There continues to be an active debate on the question of whether or not law school is a good investment. I prefer to think of the question not in terms of “whether,” but in terms of “when.” In this essay, I conduct an analysis for three current undergraduates who are considering attending private law schools. I demonstrate how such individuals should take all known costs and all expected benefits into account in making their “investment” decision. As the calculation necessarily differs dramatically from one potential law student to another, my conclusions are far less important than my methodology.
[I]n terms of lost salary, the opportunity cost of law school attendees will vary greatly from one potential attendee to another. To reflect this variation, I will undertake an analysis for each of three very different but hopefully somewhat typical potential attendees. My first such potential law student is a college graduate whom I will name Also Ran. Also Ran achieves above average grades in a relatively nonmarketable major from a middle-of-the-pack undergraduate institution; he could have earned a mere $35,000 in a non-legal job. Also Ran manages to claw his way into a third-tier private law school (with a blended US News and World Report rank of 88th) and has only a poor prospect, which I will set equal to 5% in the current market, of landing an NLJ 250 job (i.e., a “Biglaw” job). My second potential law student is a college graduate whom I will name Solid Performer. Solid Performer achieves relatively good grades in a somewhat more marketable major from a better institution; he could have earned $42,500 in a non-legal job. Solid Performer makes his way into a second tier law school (with a blended US News and World Report rank of 50th) and has a better prospect than Also Ran, but still a relatively small prospect, of landing an NLJ 250 job. Specifically, I will assume that there is an 8% chance that Solid Performer ends up starting at Biglaw. My third potential law student is a college graduate whom I will name Hot Prospect. Hot Prospect earns strong grades in a relatively marketable major from a highly-ranked undergraduate institution; she could have earned $50,000 in a non-legal job. Hot Prospect attends a first tier law school (with a blended US News and World Report rank of 19th) and has a relatively strong chance, which I will set equal to 25% for purposes of my analysis, of ending up in an NLJ 250 entry-level position.
These numbers are bleak. What they say, in plain English, is that with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, two-thirds of the graduates from Also Ran’s institution, four-fifths of the graduates from Solid Performer’s institution, and two-thirds of the graduates from Hot Prospect’s institution will know, as they are receiving their diplomas, that they made what has turned out ex post to be a bad investment!
Finally, it is interesting to turn the mode of calculation on its head, and thus directly confront the question of how much a legal education is worth. ...
[L]aw school is a very risky (and expensive) investment; it should not be entered into lightly. However, as I have already mentioned, and worth repeating again, each potential student’s calculus will be based on a host of factors unique to him or her. For some, like an English major (relatively low opportunity costs) who gets some scholarship assistance (somewhat lower out-of-pocket costs) to attend Harvard Law School (relatively high pay-off), the investment in a legal education is almost surely a no-brainer. Moreover, even for individuals facing a more challenging calculus, it may be the case that a legal education confers benefits beyond the incremental compensation that I have used to analyze the pure investment decision. For example, a law degree opens up many more avenues of potential employment, including importantly self-employment, than does a typical undergraduate degree; lawyers are found in all parts of the workforce performing all manner of jobs. Does this imply, perhaps, that some option value should be added to a law degree’s payoffs? If so, how would one measure such option value? And lastly, of course, a law degree is a professional degree; it confers considerable prestige. But alas, as I first pointed out two years ago, you cannot eat prestige.