Careful planning is the name of the game these days for people considering law school. The overall percentage of new grads employed has fallen every year since 2007, with just under two thirds of the class of 2011 finding jobs that require bar passage, according to NALP--the Association for Legal Career Professionals.
Fewer than half of those jobs were at law firms, and far more graduates than in past years found positions in smaller or mid-size offices instead of large firms, which often offer higher pay. Overall, the median starting salary for 2011 grads working full time fell to $60,000, down about 5 percent from a year earlier. Starting pay at law firms fell even further--to $85,000 from $104,000.
Given the sobering numbers, experts say that you should begin your law school search by getting a genuine sense of what lawyers do and a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish with a law degree. To help prospective applicants navigate the rest of the process, U.S. News pitched six key questions to several dozen professors, attorneys, and law students.
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1. Will it be easier to get in this year? Earning admission is still a competitive process that hinges on an applicant's credentials, including LSAT score.
But over the past two years, the number of law school applicants is down more than 22 percent, according to preliminary data from the nonprofit Law School Admission Council. And early data for fall 2013 suggests the numbers could fall another fifth this year alone.
Roughly half of law schools have reduced their incoming class sizes for fall 2013, according to a November 2012 Kaplan Test Prep survey. Still, "for most students, it should be much easier to get in to the law school of their choice than in any year in recent memory," says Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Fewer applicants overall means that those with lower credentials might have a better shot at getting in at a reach school. "Schools will be dipping much deeper into the pool than they would have in the past," says Brian Tamanaha, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law and author of Failing Law Schools.
Financial aid packages could get better, too. Forty-seven percent of law schools increased aid to students for 2012-2013, according to the Kaplan survey.
[Learn more about paying for law school.]
2. Should you work first? The verdict, from admissions counselors and hiring partners: Work experience can only help. The job doesn't have to be in the legal field to impress admissions, though working as a paralegal or volunteering for a legal nonprofit can give prospective students a reality check.
Recruiters, too, tend to look favorably upon a substantial résumé. "Firms like that because they're seeing people ... who are ready to hit the ground running from day one," says Richard Batchelder, a partner who leads hiring at Ropes & Gray. About two thirds of the firm's most recent summer associate classes have taken some time off to work before law school, he says.
3. What should you look for in the curriculum? Partners and other people who hire new attorneys are demanding hands-on experience--grads who not only know the principles of corporate law, but who have actually done project work for local small business owners, for instance.
A number of law schools have overhauled their curricula accordingly, expanding clinical courses, beefing up specialized classes on leadership, and adding interdisciplinary and joint degree programs.
Experts advise students to shop around for programs that are strong in experiential opportunities, such as interning with a local judge or working with low-income clients through a legal aid society. Students at Washington and Lee University School of Law, for instance, take an all-experiential third year.
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4. When is it smart to go part time? If you do, expect to be in class for a few hours on weekday evenings for four straight academic years and usually at least one summer. Going this route while working will almost certainly leave you very little time for internships, extracurriculars, and volunteering.
If your goal is to be a lawyer at a big firm, a part-time strategy might actually handicap you, since most large firms prefer to hire entry-level associates who have had a summer post with them or a comparable firm. Weigh how good a job a part-time program will do of putting you in front of employers and the employment data on record for graduates.
Going part time will not necessarily be any cheaper. At the Georgetown University Law Center, for instance, a full-time student's total tuition bill in 2012-2013 was $146,505 ($48,835 times three) versus a part-time student's $147,050 ($1,730 per credit hour, with 85 credit hours required to graduate).
5. What will raise the odds of finding a job? Now that the American Bar Association requires law schools to report more detailed employment data about graduates--such as how many landed full-time, long-term jobs that require bar admission--aspiring students can get a better sense of their prospects.
Such data are a significant component of the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings; we surveyed the schools directly for this information at graduation as well as at nine months out.
Where you go will matter when it comes to the endgame--not only in terms of a law school's prestige, but also because of the connections institutions have to local clinical and externship opportunities and employers. At about 60 percent of all ABA-accredited law schools, at least 2 out of 3 employed 2011 graduates found jobs in the state where they studied.
Once you're in school, get set to do some serious résumé polishing. Developing skills like financial literacy, getting some project management experience, and adding specialized legal training can be deal-clinchers in the eyes of employers.
6. How can you cut costs and minimize debt? Most students borrow to pay at least part of the tab, but advisers say keeping the debt load to a minimum--and in line with a reasonable salary projection--should be a priority. Public law school graduates who borrow average about $75,700 in loans, while private law grads borrow nearly $125,000, according to the most recent ABA statistics.
Student loan calculators, such as the one at FinAid.org, can help you get a sense of the monthly payments, including interest, and what salary would be required to pay the money back over certain time periods. If scholarship offers don't meet your expectations, experts point out that this is an opportune time to try to negotiate.
Prospective students should also explore schools' loan repayment assistance programs, as well as those offered by the federal government and certain states. Those who work in certain public-interest jobs might qualify for total loan forgiveness after 10 years of employment and on-time payments.
More than 100 law schools offer their own version of loan repayment assistance programs, or LRAPs, according to Equal Justice Works (which writes a student loan blog for U.S. News). The University of Virginia's School of Law, for example, will cover 100 percent of the payment amount for public-interest workers making $55,000 or less annually.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.