Make an Informed Decision When Considering Law School

US News

For a legal scholar and law professor, Paul Campos is surprisingly bearish on law school. In 2011, the University of Colorado prof started the blog Inside the Law School Scam, anonymously at first, to explore what he sees as the increasingly "risky gamble" of getting a J.D. degree, given the costs and job and salary prospects.

Campos's new book, "Don't Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor's Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk," helps prospective law students make informed decisions. He recently shared some of his thoughts with U.S. News. Excerpts:

What's your assessment of the big picture?

The mismatch between the cost of law school and the value of a law degree has been growing for quite a long time. I think in the long term the market for attorneys appears likely to get more constricted. It'll be more and more difficult to make a living as an attorney.

[Weigh these factors along with law school rankings.]

So how should aspiring attorneys approach the decision?

Saying, "I want to be a lawyer" is way too vague. The applicant [should have] genuine exposure to the kind of thing that the applicant hopes to do. And then the second thing you need to do is to look very, very carefully at the probability that you will be able to do that thing, and how much it will cost you to put yourself in that position.

Take a very critical look at the employment statistics for schools that you're considering, and demand whatever level of detail you need to evaluate whether it's a realistic career aspiration. The other key part of the equation, of course, is cost. I think applicants need to be very aggressive in negotiating cost with law schools.

Applications are way down, so that should forearm people in terms of going in there with a hard-nosed negotiating attitude. The advertised tuition price ought to be considered as the starting point of a negotiation.

It's not necessarily the case that just because you can go to a really good law school that [the] choice is going to make sense for you, given what your alternatives are. What is my opportunity cost? What is it costing me to go? What am I going to be foregoing?

[Get answers about admissions from law school deans.]

How important is a school's prestige?

There's definitely a way to think about it, which is how much value is going to be added by going to X instead of Y given what I want to do and what it will cost me to go to X instead of Y.

Let's say a person has the choice of Stanford at sticker or [the University of California] Hastings with a full-ride scholarship. Maybe to the extent that somebody's interested in a public interest career, [Hastings] might be a good call. It has to be an individual calculation.

What should applicants be looking for in the employment information that schools report?

They should demand recent graduate class outcomes for schools they're considering. And do some research in regard to what has actually happened to people five and 10 years out. Most states now have searchable bar licensing databases [of individual attorneys and contact information]. Call up a few people, email a few people.

How much debt is too much?

A good rule of thumb is people should be hesitant to take on more educational debt than their probable first-year salary. If you're taking on $120,000 of debt to get a $60,000-a-year job, that's deeply problematic.

And you have to be very realistic. Because a $60,000-a-year job is a good outcome for the average law graduate at present.

[Maximize your chances of law school financial aid.]

So who should go to law school?

Somebody who should go to law school for sure? Let's say somebody who wants to be a district attorney and who has a 3.9 GPA and a 173 LSAT and gets a free ride to [the University of] Minnesota and whose mother is the DA in Rochester. That person? Great idea.

You have a good basis for thinking that you really want to do the kind of work that you're going to law school in order to do; you can go to law school at a very, very reasonable price; and you have connections that make it very realistic for you to be able to get into that line of work.

Don't go to law school as a default option that you just sort of wander into, which, unfortunately, a lot of people do. If you're going to spend $150,000 or $200,000, it had better be for a good enough reason in regard to your likely career outcome.

And at the vast majority of law schools right now for the vast majority of students, it doesn't make sense to spend that kind of money. That's a hard truth, but that's the way it is.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.

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