When law school is worth the cost

January 20, 2011: 10:34 AM ET

Despite arguments to the contrary, law school can still lead to a lucrative career, but only if you plan properly and set your sights on one of the top 35 schools.

By Shawn O'Connor, contributor

Not all of today's law school graduates can expect six figure starting salaries, and as as a recent, in-depth New York Times article illustrated, many will struggle to pay back their school loans. This has long been the case. However, the Times article alludes to -- but doesn't fully address -- an important distinction: The future is still very bright for graduates of the country's top law schools.

While law school tuition continues to increase, so does the average starting salary of new lawyers. From 2006 to 2009, the mean salary for new lawyers increased from $62,000 to $85,198, and the percentage of first-year lawyers earning over $160,000 increased by about 10% from 2008 to 2009, according to a report by The National Association for Legal Career Professionals.

In 2010, most large firms reinstated associate bonuses and annual salary increases. For those who can secure a position at a premier firm, law is still a compelling career choice.

Each year, I counsel law school applicants with the single-minded goal of helping them gain entrance to the highest-ranked school possible. How applicants navigate the application process is far more important than how they perform in law school because lucrative positions are widely available for students at the nation's top 35 law schools, even those with average grades.

There's little doubt that this is the case at the nation's top three law schools: Yale, Stanford, and Harvard. But this is also the case at top 35 schools like Georgetown and Fordham. On the other hand, students at third- and fourth-tier law schools may struggle to find law-related jobs in the public or private sector. While attending these schools may make sense for those looking to transfer after their first year or those with a niche interest, it should not be considered a pathway to a six-figure starting salary.

Contrary to the hyperbole, law school is not a route to financial ruin -- as long as you attend a school with sufficient brand equity to land the "Big Law" position you want. It's not a question of winning the "Big Law sweepstakes," but of winning the Law School sweepstakes. If you're committed to excelling during the admissions process, you are unlikely to end up $250K in debt and unemployed after law school.

If you (or your child) are thinking about law school, here are six tips to help you win the Law School sweepstakes and the promise of a high-paying law firm position that comes with it:

1. Start test preparation and applications early – Attaining a great LSAT score and putting together a winning application doesn't happen overnight. Give yourself plenty of time so you're not rushing to take the exam, finish your essays, or find recommenders at the last minute.

2. Do not accept a low LSAT score – Do not take the LSAT until you are fully prepared. And if you don't meet or exceed your expectations, retake the exam. The LSAT is the #1 factor in admissions, so hundreds of thousands of dollars are riding on your score. Don't assume that schools will make an exception for you because of a high GPA or unique work experience; they might, but this is very rare.  Find a top class and experienced tutor, and take as many practice tests as you can. With the LSAT, practice really does make perfect.

3. No matter what, your GPA matters – While a great LSAT score goes a long way in the law school admissions game, it cannot completely make up for a mediocre undergraduate GPA. If you are even thinking about law school, remember that every grade in college matters.

4. Have a clear purpose in going to law school – No matter where you go to law school, there is never a guarantee of graduating with a high-paying job. If you do not have a passion for some aspect of law, the tuition will never be worth it.

5. Transfer if you can – If you don't get into a top law school, work hard in your first year to earn top grades, and then transfer to a better school. No matter what your third or fourth tier school offers you to stay (scholarships, law review), transfer to a better ranked school if you have the opportunity.

6. During law school, live well below your means – As you will learn in law school, you'll have to pay your student loans back someday; unlike your credit card or car loans, they cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. And, as a recent applicant to the New York bar discovered, flagrantly ignoring these obligations may even preclude your admission to the bar. So, get a smaller apartment with a roommate, pack your lunch, and search for the best "happy hours" because you are literally spending your future earnings each day you are in law school. Saving today will give you the flexibility to pursue your legal passions tomorrow and hopefully enjoy that six-figure salary.

Shawn O'Connor, Esq. is the founder and CEO of Stratus Prep, a New York City-based LSAT test preparation and law school admissions counseling firm.

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