It’s been a busy week of debate about the value of a JD. Much of the debate started with this article by Simkovic and McIntyre, where the takeaway is that a JD can be worth up to one million dollars over the course of a lifetime. As Elie Mystal at Above the Law pointed out, however, there are lots of problems with this study, to the point of embarrassment. The million dollar valuation didn’t factor in the cost of the JD, for one thing. Law school graduates routinely emerge with a few hundred thousand dollars in debt. Those who graduate with significantly less debt often go to public law schools, which may correlate with lower earnings over their lifetimes (depending hugely, of course, on the school). Another problem is that the study is based on pre-2008 earnings data, which bears pretty much no relation to the current legal market. Although several other writers criticized the study, the headlines remain. I feel for the college graduates who go to law school for the wrong reasons, including the influence of studies like this.
Although I’m not a social scientist, I’m a former BigLaw partner, and I’ve talked with over two hundred current and former lawyers about their career choices and satisfaction. Thirty of those former lawyers, including Elie Mystal, are profiled in my forthcoming book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have.
My advice to anyone contemplating law school is to ignore studies like Simkovic’s and focus instead on what you want to do specifically. The worst reason to go to law school is to prolong career indecision. If you truly need a study to support your choice, take a look at the more useful ones described in Mystal’s follow up post (and have you considered a sociology master’s instead)?
I don’t think it’s possible to generalize in any meaningful way about the value of a JD now. The old adage that “you can do anything you want with a JD” obscures the fact that you can do almost anything you want – except actually practice law – without a JD, too. It’s true that law school provides excellent training for any number of ventures. Hundreds of thousands of former lawyers have found ways to put their legal skills and experiences to use in more rewarding post-law careers. But if you are contemplating whether or not to go to law school, or to stay in law school, the question should be whether the J.D. is worth the additional time and money to you personally. That’s not something any broad study of a J.D.’s earning potential can answer.
Equating a JD with big money is dangerously misleading. It is, of course, possible to earn scads of money without getting a JD. It’s also possible to have an immensely rewarding legal career, although most lawyers I know who love their jobs don’t earn scads of money. I believe Big Law is here to stay, sadly, in spite of its periodic contractions and the implosion of a major firm every two years or so. But I wouldn’t counsel anyone to go into it without a solid backup plan and a truly informed understanding of what it’s like to work in that environment, because many people find misery unsustainable no matter what they earn. Only that kind of study, together with some serious self analysis, will lead to the right career.