By Ben Feuer

There has been a lot of ink spilled lately on the subject of whether law school is in a death spiral.  Almost everyone knows that applications are way down over the past few years, and newspapers, always excited to be in at a kill, are stoking the fires of resentment for all they’re worth.

The truth is always more nuanced than a simple-minded fairy tale about greedy schools and vulnerable students.  The truth, however, can be a hard commodity to come by. That’s why I’m going to break down for you exactly what you need to know before deciding to apply to law school.

Ultimately, whether you are economically satisfied with your law school experience will boil down to three essential factors.

1.  Did you have to take out loans in order to attend, and how large were they?  If you add to your debt load by over $100,000, think of it as taking out a second (third?) mortgage, with servicing costs exceeding $1200 a month in many cases.  Even amortized over time and a long career, the average Mom and Pop law shingle isn’t going to earn you back significantly more than you would have made in your previous career.  That said, everyone’s financial situation is different, and if your college degree is unlikely to ever provide you the opportunity to earn a reliable living, law school may make financial sense despite the debt load.  Talk to an expert, and crunch numbers, before rendering your final judgment.

2.  What kind of schools are you getting offers from?  Law schools can be roughly divided into four categories: top 14, top 100, ABA accredited and non-ABA.  Let me be exquisitely clear — at this stage of the game, no one should be applying to a non-ABA law school.  Learn technical writing, project management or internet marketing instead, if you’re humanities oriented.  ABA schools outside the top 100 should be examined very carefully.  Talk to at least a dozen alums, including those who finished in the bottom half of the class. Ask what their job prospects were after graduation.  The top 100 is a little bit safer, but you’ll need to perform well academically (think top quartile), and you should expect to stay and work in the region where you are attending school.  Top 14 schools are still a no-brainer to attend, with a large plurality of students receiving need-based aid and compelling job offers.

3.  Are you ready to work hard?  Although there are plenty of exceptions, the average student finds law school to be difficult, stressful and tedious. This is more true of lower-ranked law schools, because the competition is fiercer for fewer jobs.  After graduation, law school students must pass the bar exam, which can be a brutal slog in and of itself. And finally the work itself is detail-oriented, repetitious and exacting.  It’s completely reasonable to expect your professional degree to provide you with a solid living, but don’t be surprised when it’s an onerous one.

The world is an uncertain place, always. And there’s little doubt that recent trends in America point to more econonmic instability, rather than less.  A well-chosen professional degree is an investment in oneself and a hedge against future economic uncertainty.  Just make sure that you choose the right degree; with an ever-lengthening menu of options, there’s no reason to settle for easy answers.

If you have questions about whether law school is right for you, contact me and I’ll be happy to advise you.

Friday, August 15, 2014

ABA Changes Standards for Law Schools

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The ABA has introduced new standards and altered some old ones. Here's how it might affect you.

By Ben Feuer

With law schools more embattled with each passing year, the ABA met on Monday to discuss possible changes to the way schools are accredited.

Students are now required to take a minimum of six hours in a legal clinic or other “experiential” environment.   50 hours of pro bono service are encouraged.  Students may take up to 15 credit hours of distance courses, up from 12. Students won’t be limited to 20 hours of outside work per week anymore.
To protect accreditation, law schools will have to shift toward assessments that focus on student outcomes—including bar-exam results and employment—rather than simply evaluating incoming students.

All of these changes are designed to help with the underlying issue of ballooning debt at top law schools.  Law students graduate with more debt than anyone, except med school students.  One long-sought after change that has not been implemented this go round is the option for law students to get credit for paid internships.  The board concluded it was too large of a conflict of interest.

While all of these developments are good news for students trying to finance a legal education, at the end of the day they are just a drop in the bucket.  While it would be a gross overstatement to call any field with 85% employment numbers struggling, the downturn since the credit crisis has certainly encouraged a shift to business, science and medicine, one which does not seem likely to reverse anytime soon.

 

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