Would a Career Change be Financially Rewarding?

Q: I am 32 years old, hold BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering, and have an MBA as well. I am currently a program manager for a large automotive company with six years experience. I had nearly perfect GPAs from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Georgia. I am considering pursuing a law degree with a focus on IP and have three questions.

  1. Would it be financially rewarding to make a career change to law? What salary range can I expect as a first-year associate? I currently earn $70,000.
  2. Are the salaries comparable in Atlanta, GA and Dallas or Houston, TX?
  3. I am considering attending the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Georgia because they are not as expensive as some of the private schools that I wish I could attend. Which would you recommend?

A: Assuming you do well in law school (and that's still questionable even though you have done extremely well in earning your other degrees), you could command a starting salary as an intellectual property associate almost double what you're earning now. On the other hand, it's much more common for new law school graduates in Texas and Georgia to earn in the range of $40,000 to $50,000 annually, with a substantial number earning less than that.

A rule of thumb when choosing a law school is to pick the best-ranked school you can, and certainly the best-regarded school in the area you plan to settle. A law degree from UT carries the highest rank among the Texas schools; in Georgia, a degree from Emory is more prestigious than one from the University of Georgia. Salaries are also probably a bit higher at the high end in Houston and Dallas than in Atlanta, especially when you take the cost of living into consideration. Thus, I'd select UT, especially if you wish to practice in Texas rather than Georgia.

I caution you, however, to research your move into law more thoroughly. Yes, you might make more money, but the work of an intellectual property lawyer is very different from that of a program manager. You'll work as an apprentice for many years before you get the authority and leadership you probably have now. You'll also work in a much more isolated and abstract fashion than you do now.

Before you invest the time and money in law school, do more research. First, study your natural talents and workplace preferences. Then make a list of those skills you must use and those you must avoid to feel satisfied, and describe the ideal work environment for yourself. Follow up by meeting with at least three IP lawyers, especially those near the beginning of their careers. Show them your lists and ask how closely their work and work environment conform to your preferences.

One last suggestion, be realistic about your chances of commanding a post-law school salary at the highest end of the range. Every student enters with dreams of hitting it big. Fewer than 10 percent actually do. Don't forget, you'll be competing with other very bright, very motivated, extremely capable people who are used to excelling in school. Go to law school only if you're willing to spend more than $200,000 on the education and lost wages for the privilege of working on more interesting work for less money than you're earning now.