I got an email from an accountant in his late 20s a few days ago, who is considering going to law school a couple of years from now. Being an accountant, he had tried to break the question down in straightforward financial terms, which is a big improvement over the typical nonchalance exhibited by most prospective law students. He graduated with a BA and MA in accounting from a good business school a couple of years ago, and he's about to become a CPA. He's making about 60K and anticipates that will be 70K by the time he would be ready to go to law school. His goal is to get into the very good (solidly into the top half of the first tier) public law school in his state of residence, which is currently charging resident tuition in the neighborhood of 33K a year. The school's promotional materials claim that the average salary of its 2010 grads was $104K and change, and, given that the opportunity costs he would incur by going to law school would be quite high, he of course wanted to know how realistic of an estimate this was of what he was likely to make when he graduated. Using it, he had calculated that ten years after graduation he would be a total of 175K ahead financially of where he would be if he stayed in accounting, after taking into account attendance and opportunity costs.
I steered him towards some LST materials so that he could better understand that this salary figure is both quite inaccurate as a statistical matter, and that furthermore even if the data used to compile it were accurate, it's a mean salary, so it's "average" in the same sense that a man who has one foot in a bucket of ice water and another on hot coals is on average experiencing a comfortable temperature. (Of course almost none of the school's 2010 graduates are making 104K or anything close to it. Some are making 50% more and a lot are making way less.)
Naturally other considerations besides return on investment are in play: he told me that after a couple of years he has realized that accounting is not something he wants to do for his long-term career, and that he loved the business law classes he took in business school. Basically, he gave me the sense he's bored with his work, and that it doesn't seem meaningful to him. I asked him to consider, when calculating the potential ROI of going to law school, to take into account not just the relative possible salary difference, but the actual hourly compensation rate for his work (he described his current work schedule as "lax."). In this vein, I also suggested he try to develop contacts with people who were now practicing the kind of law he envisioned himself practicing, and who had similar educational and experiential backgrounds to his own, so that he could at least get some sort of glimpse into what their work lives were actually like.
All this is fairly obvious advice and of only marginal help to someone in his position. Not only do I have no idea what it's like to be an accountant, I'm almost as clueless regarding the work life of a Biglaw business lawyer today. When it comes to the latter I, like the vast majority of law professors, am no more than an amateur armchair anthropologist, who a couple of decades ago lived for a short while on the edges of the tribe I'm now being asked to evaluate. All I can really tell someone like my correspondent is that he would be taking what seems like a very big risk: leaving behind, at least for the time being, a solid career, to invest 300K (attendance + opportunity cost) in buying something which at present has an extremely uncertain ROI (all this analysis, for what little it's worth, is based on the assumption that he gets into this T-20 school that costs about 20% less than comparable private schools). And course he has no real idea if he would find being a business lawyer more or less satisfying, all things considered, than accounting as a career, even assuming he gets the kind of job he thinks he wants now and manages to keep it. (This is the "psychic income" part of the equation, which is the hardest thing for prospective law students to calculate, and the aspect of the question that most law faculty are of the least use in helping answer). At least, I suppose, he would have something solid to fall back on if the law thing doesn't work out, but even that assumption is grounded in my ignorance of how relatively easy or hard it would be for him to return to his present career path after a several-year legal detour.
At a more general level, who should be going to law school now? Here are some nominations for good candidates:
(1) People who get full scholarships to good schools. There are still real risks involved for such people -- opportunity costs, wasted time, potential brain damage, golden handcuffs -- but needless to say there are no risk-free career options, and going to a top law school for (relatively) free very likely makes sense for people who -- enormous caveat here, which I'm going to shout in block letters -- TRULY BELIEVE THEY WANT TO PRACTICE LAW AND HAVE SOME RATIONAL BASIS FOR THAT BELIEF. (Keep in mind you can get the equivalent of a full scholarship to a top school if you're genuinely confident you want to do public interest work, and take advantage of the school's LRAP program. This assumes however that you can end up getting a public interest job you would actually want to do, in a place you're willing to live, which isn't a minor consideration. Good public interest jobs are a lot harder to get than Biglaw slots).
After that things get trickier.
Other possible candidates:
(2) People who really want to practice law who have full scholarships to middling schools. For most people right now, it makes much more sense to take a full ride to a middling school than to pay full boat at a top school. Keep in mind that somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% to 30% of this year's 3Ls at places like Michigan and Duke don't have jobs and are getting exactly zero OCI interviews -- as in "none." (BTW, if you're in this particular boat you might want to read this and then organize a protest or something).
(3) (a) People who really want to be practice law, and who come from family circumstances -- rich indulgent parents etc. -- that dictate that someone other than yourself will be paying. (Crucial caveat: make sure these are people who won't subsequently hate you forever if it turns out they essentially bought you a high end luxury car which which you immediately drove uninsured and proceeded to total, as a prelude to doing the same thing again in each of the following two years. Even more crucial sub-caveat: Spouses are unlikely to meet this criterion).
(3) (b) People who really want to practice law, and who come from family circumstances that dictate somebody can probably get you a good legal job by making a couple of phone calls, or even better by just hiring you straight out.
(4) Trust fund slackers (we call them trustifarians in our beautiful little town) who just want to fool around in "school" for another three years before becoming consultants on Green Development Projects in third world nations with fascinating indigenous cuisines just now being discovered by white people. Seriously, if you're one of these people, we need you to come to law school, now more than ever.
Did I miss anybody?