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Putting law school on trial

By Brett Noble

March 2, 2008 10:31 p.m.

When I came home from UCLA at the end of my second year, I announced to my parents that I was seriously considering going to law school.

“Have you ever even been inside a courtroom?” my dad asked.

I hadn’t, and somehow this seemed inconsequential at the time. But as the months passed and I started browsing law school Web sites and shopping around for an LSAT prep course, I began to wonder what was driving me.

I wondered if I was in fact genuinely interested in law, or if I was attracted to going to law school because of more naive or shallow reasons.

Seeking to look beyond the romantic and idealistic notions about law often fed by television shows and test prep brochures, I set out looking for answers, or to use a legal term, to build a case ““ a case against law school.

The United States has, by far, the highest per-capita population of lawyers in the world, with one lawyer in every 300 Americans. Though the number of law school applicants has decreased slightly in recent years, in 2007 a record 46,700 applicants matriculated to American Bar Association-accredited U.S. law schools.

A high salary is perhaps the most enticing motivator for obtaining a law degree. Over the past five years, the starting salary for freshly-minted law school graduates at major law firms has climbed to $160,000.

Associates are pampered with gym memberships, free child care and signing and travel bonuses.

But law school is hardly a non-stop journey to financial prosperity. Six-figure salaries are usually only available to students who graduate in the top 25 percent of their law classes or from “top 14″ law programs such as Duke or Yale.

For most law school graduates who work at small law firms or in public interest, starting salaries usually hover between $30,000 and $50,000 ““ similar to what one could earn having graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree.

In addition, law school is becoming a lot more expensive, resulting in tremendous financial burden on new lawyers.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, approximately 80 percent of law students pay for their education with loans, and the average debt is $76,763 for graduates of private law schools and $48,910 for graduates of public law schools.

Even for those who graduate debt-free or obtain good jobs, salaries placing them in the highest tax bracket, along with the cost of housing in urban areas, mean that achieving financial freedom can take years.

These financial sacrifices, though difficult, may not be enough to derail applicants’ plans of attending law school, assuming they have a passion for the field.

Yet it seems that more than ever, students are applying to law school without much of an idea of what they’re in for.

Jodi Triplett is the co-founder of Blueprint Test Prep, a company whose Westwood center prepared approximately 1,000 students for the LSAT in 2007.

Triplett said many of the UCLA students Blueprint has worked with lack a clear understanding of what a legal career entails, even as they prepare to apply for law school.

“I would encourage them to think hard before they leap. Students should know what it means to be a lawyer, what the day-to-day job is like, what it’s like to bill 2,000 hours a year. … It can be a grueling profession,” Triplett said.

On paper, Arthur Lechtholz-Zey seems like the perfect candidate for law school. He graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics of computation and a perfect 4.0 GPA and had served as the chief executive officer of LOGIC, a student group.

Despite a passion for philosophy and reason, Lechtholz-Zey considers going to law school to be one of his biggest mistakes.

“I was always pretty good at writing and arguing, and I thought (law school) was a good way to apply it,” said Lechtholz-Zey. “But the law’s all about just playing games and spinning the facts. I’m not interested in that.”

Lechtholz-Zey said that despite the fact that he took undergraduate law courses, he was caught off guard by the law school environment.

“Know what you’re getting yourself into and why you want to go to law school,” he said. “I think a lot of people have a mistaken view of what law can actually do and whether it’s a cure for problems or just a Band-Aid.”

Lechtholz-Zey withdrew at the beginning of his second semester at the UCLA School of Law, but ultimately decided to return to finish his degree.

“The fact that I was already $40,000 in debt in student loans made me realize, “˜I’ll have to take on more debt, but at least I’ll have a degree to pay it off when I’m done,'” he said.

At the end of the day, despite its drawbacks, law remains a highly appealing career option.

While I haven’t made up my mind as to whether I’ll end up taking the LSAT and applying, balancing the pros and cons of law school has allowed me to be the most informed judge for my future.

I rest my case.

E-mail Noble at [email protected].

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