Catherine Whelan, a senior Legal Studies major at the University of Massachusetts who will attend graduate school in the fall in hopes of one day getting a Ph.D., had dreamed for most of her life of becoming a traditional lawyer in the court system.
“I was just one of those people that came out of the womb wanting do law,” said Whelan.
But when Whelan weighed the debt she would have after going to law school against the probability of landing a job in the market, she decided to reconsider her options. She studied for the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, for two months and then decided to not even take it.
“A lot of people at UMass, and a lot of people in the Legal Studies major in particular, love the discipline of competing and arguing and tearing things apart, so law school is the logical next step for them,” said Whelan. “That’s how everyone thinks about it. When you take a look at the reality of what’s going on in the legal profession, it can be just as logical to back off and look at something else.”
And, according to national and University figures, Whelan appears to be part of a growing trend.
The number of students at UMass taking the LSAT and continuing their education at law school is at a record low, according to figures from the UMass Pre-Law Advising Office.
In the past two years, the number of students at UMass who have taken the LSATs has dropped by 42 percent, and the number is expected to continue reducing, according to Diane Curtis, the school’s director of pre-law advising.
The number of test takers nationally has also dropped by 25 percent in the last two years, according to figures from the Law School Admission Council that were reported in the New York Times last month. The United States experienced an all-time high of LSAT test takers in the 2009-10 school year – with 171,514 people completing the exam – followed by a sharp drop in the current school year, with only 129,925 taking the exam.
“There’s been a very serious drop [at UMass], more than the national average,” said Curtis.
Curtis noted that the debt for law school is growing much faster than the job market is contracting. The national average for tuition and fees annually is at around $30,000 – not including living expenses.
“It’s been a very long time, a couple of decades, since going to law school meant having an automatic job,” she said.
And for some students at UMass, that has meant a change in plans.
For Ryan Lawson, a senior Legal Studies major, that means taking a different approach to funding his educational pursuits.
“I took five years to finish my undergrad and I don’t plan on taking a gap year. I’m in the Army, so I’m going to law school while I’m under contract. They have an allotted number of credits they’ll pay for, and I think I should have enough to cover the first year of law school,” said Lawson.
Many students also experience extreme stress and pressure to perform perfectly academically, in order to boost their chances of getting a job out of law school and to help them qualify for need-based aid.
“You should see the desktop on my computer,” noted Lawson. “It’s all the classes I should be taking [and] national rankings. It’s kind of ridiculous.”
Elizabeth Keenan, a senior political science major, accepted a position at Staples Corporate for post-graduation, but hopes to attend Suffolk Law School – where she was accepted – sometime in the future.
And even though jobs in the legal field may seem scarce, Keenan has advice for students with a passion in law.
“The biggest advice that I would give is that when you’re in college you need to stay focused and try hard and maintain that work ethic that’s going to prepare you for a law degree,” said Keenan. “I think being a hard working student is what it really takes.”
Curtis, however, encourages all students with a passion in law to go to law school.
“If you know for sure that you love law school and you’re going to love being a lawyer and you’re going to stay in that career for decades, this will be an investment in your life and you’re spanning out the payments over a lot longer time,” she said, noting that those interested should contact her.
Victoria Palmatier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org