You chose law school for a reason

There’s a whole lot of talk about law school inflation —of job placement statistics, that is.

The ABA Journal’s Web site lists an Indiana University law professor’s comments, urging law schools to publish statistics that make side-by-side comparisons easier for “naïve law students.” The same website is abuzz with comments about so-dubbed “bogus” job placement and income statistics put forth by law schools.

The Wall Street Journal law blog recently interviewed a Boston University Law graduate who is on a self-professed “one-woman mission to talk people out of law school.” With $87,000 in debt, the woman says she is in a much lower-paying job than what she says she expected based both on conventional reason and on materials she says were provided to her before she enrolled in law school.

Another blog, titled “Exposing the Law School Scam” was created “by a coalition of lawyers” to discuss what they see as a “dramatic oversupply of lawyers, and how that oversupply has been caused by bogus employment and income/salary statistics used by most law schools to induce applicants to apply to law school.”

On the web, disillusion with law school debt – and ensuing lack of career choices – abounds.

I know of no “conspiracy” by law schools to inflate employment statistics, but the numbers listed by a law school may certainly be confusing and may be based on a whole slew of criteria, advertised or unadvertised. As a law student or prospective student, you first and foremost need to be able to decipher the numbers provided by a school.

Look carefully at employment statistics and don’t just accept numbers for face value. Try to find answers to the following questions:

•    Of the percentage of graduates reported to be employed, what percentage of graduates was employed immediately after graduation? What percentage was employed within nine months of graduation?

•    More importantly, of those percentages, what percentage of graduates was employed in full-time positions? What percentage was employed in part-time positions? What percentage of grads held a permanent job, and what percentage entered temporary or contract-based employment?

•    Just as importantly, what percentage of those graduates is practicing law? What percentage is employed in the legal field? What percentage is working in non-legal positions? What are those jobs? (As the Indiana University professor puts it, you need to know what percent of grads in “business” means driving a cab or waiting tables.) And, if applicable, what percentage returned to previous jobs or career fields after graduation?

•    What are some of the most prevalent geographic markets that graduates enter? Do those geographic markets comport with where you want to live and work?

•    What are the most prevalent fields, specialty tracks and work environments that graduates enter? Do those fields comport with your interests and career goals? Realistically, what are your likely lucrative career options after graduation? What back-up plans must you implement in order to make it?

•    Does the law school make available information about alumni who work in various fields? (As I’ve always said, any law school worth it salt will provide students and prospective students with contacts to alumni who can elaborate on their experiences.) What specific programs and services does the law school have in place to help students with career planning for various fields and work environments—not just the OCI process?

I’ve said this many times before in my books and articles: there are as many reasons to go to law school as there are applicants, but there are some wrong reasons to go.

DON’T go to law school, for example, because you’re lured by the prospect of making money: Most law grads will not get the six-figure salaries so often touted.

DON’T go because you’re trying to please someone else who thinks law school is the right path for you. Only you should make that decision.

DON’T go because you think law school will serve as a “default” option. With a grueling workload and rising tuition costs, you need to make sure you’re enrolled because you want to be, and because the law degree makes sense as a lucrative option for your future.

Law school, for many of us, was a rewarding experience that led to lucrative career options—attending a law school with a much lower sticker price allowed me to graduate with low student loans and take a job that I truly enjoy. As with any other graduate programs, for some others, maybe law school wasn’t the right decision.

But grumbling about conspiracies won’t help you, and neither will burying your head in the sand. Instead, you need to consider – realistically – all of the opportunities and options that await you and make informed decisions about your career choices.

You chose law school for a reason. Make sure it’s worth your while.

Ursula Furi-Perry, career editor for The National Jurist