Before You Head Off To Law School

So there used to be a joke — not a good one, mind you, but certainly traditional — that went, “what do you call the dumbest kid in law school?” And the answer was a millionaire or rich or simply a lawyer but intoned with some sort of gravitas. The premise being that lawyers were rich and respected (to an extent) and that even the slowest of law students could reliably expect some form of gainful employment upon the completion of law school.

And for a very long while, this was true. The world economy grew and with it came the accreditation of more and more law schools, the process overseen by the American Bar Association (the ABA), whose job it was — not unlike the AMA — to ensure that the whole industry didn’t get horribly screwed. Actually, not a difficult job. Economies grew, financial sectors grew alongside, and Big Law grew in their own gleefully parasitic way, eating up the detritus that comes with the world of dealbreaking. If you’re thinking that all sounds a bit bitter: please don’t; I say this with affection — for a long while I was on the path toward corporate work.

So the ABA keeps accrediting more and more schools and why not? Supply and demand doesn’t seem to be an issue when America’s operating in a state of perpetual growth. Big Law gets bigger alongside the economy, and it doesn’t matter how many new schools and thus newly-graduated law students enter the job market — there are jobs for everyone! Woohoo!

So the ABA is loving it. The law students are loving it. And the universities are loving it, too. Law school tuition has outpaced the rise in undergraduate tuition, even, but nobody bats an eye at paying the exorbitant fees because it’s a guaranteed job; it’s guaranteed riches. And the federal government is backing all these huge loans for law students because, why not? They know law school means jobs and riches, too. Literally everybody is making out like bandits here. And so every year seems to be a new all-time high in law school enrollments.

Like me! Fancy me with my 99th-percentile LSAT. I’m just the cock of the walk. Can’t wait for the recruiting and the fancy dinners and the strip clubs and all the fun that comes with Lockstep. Have I mentioned Lockstep yet?

So, basically, every prestigious law firm wants prestigious law graduates. Not because they’re better at practicing law — law school is extremely theory-heavy to the point almost all graduates start their first job without any grasp whatsoever on even the most basic elements of legal work — but because it’s easier to market the prestige of your firm if you’re full of prestigious graduates. But there are only so many of these grads to go around. Enter On-Campus Interviews (OCI). In the middle of your second year of law school, a whole horde of hiring partners from the various firms across the country descend on your law school to interview and recruit en masse from the second year class. The interview portion means you might have twenty rapid-fire interviews with hiring partners over the course of a couple days, your class rank and extracurriculars — I’m talking about Law Review here and, to a lesser extent, Moot Court, but I’m only including Moot Court here in the way one might include Windows XP under the Skills section of their resume — dictating the firms to which you’ll end up talking. The recruiting part… well. That was the firms knowing that there are only so many Best+Brightest at any given school and wine+dining them to the best of their ability in the hopes that you’ll sign a contract — not unlike a sports contract — with their firm as opposed to the fancy firm down the block. It was wonderful. Front row seats to the game. Fancy restaurants. Expensive drinks. Wonderful.

And that’s just the beginning of Lockstep. Once you sign with a firm in your second year, you’re locked into a career path with several pay steps. After interning, basically, your second summer, you come back after your third year of law and work for the firm while studying for the bar. Once you pass the bar, you get hired on. For a lot of money. A lot. Of. Money.

Again, not because you’re talented at what you do. I said before first year associates are all but useless. But because of market forces. If one firm pays graduates $5,000 more a year than the other, they are going to get more of the prestigious graduates, which means they’ll be able to attract better clients, which means they might get a leg up on Firm B. And so Firm B won’t let that happen; they’ll go one better and offer graduates a salary $10,000 higher than Firm A. So then Firm A ups their offer and back and forth over the decades until first-year salaries far, far outpace the actual value of the hire, but since economies keep growing the firms can subsidize these outrageous pay scales by pawning the cost off to their Financial District masters, who don’t care at all and just assume the quote they receive for this work is normal or are so wealthy they can’t be bothered with things like value anymore.



The financial sector got hammered and that pain trickled down to the attached law firms. It was a slaughterhouse. You could read about it in the papers. For a while there, every day saw massive layoffs. Grown men and women. Experienced attorneys. Middle-aged folks with nice homes and kids in university. Out on their asses. An acquaintance of mine was a VP at one of the bigger NYC firms. He’d get drunk — more so now than ever — and tell me about how many people he’d had to fire. Friends. Slaughterhouse. The industry would have to get leaner.

Which meant no more Lockstep. If firms couldn’t afford to keep their own employees on salary, they sure as hell weren’t gonna invest huge sums into a bunch of asshole know-nothing law students if they can’t bill them out at inflationary rates. But they still needed prestige to market themselves. They still needed some of the new grads. Maybe not the Top 30% anymore. Maybe just the Top 2% of students at Tier 1 schools. But then they couldn’t pay them as much — they couldn’t pay them hardly anything. In the heart of the recession, they started handing out waivers to would-be hires: $20,000 for the exclusive right to hire a graduate should the money become available after the recession. Law students were fighting over the rights to hypothetical jobs now. They had to finish in the Top 5% of their class to even have a chance at decent work. And if you finished in the top quarter?

Well, you see, OCI completely dried up. No longer would the hordes descend. No longer would students be wined and dined. A few hiring partners would trickle in and collect information from the top one or two students, maybe give them a summer to help out around the office, and then make an offer to maybe a quarter of them. Or give them a waiver. Lockstep was gone. And all the students that could no longer count on OCI? Well, competition for what jobs remained was fierce. A friend of mine opened a spot on a traffic court in the Carolinas. He had two hundred applications in three days. From top students. Law Review folk. T6ers. A Yalie. He ended up hiring a local — less of a flight risk.

So things seemed bleak. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that despite repeated exposés in the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian and the New York Times and just about every paper, the public perception was still that law school was a safe bet — a road to riches. And so many people were out of work and looking for a place to weather the recession. Enrollments exploded. Every single LSAT was the highest-ever attended. Enrollment hit an all-time high every year. Schools saw applications skyrocket. There was so much demand for seats that the ABA went nuts and accredited a never-ending glut of schools. And the universities — oh, the universities! — hit by constricting public budgets and endowments, schools turned to the moneymaker of law schools to make up the lost cash. They built larger buildings and stuffed them to the brim with federal loan-backed students.

Did anyone notice or care that the massive supply of new law graduates would be faced with an anemic demand for their negligible services? That even if you throw out things like the increasing availability of boilerplate documentation or the exponential productivity of newly-incorporated discovery software which turned years-long projects staffing hundreds of hour-billing lawyers into something that could be handled in just a few weeks with just a handful of engineers, even if you throw all that out, the dissolution of Lockstep meant the careers all these new law school enrollments had in their heads simply did not exist on the scale or with the availability they had envisioned? Did nobody stop to think that the look of pride on their mothers’ faces might have come from the perception that the legal field was something which it no longer could be? Anyone?


The salary distribution in the legal sector is strongly bimodal. Means the average looks good, but the reality is a bunch of people making a lot of money, then a ton of people making $30,000 a year. That’s if you have a job; which, owing to the massive supply and minimal demand, is something a lower proportion of recent graduates than just about ever before in history have obtained. The classmates that had connections already — guaranteed jobs through their social networks or families — got jobs. The rest got slaughtered at an anemic OCI. Did you know Harvard had to postpone their OCI in order to give firms more time to clear space for their graduates? Not something that goes on the brochure, I’m sure. But there are so many unemployed law graduates now. You can read about it anywhere. Every publication has done a story or two on it now.

Of course, that’s the thing: everyone assumes it won’t happen to them. It’s the ‘special snowflake syndrome’ that law professors talk about. Literally anyone with an undergraduate degree can get into law school now — such is the availability thanks to the ABA — that you can get a seat at some schools even if you got every single answer wrong on the LSAT. And yet newly-admitted students could not be more proud of themselves. Every last one of them is going to be in the Top 5%. All of them. And they are going to practice ‘International Law’ or ‘Sports Law’ or ‘Video Games Law’ or ‘Space Law’ or any number of fields that exist solely in the law school’s promotional material. And all their classmates — who, by the way, also found their undergraduate classes to be pretty unchallenging — are total mouthbreathers who could never hope to compete. They’re definitely going to be sitting alone at the top of the curve come exam time. Never mind the old joke about law professors grading tests by hurling the stack down a staircase and letting gravity set the curve. Never mind the often-arbitrary rubric by which professors appraise their loathsome mounds of IRAC (Issue, Relevant law, Application to facts, and Conclusion). Everyone is a special snowflake on their way to the Hague, and the rest of their classmates are a bunch of idiots. The herds of recent law grads working in warehouses doing temp doc review for twelve bucks an hour lacked the ambition or else their schools lacked the prestige of the ‘special snowflake’ student. Actuarial realities do not apply to them because they were valedictorians in high school.

That’s not to say that nobody gets jobs. Plenty of people get jobs. They go to school and they get really good grades or they meet the right people and give a good interview or they have connections and end up with a great, high-paying job. This happens. It happened to some of my friends. But this is more the exception than the rule now. The dynamics of the previous century have changed. This is life post-recession. Most of my classmates and friends — all from top schools — do not have the job they imagined. Many are out of the industry. Some were given temp jobs in university law libraries so their respective Offices of Career Development could report them as ‘gainfully employed in the legal sector’ in the employment numbers on the school’s promotional material. Others work as copywriters, analysts, or managers. Still more work hourly, having long since removed the J.D. from their resumes to assuage the flight-risk and over-qualification worries of HR directors.

Things are different now. Just recently, the ABA finally released an article indicating that a legal education is now, in general, no longer a financially sound investment. That’s coming from the ABA. So think about it. I know you’re flattered by the scholarships various schools have offered. I know your family is suddenly proud of you; your mom is telling all her friends that she birthed an attorney. You’re already deciding between bone and eggshell for your business cards — the ones that end in Esquire. I get it. I understand. And maybe you are truly exceptional. And maybe I am just sitting on my piles of Thought Catalog money and crying of sour grapes. Maybe. But either way: do some research. Don’t trust the myths. Talk to some recent graduates. Get coffee with a hiring partner. Law school is research — so start now. TC mark

image – Paul Lowry


More From Thought Catalog

  • annie

    One of my best friends graduated from Loyola Law last year. He tried to find work as a lawyer but realized he couldn’t pay his loans with any of the jobs he was applying for. He bartends at two bars down here in NOLA to cover his monthly four figure loan bill. Worst part, he isn’t the exception. Excellent article, highly enlightening. 

    • Oliver Miller

      Hey!  I went to Loyola Law!  And thennnn I dropped out after having every single fucking second of it.  Good times; good times.

      • Anonymous

        Loyola Law in LA? Or Loyola Chicago? 

      • Oliver Miller


      • Anonymous


      • h-may

        He means ‘New Orleans.’
        His response wasn’t THAT opaque.

  • Tanya Salyers

    I deferred law school this year…thanks for justifying my decision.

  • Scott

    U mad?

  • phiLOLZophy

    Do you want to come over and watch legally blonde and get drunk/cry?

    • Anonymous

      If you got the impression I was in any way remorseful regarding my decision, you got it wrong. 

      Writing without a Bluebook rules.

      • phiLOLZophy

        No, I didn’t get that impression. It was unrelated.

      • Anonymous

        I mean I’m definitely going to get drunk/cry, but that’s because I’m out of new episodes of Sherlock.

        So good.

  • Grizz

    And now it’s competitive for unpaid legal internships, y’all (unless, of course, you’re willing to go to the middle of nowhere)

  • Coco Elizabetta

    Am I the only one who thinks this applies to most grad programs in general? Many of my friends who have graduated from grad schools are still pretty much unemployed. Most of them are education majors (which is NY states- creme de la creme). I was considering it myself, until I read this article.

    • Famy

      Not true at all. For example, Speech Pathology and Audiology graduate students are hired with ease because of the high demand of these professionals in schools and hospitals. It just depends on the field you’re wanting to go into.

  • Coco Elizabetta

    Am I the only one who thinks this applies to most grad programs in general? Many of my friends who have graduated from grad schools are still pretty much unemployed. Most of them are education majors (which is NY states- creme de la creme). I was considering it myself, until I read this article.

  • Joe Ott

    I go to law school in Missouri. I can personally attest that the majority of these criticisms are true, but also that the takeaway one should get is that the JD is no longer an end to itself, but must be combined with some other knowledge/skill set in order to find a niche sector in which you can distinguish yourself. 

    Also, it can be easier than one would be led to believe to find a job if your willing to work where no one else is or can. Its likely better to have a JD in the rust belt than NYC. Don’t pay too much (think state schools, even if USNWR doesn’t particularly appreciate their lack of panache), but being a law student is certainly not the end of the world, and can still open doors.

  • Sahar Soos


  • Anonymous

    I think in the legal world much of this stuff is considered common knowledge but it’s good to get the word out for those considering law school. There’s blood on the streets.

    In all fairness though, I think the result is that law school is now just like any other grad program. Whereas it was once a ticket to a guaranteed high-paying job, now some people get great jobs, some get ok jobs, and some never even use the degree. Not so different from many other grad degrees.

    So if you are really excited about studying the law, by all means get that JD. But if you are doing it solely with the expectation of big bucks and a steady career, maybe pursue your real passion instead.

  • Noah

    Doctors are next.

    • anatty

      For reals? I was under the impression American kids are too dumb or lazy at math/science to become doctors anymore (hence all the liberal arts degree-holders like me). Seems like doctors would be scarce.

    • Tergiversator_Maximus

      Not if you believe Republicans – no one will want to be a doctor now that Pres. Obama has “nationalized” the health care industry.

    • Teacup Full of Cherries

      This is already happening in Australia. There has been a huge increase in university medical student numbers to combat a ‘Doctor Shortage’, though without any correlating increase in clinical training places (number of internships, availability of doctors to teach on the wards etc.). As such, International Students are finding it really hard to get internships (without an internship, your degree means nothing), and it may affect Australian-born students too in a few years time.

      • beatrice

        Well, that’s also probably because of the ease to get a medical/law degree in australia since it’s not minimum 7/8 years like the states.

      • Teacup Full of Cherries

        I certainly wouldn’t say it is easy to get into Med school in Australia. And the courses tend to be 6 years long (+ internship…). So that argument doesn’t quite hold true. It comes back to similar forces at play here: Universities are now primarily businesses, not public institutions, therefore it is in their interests to increase the number of places for ‘prestigious’ degrees, for which they can charge more money and increase their rep, without regard for those students’ future prospects. Unfortunately, there are not strict or complete enough regulatory bodies assessing and controlling the number of student places offered. There are still very high barriers to getting into Med school at least, it is just that a lot of people work hard and achieve that high barrier.

    • Joy Of Stranger Sensibilities

      I honestly doubt it will be as bad as the problems law students face since there will ALWAYS be a demand for them (esp. from growing aging populations around the world). Also med school in my mind is always much much harder to get into than law school, since med school is expensive to run and the number of schools won’t mushroom in the way that law schools have. Lastly law school is 3 years long which is a much shorter path to $$$ (pre-recession) than the 4 years + residency.

  • Will Reiter

    When you have to mention in your article that “You can read about it anywhere. Every publication has done a story or two on it now,” it’s probably time to think of a new topic, don’t you think? Nothing but the same regurgitation of platitudes the Times has been spewing out for years. And if you’re going to law school and haven’t very carefully considered the risks vs. the rewards, well even better.  If I’m lucky you’ll be in my class. 

    • Anonymous

      Yes very cleverly done, Will, and the gratuitous snark has not gone unappreciated, however I think you’ll find a stunning majority of your classmates, and American society as a whole, still quite uninformed as to the realities of the industry — this despite the piecemeal coverage the restructuring has garnered from traditional media outlets.

      It’s a matter of seeing what one wants to see. Your classmates see law school as the answer to their employment woes — regardless of their major, they can take an LSAT and become admitted to what they can believe to be a life of riches and respect — and so they’re willing to disregard or rationalize away any information which might interfere with their belief in having found a ‘solution.’ Uncertainty is stressful; solutions are not, especially so when they come with what has historically been a connotation of prestige.

      The rest of society remains unaware because they simply don’t care; they pass over the stories in the Times, Guardian, Journal, etc. because they provide no information relevant to their lives. And besides, most people over thirty-five or so are sure law school funnels graduates into gainful employment because for the majority of their lives that’s how it worked — why should they think otherwise?

      As for the unsolicited editorial advice, I can say only that it’s not about you, Will. You’ve obviously done your homework, and good on you, but I come into contact with a lot of twenty-somethings who throw their hands up in occupational frustration and tell me they’re just going to go to law school. That their parents are finally proud, or worse: pressuring them into going. Or I’ll hear them talking about the awesome rank-based partial scholarship they’ve received from some third-tier school with horrible placement and a misleading CDO. There is still a great deal of misinformation regarding law school among that particular cohort and, since Thought Catalog is popular among that demographic in ways which the Wall Street Journal, for example, is not, it seemed worthwhile to make an additional attempt to inform. This is clearly meant for ‘them,’ then, and not ‘you’.

      In the future I would avoid ‘regurgitations’ not meant for your consumption.

      Hugs and Kissses,


      • daniel

        I’ve read all the relevant articles in the NYT and WSJ but I thought your article was additive in that it was written from the perspective of someone that’s actually been affected.  Thanks for writing this.

  • Anonymous

    This article deserves to be on some platform greater than Thought Catalog. 

    • NoSexCity

      Agreed 110% percent.

  • jlala

    1. there are no VPs at law firms

    2. don’t go to law school if you don’t want to be a lawyer, the old adage “it is such a useful degree” is a load of shit

  • Xochitl J

    Silly me, I thought lawyers were originally supposed to help people. Greed is always to blame. What happened to, “if you do what you love, the money will come?” Or am I just naive?

    • NoSexCity

      Last one, definitely.

  • Katie Moncada

    Thank you for this.  As an undergraduate student that had the very serious reality check that I should not go to law school, I appreciate the realness of this piece.  So many people have the perception that they will defy the odds, but the risks are so great.  Hopefully this piece reaches these people.

  • Erin

    Thanks to articles like this for deterring at least some of those going into law school out of desperation or greed and giving better odds for people studying law because they are passionate about it and not assuming it is a gauranteed degree/high paying job package at the end.

    • NoSexCity

      It’s law school, not underwater basket weaving.

      • beatrice

        Ahh but oh the similarities between LACs and law schools

  • Rosie

    I go to a law school that is not prestigious, that teaches practical skills and where everyone wants to be a public defender, legal aid attorney or something similar. It is the only way I survived 3 years. Nobody went there because “it was a sound financial investment”. If you want to help people, go to law school. If you want to make money, make sure you can get into a top tier law school and graduate at the top of your class. Otherwise forget it.

  • Guest

    I’m a third year law student who also scored in the top 99% on the LSAT.  This article is so true.

  • Anonymous

    Great article! 

    Here in DC, I see the fallout everywhere.  If you’re passionate about law (i.e., you can handle the effects of law school debt), do it.  If not, you’ll still fit in.  Misery loves company.    

  • Renée Barrett

    Please share the ABA article. Thanks!

  • beatrice

    Soo glad I’m not american. Unfortunately, this exact situation will probably surface in asia in about a decade or so..
    Good article though, this needed to be reiterated

  • John Dowland

    p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

    Hello hello yes Robert Burton said the same thing in 1621:

    which our ordinary students, right well perceiving in the
    universities, how unprofitable these poetical, mathematical, and
    philosophical studies are, how little respected, how few patrons;
    apply themselves in all haste to those three commodious professions
    of law, physic, and divinity….p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }Although
    many times, for aught I can see, these men fail as often as the rest
    in their projects, and are as usually frustrate of their hopes. For
    let him be a doctor of the law, an excellent civilian of good worth,
    where shall he practise and expatiate? Their fields are so scant, the
    civil law with us so contracted with prohibitions, so few causes, by
    reason of those all-devouring municipal laws, quibus
    Nihil illiteratius,
    saith Erasmus, an illiterate and a barbarous study (for though they
    be never so well learned in it, I can hardly vouchsafe them the name
    of scholars, except they be otherwise qualified), and so few courts
    are left to that profession, such slender offices, and those commonly
    to be compassed at such dear rates, that I know not how an ingenious
    man should thrive amongst them.

  • Anonymous

    This article should also be called – How To Depress a Bad Law Student

  • Bealtaine6

    Post recession it’s more about who you know than what you know.
     Next year I’ll join the ranks of aspiring barristers and yes I do believe I am a special snow flake. A snow flake with connections.
    I  wish that this wasn’t your truth and I pray that it won’t be mine. Luckily Law and Irish is still in demand over this side of the pond.
    It breaks my heart to think that this dream is built around so many shadows.

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