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Prospective Law Students Should See Case for Caution

Given the changed legal landscape, it's key to choose your path with care.

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When Jennifer Lunsford began her third year at Boston University School of Law in fall 2008, she had by the usual measures done everything right. She'd nailed the grades and the extracurriculars, worked as a paralegal before law school, and was fresh out of a summer associate position at a firm in Washington, D.C., that she fully expected to turn into a full-time job after graduation.

But the offer didn't come, for her or about half of her summer associate class, she says. Suddenly, "everybody's good bet that they made when they took out $100,000-plus in loans to go to law school" no longer seemed like such a surefire investment, she says.

[Learn what's new in U.S. News's Best Law Schools rankings.]

Luns­ford worked in retail for three months until she found a position at a small law firm in Rochester, N.Y.—which, after a year and a half, didn't need her any longer, either. She next ventured out as a solo practitioner, working from her Rochester home for several months before she found a job in January 2012 doing litigation at a small area firm.

She is optimistic about the job and is happy she chose law school, but Lunsford, 30, found the whole process quite an awakening. "I managed to make the best of it by being creative and taking chances," she says. "But I didn't end up where I expected to."

The 160,000-plus new J.D.'s who have entered the job market since the economy tanked have indeed found a changed landscape from the pre-downturn days, when summer associates with impressive GPAs and résumés and perhaps a stint on law review were wined and dined and often recruited well before graduation. The Class of 2007 enjoyed the highest employment rate in 20 years, reported NALP—the Association for Legal Career Professionals; the Class of 2010, by contrast, faced the "worst job market" since the mid-1990s.

[Read about law schools' employment data.]

Large law firms under pressure to trim the tabs of their corporate clients shed thousands of positions during the recession, not only putting a damper on hiring in the "Biglaw" arena but also increasing the competition for spots at smaller firms, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies (many of which have been forced to tighten their belts, too).

Meanwhile, future lawyers are shouldering considerable debt. The latest stats from the American Bar Association show that public law school graduates with loans had borrowed an average of $68,800 total, while those at private schools borrowed $106,200. But many students hit $150,000 or even $200,000.

Starting salaries haven't exactly kept pace: The median for 2010 graduates was $63,000, 13 percent less than for the class of 2009, according to NALP. Starting pay at private firms also fell, to $104,000 from $130,000 in 2009.

[See more tips and stats about law school.]

Using a tool like the one found at FinAid.org, a student anticipating a loan balance of $80,000 and an interest rate of 7.5 percent can discover that he would have to dole out about $950 a month to pay off the loan in 10 years. If he wanted the payments to be 10 percent of monthly income, he'd need to earn at least $114,000 annually.

So would-be lawyers have to think hard about whether now is the time to invest in more schooling and, if so, what program provides the skills they truly need at the right cost. "The message isn't to be a dream-breaker," says Brian Tamanaha, professor of law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. "It's to make informed choices."

While a number of law firms are cautiously hiring again, they're being selective about how many people—especially rookies—they bring on, since cost-conscious clients have balked at paying huge fees for work by inexperienced associates. Firms are also demanding that law schools do more hands-on training.

Experiential learning can take many forms—intensive clinical courses that involve working with real clients, simulations of court cases, or collaborating with business students, say, to launch or assist a start-up company.