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Law as a career option

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This page evaluates law as a career option. It provides information that can help you answer a question of the form Should I pursue a career in law?
See all pages evaluating particular career options|See our main career selection pages: factors to consider, ...

Law is a moderately popular career path for well-educated people, with about 1% of the US population going to law school.

Key takeaways

  • The cost of law school is significant.
  • It's been said that there's an oversupply of lawyers, such that it can be difficult to get a job out of law school. One's prospects are much better if one goes to a top law school.
  • It seems common for lawyers to be unhappy with their jobs (though the situation varies from person to person).
  • Earnings vary greatly, with annual earnings ranging from $50k to $1m+, with a median salary of ~$100k.
  • There are jobs in law that require ~40 hours per week, but they're on the low end of the pay spectrum, and ~70 hours per week is more common for high earners.
  • We would guess that the social value that lawyers contribute is similar to the social value that the average person with similar earnings contributes.
  • Law is a common path for future politicians.

The cost of law school

Law school is typically 3 years long. Tuition for public universities can be as low as $15k/year for in-state students and $30k/year for out-of-state tuition, but is more on the order of ~$50k per year for top 20 law schools. Assuming that one would otherwise be taking a job that pays $50k/year, the effective cost of going to law school is $200k-$300k, plus interest that accrues on debt.

Some people have commented that because one often goes into debt to pay to go to law school, going to law school can lead one to be "locked in" to law as a career track, because one will have trouble paying off the debt if one pursues an alternative path that pays less.

Job prospects

In 2012, 62% of recent law school graduates secured jobs that require that one pass the Bar exam, with the others unemployed or in lower skilled jobs that they're overqualified for. Some of these may have chosen to forgo such jobs as opposed to not having the option of taking them.

The percentage is higher at prestigious programs, for example, the percentage is 87+% for Harvard Law graduates.

In any case, the fact that the percentages aren't higher means that accepting the costs of going to law school should be conceptualized as a gamble, except for students who have special reason to believe that their own chances are higher than average.

Job satisfaction

Law has been cited as a profession with unusually low job satisfaction. The answers to the Quora question Why are so many lawyers unhappy with their jobs? go into some reasons for this. Some people report to having positive experiences.

About 50% of lawyers report to being satisfied with their careers, and about 50% report that they would recommend the career to young people.

See the Quora threads:

What is it like to be a lawyer?

What's it like to be an in-house lawyer?

What is it like to be a technology lawyer?

What is it like to be a criminal lawyer?

What's it like to be a corporate lawyer?

for some descriptions of people's personal experiences.

Earnings

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, the salary of the median lawyer was $113k. Average starting salaries for graduates of top 10 law schools range from$100k/year to $160k/year, with mid-career salaries between $170k/year and $220k/year for top 10 law schools.

Public sector jobs appear to pay $50k/year starting and $75k/year 10+ years out.

Average starting salaries in the private sector range from $70k/year (for "small firms") to $145k/year (for "big firms"), though are often $160k/year for big firms. After 8 years these rise to $95k/year for small firms and $220k/year for big firms.

In Are lawyers overcompensated in the U.S.? lawyer Ari Shahdadi gives a breakdown of salary figures by type of legal job and place of employment.

The NY Times reports on data suggesting amongst lawyers collectively, ~10% are in households in the top 1% of income nationwide.

Work-life balance

The Oregon State Bar, the South Carolina State Bar and the Florida State Bar give survey data consistent with lawyers working 50 hours/week on average.

One survey reports that lawyers at large firms work ~65 hours/week. Some sources give higher numbers. Some sources refer that the number of hours worked per week varies greatly from week to week.

Social Value

Lawyers maintain a system through which laws are enforced, and through which legally binding deals can be made. As such, as a group they're essential to society functioning.

Income is a proxy to social value contributed, especially in the corporate world, so a best guess estimate for the social value that lawyers contribute is that it's commensurate with their earnings.

Many people's perspectives are given in the answers to the Quora question Is having a bunch of the world's best thinkers and writers become lawyers (particularly corporate lawyers) a waste of human capital?

Law as background for politics

About 40% of US Senators are former lawyers and about 20% of members of the US House of Representatives are former lawyers. This suggests that becoming a lawyer may be a promising path for an aspiring politician. However, there's an issue of correlation by causation: it could be that the reason for the overrepresentation of lawyers in political roles comes from lawyers being much more interested in them.