With the economy down, and a perennial demand for legal services, going to law school might sound like a great option. But like any path, it’s not for everyone—and the reasons many people pursue a JD are not necessarily the right ones.

What’s your motive for going? In the interest of making sure the three-year and six-figure investment is the right one for you, here’s the truth behind some common motives and some important things to consider before taking the plunge:

1. I Can Make a Lot of Money as a Lawyer

Yeah, you can. Many law students go into school gunning for the $160K-per-year-plus-bonus gig with a big law firm after graduation—and some end up with just that. But a lot don’t. If you look at a graph charting the starting salaries of recent law grads, you’ll see a peak right at $160,000—but most salaries (and the average) are significantly lower.

And the reality is, most top firms only recruit from the 15-20 most prestigious schools in the country (plus maybe a few local ones). Even then, to score a “big law” job, you’re probably going to need grades that put you near the top of your class. And since grading is usually on a curve, the fact you got straight A's in college is no guarantee of top grades in law school (everyone else there got straight A's in college, too).

The higher-ranked the school, the more generous the grade cut-off for “big law” hiring—at the top few schools, being anywhere in the upper half might get you pretty far. But going to the highest ranked school you’re admitted to could cost you in terms of your financial aid package.

Speaking of which, law school is expensive: the cost of attendance at many schools will run you over $70K per year. Even with financial aid, it’s not uncommon to graduate with $150K in student loan debt (plus any you still have from undergrad). That’s a pretty deep financial hole to dig yourself out of. It’s possible—just have a realistic idea of your earning potential before you begin picking out your starter Mercedes.

2. A Law Degree is Versatile

That’s true. You can find JDs doing all sorts of things that require some sort of graduate education, but that doesn’t mean they needed a law degree. Law grads commonly end up working in banking, finance, public policy, government, the non-profit world, or for international organizations—often jobs that don’t involve “practicing law.”

But for each of these career paths, there’s probably a different graduate degree that’s better, in terms of both curriculum and networking opportunities. Public policy programs are big feeders into government agencies and advocacy organizations. If you want to work in foreign affairs, there are great professional degree programs that focus on that field itself. Banks want you to know financial analysis and accounting—and law schools won’t teach you that, while business schools will.

Plus, a program that’s more tailored to your real interests will expose you to professionals in those specific fields, which makes it a lot easier to get a job after graduation. And an added bonus: all of these degrees are shorter than a JD program and often cheaper (Have I mentioned how expensive law school is?).

3. Graduation is Getting Close and I Don’t Have Anything Better to Do

Law school has been described as the “great American default option.” Many college seniors or recent grads apply because they don’t know what else to do, and they figure that going back to school will let them keep their options open a little longer.

But it might make sense to spend a few years working and exploring careers that might interest you, before defaulting to law school. True, the job market for recent college grads is anything but rosy, but there are always opportunities. You might not find your dream job, but you’ll gain exposure to the field and get some real-world experience.

Even if you ultimately decide that you want to practice law, a few years of professional experience is actually quite valuable. The practical skills you gain are sought after by legal employers, and they'll likely help you succeed academically as well.

4. I Just Love "the Law"

Great. It’s obviously important to enjoy what you do. But saying, “I love the law” is pretty broad—it’s kind of like saying, “I love stuff”—so it’s good to know what aspect of the law appeals to you and how to translate that into a career.

Can’t get enough “Law and Order?” (First off, how? It’s on every channel, all the time). If so, then law school is probably a good choice—it’s pretty much the only route to a job as a public defender or with the district attorney’s office.

Love constitutional law and esoteric debates about the American social contract? You’ll probably enjoy law school, but be forewarned that there’s a pretty tiny job market for constitutional law scholars.

Excited by the idea of filing motions or negotiating terms of a credit agreement? Probably not—but business litigation and corporate transactional work is the bread and butter of most high-paying law firms.

5. I’ll Get to Make a Difference

For all the negative stereotypes, there are many lawyers who do a lot to help people through community-based legal aid organizations or pro-bono practices. Others work to affect social change through advocacy organizations or human rights groups. The downside is that public interest jobs—while extremely rewarding—generally don’t pay much (remember those loans you’re going to have to pay off?), and they can be emotionally taxing, too.

Moreover, you often don’t need a law degree to work for most public interest organizations—though there are some jobs for which it is essential. But, that said, this can be a great reason to go to law school, and many law schools will help defer the cost of law school for students working in public interest by offering loan repayment assistance programs.

Law school is a huge investment, but it can be a great choice. If you're planning to go, just make sure it’s the right one for you.

Law school alums: was a JD the right degree for you? What advice do you have for law school applicants?

Photo courtesy of Brian Turner.