Over the past few years the media has been filled with articles about the “crash” of the legal profession since 2008. A few large law firms have disappeared, starting lawyers’ salaries have, for the most part, dropped from the stratospheric heights they had achieved in the mid-2000s, and applications to law school have fallen precipitously, so much so that many law schools (including the Kansas University School of Law) have reduced their class sizes dramatically. On casual reading of the media, it would seem that only a crazy person would go to law school these days.
Recently, two law professors have decided to fight back and published a study demonstrating that getting a J.D. can mean that the holder will earn as much as $1 million more in a lifetime than someone without a law degree. Not surprisingly, the study has provoked quite a bit of commentary and controversy, but I don’t think whether it is true or not is all that important. Future earnings should not be the reason anyone decides to go to law school. There are a great many other good reasons to go to law school.
This coming June will mark the 35th anniversary of my graduation from law school. Not once in those 35 years have I thought that going to law school was a mistake. Quite the contrary. I learned more about how to think, how to write and how the world works in my three years in law school than I had learned in the 25 years before I entered. My law degree has provided me a good career, a decent income and, most importantly, the ability to do things that I think are important.
Most of my law school classmates became practicing lawyers. A good number of those became judges. One, Sonia Sotomayor, became a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Like several of my classmates, I decided to become a teacher. I cannot imagine a career that I would choose over the one I have chosen. My career has led me to meet fascinating people, to teach thousands of young men and women about the law. It has allowed me to do public service. And it has even led me to write a column for this newspaper for almost 20 years and, thereby, get to know hundreds of my fellow Kansans.
I think it would be great if it were true that getting a J.D. was worth a million dollars. But even if it isn’t, folks who are looking for a career shouldn’t decide against law school just because some newspaper articles say that it is no longer a way to get rich quick. There are many good reasons to go to law school and future earnings should play a minor role in the decision. The fact is, a law degree opens up a world of opportunities that can enrich one’s life in many ways, not just economically.