Cornell University

Deciding on Law School

A J.D., Juris Doctor, can lead to a wide range of law-related careers and can open doors to careers in government, business, higher education, communications, and numerous other fields. There is little doubt that the study and practice of law can be intellectually stimulating; the most basic functions of the legal profession call daily upon reasoning, analytical, and communication skills. The possibility of effecting social change, setting legal precedent, and defending basic human rights attracts many who are dedicated to making a positive impact on the lives of people they serve. An expectation of prestige and high salaries is also a consideration in deciding on a legal career.

The realities of working in the legal profession, however, should be fully explored before reaching a decision. Legal work can require spending considerable time completing tedious, painstaking research and repetitive administrative tasks. Hours can be very long and often include weekends.

Depending on the type of law practiced and the location, salaries may not meet expectations. Therefore, it is essential to evaluate both advantages and disadvantages in making this important decision.

Exploring Your Interest

Before beginning the application process, then, consider carefully if a law degree is right for you.

Your decision should not be made by default because you are not sure what else to do. There are a number of ways you can explore the field of law:

  • Register to receive e-mails about law-related programs and opportunities by completing a brief Student Profile on Cornell Handshake.
  • Talk with a career counselor and take interest assessment tests at Cornell Career Services (CCS) in 103 Barnes Hall, or G55 Goldwin Smith if you are an Arts and Sciences student, to determine if your personality, values, and interests are aligned with what is required in the legal profession.
  • Conduct research on legal careers using resources at Career Services in Barnes Hall.
  • Investigate online resources that provide information on legal careers, law schools, and other law-related topics through the Cornell Career Services website.
  • Participate in Cornell's Extern Program to shadow Cornell alumni in their workplaces over winter break, and in a similar program for first-year students, FRESH, that takes place during spring break.
  • Intern with a law firm or law-related organization to gain exposure to the field and to experience the work environment.
  • Conduct information interviews to learn about the legal profession. Talk with lawyers who are family members, family friends, or Cornell alumni. Inquire about these issues:
    • what lawyers do in a typical work day
    • personal attributes needed to be successful in a legal career
    • satisfaction and dissatisfaction of the field
    • impact of a legal career on personal lives
    • the employment outlook in a challenging legal market
  • Speak with lawyers who became dissatisfied and left the field.
  • Discuss the law school experience with current law students and sit in on a class. You can arrange to visit Cornell Law School by calling the Admissions Office at 607/255-5141.
  • Take a position as a paralegal or legal assistant in a law firm, or work in a law-related organization, before applying to law school to confirm your interest in the field. No special training is required, and Cornell Career Services can assist you with your job search. Many Cornellians who eventually go to law school take time off first.

Realities of a Legal Career

An important step in making a decision is to note the differences between commonly held expectations and the realities of legal practice. Employment statistics for the class of 2009 law graduates, based on responses from 40,833 (nearly 93% of all graduates), reveal that the overall employment rate was down several percentage points from the previous year. A number of recent grads received deferred start dates, and nearly 25% of all jobs were reported as temporary, demonstrating that the market for new lawyers continues to be uncertain as well as competitive.

  • The average starting salary was approximately $93,450; the median salary was $72,000.
  • About 9% of salaries reported were at or below $40,000.
  • Salaries of more than $75,000 accounted for almost 48% of salaries reported.
  • Approximately 56% of the class chose private practice in law firms.
  • Nearly 26% took positions in public service, including judicial clerkships, government agencies, and public interest organizations.
  • Graduates entering business accounted for about 13%.
  • About 30% of graduates were employed in positions for which bar passage isn’t required.

While a corporate lawyer may earn $130,000 in a private firm the first year, he may also work twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. For those interested in public interest law, the median starting salary is $42,800. Although there is certainly personal satisfaction to be derived from representing underprivileged clients, the debt most law students accumulate may significantly influence an eventual choice of specialization.

If, after careful consideration of the realities of a law career, you are committed to the prospect of a career that will require you to think logically, critically, and creatively; to address some of the major social issues that confront our times; and to play a part in shaping legal institutions and codes that influence the future, then becoming a lawyer may very well prove to be a rewarding and fulfilling career choice for you.