Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Reader Request: "Should I Go To Law School?"


Source: webweaver.nu via Judi on Pinterest

Today I'm tackling reader questions about the decision to go to law school. Apparently I have a number of lady lawyer types reading here, whether you are aspiring, currently practicing, or cheerfully dancing on the grave of your legally blonde past like me.

If this isn't your thing - and understandably so - please stop reading immediately and know that I will talk about something more up our champagne bubble of fluff alley next time. Pinky swear


If you ever want to hear an exquisite symphony of suffering, a veritable funeral dirge of moaning misery, ask a lawyer whether you should go to law school.

Rather than skip directly to our usual answer - "No!" - let me give you a more lawyerly one, "It depends, but probably not." After all, even former lawyers like to hear themselves talk at length, right?

There are so many factors that go into this decision that I'm going to do my best to break it up into more easily digestible bullet points. Anyone want to draw me a flowchart and save me time here? Anyone?

My legally blonde background, or why I'm more qualified to talk about this than that Penelope T*ree crazypants blogger to whom I refuse to link because of said crazypants: I went straight from undergrad to law school, graduating in 2003 (from the University of San Diego - go Toreros! *whatever those are*) and later that year passed the California Bar, hoping to get hired in criminal prosecution.

To be blunt, I couldn't - turns out a lot of people with better grades than I had wanted that same thing. I ended up bouncing around a couple of jobs in commercial and residential real estate (awful) & a federal clerkship (not at all awful), before moving to Texas, passing the Bar here, and hitting my stride as general counsel for a group of family-owned businesses (note: not my family), which I did for just shy of five years before retiring to stay home with Master P.

Four Questions You Should Ask Yourself if You're Considering Law School:

Why Are You Going?: Take it from someone who went to law school as a smartypants (or so I thought) Poli Sci major who didn't know what else to do after college - the why matters.

Have you talked to any lawyers, future or former, about the experience? Shadowed one of them to see what an actual day looks like vs. the Hollywood version? If not, do not pass go, and do not give your $200 (more like $100,000 in some cases) to a law school.

Let's take swift aim at the general myth that a J.D. is a good degree for whatever career you end up in. A J.D. is preparation for being a lawyer, and iffy prep at that . . . and that's it.

Still interested? Read on . . .

Who's Paying?: I'm actually not one of those who thinks money should entirely define your decision here. I just think it should comprise the vast majority of it. Consider:

If you have a scholarship or savings to send yourself to school, God speed - feel free to obtain what one financially set, non-practicing friend calls his "gentleman's law degree".

If, however, you're considering student loans - something I had to take out to cover most of my tuition, though I was fortunate enough to have some scholarship and family funds to cover the balance - some facts:

Unless you're already hiding in a Con Law textbook somewhere, you can't avoid the fact that law school is a less attractive financial investment than it once was. For starters, law school tuition has outpaced salaries for a long while now.

Yes, some people - the vast minority - will come out making salaries of $160,000 (with apologies to my late grandparents for talking about m-o-n-e-y here) or more.

Statistically speaking, you will not be one of them. I certainly wasn't. The vast majority come out making far, far less than that. As in, less than half of that.

I can't emphasize enough the emotional drain that is having large sums of debt hanging over your head, although - yes, absolutely - professional school debt is a privileged, first world sort of problem to have. It's tough to state this firmly enough - 22-year-old me certainly didn't appreciate it as I signed those loan documents - but try to imagine what that monthly obligation will feel like.

Bottom line: the less prestigious the school (more on that below), the less I'd advise going unless you're able to pay out of pocket. Ooh, which reminds me . . .

Where Are You Going to School?At the risk of sounding egotistical, you, like me, have probably always done well in school and figure you'll continue to be the top of the class in law school, regardless of what you've heard. Now imagine a room full of you - except, in many cases, a smarter, harder working you.

Here's the subtext no law school brochure or firm will tell you - the practice of law is stuffed with risk-averse, traditional sorts who care about the prestige of the schools you've attended, your grades, your age (to a certain extent) and . . . not much else, really.

If you decide to go to law school, go to the best school you get into (when I say "best" I mean those infernal-yet-revered "US News and World Report" rankings)*. Again, the higher up the prestige chain, the more any sort of loans make sense.

*Edited to add: be sure to check out the excellent comments to this post, many of which take me to task for this overly broad (fancy lawyer phrase!) "best school you get into" assertion - and rightly so, in certain circumstances. There's an amorphous calculus that goes into figuring this all out case-by-case, and I wouldn't dream of attempting to say what exactly that is, though certainly finances needs to factor in highly here (see question 2 above).

I absolutely agree that there are some situations in which a local and/or less prestigious school makes sense. If you're tied to a geographic location by family or by preference, for example, or 100% certain you want to practice in an area where the Lawyer Snob factor is less pervasive (family law and/or sole practitioner gigs come to mind). Certain regions of the country are dominated by state schools with strong alumni networking associations, and that should factor in as well.

Here's why I'm hesitant to back off that "best school" advice entirely - for any of you who are in the same twentysomething boat I once was, not committed to any one field of practice or location, maximizing your prospects becomes more important. It's tough to argue that good grades from a nationally recognized school won't widen your field of post-graduation options as compared to a similar or lesser performance (or even a better one, in some cases) at a less prestigious one, generally speaking.

And this may prove unpopular, but - forget about padding your resume once you get to school with save the world extracurriculars and do the best you can in class and, if you can, on Law Review. Save the world once you've done well in school and are an attractive hire to a place where you can do that.

This is anecdotal, but about that age thing since I was asked about it specifically: absolutely go to school if the right match/ finances align, but know if you're interested in the law firm route that many firms - particularly the BigLaw firms - are notorious for being ageist. After all, who better than impressionable twentysomething to bark orders at and generally be unreasonable towards?

Bottom line: it's tough to advise someone to attend anything other than a "top-tier" school in this job market. I can't in good conscience advise fourth-tier or internet schools in any market unless you intend from the get-go to set up your own shop or not practice.

Consider too: the farther down the line your school is prestige-wise, the more regionally limited your hiring options will generally be. Which leads me to . . .

What Do You Think Life Will Look Like When You Graduate?: Start here with Anne-Marie Slaughter's excellent piece on the impact of a professional woman's career choices on her family & her career trajectory.

Next step, talk to actual lawyers about what their workday looks like and what job prospects are looking like. I feel like the world is lousy with lawyers for this, but if you're struggling to find some - start with hassling your parents, your friends, and your undergrad's career services or alumni development office. (Or, you know, an overly chatty blogger. Ahem.)

Get your questions, especially any work/life balance ones, out of the way now, because you certainly can't ask them when you're interviewing for law jobs (see culture of competitive Type As).

I'll say this too about the culture of the profession, and this is somewhat true whether you're a small-town GC as I was or playing in the BigLaw big leagues - the law is a "time macho" profession, as Ms. Slaughter so wonderfully coined the phrase. For example, "part time" often means 40 hours a week plus take home work for nights & weekends - if you can get a firm to agree to part-time, that is.

In the end, a lawyer is a well-educated and well-paid (sometimes) servant. Your schedule is not your own, to a large extent, and that's something to try and wrap your head around before setting down the law school path.


For extra credit reading on this, check out the blog of my girlcrush and shiny new attorney Legally Fabulous.

I'll do a part 2 post about whether I regret going to law school, including the intangibles I ran out of time for here, and what I specifically disliked / liked about the practice. Not before I do a lot of palate cleansing "OOH, look at that pretty outfit!" sort of posts first, though. Oy.

Any other questions? Comments? Complaints? Advice from lawyers in the audience?


Life at the White House said...

Great post - I'm sure this will prove helpful for a lot of people considering going this route. I, for one, am glad that the wee CEO has you under his employ! :) Happy Tuesday, dear!

Mrs. Type A said...

Agree with all of this except the part about going to the best school you can get into. This seems to me to only be true now if you get into a top 15 school. Where I work, kids from the T4 seem to be doing nearly as well as my top 40 school... and I paid FAR FAR more for it. I could have gotten a full ride to a "local" school, but went for one with a better name/regional reputation and paid full price. This might not be the case in all markets, but it certainly is in some.

From my experience, going to the "best school you can" was good advice up until 2008...when I started law school, unfortunately, but now getting a job after school is truly a crap shoot.

GradStudent said...

Frankly, law school is pointless unless you go to a Top 15 school. Even poorly ranked law schools cost as much (sometimes more) than the best. Unfortunately, graduates from bad law schools will not get jobs that pay as high as the jobs offered to Top 15 graduates.

The market is not what it was in 1960, 2000 or even 2004.

I strongly suggest that anyone considering going to a school ranked lower than 20 (at the lowest) seriously consider how they will handle their debt and what their job prospects will be.

Emily said...

Great Post! I bookmarked it for the next time I get asked The Question. I went to UNC with in-state tuition. It's top tier, but not top 25. I think the financial analysis is a bit different under those circumstances.

I would also add that corporate jobs are easier to manage than jobs in litigation, where your schedule is really the court's.

And as an ad-on to your smarty-pants advice . . . don't go to law school if you "like to argue." Go to law school if you like rules.

AND, AND go work at a law firm before you go to law school for two reasons: (i) to determine whether you like the practice of law; (ii) to make inroads into actually getting a job. I worked at two big firms for a total of two years after undergrad. (I moved firms in the middle with the partner I worked for.) I figured out that I did want to be an attorney, but not a litigator. I also had a standing offer at the second firm to come back as long as I had a certain GPA. I didn't end up going there because, ultimately, I wanted to stay in NC, but I could have. And, attorneys at that firm got me my first year summer associate position at a giant Atlanta firm's NC office and that position was a great resume builder for the job I ultimately took.

Anonymous said...

As with most things, I tell my undergraduate students (“the budding lawyers”) that “it depends.” There are no hard and fast rules for whether one should attend law school. I certainly do not believe that “nobody should attend a law school outside of the Top 15 [or insert a number slightly greater than the ranking of the school commenter attended].” I also do not believe that law school is “pointless” unless you have a career in Big Law pulling down $250,000+ and working 80+ hours a week.

One can attend their state flag-ship school (which may not rank in the Top 30 even) and still have a very satisfying and meaningful career (and still be able to cover the bills and live a comfortable upper-middle class life). My husband fits this description: he took out the minimum federal loans to attend the public flagship in his state (read: no extensive private loans to bankroll a swank lifestyle while in law school); he did all right in his classes (read: was not on law review); his first job as a public defender paid poorly but enabled him to handle his own cases (many of them) and now he is prosecuting white collar crime and genuinely loves his job. At some point, he could perhaps “cash out” and go private with the expertise he has developed in a complex area of the law…but doing so would mean less family time. I don’t believe we’d want to make that sacrifice.

So, yes, it is advisable for students to think hard about attendance at a 4th Tier School that costs as much as the Top Privates (I’m thinking of 4T schools like Cooley in Michigan or South Texas in Houston). However, there are a number of schools between Yale/Michigan/Berkeley and South Texas/Cooley. Moreover, the advice to think about WHY they want to attend law school is very important. Too often, it is simply a default choice or what the parents want them to do.

The response for WHY one wants to attend law school should guide the program they choose. Does my husband need a Yale degree to do the work he’s doing? Not really. If he wanted an academic job (tenured law prof), would the state flagship he went to allow him a pathway into that career? Not really.

Samma said...

I agree with the commenter who stated that the best school you get into it is not necessarily the one to attend. I went to a top 25 school, yet upon returning to my hometown to work, I found I would have been better served going to the state's flagship school (where I could have gone for free). There, I would have had more job search help/networking, as well as a far higher ranking in my class.

That being said, I would not advise anyone to attend a 4th tier school, especially the numerous private ones which are super expensive.

As far as being a lawyer, I have spent my 20 minute lunch break reading that wonderful article from the Atlantic. My firm has been incredibly flexible with me- I am working part-time (in the office without escape 8-5 Monday through Thursday, with work from home on night and weekends as needed). However, my billables are not where they should be, and neither is my ambition. I simply do not care very much about billing more hours. This affects my future at the firm, since we are an "eat what you kill" style firm. If I become partner,w hich I will be expected to do in a few years, I will "starve" due to my lack of ambition to bill, bill, bill.

A friend, who is the only other female attorney and mama I know who has continued to practice law, said that if her daughter wants to attend law school some day, she will discourage her. Frankly, I agree. I don't want my daughter trapped in a situation where she cried every morning on the way to work because she misses her own child, yet needs to bill at least 7 hours that day.

Okay, exhale. Rant over! Apologies for my long winded tirade, and thanks for that fascinating Atlantic article.

Lauren said...

What a fabulous post! I think it sums up exactly what folks need to consider when deciding on law school. In fact, I wish my 2003/2004 self had read this before applying to law school(and I even worked in a large DC law firm before going to law school).

I am going to point my pre-law friends in the direction of this post the next time I get this question.

Thank you for so accurately and succinctly covering this question!


Brittany said...

This is such a great post! I get a lot of questions about law school from my interns, and from a hodge podge of other sources (I didn't go to law school, but my husband did, and I guess I'm just approachable!) and this will be a perfect thing to point anyone to.

Two things I'd add about "going to the best law school you can," which on the whole I think is really good advice, is to 1) pick a number you won't go below when you're beginning to apply. Decide based on your LSAT score and GPA at what point will you not go to law school at all. The ranking you chose to not go below is a personal choice, but I think it's important to have a firm number based on what you think you can achieve, what you can afford to pay/repay, and what the post-graduation job options REALLY are. AND SERIOUSLY INVESTIGATE THIS. Don't go to a school with a ton of debt way down the totem pole just to go to law school; it could likely be debt you can't afford to repay. On that note, I'd also try setting a firm debt limit, ie "I won't go to law school if I have to take out more than $65,000 in debt." If you decide you won't go to a school ranked lower than (say) 50 but can't get in anywhere better than 55, or your financial aid package adds up to worse than your debt limit (it's not like you would walk onto a car dealer's lot thinking to buy an affordable Corolla and instead drive off in a Range Rover), I encourage you to take that as a sign the universe wants you to be something other than a JD--the nation already produces way more attorneys than it needs, so the more attorneys in the pool, the worse job situation becomes. I hate to perpetuate a somewhat elitist message of Top 14, but based on the latest job numbers, I'd encourage anyone considering law school to think long and hard when choosing outside probably the top half of the top tier (I think I'm qualified to say this as someone married to someone who graduated in this awful job market, you DO want to sleep at night, don't you?), especially if you're considering Tier 3 & Tier 4. It's sickening that only 31% of 2011 grads from the bottom 20 schools are employed at a job requiring a JD 9 months after graduation...and it's only about 50% across the board. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/an-existential-crisis-for-law-schools.html) You owe it to yourself to really be honest with yourself!!

My second thing I'd add is 2) go to the best school you get into that you can *best afford.* Let me give an example. My husband got into a school ranked 2 schools above where he went that would have been inside Top 14, but tuition alone would have cost more than $80k more (out-of-state, no scholarships). By the logic of go to the best you get into, he'd have gone there and we'd have a huge debt burden. Going two schools down, he was in a really sweet spot for scholarships, because schools want strong candidates who could get in higher to choose them over other, slightly better schools to boost their admissions numbers. It could be argued he'd have somewhat better job prospects had he gone to a school 2 schools better, BUT we're so, so happy with the little tiny amount of debt he took out that we feel very secure and optimistic about our future, wherever he works and however much he earns, than we would had we taken on $80k more in debt. We're fortunate he's employed, but it just takes off the pressure. Best of luck to those considering school!

Elizabeth said...

and please do not for one nanosecond kid yourself thinking that none of the above cautionary tales and comments about having to work 80 hour weeks, be constantly "on call" and be responsible for meeting a huge billable hour requirement apply to you because you will (billiantly) simply avoid all of this by going immediately to a corporate/in house job. if you think this, please pinch yourself because unless daddy owns the corporation, you are dreaming and this will not happen to you. in house jobs are hard to get and most require YEARS of firm experience to get in the door. these jobs are extremely rare for new grads. and if you live in a smaller city without a ton of industry/corporations, those in house job opportunities are very rare and hard to come by. i know this because i practice in a smaller city and finding an in house job is like finding Louis Vuitton on sale.

as a lawyer in practice for 8 years, the best piece of advice i can offer is to use your head and common sense. if you're in college with B's and Cs and scored very average on the LSAT, you're not going to a top 15 school, you're not going to Big Law, you're not earing $$$$ and you're not going in house. so don't be delusional. make smart choices and really evaluate whether going to law school at any cost is worth it.

TUWABVB said...

I think you did a great job in laying out the issues that one must consider before signing up for the six figure debt known as law school.

And as attorney practicing for many years now I'll say this - I would enjoy my job a LOT more if I didn't have to base my career choices on the fact that I'm still paying for the education that put me here. I'm not saying that student loans are bad, just that they should require more thought than "I'll worry about that later." In fact, students should project how much their monthly payments will be prior to deciding on a law school - can you afford to pay $1000 a month just towards your loans?

Good job lady! Wish I had met you many, many years ago.

Elizabeth said...

Excellent post!
Law school, and the legal profession in general, is not what is "used to be" when I was a wee child in my father's law office, "working" in the summers. (ie answering phones, "preparing" wills for my friends and dropping silly notes down the mail chute in the building)
I never recommend law school to people today, mainly because of the cost and the reality that the profession just is not what most people expect.
And most graduates NEVER make the kind of money that they are told they will make. You know, just "sign those loan docs" and borrow more money, because "one day you will be FILTHY RICH when you pass the bar."
You can make lots more money doing other things anyhow.
My fancy schmancy law degree is, as your friend calls his, a "gentleman's law degree."
I teach at a college and work with grants. But I do not go to the courthouse and practice law. I found out the first week of law school that I really, REALLY detest lawyers!! =)

The Waspy Redhead said...

Great post. About 3 years ago I found myself at a crossroads in life and was seriously considering law school. Slynnro did me a solid and talked me out of it using the same points you illuminated above. I also sat down and talked to friend who had gone to the law school where I live ( you know, the super expensive private 4th tier one), and several of them had trouble finding work. I mean ANY work. Not just high paying work, like JOBS AT ALL.

I've been in a Masters program part time for going on 4 years - I can barely manage that plus my full time job. I know that the money I'm spending on grad school I'll one day get back in the opportunities it will afford me in the business world. I can't say the same if I had spent $100k on law school and decided to stay in San Antonio.

I wish I had known when I was 19 that if I really wanted things in life like to be a lawyer, I need to spend less time at the frat house. Looking back there isn't a single course I took in college that I couldn't have gotten an A in by just being hungover less frequently. School was a breeze for me, I just never tried very hard. I took several practice LSATS, and I think with proper prep, I could have scored very well. I was never going to get into a 1st or 2nd tier school with my grades though. Le sigh.

Good luck future hopeful lawyers, and congrats to those of you who managed it. I'm just happy to have found a career I love, and grateful I didn't go to law school in 2010 to make it ok that my boyfriend dumped me. That wouldn't have made it ok, all it would have made me was saddled with crippling debt.

Lindley said...

I worked in big law and went to a top ten law school, and agree with everything you wrote. Great pst!

Lisa @ Trapped In North Jersey said...

oh, great post. I would write something similar except I still hope to be employed at a law school in the future and thus that would be a career-limiting move.

Agreed with all points (and all of the above commenters--who knew you had so many lawyer readers?). Rule of thumb: you need to make at or above your debt amount to live comfortably. The average debt for law school is around $100,000, the average starting salary for lawyers fresh out of law school is around $50,000. Do the math.

Kate said...

Great post and I love reading the comments. I come from a lawyer family (parents and sister) and work for two lawyers so it's definitely interesting to read! My parents actually met in law school at USD!

As a California girl you'll like this: my best friend is taking the CA bar this week and we had an earthquake last night at 3 AM. Just adding a little excitement to the stress!

The Tutugirl said...

I just graduated from law school this May, and I just wanted to throw out two more things you should think about when imagining your future as an attorney: 1. Don't think you can just avoid the difficulty of getting a legal job by looking for government work. Those jobs are as hard, if not harder, to get right now. 2. You can't just pick a region and decide you want to live there. Maybe it's always been this way, and no one pointed it out, but the two years that I went through the recruitment process firms seemed to be very hesitant to take someone who didn't seem like a sure thing to stick around, so they wouldn't look at people who didn't have significant ties to an area.

Also, I would suggest that if you are going to law school and you're going to take out loans, you use one of the calculators online that show you what you will actually pay back in total (which can be shocking if you're doing a traditional ten year plan) and what the monthly payment would be. It can make a state school that didn't seem so prestigious but can get you where you want to go seem like a way better deal. I love my law school, but I still can't believe I passed up the opportunity to get three years of law school for less than the price of one semester at the school I chose.

TCP said...

Can I just say amen?? I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said. And as one of your commenters (Samma) said --if you ever want to have kids (and ever want to see those kids), reconsider.

I'm now in the boat of trying to go back to work after staying home with the minis. It' a whole different world out there now than it was when I waslast looking for a job. And not in a good way.

Lisa @ Trapped In North Jersey said...

good article on the law school prestige factor:


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