Education

Is Law School a Good Investment if 75% Fail the Bar Exam?

Written by Richard Fossey

This spring, pass rates for the California Bar Exam hit a historic low. Only 26.8 percent of the test-takers received a passing grade–about one out of four. The pass rate for retakers was even lower: a shocking 22 percent.

As one might expect, pass rates varied widely based on where the test-takers went to law school. People who studied at an ABA-accredited California law school had a pass rate of 42 percent, which is pretty poor odds. But the poor blokes who got degrees from unaccredited distance-learning schools had a pass rate of only 16 percent.

No matter where students enroll, going to law school has gotten outrageously expensive. Most people who study law are forced to take out student loans. According to one report, the average newly minted lawyer graduates with $145,550 in debt. How would you like to leave law school with $145,000 in college loans and then fail the bar exam? Or fail it twice?

People who graduate at the top of their class from elite schools (Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, etc.) generally find well-paying jobs with blue-chip law firms. But the leading U.S. law firms have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and are laying off lawyers and cutting salaries. Scroll down the list that Law360 compiled of the nation’s most prestigious firms, and you will see that most of these big firms are hurting.

In other words, even law graduates with impeccable credentials are seeing their salaries cut due to COVID-19. People who graduate at the bottom of their class from second- and third-tier law schools will find it damned near impossible to pay off $150,000 in student loans because there are few decent-paying law jobs for these people.

So–if you are thinking about going to law school, do some research. Be sure to check out a couple of good web sites on the legal-education industry: Above the Law and Law School Transparency. Find out the bar pass rate and the average student-debt load for the law school where you intend to study. If you know some lawyers in the area where you hope to practice, ask them to share their thoughts about their local job market.

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When I graduated from the University of Texas School of Law, the legal profession was a great way to make a living. Tuition was very low, and I worked my way through school and graduated with no debt. I did well in law school, graduating with honors, and I got several job offers.

In those days, even people who graduated with less than stellar grades could look forward to a stable job if they attended a well-respected law school. I had grown up in a small Oklahoma town, and law school opened up a bright, new world of seemingly limitless opportunities.

But those days are gone. Law school tuition is way too expensive. Today people who enroll at a mediocre law school are playing Russian roulette with their financial futures.

And law schools have lowered their admission standards to meet their enrollment goals, as evidenced by declining bar pass rates in states such as California. This signals to me that the academic atmosphere of law school is not as stimulating now as when I was a law student.

So if you are dreaming about going to law school, think about it long and hard. Your world will definitely change if you get a J.D. degree, but it might not change for the better. Your dream of a better life could turn into a nightmare of bitterness, poverty, and regret.




About the author

Richard Fossey

Richard Fossey is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received his law degree from the University of Texas and his doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is editor of Catholic Southwest, A Journal of History and Culture.

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