Once upon a time, law school was a sure bet. You had three years of study and panicked over passing the Bar, but as soon as that was done you’d be set for life in a prestigious, high-paying job. Not so much anymore. The profession is in crisis, with more new lawyers than demand, and law schools are scaling back to protect their students.

Critics have suggested that going to law school is no longer a smart investment because with so few jobs, only those who go to the top 10 schools stand a chance of paying off the massive debt that law school incurs.

But these are the critiques from the outside. What do lawyers themselves say? In a 2013 paper, researchers Ronit Dinovitzer, Bryant Garth and Joyce Sterling analyzed various sets of data to determine whether law school grads really had buyers’ remorse.

First, they found that the chances of obtaining a high-paying job were slim. The starting salary for new lawyers at a corporate firm can be around $165,000, but elsewhere, the starting salary is more like $50,000. Evidence shows the number of people who go the “corporate law” track has been shrinking, so the first job for most graduates will not make up for their debt.

The researchers also found that indeed, going to a Top 10 law school was crucial, and that grades matter too; graduates with average grades (under about 3.37 GPA) from a Top 10 were about as likely to find a spot in a top firm as the very best students from less prestigious schools.

Finally, the researchers analyzed a questionnaire that asked the lawyers themselves, about seven years on, how they felt about their decision. These numbers painted a surprisingly rosy picture. Unsurprisingly, graduates from the top 10 schools reported the highest satisfaction, but those from lower schools were not far behind. On a 14-point scale, elite lawyers had an average satisfaction score of 11.08, compared with 10.64 for the less-elite group. Those with the highest debt (six figures or higher), had a mean satisfaction score of 9.9, and those with around $30,000 in debt had a mean score around 11. This doesn’t seem an enormous difference in satisfaction given the substantial difference in debt burden.

There were also interesting correlations between job roles and happiness. Those working in state government reported lower satisfaction than those in federal government. Other factors connected with happiness were salary, working in a non-governmental sector, being a practicing lawyer, being African-American, and being over 40. While things like having a lot of debt reduced satisfaction, categories like having attended a top school and GPA were unimportant by the time the lawyers took the survey, and instead factors like the opportunity to do pro bono work had more of an effect.

So while it’s true that the market isn’t great and the debt can be a real drawback, these don’t seem to have as much impact on life satisfaction as the naysayers may think. Even years later and with a lot of debt, most people are glad that they went—and that should be good news for the future lawyers stepping into the classroom every fall.

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Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 63, No. 2 (November 2013), pp. 211-234
Association of American Law Schools