In November 2013, a law office in Chicago announced that it would offer a $1,000 scholarship “to dissuade students from practicing law.” The Anything But Law School Scholarship was open to students with a minimum 3.0 GPA entering an accredited graduate school, and required a one-page essay detailing why some field other than law would be interesting and profitable. That’s kind of like your friends who are parents telling you not to have kids because diapers are a bad investment. Kind of.
Certainly, this unique scholarship hits on a major concern for today’s law students: slim pickings in the job market. According to a June report by the National Association for Law Placement, only 84.5 percent of 2013 graduates found employment, and that percentage has been declining since 2007. Large law firms that used to hire in herds scaled back during the Great Recession—and haven’t turned back. And of that 84.5 percent that found employment, only 64.4 percent held a position that required passage of the bar exam. In other words, there could potentially be some seriously overqualified minimum wagers out there making up the difference.
But as the number of job opportunities has dwindled, so has the number of people pursuing a law degree. The American Bar Association reports an 11 percent decrease in first-year law school students from fall 2012 to 2013, which is a 24 percent decrease since fall 2010. Somewhat incongruently, the number of law schools has actually increased over time. While the number of law students in 2014 is roughly the same as it was in 1975, there were 163 ABA-approved law schools back in the disco era; now there are 204. In tandem, this trend of fewer applicants and more schools is advantageous to prospective students.
In a June article titled “Apply to Law School Now! Yes, We’re Serious,” Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent Jordan Weissmann predicted that the number of graduates finding long-term, full-time work in the legal field will hit 91 percent for the class of 2016. (“The only reason,” he says, “is that enough students gave up on the idea of becoming lawyers amid a market that was flooded with jobless young people.”) Daniel Hamilton, the dean of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, concurs with Weissmann’s assessment. “This is the best time to apply and go to law school in a generation,” he says. “The competition is fierce, and the ability to negotiate tuition is widespread.”
Negotiate tuition? Yep. Nowadays, applicants can—and should—leverage multiple offers to get the best deal, Hamilton says. “A student applies to law school at UNLV or anywhere else, and calls you up and says, ‘I’ve got this offer at school A and this offer at school B. Let’s talk.’” Indeed, this is what The New York Times describes as a buyers’ market for law students. Popular legal-specific websites such as LawSchoolNumbers.com and Top-Law-Schools.com permit applicants to post and share personal stats and scholarship offers, meaning the financial factors of the equation are more transparent than ever.
This doesn’t mean a J.D. comes cheap, of course. According to the ABA, the average amount borrowed by law students in the 2012-13 academic year was $32,289 at public schools and $44,094 at private institutions. Multiply that by three years and … yeah, that adds up to a crapload of diapers.
But all of these factors work in favor of the legal industry in this regard: Anyone pursuing a law degree today is likely in it for the right reasons, which is to say they’re wholeheartedly devoted to pursuing a legal career. “I think it’s fair to say that in decades prior you could apply to law school as a kind of holding pattern,” Hamilton says. “[These changes] in legal education have done away with law school as a default option.”
Still, whether you’re newly enrolled or Elle Woods, there’s no denying that a law degree is a huge financial and emotional undertaking. Shane Jackson, a first-semester student at Boyd, estimates spending anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week on his studies. So while optimistic about finding a job when he graduates (expected: 2017), he’s realistic about the journey to that destination. “If you don’t have a masochistic urge to bury yourself in difficult texts,” Jackson says, “law school probably isn’t for you.”