Is law school worth the price?

A flag flying from Wilf Hall at the New York University School of Law May 4, 2012 in New York.

It's not just high school seniors who check their email obsessively this time of year. College seniors and in particular law school aspirants, are eager for news of their futures, too.

For the bright young students who get in, the thrill comes with the cold reality of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt.

Trevor Morrison has a thrill of his own this spring. The Columbia law school professor will become the dean of NYU's law school this June.

Despite the great number of lawyers already practicing, and the threat of stagnating wages, Morrison believes top-tier graduates have an advantage over other students, even taking NYU's $51,500 annual tuition into account. Like Morrison's previous employer, the school is among the top 10 law schools, according to U.S. News rankings

"The decision whether to go to law school at all, and the decision to pursue an education at a place like NYU, if one is afforded that opportunity, are just not the same decisions," he says. 

Even the best legal education doesn't guarantee future employment. Morrison says a good law school will do its best to help graduates' career prospects.

"The goal is not simply to find jobs for our graduates," he says, "but to help them pursue the employment they most want to pursue."

Some young lawyers who aspire to become judges or public advocates may have a much harder time paying off loans for law school. That can push talented, but not already well-off students, toward elite private firms. 

While Morrison says you can serve the public good in the private sector, NYU and some other top law schools do lend students a hand after graduation. 

"All NYU graduates working in public interest related jobs with income of $80,000 per year or less can qualify for 100 percent loan repayment assistance through the law school."

Despite the short- and long-term challenges in legal profession, Morrison is decidedly optimistic. 

"The value proposition of a legal education, of a top-level legal education, is clear. And has never been clearer."

Would you recommend your career path to a younger person? Let us know in the comments. 

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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I'll attempt to answer your question, Kai. No, a person with your undergrad GPA and LSAT score should not attend law school. Here's why. The average tuition at law school is $40K per year. If you set aside another $15K for room and board, you are looking at a sticker price of $165K for a law degree. For 2012 graduates, only 56% of law graduates obtained full time employment as a lawyer, with a median salary in the range of $60K. Graduates who did not graduate from a top-10 law school face gruesome employment prospects. The people that Professor Morrison describes working at the White House, for the most part attended top-10 law schools or graduated in the top 5% of a school ranked 11 - 50 in US News and World Report. The number of graduates from our 200+ law schools in the U.S. working in the retail and service industry (and therefore unable to service their student loans) exceeds the number of students "working in the White House" by an enormous magnitude. Those loans, by the way, cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. The advice I give to graduates is to not attend law school unless (a) they are admitted to a school ranked in the top-10, or (b) they are given a very generous scholarship to attend a school in the top 50 with a decent record of students finding some form of full-time legal employment.

Browser hung - double posted.

You have GOT to be kidding.

First, to expect an unbiased answer from someone who is going to become a spokeperson for the school is just dumb. Where is the reporting on the other side of this story? The coverage of the hundreds of un- or underemployed attorneys who would be thrilled to be making 80K annually, or to be in a program that allowed them to pay back their loans? Many would be happy to find jobs that paid annually what NYU charges for tuition, rather than waiting tables or doing a month of doc reviews them searching for work for four months to find another gig.

Law school is a tragic mistake for so many people - myself included.

Terry Morrison suggests that all is well in the world because the student can get loan forgiveness by working for a public interest entity. But, he ignores that this option if closed to many; there just aren't enough jobs in this sector either. And now law school education will become more expensive as a result of the new requirements imposed by NY to get licensed to practice. As the cost of the education rises, and the opportunities to work in "Big Law" (with its better salaries) decreases, the ROI (return on investment) question is being asked by more students. And more are saying the answer is "no."

Anyone interested in the future of law should follow Jordan Furlong's blog, Law21, at http://www.law21.ca/. And there's no more creative, visionary thinker about the future of solo and small firm practice than Carolyn Elefant, who writes MyShingle, http://myshingle.com/. Finally, Ed Poll of http://LawBiz.com is an excellent resource about the nuts and bolts of the business of running a law firm.

As for the career prospects of NYU Law grads, the school has long focused on BigLaw and public interest, and provided little or no guidance to students about solo or small firm practice. Who can blame them? After all, solo practitioner NYU Law grads like me don't do much for NYU's numbers (i.e., median income of graduates) or its self image ("Our selfless public interest law grads are saving the world!"). Still, it's important for law schools today to teach lawyers not only about legal doctrine, but also about law practice management.

Lisa Solomon
NYU Law '93

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