Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why Going to Law School is Worth The Sacrifice

I am shocked, outraged and offended by the esteemed Anna Ivey today. I think, as a result of her posting today at that I am going to stop having a link to her book on my web site.
Here's why:
Her premise is that it's only worth going to a "top tier" law school and that all other ABA law schools are a waste. She bases her conclusion on starting salaries and tuition dollars.
There's one very big problem with this logic; it fails to take into account salary growth through the years. I will give you a very personal example with very personal details:

I graduated from law school (the University of Miami School of Law, which Ms. Ivey would say was a waste) with loans in 1999. (You can see my interview on the Frugal Law Student for more details about my student loans). When I started practicing law, my starting salary was $65,000. Six months later, I was making $85,000 based on my performance and billable hours. The next year, I made $100,000. My starting salary was not a good indicator of whether my initial law school debt was worthwhile.

Can I use my husband as another example? He went to California Western School of Law. His starting salary as a first year attorney was something like $55,000. But he got bonuses and raises each year and within no time was making a six figure income.

These are just examples from my personal life; Ms. Ivey may not think very much of the schools that we graduated from but I will tell you these were absolutely worthwhile decisions. Today, we have a family and live in Santa Barbara, California where we enjoy a fabulous quality of life and my husband is always home for dinner no matter how many hours he bills.

Besides, if Ms. Ivey wants 180+ law schools in this country to go out of business for lack of students, who will serve the underprivileged? Who will be prosecutors? public defenders? Who will defend homeowners in the insurance bar? Who will take on injured workers? Law is not just about big firms. Is the practice of law a struggle? Is it sometimes a sacrifice? Of course. This is not a career for the lazy or unimaginative. This is a challenging career and a worthwhile one, no matter where you go to law school.


  1. Thank you so much for your post. This morning I followed a series of links about the recent article in the Wall Street Journal. I stumbled upon The Ivey Files. I had planned to spend the day working on my personal statement - after reading that entry I felt completely derailed. Of course I appreciate honest advice, and I know that applying to law school requires confidence and an ability to handle discouraging news. But it sure was helpful to get your perspective on the matter. Thank you for helping me get back on track today!

  2. That makes me feel so good - thanks for leaving your note. If I can be of any help to you please let me know.

  3. i think you are stretching the context of Ms. Ivey's blog posting a bit here Ms. Levine.Did you read the article before slamming the posting?
    The WSJ article specifically states and shows data that unless you are graduating from the elite, your degree one might find themselves struggling to pay back their debt. Also, ..."graduates who don't score at the top of their class are struggling to find well-paying jobs to make payments on law-school debts that can exceed $100,000.
    There is even a quote from a dean of a lw school stating that law school graduates are having a difficult time paying back their debt.
    Perhaps the markt has changed since you and your husband have graduated.
    Also, yes, society does need attys that fend for the less fortunate. That's a given, but applicants need to be realistic and know the truth about the field. Not everyone is going to law school to become an ambulance chaser.
    Best of luck to all this Sat!

  4. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. Yes, I read the article. My main issue is with the premise; that it's not worthwhile to go to a law school outside the "top tier". The struggle to pay back debt is not a problem I want to minimize; it's real money. That's why I often counsel clients to take scholarships to lesser ranked schools rather than take on the monumental debt.
    While the market changes from year to year, both examples I cited (me and my husband) were examples from within the last 5 years. I did want it to be relevant and should have clarified.
    I join you in wishing everyone luck this Saturday.

  5. Thanks for your post. I think more than a few prospective law students were feeling down-trodden after reading that post, myself included.

  6. I am enjoying your blog, as always. You may remember that I posted a comment to your blog where you recommended Ms. Ivey's book. Just to recap, I read the "Ivey Guide" and found it to be discouraging and "doom and gloom" for somebody with my background. I suggested that the book should only be recommended with a caveat that she tends to cater to upper tier applicants. I still found the advice useful, but looking back, I think that between the advice that is given, the book is filled with snobbery. It almost seems as if it were intended to inflate the egos of her privilaged clientele. My experience with you, Ms. Levine, is that you offer advice that is at least as useful as that found in the book, but you offer it in a friendly, encouraging package. So far, I think that the phone call that I made to you at the beginning of my application process was the greatest step that I could have taken to reduce the anxiety involved in applying to study a dicipline that demands such a major investment (in more than just dollars!). I wonder if you could tell me why so many people who write about the study of law tend to be so.. well.. uppidy about it. I read a book called "Planet Law School" a while ago that suggests that they are upholding the "mystique" of law in order to maintain an "elite" status.

  7. Thanks to both L.J.T. and "TakeThatEvildoer!" for the great compliments! This is why I blog. There is more than one kind of law school applicant, there is more than one approach to picking a law school. Your comments made my whole day.
    I have clients who go to Harvard and others who are absolutely thrilled to be getting into any school at all. Today I got an email from a former client who is at BC and got a job at an amazing firm and said to me she thought (when she was not in the running for a top 20 school) that she would never have a chance to work for a big law firm. She was wrong, and wrote to thank me.
    I'm glad I can provide some much needed (and honest) encouragement.

  8. I stumbled upon your post and wanted to thank you. I have been discouraged from applying to law school with the "you will never find a job or get out of debt unless you go to a top tier law school," cloud of doom over my shoulder. This casted some insight on my process and made me realize it may not be the end of the world if I don't make it into "Big Law" and there is a possibility to succeed regardless of your background. You really made my day today. - Prospective Law Student

  9. I'm so glad to be helpful. Please let me know how I can continue to be of service.

  10. Thank you for this post, that WSJ article and the Ivey blog follow-up was messin' with my mind - and right after I just took the LSAT this weekend!!

    I was kind of insulted by the whole thing - and by people I know using it to try to talk me out of law school. I mean, I've expected to be handed a six figure job on a silver platter upon graduation. A very large part of why I want to go to law school is to gain knowledge for knowledge's sake and to practice law which I think can and should be a noble profession.

    But, if this article knocks off a few potential applicants that really are just about the money, I guess that's no skin off my back.

  11. What a great way to start my day! Thanks so much for your comment.

    Law school made me a better thinker, a more knowledgeable person, and helped me approach problems more effectively. You will never hear me complain about my student loans.

    Was it tough at first? Absolutely. But loans let you defer, and/or make smaller payments the first few years. Before you know it, you're making more money and your student loans aren't even on your radar.

    I would make the same decision every time, and I'm glad to hear you're moving forward with your endeavors. Please let me know if I can help in any way.

  12. Ha! I meant NEVER expected to be handed a six figure job. Was that a freudian slip?

  13. I find your above post to be highly disingenuous and clearly a conflict of interest. The fact of the matter is that most graduates of third and second tier law schools will struggle with crushing student loan debt while being forced to take low paying jobs in insurance defense. This is a dirty secret that few law schools will mention. Most students in law school believe that they will have an opportunity to choose the type of law they will practice. At a third tier school, this option will only be available to the top 10-20% of the class. There have been numerous studies showing the vast disparity of salaries between biglaw and everyone else. It is also a fact that outside of biglaw that legal salaries have remained stagnant for the last twenty years.

    I think anyone who reads your post should take it with a grain of salt, due to the fact that you have a vested interest in having as many people as possible apply to law school, as you derive your income from steering people towards applying to law school. I encourage anyone who reads your blog to conduct their own independent research on the existing legal market. As a starter, please read the excellent article on the difficult legal market that was recently published in the Wall Street Journal.

  14. Thank you for your well considered comment.
    I understand that my viewpoint may differ from others on this topic - that is why I blog. There is more than one viewpoint.
    I have a vested interest in about 200 law school applicants/year (out of 150,000 LSAT takers/year). Even if the pool of LSAT takers dropped by half, it would not cause a detrimental impact on my pocketbook because I work with such a small number of applicants.
    I write about these issues because I care about them and because I have expertise and insight to offer. The decision to attend law school should not be taken lightly because it is a major financial and emotional commitment. My job is to help those who have made that commitment and I truly enjoy doing so.
    Happy New Year to all of my readers.

  15. The problem for many people I know who went to solid regional law programs is not the starting salary, but finding any salary at all.

    I'm in the Philadelphia region, and the vast majority of job postings for associates require 3-5 years of experience and/or a solid book of business. No matter how many applications and resumes I sent out, I couldn't even get an interview at a firm or government agency. Finally, I ended up becoming a document review contractor and bounced from one large Philly firm to the next. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in town just like me.

    I am fortunate in that my school loans are not burdensome. I could easily pay my bills on 40-50 grand a year. But many of my fellow contractors, who attended private law schools and rang up $120,000 or more in debt, would not be able to afford such pay even if the jobs were available.

  16. This is Scott Bullock, the lawyer profiled on the front-page WSJ story about the "dark side."

    As Atticus Finch told his daughter Scout in the famous film To Kill a Mockingbird, "you never really know a man until you've walked around a while in his shoes."

    Have you ever done document review? Do you know what it's like to sit in the windowless sub-basement of Paul Weiss in midtown NYC for 16 hours a day, lacking health insurance while people cough and wheeze in an unventilated room 6 inches away from each other? If there was a fire, we'd all have burned to death since the fire exits were blocked with box upon box of corporate documents.

    Topping it all off, the pay was a whopping $21 an hour for admitted lawyers. We'd sit for mandatory 16 hour days on cast-off furniture from a dumpster staring into burned-out tube monitors from 1989.

    They'd come and spray for roaches down there each evening, and the next morning the dead critters would be all over your keyboard and even on your chairs!

    We weren't allowed to use the firm's bathroom- they made the temps use the "concourese" restroom under Rock Center, which was open to the public. Homeless people would bathe in there and defecate all over the floor. I'm not making this up- read Julie Trieman's article from American Lawyer Magazine from March 2006. Not long after that article Paul Weiss shut down the entire project.

    This is the type of life most second-tier and below law grads have to look forward to. There is no "job market" for tier two grads. It's just hordes and hordes of desperate, heavily indebted losers begging for whatever gutter job they can get. Last week NYC craigslist had an admitted attoreny job advertised at 30 K! I've seen NJ personal injury firms go as low as 25 K on emplawyenet.

    Even if you actualy get a legal job from a TTT school, its likely to be a dead-end job in insurance defense. "ID" as it's called on the message boards is mindless cut & paste "defense" of fender benders and trip & falls. Pay is abysmal- usually 40 K or less. Lawyers even 10 years out of school are lucky to make 80 K in ID, if they can stand it that long.

    Anyone thinking of law school can email me at for the straight dope. I worked not only at Paul Weiss (the worst doc review in history) but also at two of NYC's most notoriously awful firms as an associate.

  17. So if you advise 200 applicants a year at $3,500-$8,500 a pop, that means your annual income from these consultations is anywhere from $700,000 to $1.7 million. Assuming the average rate is $6,000, that is $1.2 million a year. I can't believe that you can honestly say with your financial stake, that you're not biased in favor of encouraging people to attend law school.

    I suspect that many of your clients and potential clients are borderline Tier 1 applicants who may just decide applying to law school is not worth it after reading things like Ms. Ivey's blog, and therefore would not need your service. In that sense there is a very real chance that these types of articles will hurt your pocketbook.

  18. Thank you for that - It gave me a laugh. I WISH I were in that ballpark!!!!

    I have 200 clients a year at between $350-1050 per client. My prelaw expert business just launched, and I plan to take only 2-10 clients per year needing that level of service.

    More than half of my clients are Tier 3 and 4 clients and I am proud to serve all of my clients whether they hope to go to a Top 10 school or whether attending any law school is their dream.

    I don't invent the dream. I just help make it happen.

    Wishing you a very happy new year, Anonymous....

  19. So, if you're so successful as a lawyer, why did you switch careers?

  20. Actually, my first job out of law school was in law school administration. That's how I became a director of admissions at a law school by the time I was 27 years old. I am passionate about higher education.
    I moved to Santa Barbara, CA and since there was no ABA law school here, I practiced law for three years. I had inspirational clients, worked on fascinating issues, and of course worked very hard billing hours. Then, I saw the not so great side of the private practice system when I became pregnant and had a baby; I was placed on a "Mommy Track" no matter how many hours I billed.
    One of my successful local clients took me to lunch. He told me the only way to succeed as an attorney is to have your own clients and serve them better than anyone else. I thought about that - how could I serve clients better than anyone else? And I knew the answer. I could help law school applicants and offer them insight into the law school admission process that no one else could.
    That's why I do what I do, rather than practice law.

  21. I think anna's post was apropros, and citing one or two counter-instances won't refute her argument.

    If you graduate at the top of your class at a tier 2 law school, odds are you'll land a solid job. I'm not sure Ivey is denying that. Here's why her point still survives even with this concession:

    If you go to a tier 2 school, you can't be assured tht you'll be at the top of your class. In fact, the vast majority of law students won't be at the top of their classes, by definition. It's these students who will struggle to repay their debt. You can say that you had no trouble, or whatever, but I see from your profile that you did pretty well in law school. Congratulations on that, but you're really not a good example for most students who can't make it above the second tier.

  22. How about actually responding to the person who is the subject of the article and the other gentleman who blogs about this topic, both of whom made insightful points, instead of taking the easy way out and only responding to the guy taking a pot shot at you?

  23. Good point.

    I am not sure I have anything further to add to the substantive part of the conversation without sharing personal stories of my friends (that others might argue aren't relevant in today's job market, and for all I know this might be right).

    I stand by my comments; I'm an optimist and perhaps even an idealist. But here's the thing. I know a ton of lawyers who went to California Bar schools (and not even Tier 3 or 4 ABA schools) who have wonderful law practices and work hard and make good livings, even in the awful job and housing market where I live (in Santa Barbara, CA). I have friends who went to Santa Clara, California Western, McGeorge, USF, USD, Loyola, Kent, etc. who are all prominent lawyers working alongside those who went to name brand law schools - they are partners in private practice, city attorneys and district attorneys....

    I believe there are always bitter people in the world. And life is harder for some than others, and I don't want to invite everyone to tell me their life stories and why they weren't on law review or why they didn't earn amazing grades, or why life is inherently unfair.

    I am not a career counselor and I don't keep up with employment trends. I work with people who have made the educated and research-driven decision to apply to law school. And I help them get into better law schools than their numbers would predict, more often than not.
    I encourage people. I use my professional background to give candid predictions and evaluations.
    I don't say my services are for everyone, and I provide free advice on my blog to address common issues faced by law school applicants.

    I've received wonderful e-mails this week from my clients thanking me for my help and happy with their results. My clients are excited about the prospects of law school - I don't try to sway anyone. I just help people reach the goals they have already established for themselves.

    I stand by my original email. I believe the way into law practice is a small or medium sized firm with opportunities for mentorship. I believe in the power of networking and maintaining professionally based relationships with your law school colleagues and acting above-the-bar in all conduct. This is pure speculation but it seems logical that people who whine on the internet are whiners in life, and it's not a big surprise they're struggling upon entering the legal field....

  24. You can stand by your original point all you want. My argument is that your claim and Anna's claim are not inconsistent. They can both be true.

    The is a difference between idealization in moderation and being sanguine. The former is good, but the latter is reckless, and I do hope the latter is not being imparted by your posts to potential law school applicants.

  25. I'm sorry, Ms. Levine, but given your conflict of interest, and your failure to address Scott Bullock's points, it's hard not to discount your overly rosy outlook. As someone who immediately transitioned from law school to the admissions business, your personal experience is hardly "typical". For most people who graduate law school without the big firm associate position lined up, things are much more grim. As Scott said, many people end up having to take temp jobs (if they are lucky enough to get them anymore), which can end up being a very difficult stigma to overcome when trying to get a "real" job. But that's not all.....when you take that "real job" because it's the only opportunity out there, it's very easy to get typecast in a field. And if it's a field with little future for professional growth, such as bankruptcy (which many new graduates enter because "it's a job" in a career field where everyone wants attorneys with prior experience), the chances for advancement are low, as are the chances for breaking out of it. Unfortunately, for attorneys, typecasting is all too common a hurdle. Even if you have prior experience that could be useful, if you take a subsequent job that is viewed as "low-skilled" among lawyers to pay the bills, it can be very hard to overcome those perceptions. As a result, "paying your dues" is no longer what it use to be. When paralegals are making more than those with several years of small firm experience, can you honestly tell people that a law degree is worth the huge amount of debt?

    The point is that for many, law school is NOT worth the sacrifice. Call me a "whiner" if you will, but that would be a copout. The old "network!" advice is only helpful to those who are natural-born salesmen/women, and is far too often the fallback recommendation of career development offices which only cater to the top 10-15% of their classes. You really need to make sure that your advice goes beyond simply getting into law school, but also the scenario that awaits many who do get in. You should then advise those who are still dead set on going on how to avoid the many pitfalls. When I first got into law school, the internet as we know it was not around, and so I never had as much potential info regarding the reality of the job market. You shouldn't chide those who are sharing their negative experiences; on the contrary, it is a necessity for an informed decision.


    Read the comments after the article for great insights.


  28. Hello Ms. Levine. I have a question for you. I'm considering go to law school on a part time basis. I have a master's degree and I work in state government. The thing is that I don't have a desire to practice law, rather the benefits of a legal education provide ample opportunity for a variety of career opportunities in government. Therefore, I see a law degree as an opportunity for career mobility in govt adminstration and so forth. Would law school be worth it in my situation?

  29. If one is interested in a topic about a particular issue in law, then they could very easily start a blog which puts their original research on it up front. From there, you would start to get clients for whatever type of issue you are involved in.

    If instead, you choose to do a different track in life, there are always other professions that need qualified writers and researchers, who know how to navigate the system. When you apply your logical reasoning abilities gained in law or business, then it is up to you where to take it.

    The thing you need to consider is where your life is going, what type of person you want to become, how you are going to accomplish these goals and what it takes to get you there.

    So, whether or not law school is 'worth it' in the end all depends on the types of connections that you need to make in order to achieve your dreams. Ultimately it may not be about passing the Bar, becoming an attorney, or even practicing law. Who you become as a person is what it is all about in the end.

  30. Thanks so much for this post. The blog has now moved and I welcome you to post this at: