ABANDON ALL HOPE, ALL YE NON LAWYER TYPES WHO ENTER HERE!
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?