Thinking twice about law school? Here are five smart alternatives.
So you've seen every episode of "Law & Order" - twice - and you are pumped to go to law school to earn some serious prestige and, oh yeah, money. Well, before you get all legal with it, you might want to check out some stats that are a little more sobering than those slick TV shows.
The first is the cost. According to a May 2013 article in "The National Law Journal," "ABA [American Bar Association] law school graduates leave law school with an average debt for law school alone exceeding $100,000. Amortized over 10 years at today's interest rates, that amounts to 10 years of payments of $1,151 each month."
But perhaps even more worrisome is the lack of job prospects where law school grads might pay off their student loans and earn back their investments. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "Competition [for lawyer positions] should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available."
So, now that we've stressed you out more than a good divorce attorney could, let's get to the good news: There are plenty of alternative paths that can stimulate that legal mind just as much as law school, and they might be a lot less costly in the long run. Read on to see what we mean.
Law School Alternative #1: Get a Master's Degree
If you still want to go to graduate school, but also want to pursue a career with a little more promise in the job opportunities department, there are options.
For instance, "getting an MBA (Master's in Business Administration) might be a little more practical in the sense that it offers a broader range of options when you graduate," says Nancy Tetreaux, a communication and career coach with 20 years experience in human resources management.
With that in mind, here's a list of five master's degrees that Tetreaux thinks might be interesting alternatives for would-be lawyers.
In an MBA program you might study different areas of business like marketing, finance, management, accounting, and other core subjects, says The Princeton Review, a college and graduate school student information and test preparation resource. It adds that in the second year of a business program, you'll likely concentrate on a more specialized area of your choice, network with fellow classmates, and try to find a job.
Possible Career: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers often require financial analysts to have an MBA or a master's degree in finance. These professionals provide advice to companies and individual clients about investment decisions, and evaluate the performance of stocks, bonds, and other types of investments, says the Department of Labor.
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What's more, the field is growing. The Department projects financial analyst careers to grow by 23 percent from 2010 to 2020.
Master's programs in this area usually run two years, says the Princeton Review. Health care administration grad programs often include things like financial management of health institutions, health care operations, and even legal aspects of health care.
Possible Career: According to the Department, medical and health services managers commonly have a master's degree in health services, long-term care administration, public health, public administration, or business administration. And although requirements vary by facility, the Department notes that these professionals have at least a bachelor's.
And if you're wondering about this job's outlook, the department predicts a growth of 22 percent for medical and health services managers from 2010 to 2020.
This degree aims to teach you how to recruit, manage, and retain quality people in an organization, as well as making sure companies are following regulations and laws, says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and writer of About.com's Guide to Human Resources. And with businesses focusing more on retaining good workers, it's a practical choice, she says.
Possible Career: According to the Department, some higher-level human resources management positions require a master's degree in human resources, labor relations, or an MBA.
The Department also projects that job opportunities for HR managers will grow at about the average rate for all careers, or 13 percent from 2010 to 2020.
Most of these programs, says the Department, may offer core courses in research methods, policy formation, program evaluation, and statistics, along with the chance to specialize in an area you love.
Possible Careers: The Department says that political scientists need either a master's or Ph.D. program in political science, public administration, or a related field. These people, says the Department, "advise governments, businesses, or organizations on political issues."
The one down side to this career? It's growing at a slow pace, with the Department projecting a modest eight percent expansion from 2010 to 2020.
According to Tetreaux, psychology is a common undergrad degree that feeds into law programs, so choosing to instead follow a higher degree in psychology may be a very rational thought. She says these people usually have strong analytic and writing skills, just like law students.
Possible Careers: The Department says those who graduate from a master's degree program in psychology could work as an industrial-organizational psychologist. These professionals work on policy planning and employee training with management. They also do such things as study workplace productivity and employee morale, the Department says.
And this field is growing rapidly. The Department expects 35 percent more industrial-organizational psychologist job openings from 2010 to 2020.
Law School Alternative #2: Get Started As a Paralegal or Legal Assistant
Not entirely sure you want to pony up the time, money, and all-nighter dedication a law degree might demand? Getting a certificate or degree in paralegal studies to pursue a job as a paralegal or legal assistant might be a great way to see if you truly love the legal profession.
Tetreaux says when she worked as a human resources manager for a law firm, she saw this strategy a lot. "I interviewed dozens and dozens of seniors graduating from college thinking about going to law school who very wisely decided to be a paralegal for a year or two to see if law is what they wanted to pursue," she says.
And if you're absolutely sure you want to be a lawyer, this might be just as smart, says Tetreaux. She says she saw many paralegals use their job to work their way through law school and end up associates at the same firms once they graduated and passed the bar.
Wondering exactly how you prepare for the job? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are a few ways: Most paralegals and legal assistants have either an associate's degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another subject and a certificate in paralegal studies.
Law School Alternative #3: Start Your Own Business
Law school takes a lot of time and, as we noted earlier, likely a lot of money. For that reason some former law school grads recommend using that hefty amount of time, energy, and money on starting your own business instead.
"One of the benefits of law school is that you have three years without any pressure to make any real money," says Dave Mason, a former attorney and founder of knobs.com, an ecommerce company. He says that if they worked hard at building their own business - without assuming any pressure to make money thanks to avoiding the cost of law school tuition - they'd probably come out far ahead no matter what.
Robert Melton, a working attorney and founder of Funtober, a fall entertainment resource company, echoes those thoughts. "After three years of building your business, you'll pick up a valuable education in how to make money. It won't cost you nearly as much money. And if you are successful, you won't ever have to ask someone else for a job again," he says.
Law School Alternative #4: Earn a Certificate
Education doesn't have to be all or nothing. And in fact, earning a certification in an area you feel you want to improve, such as human resources, management, or computer skills, is often a great way to better your job or promotion prospects, says Tetreaux. Another benefit? These certificates are often offered online, she says.
The Princeton Review also seems to think highly of certificate programs. Its website says, "Certificate programs offer specialized training at a fraction of the time and the cost. These might be all you need to give your career a boost."
Certificate programs are offered in many areas, at many levels, and range in duration from months to a year or more, says Tetreaux. Here are three common ones:
In these programs, Tetreaux says you'll learn how to become an effective communicator and assess the needs of a company, then motivate employees to achieve them. You'll also gain an understanding of what makes a great business leader.
There are several different kinds of human resources certificates, says Tetreaux, both from the Society for Human Resources Management and other organizations. These programs range from management to compensation and benefits.
This is a broad-ranging field of study, says Tetreaux, but one that is very relevant for our time of computer-dependent big business. There are many certifications available, she says, from systems security to specific computer program certificates and everything in between.
Law School Alternative #5: Get a Job
We know, this is the same advice barked at you from your dad. But this time, he might actually be right. Basically, says Tetreaux, before spending three years and who knows how many thousands on law school, a good idea might be to get a job in an area for which you might want to concentrate as a lawyer.
"If you're interested in real estate law, go get your real estate broker's license. If you are interested in trusts and estates, go get an insurance broker's license. If you've always thought you'd be the kind of lawyer who defends less-advantaged people, get into public advocacy, or nonprofit. There are other places for those skills you were going to bring to law," she says.
In the end, you can always still go to law school, but working in one of these fields might fine-tune your passion and give you invaluable experience, she says. Or even a beloved career. So, yes, it just might pay to run from the law after all.
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