What’s it worth to ya?

So there’s this raging debate in law world now about the value of a law degree.  Some law profs are arguing that it’s a million dollar degreeOthers are taking issue with that claim. Who’s right, who’s wrong, and what does it mean for you?

Here’s what you need to know: this is really a disagreement about the value of a legal education in the aggregate.  It’s not about the value of a JD to an individual law grad, it’s a dispute about whether law school as an institution is overvalued relative to what it provides aspiring lawyers as a group.

On the individual level, you’re still left with the question of what it’s worth to you.  The only way to get at the question is to understand your own values: which benefits matter to you, and which costs? Of course, money matters, so you’d be foolish not to consider the debt you’re likely to take on and the job prospects and salaries in the particular field you’re thinking of pursuing, in the region of the country you hope to live in. By all means, factor in the placement information from the specific law schools you’re hoping to attend.

Now the easy part’s done.  The tougher calculus is figuring out your non-monetary values.  What are the possible benefits you see of being a lawyer?  Varied, intellectually stimulating work, competition, solving problems, helping people?  What are the likely costs? Long hours, tedious, detail-oriented work, competition, stress, other lawyers?

The truth is, you can’t really answer these questions until you know more about what lawyers do, and what their daily/weekly/monthly lives are like. BigLaw associates make the highest entry-level salaries, without question.  But is $160,000/year worth 80-90 hour weeks doing uninspiring tasks for partners who might not treat you too kindly?  Different people will answer that question differently, just as some will find it “worth it” to work for $40,000/year helping indigent clients retain their subsidized housing units, while others would be horrified. There is no one answer to the question of value, because it depends on your own underlying values.

So, research the financial issues—jobs, debt, salaries. Research the contours of the likely jobs themselves—tasks, work setting, lifestyle, and so on.  But most importantly, research yourself.  What are your values? Why are you pursuing a legal career? What specifically do you hope to gain from it? What are you willing to endure in order to achieve those gains?

What’s it worth to you?