An article published this summer in the Wall Street Journal draws attention to the danger inherent in myths around the earning power that comes with a law degree. With sites like Above The Law constantly tracking Big Law associate salaries north of $200,000, it’s easy to understand why so many students are willing to take on significant debt under the assumption that a lucrative legal job will have them paying it off in no time. Unfortunately, too many law school graduates won’t make anywhere near enough to offset their student loans.
There are almost 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States, yet “more than half of entry-level jobs at high-paying firms have gone to graduates of just [the] top 20 ranked schools.” Students who go to work with small firms or enter the public sector after taking on $175,000 or more in loans often end up relying on federal loan-forgiveness programs. A public defender profiled in the Wall Street Journal piece describes being enrolled in an income-based repayment plan until her loans can be forgiven a decade in.
The $45,000 to $75,000 salaries seen by new attorneys in public service and at smaller firms are just a fraction of what many students may be expecting from their legal education based on the numbers boasted by large law firms. The article focuses on the University of Miami Law School, which sits only in the top half of schools, approaching the top quarter when it peaked at #60 in the U.S. News rankings for 2016. But like many attorneys before them, even those graduates who go on to fill the less-than-half of spots left in Big Law for lawyers from these mid-ranked schools may find the lifestyle unsustainable.
Data from ALM’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey have for years shown concerning levels of mental health issues among lawyers, including “double the lifetime rate of suicidal ideation [as compared to] the general population,” noted by Law.com early in 2020. That year’s survey, which preceded the additional burdens of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, also found that 74% of respondents agreed their careers had negatively impacted their mental health over time, and nearly one-third cited their work or work environments as a cause of increased drug and alcohol use.
Big Law associates, in particular, may find it hard to disconnect, with the expectation that they are always on call. That inability to truly take time away from work was listed along with client demands and billable hours pressures as a common factor in lawyers’ worsening mental health. The culture of large law firms leads many attorneys to leave after just a few years. And there is no guarantee that large law firms will provide new associates with well-rounded training. Some attorneys leave Big Law with little litigation experience beyond discovery disputes and document reviews, or little transactional experience beyond due diligence work. The risk of dedicating years to a large law firm without acquiring crucial skills is high.
The wisdom of taking on student loan debt has been increasingly questioned in recent years, and it’s appropriate that the same skepticism apply to law school loans. Misconceptions about what a law degree can guarantee or even begin to promise have led many individuals deep into debt and pressured newly minted members of the bar into high-paying Big Law associate roles that don’t otherwise fit their goals or values. Now more than ever, it’s worth taking the time to investigate the benefits of law as a career before investing huge sums of money into the endeavor.