Law school students: This could be you.

Law school students: This could be you. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun / April 17, 2012)

Ever since he was a kid, Benjamin Arem wanted to be a lawyer.

When he graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2006, Arem put his law school aspirations on hold to become an accountant. All the while, law remained his passion. So, in the fall of 2009, he enrolled in the University of Baltimore School of Law. Now about to graduate, Arem is nervous of his prospects. He scours job listings, sends reams of resumes and cover letters, but hasn't gotten any solid leads.

"I've gone from having a well-paid, stable job and being debt-free, to now drowning in debt and being unemployed," Arem said. "I keep hoping that it's paying forward to the future — that it will pay for itself eventually."

Infamously grueling, law school has long been perceived as a route to steady employment and high income. In the past four years, the paradigm has shifted. Lower employment rates, rising tuition and intense job hunts prompt the question: Is law school worth it?

Arem, 28, is one of many law graduates with a seemingly devalued degree in a wavering job market. Last month, the legal sector shed 1,300 positions; in 2011, it lost roughly 2,500 jobs, according to a report released by Northwestern Law. Law graduates in 2010 reported an overall employment rate of 87.6 percent — the lowest since 1996, according to the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP). Of those employed, 50.9 percent had jobs in law firms.

"Some of us, I feel, were sold a pipe dream," said Sabrina Turner, a 2010 University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law grad. Turner, 30, currently has a document review stint with a Baltimore company that provides staffing for firms. Technically, her position requires a J.D. Practically, not so much.

"I draw black boxes on documents," she said. "You have to have an active license because you're assisting in litigation, but it doesn't require anything I learned in law school."

Turner believes that her professional plight hinges largely on timing. In 2007, graduate employment rates hit a 20-year high, according to NALP. The majority of those jobs were at firms with over 100 lawyers, which pay hefty starting salaries. In 2010, small firms, with 2-10 lawyers, became the leading source of jobs for new attorneys.

"If the bottom hadn't dropped out exactly when it did, a lot of us would have been better off than we are," Turner said.

In Maryland, over the past four years, "big law [firms] have seen the most dramatic changes — shrinking summer associate programs, deferred associates, alternative billing models," said Jill Green, assistant dean at UB Law's Career Development Office. Green also noted that the Office of the Public Defender had hiring freezes, and state's attorneys' offices have not hired at the same rate as in 2007. "But small firm and public sector work has remained relatively steady," she said.

Mark Edelson, a 2010 UMd Law graduate, works as an associate at a small Lutherville firm. He groups himself in "a lucky minority" of young attorneys doing what originally motivated them to go to law school. Still, his fulfillment comes at a cost. "I love my job, but I'm not making big law money because it's a small firm," he said.

Brian Tamanaha, author of "Failing Law Schools," a forthcoming book, evaluates law school's worth with a simple formula: "It's a function of how much debt you think you'll have and your chances of landing a job that will allow you to pay that debt."

UMd Law's full-time, in-state tuition is $23,744; UB Law's is $26,156. According to Tamanaha's findings, 76 percent of UMd Law's class of 2010 is in debt, with the average debt amounting to $109,000. The average debt of a UB Law student is $105,000, he calculated, and 89 percent of the class reported being in debt.

Turner, a Baltimore native, owes $150,000, "give or take a couple thou," for her law school education. Each month, she pays $150 toward the loans. "There's no way I could pay the $800 Sallie Mae suggests" each month, she said.

"Once you cross the six-figure mark, you think, what's a few thousand dollars more?" said Katherine Bagley, a third-year student at UB and a Maryland native. This summer, Bagley, 25, will begin a clerkship with a Howard County judge. While Bagley looks forward to her clerkship, she, like Edelson and Arem, will struggle to repay her loans. Although the post won't pay much, "it's an important stepping stone," she said.

The decline in big law jobs and the rise of small firms created a shakeout: As top firms took on fewer top-performing students, those students jockeyed for placement at mid-level firms, congesting the applicant traffic there and pushing some mid-level competitors down further. Private sector types also entered competition for clerkships and public sector spots, Bagley said.

Turner saw the same. "A lot of people are doing something ... they [may not have] imagined themselves doing at the beginning of law school," she said.

Supply and demand creates another wrinkle in the employment search. According to Tamanaha, 45,000 new law graduates hit the market each year nationwide; however, recruiters project only 25,000 job openings each year through 2018.

When considering law school, "the key is your expected debt," said Tamanaha. After much number-crunching, he strongly cautions students who expect to owe the average debt. "You better really want to be a lawyer, or you shouldn't be in law school at all," he said.