Undergrads considering extending their education into law school should think long and hard before pounding the gavel on the decision.   

According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal, only 55% of Class of 2011 law school grads were employed full-time as lawyers nine months after graduation. 

Despite declining starting salaries (falling $9,000 between 2009-2010) and 85% of law school grads facing an average debt load of $98,500, getting a law degree can open many doors for grads in the long run, says Lisa Jones Johnson, lawyer and co-author of So You Want to Be a Lawyer

While a law degree is usually associated with jobs in the court room, Johnson points out that politicians, business executives and sports and music agents use a Juris Doctor degree for expertise with contracts and negotiations.

“You’re buying yourself an insurance policy that says that if I go to law school and pass the bar, at some point I will always be able to hang out my shingle,” she says. “It’s extremely expensive but you’re giving yourself a graduate degree, which is going to make you more competitive in the job market.”

Although going back to school for a JD can make sense for a variety of professions, here are five steps experts suggest students take before committing to law school.

Consider the Cost

Students with existing undergraduate debt have to weigh out the cost of school plus lost wages when making the decision to commit to another degree, says recent University of Georgia Law School graduate and lawyer, Brittany Bolton. 

“Attending law school costs roughly as much as buying a small home and is perhaps a larger decision because in addition to cost, it will become a career,” she says. “It is important to consider the magnitude of the investment, including the opportunity cost of earning money for three years.”

Choose the Right School

Having a general idea of what students want to accomplish with a law degree can help them decide what schools to target, says Paula Casey, dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law.

“Does a student want to teach in a law school? Then a top-tier school that is rich in faculty research opportunities is probably the right choice from an investment standpoint,” she says. “If a student wants to practice law, he or she needs to enroll in a school that’s in the state where that future attorney wants to practice.”

Research the Profession

Law school and the actual practice of law are very different, says Bolton, and prospective students should research what life as a lawyer will be like.

“Reaching out to practicing lawyers along with taking advantage of resources such as pre-law advisors, undergraduate courses on legal topics and pre-law programs are excellent ways to accomplish balanced research before deciding whether to apply to law school,” she says.

Experts also suggest checking out student organizations and regional, state and local bar associations (the National Bar Association and the American Bar Association are two of the largest national groups) for more advice and background information. 

How Will You Perform?

Although every law school is different, how students measure up against their peers in terms of grades and performance can be a major hiring factor for some firms, according to Johnson.

“If you’re at a law school that is not a well known national law school, then your grades are absolutely important,” she says. “For the mid to lower tier law schools, the only way you’re going to get a job in any kind of competitive firm would be if you are at the top of your class.”

Some schools like the University of Georgia grade on a curve, where a student’s grade is determined by their performance compared to the entire class as opposed to percentage of correct answers--even if all students master the material, less than a third will get receive an A, says Bolton.

“This is not to say the law school experience is completely cut throat--I found it easy to study in groups and made some of my best friends in law school,” she says. “Most of my classmates were very friendly, courteous and would gladly help others understand the material when needed.”

How to Use the Degree

A law degree doesn’t automatically equal success and a big paycheck. Students should be aware that strong writing skills and oral advocacy skills are the minimum requirements in any legal position, says Casey.

“They should also focus on developing soft skills – like communication, collaboration, empathy – because those will help in any workplace,” she says. “Clinical experiences and externships always add to a student’s chances of getting a job in the legal field.”

Like many industries, the legal field is constantly changing and it’s imperative that students understand the increasingly competitive role of marketing, says Johnson.

“It’s about being able to get clients, being able to sell your services to prospective clients,” she says. “To get to the point of being a senior lawyer, you need to have the basic analytical, writing, research types of skills, stamina, but ultimately, that’s not what’s going to give you success.”