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"I'm going to law school." The phrase is uttered with increasing frequency on college campuses these days. Sometimes it's said with resignation; more often, with enthusiasm.
The law, perhaps more than any other profession, has captured the imagination of graduating college students. Of the 1600 students graduating form Harvard College today, at least 100 plan to enter law school next fall. And dozens more will enroll after a few years abroad or in the workforce.
Last year, law schools across the country received more than 443,000 applications from 92,000 would-be lawyers. And the numbers are rising steadily. The Law School Admissions Council reports that applications increased about 27 percent over the past five years.
The trend is just one aspect of a society's love-hate relationship with the legal profession.
Public opinion polls consistently show that Americans hold lawyers in low regard, and yet they seem drawn to movies and TV shows about the law.
There are countless prime time shows about lawyers, including the award-winning L.A. Law. There are best-selling novels (The Firm), movies (Presumed Innocent), fake TV trials (Divorce Court) and real TV trails (the William Kennedy Smith rape case). There's even Court TV, A 24-hour cable channel devoted to coverage of the courts. F
This national craze apparently influenced the nearly 130,000 students currently enrolled in law schools is finally beginning to level off after two decades of dramatic growth.
For some of these new students, attending law school is a childhood dream come true.
For other graduates, it is merely a safe way to spend the next three years.
Richard B. Buery Jr. '92 says he plans to attend law school because he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life.
"I think it's a good thing to do, It will be a good education, in lieu of a more exciting career path," he says.
Career counselors and law professors say they are encountering more and more students like Buery lately. With the recession lingering, many seniors have decided to avoid the shaky job market and try their luck at law school.
"People felt if they went to law school for three years they could ride out the recession with an enabling degree," says Dena O. Raykoff, assistant director of the Office of Career Services.
But for most students, going to law school is much more than a default decision. They find law school attractive for a variety of complex reasons.
Students frequently have noble intentions. They say a law degree will help them "effect positive social change" and fight injustice.
Catherine T. Struve '92, who will attend Harvard Law next fall, already has a specific field in mind. "I'm hoping to work with rape and incest survivors. I see a real need for a lawyer who wants to work in that field, she says.
According to a 1986 ABA Journal survey, 22 percent of practicing attorneys pursued a legal career because "they wanted to see justice done." Twenty-three percent listed "a desire to change society" as a motive.
Many students also choose law schools because they find the work interesting and intellectually challenging.
"I think...over the last 50 years, it has been seen as an interesting and intellectually oriented work with the opportunity to make a good living," says James Vorenberg '49, former dean of Harvard Law School.
In addition, it's easy for students to pick law over other graduate fields; There are no undergraduate course requirements, and a degree is only three years of study away.
But for every law student interested in public service or intellectual stimulus, there's another in it for the big bucks.
The ABA Journal survey indicates that 46 percent of lawyers listed "income potential" as a primary reason for their career choice.
The promise of a high-paying job right after graduation can be tantalizing. The average starting salary for new graduates was $37,000 in 1988. In New York, some firms offer starting salaries as high as $76,000.
"[Law school] is an easy three years and boom--you have a job," says Lisa M. White '92, who is bound for Harvard Law School. "Money plays a lot into why people are going into law."
"I see myself being very tempted by money," she adds.
Although few deny that the big money is one of law school's primary magnets, some argue that students are less interested in the money itself than in the prestige or power that accompanies a high salary.
Richard D. Kahlenberg '85, author of the new book Broken Contract, argues that because law students are used to the distinction of academic success, high-paying jobs at large firms become their new measure of success.
High salaries are comparable to high grades, he argues, and "salary is a new merit badge."
Students recognize that the profession may have a bad image, but they say lawyers are usually respected, can exert power and often get rich.
Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg has a different take. he says students don't go to law school for its benefits--public service, money, prestige--but rather to avoid other, less attractive options.
"It's more negative than positive, much more reflective of profession and economic security than a firm interest in the law," Weisberg says.
Some students headed for law school see it as the only "respectable' alternative to going medical school and becoming a doctor.
Others simply consider it the best path to job security, especially in times of recession and diminishing job markets. Attending law school, they say, is both practical and safe.
"I think [law] is a safe field," says Antoinette M. Sequeira '92. "You know when you graduate you can do something with your degree."
A law degree, many students believe, offers career flexibility, Law school represents a lowrisk, high yield investment.
"I see [a law degree] as a way to do basically whatever I want to do," says Sequeira, who will attend Harvard law next fall.
Other students echo Sequeira's comments,arguing that a law degree can lead to success inalternative fields such as business and politics.
But several law school students and graduatessay the belief that a law degree offersflexibility is a perfect example of how youngpeople heading towards law many have made thedecision based on hearsay and popular myths.
"People who enter the law don't really knowwhat they're getting into" says Stanford'sWeisberg "I don't think the increase in lawstudents represents a well-thought out commitmentto law."
"There's this idea that you can keep youroptions open if you go to law school.. [but] thismove to keep options open actually closes them,"says Kahlenberg, a 1989 graduate of the LawSchool.
Lisa J. Schkolnick '88, who graduates fromHarvard Law today, repeats one of Kahlenberg'spoints; Law school tuition debts closes doors forthe graduate.
"Going to law school only serves to get onedeeply in debt," she says. Schkolnik says thesedebts often total $70,000 or more, and practicallyforce students to take high-paying jobs in lawfirms.
"The flexibility argument is not even a myth,it's a fallacy," says Heidi Reavis, a lawyerpracticing in New York.
Students and graduates also agree that lawschools have an undeniable track record ofderailing students who enrolled hoping to enterpublic-interest law.
Many incoming law students believe they canbuck the trend, but the figures show that fewactually do.
A 1986 pool of first-year Harvard Law studentsindicated that 70 percent wanted to practicepublic-interest law. As Kahlenberg notes, barely ahandful entered the field when the class graduatedin 1989.
"Students enter law school because they want tobe like Atticus Finch...[but] at graduation mostgo to corporate law firms," says Kahlenberg,referring to the legal hero of Harper Lee's toKill A Mockingbrid.
There are a number of explanations for theexodus to corporate law: the quest for prestige,remarkable starting salaries compared with the lowpay in public-interest work, the difficulty ofgetting a job with a big public-interestorganization and the pressure to pay tuitionloans.
"I think that because of the cost of going tolaw school you're going to have to find a way ofbalancing the [desire] to help people and livingand surviving," says White. "Hopefully you canfind a way to do it."
A growing number of law school graduates arefinding they can't strike that balance andacknowledge being unhappy as lawyers.
According to a study prepared for the AmericanBar Association. the number of attorneysnationwide who say they are dissatisfied withtheir work grew by 25 percent from 1984 to 1990.The level of discontent is especially high amongthe lawyers who graduated from law school after1967.
Career counselors say most of thesedissatisfied lawyers had only vague notions of whythey decided to attend law school and did notadequately understand the rigors of a career inlaw.
Another generation of dissatisfied lawyerscould be only one effect of the stampede ofcollege seniors to law school.
The quiet conversion of students who see law asa vehicle for social change into highly paidcorporate lawyers is certainly noteworthy.
But perhaps more significant is whether thecontinued rise in the number of law studentsadversely affects academia and other fields.
"From my own experience, I am concerned thattoo many talented people are going into a fieldthat has talented people already," says AssistantProfessor of Government Thomas C. Ertman. "I justthink students should find out a bit more abouttheir choice."
"Undoubtedly, it would be much preferable ifsome people...were doing such things as teaching,"says Geoffrey R. Stone, dean of the University ofChicago Law School.
But Stone cautions that swelling ranks are notthe fault of the law profession. "it is the faultof how society values certain things."
Weisberg says the number of law students beganto rise 20 years ago as funding for academia beganto dwindle and demand for professors fell.
In the '60s, Weisberg says, "it was far moreattractive to go into the Ph.D. program. Law andmedical schools were seen as trade schools."
But today many talented people choose law overacademic. Weisberg says he decided to go to lawschool after spending six years as a professor ofEnglish during the "vague, directionlessspiritlessness" of the '70s.
There are about 700,000 lawyers in the UnitedStates today, nearly twice as many as 20 yearsago. There is one attorney in the country forevery 354 citizens.
But at least one of them believes that lawschool is not for everyone. Says Reavis, "It'svery depressing to see very talented people withvery creative minds going into professions wherethese talents won't be used."
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