College undergraduates and young people working in Washington policy positions, on the Hill, in think tanks, and elsewhere, often ask me this question. It’s never easy to answer, but it’s especially difficult in this very uncertain legal market. So let’s start with some practical considerations.
As numerous legal and non-legal periodicals have recently documented, law schools continue to fill their seats, even though the economic recession of the last several years has had a severe impact on their ability to place their graduates in legal positions. Quite a few law schools are in trouble at the moment for fudging their numbers in various ways, with several being sued by former students and investigations of various sorts ongoing or in the offing. It’s not a pretty picture, especially when you throw in the huge indebtedness that many recent law school graduates are under. Average student debt over the past decade and more grew apace with rising tuition. With the expectation of high starting salaries, at least at the larger law firms, students thought it a good investment to take on that debt. But obviously, that calculation changes radically if prospects for placement dim substantially.
That’s the bleak general picture, which most believe will not change much until the economy picks up a good deal more than it has. Within that picture there will always be exceptions, of course. Not surprisingly, top students, especially at the better schools (and legal education is very hierarchical), will generally have fewer difficulties finding jobs than others. And special factors — from connections to affiliations of various sorts — will always help in individual cases. As with so much else in life, “who you know” does matter. But if you’re thinking about going to law school, you need to honestly assess your situation in light of those factors, including whether you have any special attributes that might give you a leg up. (Law, like other fields, is increasingly specialized. Engineers often go into patent law, for example, or people with language skills or international experience might think of specializing in trade or international law.) In general, however, you will want to look beyond the placement data that many law schools are presenting, questions about the integrity of which have led to several investigations.
But you should also ask yourself just why you’re thinking about going to law school — so we now move beyond the economic realities of the moment, but not that far, still, from practical considerations. Let’s start here: many young people, especially those understandably ambitious to “change the world” in a direction more conducive to individual liberty, think of getting a law degree as an indispensable step toward such a career — and it certainly can be, because law is where the “rubber” of theory meets the “road” of practice, as it were. But it’s not the only path toward that end. In fact, those who are more theory than practice oriented might find advanced degrees in related fields more satisfying, in part because there’s often more flexibility and, well, more “theory.” At bottom, remember, law school is designed mainly to train you to be a lawyer, not necessarily a legal theorist, to say nothing of a moral or political theorist. To be sure, all law schools to some extent, and a few to a larger extent, will enable you to learn about moral, political, and legal theory. But legal education’s main focus is on training you to pass the bar and then to practice the often mundane business of law. While it’s not exactly “trade school” — at least in many cases — neither is it graduate school. And so you need to factor that in your thinking. Before you leap, look at the curricula of the law schools you’re considering. And do note that courses on trusts and estates, tax law, and secured transactions, to name just a few, are at some remove from constitutional law, to say nothing of Rawls and Nozick. But they’ll be much of your “bread and butter” in law school.
Just to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t find intellectually interesting aspects of even the seemingly driest of legal subjects. But you should know that many a young legal associate, especially with a large firm, has despaired at the drudgery of the work he happens to find himself doing in a particular case — days and weeks pouring through boxes of anti-trust documents, for example. (“Is this what I went to law school for?”) It pays the rent, and pays off the debt over time, but there are more exciting ways to while away one’s days. At the same time, one needn’t go into practice with a large firm, however lucrative that might eventually prove to be. Lawyers can work in any number of positions, some legal (government agencies, including prosecutorial and defense work; charitable institutions; policy organizations and think tanks; even politics) and some non-legal, including entrepreneurial undertakings. A law degree rarely hurts, and often helps — assuming that you decide that the time and cost (opportunity costs) are worth it.
I know, much of what I’ve written here may be discouraging. I don’t mean to discourage you; I mean simply to present a few factors you’ll need to take into consideration, and may not have, as you think about your future. I myself faced the same question years ago, and that was after I had my Ph.D. in hand and, surprisingly, after I’d taught for two years in a law school on the strength of my doctorate. By that time, however, I was deeply enough committed to law through my experience, writings, and interests, and I had a clear enough idea of what I wanted to do, that it made sense to do a law degree — not the easiest course when you’re older and have a family and a more-than-full-time job. But, with a few breaks on timing, it’s worked out. And that brings me to a final point: there’s just so much you can control about your future. The failure to appreciate that and to “roll with the punches,” so to speak, can lead to more frustration that is necessary or good for you. Sometimes you have to take the plunge, knowing full well that it’s not a sure thing because you’re doing so, of necessity, with incomplete and imperfect knowledge. That’s life. It could be worse: Look around the world. I hope this helps just a little. Good luck!
Roger Pilon is vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute and the founder and director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies. He holds Cato’s B. Kenneth Simon Chair in Constitutional Studies and is the publisher of the Cato Supreme Court Review.