a mortgage. I will be paying that off into my fifties. And, I assure you, I am a fairly frugal person.
Should you have the opportunity and choose to practice law, your qualifications in legal employment are quickly narrowed. If the only job you can get out of law school is working in employment law – you will become typecast and have a difficult time changing your practice to a different area of law. Consequently, the earlier you can identify which area of law you want to practice, the more effective your employment searches can be.
I was a fine but not spectacular student in law school – top 40% GPA with a few extracurricular activities. Nevertheless, most law firms had simply stopped hiring when I needed a job. In searching for a job, I compiled a database of every graduate from my law school at law firms in which I was interested in the New York area. In sum it was over 1,000 lawyers at over 150 law firms. The database took a long time to amass.
I emailed all of them. I got lots of words of encouragement and sympathy with a few phone calls for networking purposes. Ultimately, I obtained three interviews out of that massive effort. In the meantime I had also contacted hundreds of non-legal entities about employment and regularly checked several job boards, including those through my school. I estimate that I mailed about 2,000 letters and resumes, about 1,500 emails, and spent over 150 hours seeking employment in the year preceding my start of full-time employment.
I accepted a position making less than half what I might have had I graduated three years earlier in an area of law on which I am lukewarm. Nevertheless, I was tremendously excited to have any employment whatsoever as my loan payments loomed around the corner.
I can only imagine what my law school reports as the employment statistics for my class, the preceding class and subsequent classes. Most likely they will state that employment was near 90% or something absurd – in reality, the percentage of students who left law school with the type of employment they expected when they entered law school was probably in the single digits.
The truth is law schools produce far more future lawyers than are necessary or can be sustained. My story applies mostly to those people who are looking for legal employment in a major city, but not necessarily with a BigLaw firm. There are probably still reasonable opportunities as a suburban lawyer, but the pay will obviously be much less and you’ll be dealing with less interesting work. Then again, you will probably also work less. There are important considerations to be balanced.
The legal industry has and is continuing to fundamentally and permanently change. Legal work is going overseas and law firms are doing the same work with less people. The fact that law schools and enrollment continue to grow is sad and deceitful. A law degree can be a tremendously rewarding and valuable accomplishment. However, most people who start the process of obtaining one have no idea about the realities of legal education or the legal profession. I didn’t and I sorely wish I did.