Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Decisions Looming for Future 1Ls

Commenters on this blog, as well as others, have expressed their amazement that anybody would choose to attend law school in this economic downturn. Some have gone so far as to say that anybody incurring debt in this economy is a “damned fool”. One thing is for sure: attending law school today is a riskier proposition than ever before.

Even in a stable economy, deciding whether to attend law school is difficult. One cannot possibly choose to subject themselves to three years of rigorous study, and the debt that comes with it, without serious contemplation. It has been two years since I chose to apply, and, although I am as pleased as ever with my choice, it goes without saying that the legal market has been dramatically altered since I sent in my applications.

Unlike others, I don't think anyone who truly wishes to study law should be swayed away from doing so based on the state of the economy. Sure, there is currently much uncertainty in the legal market, but this "uncertainty" pervades almost all professions. Spending the next three years of your life growing intellectually, while building your resume, is definitely not a bad route to take.

The major question, however, shifts to which law school a prospective student should attend. I received contradictory advice while I pondered which school was right for me. Some adamantly told me to attend the highest ranked school possible. Others, with equal vigor, explained that I should ignore the rankings altogether and consider only the schools that provided the most significant scholarships.

Although the prestige-scholarship dichotomy was difficult for those who, like myself, entered law school in a (seemingly) more secure economic environment, the choice looms larger than ever for future 1Ls. Is it more important that they receive their JD from the most prestigious institution possible, no matter how much debt they may incur? As the competition for jobs increases, prospective law students and future attorneys would be wise to get whatever advantage possible. The name of one’s school, unfortunately, may play the decisive role in determining future employment.

However, with the questionable future of the legal market, it may be wise to avoid debt at all costs. Apparently, even Harvard Law students were struggling to lock down a summer associate position this year due to the economy. No matter how prestigious your law school is, future employment in the legal profession is, by no means, a guarantee. Should a law student risk amassing debt when they may be struggling to secure employment after graduation?

I don't propose to have the answer. The fact of the matter is that future law students have difficult decisions to make. The question is no longer whether to get the fillet mignon or lobster as a summer associate—the age of entitlement is, and must be, dead. Thus, the decision for pre-law students about whether to stay out of debt at the expense of prestige is more pressing than ever before. My advice? I say forget the prestige, accept your scholarships, and work hard to prove to employers that you deserve a chance. Don't be afraid of a challenge.


  1. i personally think that taking scholarships as opposed to a "better name" is only really worth it if you're doing it within a reasonable range. I think it would be foolish to take a full ride at a T3 or T4 as opposed to paying full price at a top 25 school. You just won't have that many doors open.

  2. I agree with 3:38. I don't think going to a T3 or T4 can ever be justified unless it is the only option available.

  3. I also don't think the legal landscape has changed dramatically. Compared to other areas lawyers jobs are relatively safe, even now. Big law firms will be around after this downturn just as they were after the downturns in the 80's, 90's and 00's.

  4. 8:01: This is not just a "downturn." This is a depression. Things may be different now.

  5. This is certainly not a depression. A depression is more than 4 down quarters (with decreases in GDP); this has not touched the great depression; it will not.

  6. 8:39 here: I did not say it's a great depression, I said it's a depression. I think I'm correct. See http://economics.about.com/cs/businesscycles/a/depressions.htm

  7. Hmmm, well take a look at the statistics from the 80's and take a look at the statistics today and you tell me which is worse. This is nothing compared to what was experienced in the early 80's

  8. This is not a depression. It is a recession.

  9. For present purposes (within the scope of discussing law school employment), does it *really* matter whether we characterize what is going on as a "depression" or a "recession"? I honestly do not know the formal definitions are, and whether they are met by current conditions but don't think it matters insofar as this discussion is concerned.

  10. In the interest of clarity, I think it is important to note that there is not a set definition of "depression." A recession is generally two or more consecutive quarters of declining GDP. I don't know the numbers, but I am not sure that we have even reached that threshold. As for the definition of depression, see http://www.economist.com/finance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12852043.

    This site gives a good explanation of the differences.

  11. @ 3:38 & 4:22--

    Why don't we suppose the choice is between a T-25 and a T-14, or even a T-5 for that matter?

    @ 8:01--

    I would have to disagree, at least in part. I think it's difficult to assert that the legal landscape hasn't changed dramatically. With the massive layoffs, especially after last Thursday's massacre, I don't think one can realistically say that the legal market is safe.

    With that said, I do enjoy your optimism. It's a nice change from the doom and gloom attitude prevalent on so many legal blogs. And, I do agree that BigLaw will survive. This post is by no means insinuating that BigLaw's future existence is in jeopardy. Instead, my goal was to illustrate that the market is going to be more competitive for incoming law students, and I merely wished to suggest that they plan accordingly.

  12. Josh,

    I try to be an optimistic as much as possible and I think the current situation calls for it simply because a lot of things are blown out of proportion.

    As a current associate who sits on the hiring committee I think I have a unique perspective. At least in my firm the problem right now isn't that anything has dramatically changed in the flow of work. In November and December it was pretty slow but since then it has picked up again and I'm as busy as I've ever been.

    A major difference is the number of associates who are leaving. In normal times there is a built in attrition each year. However, there just isn't many associates leaving the safety of their job right now. Therefore, firms are resorting to other ways of getting rid of them. In a way this benefits firms because they get to keep the associates they want the most and have a good reason to get rid of the under performers. Some would argue it is about time that law firms got rid of under performers as they are currently doing. (I realize that there are exceptions to this rule and there economic layoffs out it appears that those are not nearly as many as one is lead to believe.)

    Also, if you read some of the articles on sites like American Lawyer about the current hiring crisis, etc. those articles are drafted by people who have a financial stake it changing. Also, all of their statements have been stated before.

    Furthermore, when people mention that mass layoffs of law firms just sit back and think about that for a second. Your talking about maybe a 1,000 at most (complete guess and probably a high figure) of U.S. attorney's laid off. That is an absurdly small number with respect to the amount of associates in large law firms. No more than 5% and this figure goes back to the attrition problem mentioned earlier.

    Finally, at least for my firm we are going about things as usual. Plan to give offers to everybody that deserves one over the summer (i.e. not being a fool). In the last economic downturn my firm laid off associates and it cost them severely once things picked up again. Plan for the same thing again. There will be a lot of M&A activity as consolidation becomes necessary. This has started to begin as I alluded to earlier. Big firms are here as long as there are companies out there.

    People want to act like a every time that there is a downturn that it is different than the past. Granted the one we are currently in is pretty severe but the end result will be the same and the economy will keep chugging along. As Bill Clinton said this evening (can't believe I am quoting this guy) "Anybody has ever bet against America has lost money."

  13. The fact is that even going to a T14 school isn't a good long-term investment anymore. In the 80s and 90s, a top law school grad who didn't expect to make partner had plenty of opportunities to lateral to in-house counsel or government jobs. Now, with the massive glut of attorneys and years of poor job growth in the profession, the prospects aren't good for even the lucky few who spend a few years toiling in Biglaw. There simply aren't enough places to absorb them.

  14. Thanks for article. I am in the process of making a decision on what school to attend. I have received considerable financial offers from a Tier 3 school (20k/year), which is in a location my wife has been offered a job. I have also received an offer from a Tier 1 school that has an incredible health law program, but my wife doesn't have a job offer. I will graduate with around $90k in student loans. I am leaning toward the Tier 1 school. Health Law is safe, correct?

  15. 5:31 - Unless it's a top 5 (maybe 14) program, in this economy you should take the money. "Incredible health law program" means that two profs. team up to publish a lot of articles on health policy.

    You won't learn to be a better "health lawyer" there, whatever a health lawyer is.

  16. @ 2:42 AM --

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a detailed, informative post. It's encouraging to hear that, and your contributions are much appreciated.

  17. @2:42--
    Thanks for the post. It's great to hear that the work has picked up.

    I think the point you make about attrition is a great one. I know many attorneys who don't see themselves practicing at their respective firms in the long term, but are, nonetheless, too afraid to leave during this climate.

    I also agree that it helps to put things in perspective. It's true that only a small percentage of total BigLaw associates have thus far been laid off. Thank you for pointing that out- we all too often lose this perspective with the constant flood of pessimism headlining the news (and ATL, of course).

    @ 5:31--

    You're welcome. I hope the post was of some assistance. Personally, I agree with 8:04. I have friends at Tier 4 law schools who have worked their way into major market law firms. It just takes some added initiative.

    Of course, my post concentrated solely on which schools may be best for placement in BigLaw. Additionally, I only considered prestige and financial assistance. There are obviously many other factors to consider (and you touched on a few).

    Whatever decision you make, I'm sure it will be the right one for you. Best of luck.

  18. I know I'm late with this comment, but thank you for the thoughtful article. I'm faced partly with the decision you describe (scholarship vs. "prestige") and partly with a decision between a school offering more experiential opportunities during 2L and 3L and one offering "prestige."

    It is considerably less topical and probably of less general interest, but I would appreciate seeing your thoughts on that dilemma, too.

  19. in terms of a school you think would be a good choice...do you think a top 50 with half a ride is better than a top 15 (NO MONEY)?

  20. Which "top 15" and which "top 50" 11:30?

    These things matter. There are lower ranked schools that are a better bet than higher ranked schools in many, many cases.

  21. It also makes a HUGE difference where you want to practice. Unless you want to practice in NY/Boston/DC/SF, going to a T14 law school isn't going to give you that big of an advantage. Those are the only markets paying salaries that justify borrowing full tuition & expenses (~$180K for many schools). The vast majority of lawyers in this country make far less than the $160K that Cravath pays first year associates. Even at the lower end of the T14, there are people who want to get into BigLaw, but don't (especially in NY).

    If you want to be in a smaller market (i.e. Miami, Seattle, Dallas, and so on), the much safer bet is to go to the best school in the region and shoot for some scholarship dollars. You'll definitely get into that market, and you won't have $2K/month in loan payments after you graduate. That's the difference between taking the job you really want and something miserable in a sweatshop.

    I'm a T14 1L, and I'll admit that I think I made the wrong choice. I should've taken the money and gotten a degree for 1/4 the price at a T30 school in the area I want to practice.

  22. My plan is 1.5 more years of law school, then with luck a clerkship... When I wake up from hibernation I hope the economy has improved and there's demand for me. If not, I will probably have worse things to worry about than paying off loans and getting a BigLaw job. It'll be like "28 Days Later" around here.


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