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Law School: To Go or Not to Go?

What to consider when making the call

Woman wondering whether she should go to law school

Image courtesy of Naveen Kumar 

You want to go into law, but do you know if law school is right for you?

If your two-pronged goal is to learn how the political and legal systems in this country function, and to get a good job after graduation, then yes, law school might be an option. But there are many other factors to consider before taking the LSAT and committing to law school.

How does the ROI look?

Law school is expensive

After financing your undergrad, you can pay as much as $70,000 a year in tuition alone for law school at Columbia in New York City—although you can save about $57,000 of that per year if you go to the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington, DC. Of course, if you’re renting a place off campus, tack another $10,000 to $20,000 (or more) onto that for yearly room and board. Over three years, that adds up to house-sized debt you may not be willing to service as you’re just starting your career.

And consider this too before applying: A Gallup poll shows that over 75 percent of law degree holders don’t think their degree was worth the cost. Some of that can be attributable to having trouble finding a job, but many reported the law school experience itself was to blame: They feel their professors didn’t care about them as individuals and offered little in way of support or experiential learning opportunities.

There are scholarships, of course, available to law students, and touring a school and talking to students before you apply can give you a sense of whether you can expect the kind of experience you hope to have.

Read more: What Is a Professional Degree & What Can I Do With It?

If you can tough it out, find a job after graduation and pass your state’s bar exam, you’ll be happy to know that a lawyer’s median pay in 2018 was $120,910 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plus job growth rate is slightly above average at 6 percent over the next decade. On the flip side, “competition for jobs over the next 10 years is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than there are jobs available.”

Women in law

Women thinking about law school have another factor to consider in addition to the cost and competitive job market.

Olivia Jaras, founder and CEO of Salary Coaching for Women, tells InHerSight that it’s important to think very deliberately how you’re going to use that degree. Is it because you want to be a lawyer and make partner? If so, that track can be very difficult for women lawyers who still come up against the old boys’ club. For some women, this will be a deterrent. For others, it may be one of the very reasons they want to go into law—to change the field. 

Read more: The Great MBA Debate: There's No Alternative (Or Is There?)

She says a lot of women go into law because they want to work on policy, but here’s the thing: You don’t need to be a lawyer to exert change. For example, if you’re in business, you can approach working in policy from the position of owning a company. With a profitable venture, you can finance advocacy groups and lobbyists to enact changes. Or, you can work for an advocacy group or as a lobbyist. 

“Work it backwards,” Jaras advises. “Determine what you want to accomplish in your career, and then figure out the best way to get the skills that will allow you to reach those goals.”

So going to law school is a great way to enter the legal profession, but it’s not the only way.

Forget law school—and still be a lawyer

If you live in California, Virginia, Vermont, or Washington, you can take the bar exam and become a lawyer without going to law school. In those states, you learn through apprenticeship, a process called “reading the law.” The stunning benefit is that you completely forego the enormous debt load incurred by students in traditional education paths.

One attorney who chose this route is Yassi Eskandari, policy director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, who passed the California bar exam in 2017 without going to law school. Since then, she led a successful campaign that established cooperative development policies in the City of Berkeley, which helps local businesses convert to democratic worker ownership.

Read more: Is the Paraprofessional Career Path Right for You?

Similar careers

If you’ve decided that becoming a lawyer isn’t what you really want, but you do want a similar career, consider legal studies.

“A Bachelor’s in legal studies degree...meets the unique personal and professional interests of individuals interested in pursuing legal career paths,” according to the staff at TheBestSchools.org. “Whether an individual wants to be a law enforcement officer, an FBI agent, a paralegal, a court clerk...or any other of the numerous professions in the legal field, a legal studies major can put students on the path toward professional success.”

There are other jobs that may be of interest too, such as arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators, who use negotiation and conflict resolution skills to resolve conflicts outside of the court system.

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: How Do I Change Careers? 

Generally, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient with a national license and required state certifications plus on the job training; however, some employers do require a law degree, MBA, or some other advanced degree. According to the OwlGuru team, the average annual salary is over $72,000 but entry-level jobs pay closer to $32,000.

And the outlook for employment is good. The Labor Board predicts a faster-than-average 8 percent growth over the next decade. “This projected growth is driven by the fact that mediations and arbitrations are typically faster and less costly than litigation and may be required in certain types of legal cases.”

Read more: What to Do if You Want to Change Careers, But Don’t Know How

What do you want to do?

Job search strategist and executive resume writer Maureen McCann earned her Bachelor of arts in political science. She had planned to go to law school after that in order to “help people frustrated by a complicated process navigate the system and act as their guide and confidant.”

Instead, she brought those same ideals to the career industry. “Today,” McCann reports, “I help people navigate the job search and recruitment process and act as their confidant and their agent for change.”

Read more: Quiz: 4 Questions to Find Your Ikigai

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By Stephanie Olsen

Contributor

Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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