Is Law School a Good Career Option?

Find out how valuable your law degree will be after graduation.

You may have what it takes to graduate from law school, but will your investment lead to worthy job offers?

The legal field, once seen as a lock for a solid salary with good prospects, has faced its own share of challenges from the recent economic downturn.

While some graduates still fetched the handsome salaries that aspiring attorneys dream of, the effects of recession have been especially harsh for lower-ranked graduates.

Here’s a look at the prospects for law school graduates as the nation emerges from recession, plus a glance at other career options in the legal field.

How Much Will Law School Cost?

Considering a career as an attorney? If so, it’s not uncommon for law school graduates to face a mountain of debt after graduation. The sum frequently exceeds the six-figure mark, a figure sure to stoke fear in the hearts of some. However, anyone seriously considering law school probably already realizes this. The prospect of high earning power and/or the prestige of working for a top firm spur many to look past the steep price tag of a law degree.

Many prospective law school students will turn to top-tier public universities for prestige at a more affordable price. It will help somewhat, but the cost of earning a law degree still won’t come cheap. Tuition and fees at U.C. Berkley School of Law, for example, will cost state residents roughly $49,000 during 2011-2012. Those figures approach $70,000 annually when you look at private law schools like Duke or Harvard University.

Will I Find the Job I Really Want?

After you graduate, the question becomes: will my investment in law school lead to a successful career?

Like the law itself, the answer is complex. As a general rule, the most prestigious firms do the bulk of their recruiting, if not all of it, at top 40 schools. Class rank also plays a key role in future job prospects. Only those graduating at the top of their class can expect to draw a six-figure salary right out of the gates, while the weaker performers and those educated at less prestigious schools may struggle for months if not years before securing meaningful employment—at least in the present economic climate.

Impact of the Recession on Law School Graduates

According to a report published by Northwestern University Law School, law firms have shed approximately 15,000 attorney and legal-staffing positions since 2008. Employment prospects for law school graduates in 2008 and 2009 were especially bleak.

While some graduates still fetched the handsome salaries that aspiring attorneys dream of, the effects of recession have been especially harsh for lower-ranked graduates and those earning their J.D.’s from lower-tier schools.

Personal accounts of law graduates only landing temporary positions at firms are in high supply on the Internet, as are stories of graduates even taking low-paying jobs in the service sector.

However, the tide appears to be shifting, with industry growth presently at two percent. And salaries, having been stymied for years, have finally started to trend upward. The recovery in the industry has only sparked tepid optimism. Two percent growth is hardly reason to rejoice. Many firms currently regard hiring with a cautious eye to avoid layoffs in case the broader economic recovery falters again. For now, current and prospective law school students will cross their fingers and hope economic growth continues and fuels abundant employment prospects upon graduation.

Other Career Options in the Legal Field

If the law intrigues you but the cost of law school in terms of dollars and time concerns you, an alternative career in the legal field deserves some thought.

Paralegals, known for doing a great deal of the research and prep work that most lawyers rely on, may face the brightest employment prospects of all legal professions. Legal investigators, legal assistants, and legal secretaries are further options that may warrant your consideration. All the aforementioned positions will require training, which can usually be obtained at the associate degree level and at lower cost than law school.

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