If you had the chance to do it over, would you do it again?
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It’s one of the most popular questions in my “ask the taxgirl” mailbag. Despite – or maybe because of – the scary job market, I get a lot of inquiries about law school: Is it worth it? Is it necessary if I just want to work in the tax field? Do you need a Tax LLM to get a job? But mostly, it’s simply: If you had the chance to do it over, would you do it again?
For the record, I would. I was one of those kids who liked school. I liked learning more about everything, really, but especially about the law. Social studies and civics classes were always my favorites. And while I didn’t really know any lawyers, I spent time reading about them. I remember watching old Perry Mason reruns with my grandfather and later, L.A. Law (hey, don’t judge, it was the 1980s). And despite being told as a little girl that women couldn’t achieve positions of great importance in our government, I remember hearing on the news that Sandra Day O’Connor had become the first female justice on the Supreme Court. I told my dad that I was pretty sure that I could do that, too.
And so, years later, with my Great-grandmother’s voice in my head telling me that I sounded “just like a Philadelphia lawyer,” I set off for law school. I would graduate twice: once with my J.D. (your regular law degree) and the second time with my LL.M. in Taxation (more or less a Master’s in Tax Law). I pursued the LL.M. not only because I was a tax geek – and when else was I going to be able to dedicate an entire semester to Tax Policy? – but at the advice of my supervising attorney at Internal Revenue Service who told me that the job market was so competitive, the IRS was basically tossing applications for attorney positions if you didn’t have an LL.M.
It was a smart move. I had a job offer when I graduated and there was never a worry that I might not find work. But that was a very different time.
Today’s legal job market is fairly grim. Depending on which set of statistics you believe, the number of available jobs for those will law degrees will meet or exceed the number of law school graduates by 2016, 2017 or 2021. What is clear is that it won’t happen in 2013. Or in 2014.
For years, there have been far more law school graduates than available legal jobs. The legal market has been suffering – along with other professions – since the recession and shows no real signs of recovery. There was a time, for example, when a slowdown meant that fewer new lawyers would be hired but law firms didn’t just fire attorneys, especially those on track to be partner. But as friends of mine picked up their pink slips, I realized, like many in our profession, that times had changed.
It’s taken awhile for law school numbers to catch up to that reality. For awhile, college students were still heading to law school in incredible numbers, despite the fact that there were likely no jobs after graduation. This year, however, it appears that the truth is finally sinking in. Law school enrollment is down 11% over last year and a whopping 24% from three years ago. The number of students currently enrolled in law school is the lowest since 1975 despite the fact that we now have nearly 25% more ABA-accredited law schools today. And while it’s a bit of a market correction, those figures are still 20 to 25% higher than the projected market for new jobs which require or prefer a law degree. Some attorneys believe that’s still not enough.
Matt Willens of the Willens Law Offices is one of those attorneys.
Willens is a successful trial lawyer in Chicago. He’s the kind of lawyer that students hope that they become. His bio is a laundry list of accolades: an Illinois Super Lawyer, AV® Preeminent™ peer review rating in Martindale-Hubbell® and a 10/10 (Superb) Avvo Rating. He writes a monthly column for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. He teaches Advanced Trial Advocacy as an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
You’d think Willens would be one of the leading advocates for going to law school. He’s not. In fact, he’s offering $1,000 to students considering going to grad school if they’ll agree to go anywhere but law school. It’s a curious offer. So curious that I called up Willens to ask him about it.
Law school, he told me, was a no-brainer for him. He was a good student in college and his parents had encouraged him to go to law school. He landed a job at a top tier personal injury law firm and eventually transitioned after working for others into opening his own firm in 2007. At the time, hanging your own shingle was considered an enviable career move. Now, he notes, more and more lawyers are hanging their own shingles because they can’t find a job. They’re doing so without any real mentors and no practical legal experience, a trend that Willens calls “disturbing.”
You see, law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer. They’ll teach you the basics of criminal law, constitutional law and torts law. You can learn the fine details of maritime law or environmental law. You’ll be taught how to write a brief, how to argue a case, how to draft a legal memo. But those things aren’t the actual practice of law. You don’t learn courtroom etiquette or how to deal with difficult opposing counsel. And you certainly don’t learn how to answer the really tough questions from clients.
That means that first year lawyers have a lot to figure out yet. And while some attorneys – like Willen and me – opt to go out on their own because they really wanted to be solo, a number of fresh graduates are opening offices merely out of desperation. Willens calls that sad, noting that it doesn’t serve clients well and it doesn’t serve the profession well.
Not at all law school graduates are stepping out on their own. Some do find employment though salaries are tight once you factor in debt load. Nearly half of all lawyers report pretax salaries in the $40,000-to-$65,000 range while law school debt averages twice that much. Monthly debt service payments for law school graduates can and do easily top $1,000.
To make ends meet, some law school graduates take jobs from predatory firms that Willens refers to as “blood suckers.” They are the firms that my friends talk about – the ones that offer terrible jobs at low pay and even lower morale. They are jobs that offer the promise of better things even though you understand that it’s all for show. There won’t be any job training. There is no chance of promotion. And when the math is said and done, in some cases, you’re not even making minimum wage. But it is, as one of my friends, told me glumly, still better than nothing.
Willens thinks that there are better options available. So many students, he says, go to law school because they don’t know what else to do. They are those kids who are told their whole lives that they are the “best of the best” and law school just seems like a logical step. But in today’s market, law school may not be the answer. Willens just wants students to give it more thought and maybe, he says thoughtfully, do something to make the world a better place.
As encouragement, Willens is offering $1,000 to an undergraduate entering graduate school in 2014 to use for study in any field except law. Willens calls it the “Anything But Law School Graduate Scholarship” – and he hopes to make it a regular event. It’s an antidote, of sorts, to becoming over-educated and unhappy at law school.
Willens is quick to say that he’s not anti-lawyer or anti-law school: remember, he’s not only a lawyer but he teaches law school. He just believes that some students are better served in other fields than law.
After our interview, I wondered how many lawyers shared Willens’ sentiment. Using Twitter and Facebook, I asked law school graduates (not all of whom are practicing) the same question that many of my readers ask me: “ If you had the chance to do it over, would you do it again?”
The results were mixed. About half of those respondents offered an enthusiastic “yes” while others were more negative. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of those who would do it over again were older and happy at their jobs. Younger grads were much more dismissive, though no one expressed a sentiment as strongly as that Business Insider article making the rounds which declared law school “a waste of my life and an extraordinary waste of money.”
Money did figure into a number of responses. Many of the younger respondents cited huge amounts of student debt as a reason to do something else. Law school is expensive and unlike some other graduate programs, working during your first year is actively discouraged: the American Bar Association has strict regulations for accreditation that focus on limiting employment. If you don’t have savings – or if mom and dad aren’t footing the bill – there is little choice but to borrow. And borrow a lot. The average cost of law school tuition together with room and board averages between $40,000 and $60,000 per year.
I am one of those students who graduated with a lot of debt. While I’m not a fan of the debt that I accrued in law school, I like to think of it as an investment. In addition to an education that has allowed me to do some great things (like writing this blog), I took away a lot from law school. I met my husband and best friend. I had the opportunity to hang out with some amazing folks. Some jerks, too. But mostly amazing folks. I was able to pick some great legal minds. I participated in study abroad where I could compare legal systems and, let’s face it, eat real gelato. I clerked at the Internal Revenue Service, an experience that gave me a tremendous inside into what it’s like on the other side of the table. And I found the place that I would be proud to call my home for nearly 20 years. I wouldn’t change a thing.
That’s not the same as saying that it’s the right decision for everyone – even if you’re a tax geek like me. You can still work in the tax world without being a tax attorney: you can be an enrolled agent, a certified public accountant, a tax return preparer or a tax planner. It’s a pretty big field. Like Willens, however, I would encourage you to think about your options before rushing in to take those LSATs. And if you do decide to do something else, Willens might have $1,000 for you. The application deadline for his scholarship is May 1, 2014.
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