Students themselves are critical in establishing manageable debt levels. Many do not research the real economic costs and benefits of a law degree, says Prof. Herwig Schlunk of Vanderbilt University. "It's kind of blindly accepted that education in general, and legal education in particular, is always worth the money," says Schlunk. "[But] there's a lot of kids who do go to law school who really have no business, at least not as an investment matter, in going."
Being realistic about your career path is step No. 1. Success stories from the industry's glory days tend to fuel law students' assumptions that they will be able to get a high-paying job, says David Stern, CEO of Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit organization that promotes careers in public interest law. "In their mind's eye, [law students are] thinking of hitting the lottery and getting one of these $160,000-a-year jobs, and it is a fiction," he says. "By and large, it's just like the lottery. You're spending a huge amount of money in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, and there's relatively small chances, and the chances have gotten a lot smaller."
Students, nevertheless, can better their odds. Getting the best jobs still means keeping a high class rank and networking. Trial-based coursework and externships that put students in real-life legal situations will enhance a student's résumé and may enable close contact with potential employers, says Janet Stearns, dean of students at the University of Miami School of Law. Attending bar meetings can also help get a foot in the door, she says.
Keep in mind that although the supply of high-paying and high-prestige jobs may vary, demand for legal services is still great. Low-income areas across the nation continue to be underserved by the legal community, Stern says. Many people are unable or unwilling to pay for legal help. Corporate clients increasingly opt for a flat fee—rather than paying by the industry's notorious billable hour—or they will settle for paralegal services where they had hired associates, he says. Graduates who can afford it may want to take a lower-paying legal position now so they'll have the advantage of experience when applying for a higher-salaried job after the economy picks up.
Now that some students are finding a law degree is not as immediately marketable as they had hoped, they may benefit from focusing on building nonlegal skills, such as Web producing or social media networking. Laura Bergus, a second-year law student at the University of Iowa and blogger for Social Media Law Student, got her first summer law job after an employer commented on one of her online posts. "Following blogs and commenting on blogs is a huge piece of this puzzle," she says. "That's how you showcase what makes you an individual that the firm you're interested in should hire."