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.