May 07, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“I live in California’s Central Valley and my parents have difficult, manual labor jobs which has taken a real health toll on them. At high school, I had friends whose parents were lawyers, and frankly their lifestyle made me envious and left the impression that law was an easy road to earning a lot of money.
“Is it still that way? I have one more year of college and have a lot of student loans. What does it cost to attend law school today? Does it matter what school you attend and is a degree from a top school that important in the real world? Finally, while I want to earn good money, are lawyers, in general, content with what they do for a living? Thanks. Dwayne.”
Prospective lawyers should consider costs, time demands
“Your reader is asking good questions, but appears to have one commonly held false assumption about law and financial success,” law school admissions expert Ann Levine told You and the Law when we asked for her comments.
Levine is considered as the nation’s recognized expert on what it takes to get into law school, having been director of admissions at two American Bar Association law schools. Her website is www.lawschoolexpert.com and is filled with extremely useful information for anyone thinking about attending law school.
Levine believes anyone considering a legal education needs to have a realistic understanding of what they are getting into – specifically, the cost of a legal education and time demands once you are in the working world. “While there are 9 to 5 jobs in law, they are not in the high-paying categories,” she is quick to point out.
“As far as law being an easy road to financial success, I don’t know if it ever was that easy, but movies and television can make it appear that money just falls from the sky. In law, you work for your money, and in most law firms, 70 hour work weeks are extremely common. Just drive by any medium-sized law firm evenings and weekends and you’ll find the lights on, often late into the night.
“The reality is that for many people, law is not a good occupational choice if income is your main criteria. In fact, depending upon your personal, non-job goals – such as being a stay-at-home parent – if you take out substantial loans, law could be a very poor decision,” she warns.
An amazingly expensive education
“Law school is unbelievably more expensive today than it ever was in the past, even allowing for inflation. Schools have grown tremendously, with a lot more administration, fancy wellness centers and academic support systems, technology – things which did not exist 15 or 20 years ago.”
We compared tuition at large universities – in most graduate fields of study – from 1980 to today. For example, tuition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law was $6,000 in 1980, and today it is $45,000. Thinking of attending U.C. Berkeley? It’s about the same, and that does not include living expenses, which law school websites typically state adds at least $20,000 to the bill.
“For students who take out loans to pay for their legal education, many will be close to $150,000 in debt after graduation,” Levine cautions. “It could easily take 20 years to pay that back, perhaps more. It’s like making a house payment.”
“However, there are a number of best-value, ABA-accredited law schools. North Carolina Central School of Law is one of the best values in the country, with tuition at about $16,000 a year for state residents and $30,000 for non-residents. Also, you should consider schools which are offering scholarships, as opposed to simply looking at schools which are ranked the highest.”
Why high rankings are not that important
We asked Levine if it is all that important to go to a highly ranked law school, such as Columbia, Hastings, Berkeley, USC or UCLA, and would graduating from one of these institutions necessarily help in getting a job or advancement? Her answer should make applicants who aren’t accepted by these schools feel very good indeed.
“So many students feel that their jobs and lives will be better because they can say they went to Columbia, or some other big-name school. However, in a recently conducted survey of lawyers who went to top law schools, these people will tell you that they did not need to go to those schools to do or get the job they now have.
“And, it also seems that people who went to more regional-based schools do not regret their choice of schools,” Levine stressed.
Next time: Why law school is dangerous to your marriage.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.