Law School: It Isn’t Just for Aspiring Lawyers

This might sound strange, but you may want to go to law school even if you have no interest in being a lawyer.

The training that three years of law school provides can help you gain access to a wide array of career possibilities, some having little or nothing to do with the law. While most law school applicants hope to become practicing attorneys — civil litigators, corporate lawyers, public defenders, district attorneys — many grads end up on entirely different paths.

Hundreds of law school alumni have found great fame outside of the legal realm: authors Washington Irving and Robert Louis Stevenson, poet Wallace Stevens, painters Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky, TV personalities Megyn Kelly, Jerry Springer, John Cleese, and Charlie Rose, restaurant evaluators Nina and Tim Zagat, and even Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

In fact, the CEOs of nine of Fortune magazine's top 50 corporations in 2010 were law school grads. Many of these individuals started out as attorneys, either in-house or as outside counsel, and eventually rose to the top of the corporate ladder at companies like Bank of America, Kroger, Home Depot, State Farm, WellPoint, MetLife, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Sears Holdings.

New York Times and National Public Radio puzzle wizard Will Shortz (himself a 1977 grad of the University of Virginia School of Law) has summarized his feelings on the degree: "Law is great training for the mind for almost any career. It was good for me because the thinking skills you get from law school are important in puzzle-solving and puzzle-making."

A review of the data shows that the bulk of law school graduates do go on to become lawyers, either in law firms or as in-house counsel. But a significant percentage of grads go directly from law school into other fields.

Do law school graduates get jobs?

In short, yes. Nationwide, about nine in 10 graduates found employment within a year of completing law school.

The American Bar Association analyzes all sorts of statistics regarding ABA-accredited law schools. Its findings include interesting insights into the post-graduation experiences of recent alumni.

For instance, nearly 44,000 students completed their degrees in 2014. As of March 2015, 64.1 percent of these individuals held jobs that required the degree for employment (and another 14.5 percent held jobs for which having a J.D. gave them an advantage).

Just under 10 percent of the class of 2014 — about 4,300 individuals — were unemployed and seeking employment. (This survey's definition of unemployment includes graduates who have accepted written offers of employment but whose start date is deferred, those not seeking employment, those unable to find work, and those whose employment status is unknown.) While the overall number of graduates declined slightly from 2013 to 2014, a somewhat larger percentage of the graduating class of 2014 landed employment one year out than the class of 2013. This suggests that employment for law school grads is on the rise, though we cannot make this claim with a lot of confidence.

Of course, these employment rates provide only a broad overview. More revealing insights emerge from the specific employment data for each of the ABA's 204 accredited law schools. For instance, Yale Law School graduated 230 students in 2014, only 10 of whom were categorized as unemployed by March 2015 (4.3 percent). By contrast, the University of Connecticut School of Law had 187 graduates in 2014, 26 of whom fell into the unemployed column during the same period (13.9 percent).

These statistics imply that the J.D. is a marketable degree, and that the bulk of students who complete the course of study — even those who have not gone to top-tier schools — do land jobs.

Where do law school grads work?

As mentioned above, almost four out of five new J.D. recipients found work that either required bar passage (almost two-thirds of graduates), or preferred applicants with a law degree (14.5 percent). The former category includes attorneys and law clerks; the latter includes paralegals, contract administrators, regulatory analysts, accountants, and FBI agents, among others. Put another way, one in every five law school grads landed work for an employer that apparently didn't much care whether she had a law degree.

Wisely, only two percent of new graduates opened their own firms immediately upon passing the bar. (It's rare that a newly-minted grad has the experience, skills, and financial resources to succeed as a solo practitioner.) Almost 41 percent went to work in law firms; roughly 15 percent landed jobs in businesses and industries other than law firms. About 11.5 percent took government jobs and 7.7 percent took clerkships at federal, state, and local levels. The remaining 10 percent were split between jobs for the public interest, in education, or at law schools specifically.

Not surprisingly, the school-specific data can deviate quite substantially from these national averages. For instance, almost 15 percent of graduates from Georgetown University Law Center and 20 percent of grads from Howard University School of Law (both in Washington, D. C.) worked for the government. Compare this with an 11.5 percent national average, and a rate of less than six percent from Yale. By contrast, 28 percent of Yale law grads went on to hold judicial clerkships, while only 8 and 14 percent of Georgeown and Howard alums, respectively, went that route. It's clear that different law schools prioritize different skills and emphasize specific career paths for their students.

Where should you go?

To a substantial degree, your list of law schools will be dictated by your undergraduate record, LSAT scores, financial resources, and personal commitments. Very few of us have the opportunity to enroll in any law school, anywhere in the country, that strikes our fancy. However, keeping an eye on what you want to do after your get your law degree will define and narrow your selection process.

Getting a job after law school may depend on the contacts you make while you're in school. Are you interested in a particular industry? If you are fascinated by admiralty and maritime work, look for law schools near large seaports. Similarly, if you want to practice entertainment law, the training, careers, and contacts that lead to jobs in that sector tend to be situated in and around Southern California and New York City. Learn where the geographical center of your industry's universe is and apply to law schools in that area.

Are you happy where you are? Or are you already working full-time and unable to uproot your life to accommodate law school? If you're comfortably ensconced in your hometown, why leave? Many law grads struggle to establish the local relationships that you may already have. You are several steps ahead if you've already got a referral network of individuals and businesses that will trust you with their legal problems. Similarly, if you're entering law school to enhance your existing business in some way, look for the best local school that you can afford.

Do you want to climb Everest (metaphorically speaking)? You may be one of those driven people who must be on top — partner at a huge law firm, CEO of a multinational company, or Supreme Court justice. If so, you probably need to enroll and succeed at one of the top-tier institutions in the country. While a magazine’s law school rankings shouldn’t be the sole basis for your choice, it’s a fact that Harvard, Yale, and Columbia have produced the bulk of justices who have served on the Supreme Court bench.

Many of the largest and most prominent law firms will only hire lawyers who have gone to top 10 schools. And many judicial clerkships are similarly limited to the very best students from the most highly-regarded schools. But that doesn’t mean that you’re destined to fail or that you won’t be able to get a job if you don’t attend one of these institutions. Alumni networks are often eager to help out newly graduated and highly qualified grads, especially in niche or regionally-specific industries and practices.

Law school can unlock many doors. The difficulty may lay in deciding which one you want to open.

Use Noodle to explore your options. The free law school search feature allows you to sort schools based on cost, location, selectivity — whatever matters most to you. You can also find more advice about choosing to go to law school from Keith Scheuer and other Noodle Experts.