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If you can’t make it in business, try law. That seems to be the sentiment of thousands of dot-com refugees now enrolling in law school. Applications for spots in this fall’s entering class were up 5.6 percent — the largest increase in more than a decade, The New York Times reported. And a bigger wave of J.D. hopefuls is on its way; 18 percent more sat for the LSAT in June than the year before. If you have a friend or relative who is considering this path, you should pull him or her aside and ask: “What the hell are you doing?” “Have you really thought this through?” “Do you know how long it takes to pay down $120,000 in debt?” “Do you want to be trapped in a stress-making, creativity-sapping job until you’re 40?” It’s not easy to talk someone out of law school. Thanks to the TV shows of David Kelley and Dick Wolf, most applicants think that law is a glamorous profession where you’ll work in spacious offices with attractive and intelligent people. Once they enroll, it may be too late. Within a few months, they’ll know all the legal lingo. They’ll natter on about the “hairy hand” case and the “dormant commerce clause.” They’ll become argumentative and shun their families and old friends, preferring the company of their so-called study groups. Before long, they’ll move past gateway courses to harder stuff, like “Commercial Paper” and “Evidence.” By then, they’ll be so hooked and deep in debt they’ll have no choice but to sell themselves by the hour. In all seriousness, law school is the right choice for some applicants. There are those for whom law is a fulfilling intellectual pursuit. Others truly want to work for the government or a public interest group and don’t mind being in hock for 15 years. And some will gladly sacrifice the best years of their lives for financial security. But many of the 79,000 people who sought law school this year did so for the wrong reasons. Too many applied because they think a J.D. program is a smart place to wait out the economic downturn. Others did it because they haven’t figured out what they really want to do with their lives. I should know. I applied to law school in 1991, during the nadir of the first Bush recession. Joining me were nearly 100,000 fellow applicants — the most ever. Like many of the new-economy castoffs, I saw law school as a meal ticket. It was also a way out. At the time, I was working as a reporter in a somnolent Florida retirement community that boasted the highest median age in the state. As I learned, law school can be as risky as investing in a Nasdaq company. There’s no guarantee that when you graduate, you’ll get a $125,000 job on the path to partnership with a prestigious firm. Just ask the 86 associates and counsel recently axed by Cooley Godward. While this time we may not see the widespread bloodletting of the early 1990s, the overhiring hangover is striking many firms. Even if the economy rebounds in several years, the best-paying jobs will still be hard to get. If you’re not ranked in the top third of your class at the end of your first year, it’s a waste of time to apply to top-tier firms. (I learned that lesson after going zero for 28 during second-year interviews.) And if your law school is not in the top 20, you probably have to be in the top 15 percent of your class to have a decent shot at those jobs. Another factor to consider is age. If you’re past your 20s, you may have a tougher time finding a well paying job. Large firms won’t admit it, but many believe that older candidates are less willing to put in long hours, accept years of doing “grunt” work, and take direction from 30-year-old senior associates. A sociologist-turned-lawyer examined the career searches of 60 law students in the late 1990s. Of those who had jobs by graduation, the median age was 29; of those who did not, the median age was 34. While not conclusive, this study suggests a bias against older students. If you’re a woman who wants to have kids one day, you should also be cautious. While some firms have become more welcoming to working mothers, many still treat part-time lawyers as second-class citizens. It’s important to recognize your real prospects when you consider what you have to invest. To attend Harvard Law this year, you’ll need $27,500 for tuition, plus an estimated $17,900 for room, board, books and other expenses. Assuming those costs rise at a modest 3 percent inflation rate, you will have to spend $143,091.72 by graduation. If your stock options are under water or you don’t have wealthy parents to bankroll you, think loans. Within six months after graduation, your first payment will be due. Even if you borrow only $70,000, you’ll still owe at least $1,000 a month. Sadly, you can’t use dot-com accounting tricks to make your debt disappear. Despite this future financial burden, many students apply to law school because they haven’t a clue what they want to be when they grow up. A lot of my fellow political science majors gravitated toward law knowing nothing about the profession. My advice is to toil as a paralegal for a year to get a truer sense of the type of work you’ll do as a young lawyer. If you still want a J.D. after that, then you probably have what it takes to succeed. Sacrificing one year as a minion is far smarter than wasting a ton of money and three to 10 years. What about those people who apply to law school for idealistic reasons? One young dot-com discard told The New York Times that he’s interested in “fighting to make sure that our health resources are well allocated.” I’m sure he’ll remember that in five years when he’s defending HMOs in discovery disputes. I, too, once believed that a J.D. would help me “make a difference.” I was originally interested in environmental law. I had visions of bringing polluters to justice and doing my part to clean our air and water. By my second year, I realized that good public interest positions are tougher to get than law firm jobs and don’t pay diddly. I wish I had learned sooner that you may have to work for the “bad guys” if you want to practice environmental law. The sad truth is that most students who want to help society eventually will sell out. At the University of Michigan, the law school dean estimated that 90 percent of graduates go on to work at law firms. That’s too bad because there are many ways a bright person can help save the world without taking on the debt load of a developing nation. Another foolish reason why people study law is a desire for professional prestige. That’s odd — given the declining image of the profession. Here’s a sobering story: Last year, a 15-year-old kid from California, with no training other than Court TV, became one of the highest ranking legal experts on the advice Web site AskMe.com. Naturally, when real lawyers learned his identity, they ganged up to drive his ratings down. Many Americans today believe that you don’t need a law degree to offer legal advice and that lawyers are basically parasites. Companies like We the People and Nolo.com that offer form pleadings for divorces, wills and other simple matters are flourishing. And lawyers aren’t helping their own case. Next to Gary Condit, we excel in attracting bad publicity. As fans of the original “Survivor” know, the only lawyer on the island was among the first to be voted off. Of course, she later claimed the game was rigged, demanded $5 million, and filed suit. The last stupid reason for applying to law school is family expectations. Too many of us were raised in type-A households where we were supposed to become doctors or lawyers. As the son of a senior partner at a large D.C. firm, I was steered toward the profession from childhood. I spent some Saturdays as a kid playing with Lucite transaction tombstones in my dad’s office while he reviewed securities filings. It’s hard to make an objective decision under that kind of pressure. Those of you who are already practicing law owe a duty to the next generation to warn of what lies ahead. Advise a prospective law student like you would a client, providing an honest discussion of the risks and rewards. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have a profession full of malcontents. Friends don’t let friends go to law school. At least not without thinking it over — again. Ted Allen is a former law firm associate who now works as a legal journalist in Washington, D.C.

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