Don’t Go to Law School — Not Now

shutterstock_149827286

If you are reading this, odds are that you or someone you care about is thinking about going to law school. So think hard about it, read the rest of this article, and then think some more.

Law school is no longer a safe route to a successful career.

Law can be a respectable profession, despite the lawyer jokes, and becoming a lawyer was once thought of as a smart career choice. But should you go to law school?

Related“Nation’s Overachievers Losing Interest in Law School”

No. Not now. Law school is no longer a safe route to a successful career.

If you have the time, the money, and the burning desire to go to law school primarily to get a legal education, then by all means go. I am not anti-legal education. However, if part of your desire is to become a lawyer, you should probably reconsider.

The primary reason I advocate putting off law school is today’s legal job market. Most law students attend law school with their eye on getting a decent-paying, satisfying legal job. But if you think it will be that easy in today’s job market, think again. The odds are not in favor of new law school graduates.

If you’re rolling your eyes, thinking Are you out of your mind? I know someone who got out of law school and started at $150K per year, so  don’t sell me short just yet. Yes, there are still some positions with fine salaries that are available for recent grads. However, they go to the top students at the top law schools. And many of the firms offering these jobs have awful reputations. They are often viewed as sweat shops for young lawyers, who get chewed up and spit out within a few years.

Another way into the industry is to have the right connections. Networking is powerful, in any profession. For those who believe they have the holy grail of networks, law school may still be a worthwhile investment. If, that is, you can count on being able to choose among a handful of good jobs before you even show up for Torts 101.

However, in the current legal job market, the overwhelming majority of law school graduates end up in one or more (usually more) of the following situations:

  1. Jobless
  2. In debt
  3. Underemployed
  4. Underpaid
  5. Unsatisfied
  6. Hanging a shingle

Jobless

Every law school indicates to prospective students if they pound the pavement and pound it hard after receiving their law license, they will eventually get the dream job for which they are searching. Realistically, there are approximately 90,000 lawyers in, say, Illinois. That’s the supply. The demand is far less. Not all those lawyers can get their dream job.

Worse, experienced lawyers have been and still are being laid off at an alarming rate. I’ve had lawyers, experienced lawyers; call me after being laid off from their six-figure jobs looking to do $10-an-hour work for me. Those calls are tough to answer, and that type of work is no way for someone with a legal education and years of legal experience to make a living.

In debt

Too many young lawyers’ lives are controlled by debt. It’s not uncommon for a new lawyer to get out of law school and face a $1,500 (or more) payment every month, for years and years. Combine this debt with a poor job market, not to mention the other expenses of living and perhaps undergraduate debt, and you may find yourself in financial crisis.

Underemployed

You made it through law school. You passed the bar. Now you want to work. Heck, you need to work (see “In debt,” above). But jobs are not available (see “Jobless,” above). So even though you intended to be a ____ lawyer, you end up being a !____ lawyer. Hey, it’s a job, you convince yourself, and it’s just temporary. I’ve seen it many times. Years later, you will still be doing the same thing.

Do you really think any law student aspires to get out of law school and defend slip-and-fall cases for the local municipality? Or worse yet (and more likely), you do not get a job as a lawyer at all.

Underpaid

Many students come out of law school in debt and anxious to work. However, there are not many positions available. But you may decide you are better off working a legal job to build your resume instead of waiting tables. So you go from job to job at law-clerk wages. That’s when resentment starts to set in. On top of that, since you are underpaid, your law school debt will begin to fester.

Unsatisfied

When I am not with my family or fighting the good fight on behalf of my clients, you’ll find me at one of the local law schools where I teach a class called “Advanced Trial Advocacy.” Yes, that makes me an adjunct law professor, and yes, I am telling you not to go to law school.

The law students I teach are generally in their last semester of law school. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of heartbreak from my students. On the last day of class, when everyone shares their post-graduation plans, very few hands go up when I ask who has secured a full-time legal position. My follow-up question is always “What type of jobs are you looking for?” The overwhelming response is something along the lines of, “I don’t really care at this point; I just want a job.” Today’s limited job market unfortunately leaves many recent grads unsatisfied with the work they can find, if any.

Hanging a shingle

Starting a law practice is one of the worst decisions an inexperienced lawyer can make.

Many students create a backup plan that is beginning to sound all too familiar. If they get out of law school and can’t find a good legal job, they hang up their own shingle. They start their own law practice.

Starting a law practice is one of the worst decisions an inexperienced lawyer can make. Becoming a good lawyer requires years of post-law school training and real-world experience.

Many new lawyers do hang up shingles, and while I admire their courage (although it’s more likely desperation) I wish they would stop and think about it. By launching into the profession without getting proper training from successful, experienced lawyers, they are doing their clients a disservice and the entire legal profession takes a hit on credibility.

I recently met a new lawyer who could not find a job, and so started her own general practice. She was desperate to pay off her six-figure student loan by practicing law, and therefore willing to take on any case, no matter how complicated. You can see where this may not end well. This young woman agreed to represent a man in a personal injury case, so she subpoenaed his medical records. I asked when she filed the lawsuit. She replied that she had not. When I told her that she did not have subpoena power until a lawsuit was on file, she looked at me like a deer in the headlights. She is not alone.

I have met other lawyers who choose to go it alone and they can be just as incompetent in the practice of law. I mean no disrespect; they are simply inexperienced. These fresh-out-of-law school shingle-hangers can be a black mark on the legal profession. I cringe when I hear that people fresh out of law school have started their own practices. I didn’t hang my own shingle until after I had a good dozen years of experience and, more importantly, extensive training and mentoring. Even with all that experience, it was still a challenge to open and operate my own law practice.

Don’t go to law school now

I am offering a graduate scholarship for students to go to any graduate school other than law school.

As each year passes, I look into the eyes of my law students and, across the board, I see my soon-to-be, fellow lawyers with a complete lack of morale, and for good reason. Their immediate career prospects are bleak to the extreme. That is why I am offering a graduate scholarship for students to go to any graduate school other than law school. You can apply here (doc).

Recently my friends’ 22-year-old son started at Northwestern Law School. What an accomplishment to get into such a fine institution! But instead of being thrilled for my friends and for their son, I wondered why a smart kid with smart parents make the decision to go to law school in these times.

The odds are that attending law school will likely be a long-term financial burden, not a benefit. So my advice, although I hope it will change in the near future, is don’t go to law school. Not now.

(image: Concept with vacuum cleaner sucking money from Shutterstock)

Law School

, , ,

  • NK

    What a ridiculous post. If you are so full of self-hate and loathing about your profession perhaps you should go find something else to do. The legal profession needs less people who have no optimism (like the author) and more people deciding to go to law school to advance the profession, receive the best education available, and open the doors to opportunities they never would have had. Your list of reasons not to go are simplistic and generic – you could remove ‘law’ and insert almost any other form of education (starting out). If we were to listen to you – our profession would grind to a halt. (Of course – you would have less competition, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing – right?)

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Of course – you would have less competition, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing – right?

      The idea that new lawyers are competition for experienced lawyers only makes sense to new lawyers and non-lawyers.

      • NK

        Having sold advertising to lawyers for 10 years prior to becoming one myself – i can tell you you are incorrect.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          LOL what.

          • isaac

            Having sold office supplies to particle physicists, for 10 years – i can tell you you are incorrect regarding how to split atoms.

    • Nikki Law

      Good point,yes I graduated with a masters in 2012 having the same problem,it’s not the profession I do not believe I think it is the way society is trending. Education in this country and other places have become a big business.#Capitalistic Society….

  • Nadia

    Influx of young, eager lawyer is not necessarily a bad thing for the clients. What there is no shortage of is a demand for affordable legal services. These shingle-hangers you deride are the ones driving down the price of the legal services allowing more people to afford an attorney. And that’s a good thing for the clients and the courts, because having to deal with even the most incompetent attorney is still better than dealing with a pro se litigant.

    As far as competency goes, yes, young lawyers may be inexperienced. But these lawyers are also far more likely read the Rules and to follow them, to ask for advice, to get mentors, and to look at current applicable case law, as opposed to old crusty attorneys who think they know everything, and rely on the version of the Rules from 20 years ago and cases that have long been overruled. You also can only screw up so many times until you either learn or wash out or get disciplined. Problem of incompetence of younger attorneys, if it exists, is at the most, a transient and self-correcting problem. In the mean time, by and large, the public benefits.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      “Beware the high cost of low price.”
      – Jim
      McDonough

      I do agree that there are many experienced lawyers who lack skill. It just may stem from them not getting good training when they became licensed to practice law.

    • Kate Graham

      I agree, Nadia. How can anyone look at the numbers on pro se litigants and think there are too many lawyers out there? But the problem that lawyers have now is getting paid. And with the cost of a legal education sky high, it’s hard to figure out how in-debt attorneys will be able to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income clients. Part of the solution to this whole problem has got to be law school reform and a decrease in education costs. I believe there is still great value in a legal education, but J.D.s are going to have to rethink what it will look like to capitalize on the skills they obtained in school.

      • Nikki Law

        The cost of “education” period in the U.S.A. needs reformation. Many individuals are opting out of college for this reason. It is a sad day,I am certain that I would make a fine Attorney.

    • Nikki Law

      I like all of what you said. A lot of the literature make it seem like becoming a lawyer with adequate employment is very daunting,I am really saddened and disappointed because this is what I am strongly interested in doing. I enjoy studying the law and having legal knowledge. I would love to help people at a affordable rate,it is not about the capital for me.I desire financial security, but I could spend almost every waking moment assisting clients .

  • CNF

    I have to say, I’m one of the lawyers who just graduated and hung my own shingle (although I do have a handful of years of experience as a paralegal). While I don’t WANT to agree with you, I do. Wholeheartedly.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Thanks CNF. I am not against one getting a legal education if they are truly passionate about it. I just think people contemplating law school should know about the adversity that will likely await them after law school.

      • AmicusC

        or just run a cost benefit analysis. most people going into the profession are not doing it because they want to be lawyers they do it thinking lawyer is short hand for making lots of money. there are easier ways to make lots of money. especially when considering the lost employment income during school added to tuition and expenses. it is quite the hole to climb out of just to have the degree break even let alone give you a benefit.

  • Mike

    Agree with the other comments. Thank you “Oh Wise and Experienced Attorney” for bestowing your wisdom upon us. Get real. I went to law school, graduated in 2012, and no jobs to apply to at all. I hung a shingle, and I’ve basically worked into a situation where I have minimum 2 or 3 mentors. Other Attorneys are willing to help. It’s the Corporate-minded attorneys in large firms that are hyper-competitive and discouraging of people to actually become lawyers. Such arrogance.
    And just because someone has been practicing law for 40 years, that doesn’t mean that lawyer is any better… simply more experienced. I get that experience matters, but it can be gained through collegiality. Corporate-minded attorneys like the ones discouraging people from using their years of hard work to be an attorney… they are the ones who won’t help. The rest will, and there are plenty out there. Oh, and I’m working on an appeal right now and am amazed at the shoddy work done at the trial level… by an attorney with 40 years of experience.
    People like the writer of this article should just step aside and stop giving law school grads nothing but discouraging words. It’s bad advice, and for all anyone knows, maybe just as bad as advice the writer gives to clients in his law office. The market is adjusting, and applications to law schools are on the decline. The writer could have easily made this point without suggesting that law grads are destined to become incompetent attorneys unless they’re hired somewhere. Oh, and by the way…. there are a lot of older attorneys, who are very good attorneys, who did exactly that… they hung a shingle out of law school. The author of this piece obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and his advice is as incompetent as the strawmen law grads he fears.

    • Paul McGuire

      Exactly. The example he gives of an incompetent solo is silly. Rather than going straight to subpoenaing records, a smart solo would consult with a mentor before taking a case and/or seek one for help right after. The information is there to learn and there are plenty of attorneys who are willing to mentor someone who has no idea what they are doing.

      • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

        Paul – As my bosses/mentors did with me, I spend many hours with my associate each week training him how to properly handle our clients’ legal matters. If you or anyone deciding to go solo out of law school can receive that type of guidance from your mentors, then great. You and your clients will be satisfied and the legal profession will benefit. However, if this “mentoring” we are talking about is a question/answer session here and there with a more experienced lawyer, then I can’t agree with your position. If someone “has no idea what they are doing” how will they know to seek the help of a mentor? Do you think the woman who was subpoenaing medical records without subpoena power knew she was breaking the law?

        • Deerhart23

          Better question to ask is how someone graduates from law school, passes the bar, and fails to have even a simple grasp of procedure, such as a subpoena doesn’t work with a case filed.

          These sorts of issues are not a failure of being an inexperienced lawyer, rather it is a failure of the law school education. Whether that is the schools fault or whether it is the student’s fault in the the classes they picked is up for debate. But I know myself and many of my classmates had already handled many aspects of cases before we graduated, whether it was through externships, law clinic, or clerking jobs. One hopes that this lawyers mistake was in the terminology used as a Plaintiff’s attorney does not have to subpoena medical records, they can do a simple records request (though it may take longer).

        • Andrew

          Why on earth would the attorney subpoena their own client’s records? In a personal injury case, she would retain the client, have the client sign verifications, HIPPA’s and then get the complaint out before she blows the Statute. That is where attorneys can be sued on malpractice. Once the Answer is in or she moves for default if it is not in, she can request meds from the doctor who treated the client and/or the hospital. If there are insurance carriers involved, that’s the most important step. Get the meds. Get the meds. Get the meds. But don’t know where subpoena power comes into play there.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Mike – If you were discouraged by my words, I apologize. I do think that people considering law school should realize that the “law route” is no longer safe. I’m a firm believer that post-law school training is best for the client, the lawyer him or herself and the legal profession in general.

      To prove my point, a lawyer out of law school who is not well-trained may ignore a problem (which, in this case, is simply a supply and demand problem) and instead, make personal attacks. Those personal attacks usually lack merit. For instance, one may attack me as being corporate-minded though I run a small practice dedicated to representing individuals and families. An attack may indicate that I don’t help young attorneys though I am a regular speaker at the various bar associations. In the last few months alone, I have been called upon on three occasions to speak to young lawyers on various subjects related to trial advocacy. An attack may indicate that I don’t mentor, though I spend a considerable amount of my professional time with law students and young lawyers, usually because they have found themselves in a jam at their client’s expense.

      I do agree with you that just because a lawyer has experience does not mean he is capable. I’ve seen plenty of old-timers who might be considered incompetent. It’s probably from a lack of good post-law school training.

    • Andy

      You sound like you take things way too personally. I would stay the hell away from trial practice if I were you.

      The author is giving advice based on his experience. Attack the merit of his argument instead of him personally. Also, don’t draw unreasonable inferences from his statements. Take them at face value. You graduated in 2012, but are quick to condemn the opinion of someone who is much more experienced without any real facts to back it up. Your own personal experience does not necessarily represent that of most recent law school grads around the country. Certainly, your own experience is not enough to say that the author does not know what he’s talking about and even suggest that he gives his clients bad legal advice…

      Good attorneys know how to maintain composure and communicate persuasively without sounding offended or vindictive in their communications. Learn this skill and learn it fast.

    • Nikki Law

      Lol,thanks I feel a little better after reading your post. i have heard a lot what he is saying,but yet there are still many lawyers practicing and every time I turn around someone needs legal advice.Who will fill the shoes after the older lawyers die or retire???

  • Bart Torvik

    Obviously there is a correct answer to the question “Should I go to law school?” and as any good lawyer will tell you, it is “It depends.” You make a good case for the default answer being “no,” and I certainly agree that it’s hard to watch young people accumulate massive these massive debts without a clear vision.

    But then I noticed that you started your legal career in 1995, which means you must have made your decision to go to law school in 1992 or so. In other words, you decided to go to law school in the middle of a really bad recession in the legal services market. Do you think things are categorically different this time around? Or would you give yourself the same advice if you could send a message back to 1992?

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Bart – Seems to me that the legal job market is far worse now than in ’95, when there was approximately 70,000 lawyers in Illinois compared to 90,000. I recall most of my classmates had a job lined up within a reasonable time after passing the bar exam. I can’t name one who decided to hang a shingle after their job seeking adventure failed.

      I’m not sure what advice I would have given myself in ’92. I may have been to stubborn to listen. However, since then, I’ve started a family and have children. I know what advice I’d give them if they were presently considering law school. They’re a few years off from then and I really hope things change.

      • Bart Torvik

        For what it’s worth, here’s the comparative NALP data, nine months after graduation:

        1992 — 83.5% employed, 14.5% unemployed, 6.8% solo
        1993 — 83.4% employed, 14.6% unemployed, 7.5% solo
        1994 — 84.7% employed, 13.1% unemployed, 6.2% solo
        1995 — 86.7% employed, 11.2% unemployed, 6.0% solo

        2010 — 87.6% employed, 9.4% unemployed, 5.9% solo
        2011 — 85.6% employed, 12.1% unemployed, 6.1% solo
        2012 — 84.7% employed, 12.1% unemployed, 5.1% solo

        Fairly analogous, although we might not have hit bottom yet this time around.

        (By comparison, the rates averaged around 90% employed, 8% not working, and 3% solo in the good years of 1998-2007. They were even better in the 1985-90 period.)

        • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

          Good ole law school stats. I remember them well. The ones that show mostly everyone is employed at near rock star salaries. But employed doing what? Waiter? Retail? (see Joel’s comments below). Maybe a dead end job with someone taking advantage and paying minimal wages? And who reports their salaries? Mostly the folks making fat pay checks.

          I see that you graduated 1st in your law class, then did a prestigious judicial clerkship for a couple of years before you got into BIG LAW for 5 years. That’s great. However, there’s not so many judicial clerkships and positions at BIG LAW available for the thousands of people who don’t graduate 1st in the class or have the holy grail of networks.

          Bart – Would it be your advice for a person out of college with limited funds, not much of a passion for the law or law school and a weak stomach for a dismal legal job market to currently go to law school? Personally, I feel an obligation to my profession and to most (not all) of those considering it, I’d say “take a pass for now” despite the good ole law school stats.

          • Bart Torvik

            Whatever their flaws, those NALP stats seem useful for noting trends and comparing eras. What I thought was interesting was that you went to law school during the only other period with stats even worse than today’s. So I thought you probably have some wisdom to share with the folk unlucky enough be graduating nowadays. That should be your next post!

            My only worry about your advice is that it may be mis-timed. Surely this advice would have been airtight four years ago, when college graduates were flocking to the presumed safe harbor of law school. But now you may be discouraging outstanding people from entering the profession based on trends (large graduating classes and bad job prospects) that have perhaps already bottomed out. Just as I’m sure many good people were discouraged from going to law school in 92, 93, and 94, even though it turns out they would have graduated into a booming legal market.

            But, who knows—maybe all those good people skipping law school was what caused the great economic boom of the 90s.

            As to your question, I did already give my advice above (“it depends”) but I will add this: I bet life for your family friend who is going to Northwestern law school turns out just fine.

      • Deerhart23

        Having been raised in IL, the problem your ignoring is that there is saturation of the legal market in some areas (can we say Chicago) and a significant lack of attorneys in other areas (can we say rural small towns). The town I grew up in has basically 4 or 5 attorneys (not include the state attorneys). Almost all are 50+, most 65+ and closing in on retirement (or already starting to). The area has already seen multiple attorneys retire who haven’t been replaced. Which forces people to travel further and further away for legal services and drives up the expense when the attorney has to drive over an hour each way for court

  • Paula Marie Young

    At the Midwest Association of Pre-law Advisors conference held at the end of October, which I am covering on my blog the Red Velvet Lawyer, one speaker predicted that the incoming class will see jobs outnumber graduates when they graduate. He assumed applicants to law school will continue to decline and the addition of new jobs will remain steady. Again, I’ve blogged about the job market, analyzing NALP data. And, if a student does not mind attending a lower ranked school, you can attend law school for free or at a deep discount on the sticker price. Many private schools can now compete with in-state tuition at state schools. It is a buyer’s market if your LSAT score would put you at the top of the class at a lower ranked school. Also, one speaker noted that 70 percent of law school applicants did not work with a pre-law advisor. Instead, they relied on websites, scambloggers, and US News rankings. He said pre-law advisors would play a more important role in the future.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      This, I think, is the interesting question. When will it be three years before the job market grows to the point where it can absorb the new graduates.

      Although those jobs may not be the kind of job we ordinarily think of as lawyering. More and more lawyers are really just temps, and it doesn’t look like those jobs are going to turn back into full-time associate positions any time soon. See Matt’s “Underemployed” section.

    • Deerhart23

      The difference between a 2nd tier school and a first tier school ended up being $75,000 less in student loans and instead paid by scholarship money.

      The difference in my career is enormous. Because I don’t have the additional student loans hanging over my head, I didn’t have to worry about landing those really high paying top jobs. I could accept a job, at a lower salary, doing what I wanted to do in the atmosphere I wanted, and still pay all my bills.And three years out, I have trial experience under my belt while my counterparts at much larger firms still had not even seen the inside of a courtroom.

  • Vic

    Your article resonates with what am going through at the moment. I have done my undergraduate and post graduate in law. However, here in the UK the competition is very high and as your article states getting a job in the legal profession has become nearly impossible. Furthermore am looking forward to starting my bar course however not in England as it is very expensive and they that is a debt on top of my undergraduate and postgraduate debt. Though the Kenyan bar is similar to the British one and you do study the same thing the only difference is the price which is manageable. So that is the route I have decided to take. I do wholeheartedly agree with your views its getting tough out there for people who are thinking about venturing in the legal profession.

    • Paula Marie Young

      I strongly recommend reading Richard Susskind’s book called Tomorrow’s Lawyers. The UK legal market has undergone even more fundamental change reflecting, in part, relaxed regulation of non-lawyer providers of what were services previously monopolized by lawyers.

  • pita magenta

    Thank you so very much for this post !!! This honest eye opening article is the one I have been waiting for months to solidify my decision to put off going to law school. I am not ready with at least 80K student loan debt right off brick and mortal law school. Again, thank you so much.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Thanks you for your comment. Hoping things change.

  • SLS admin

    Thank you for your post. I am an undergrad science major considering law school to become a patent attorney. I am also considering grad school for a life of grant writing and research or getting a Masters in Public Health. I’m still not sure, but reading your post help me to think about the reason I want to become a patent attorney. Thanks.

    • http://JamesBellefeuille.com/ James Bellefeuille

      @SLSadmin – I could be mistaken, but there are exceptions to every rule. I would like to here a patent attorney’s perspective, but I have heard that patent lawyers are doing quite well. Although, Patent law in the US is ripe for disruption from either technology or legislation.

  • Mark

    I like being a lawyer. I’m glad I did it. I have been practicing law for 25 years. I was a partner at a small firm for 15 years and have been a sole practitioner the last 10 years. My clients are individuals and a few small businesses. I am probably getting crusty. It might be more difficult now to get started and make it work than it was in 1988, but, to me, the odds seemed insurmountable back then.

    I agree with most of your points. I also think if someone really, really wants to go to law school to become a lawyer, they should go. Take the long view, know what you are getting into, and be ready to scrape by for some time. It can be done.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      The ones who are too stubborn to listen to good advice about going to law school are made up of two groups: exactly the sort of people we want as lawyers, and exactly the people we don’t.

      Hopefully, the second group gets sorted out before graduation, but I don’t think so.

  • Joel

    I agree with the author. I wish that I had not gone to law school. After graduation, I could not find a job. It was very depressing. I went to a top law school, too. I was amazed how many people that worked as waiters, and in retail, after graduation. I have had a lot of frustration. Eventually, I worked for some small law firms, and the pay was terrible. I went solo and it was very competitive. There were so many solos competing for a limited pie.

    There are just too many law graduates, pushing down wages and limiting opportunities. There are a lot of really bad law schools that will take anyone, lowering the quality of the profession.

  • Andrew Poole

    Overall, I agree with the points you are making in this article. I do think, however, that “hanging your own shingle” can be an excellent decision, even for new attorneys. This decision, however, cannot be made without a viable strategy for both getting clients, and protecting yourself from the potential of getting in over your head. I went solo not long after law school, and I started by getting a contract to provide public defender services. Eventually, I started taking private criminal cases, and later I started throwing simple divorces into the mix. I office share with a number of experienced attorneys, and have made great connections with the local bar. There are a number of lawyers I call on a regular basis if I can questions. I’ve now been solo for a couple years, and I think its one of the best decisions I’ve made. Without a viable strategy in place, however, I can see how young lawyers would have a negative experience hanging their shingle.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      You just may be the exception Andrew, but I don’t think you are not the rule. I would prefer that new attorneys spend a great majority of their professional time on really learning their craft of choice. Yes – this is possible for a new lawyer hanging a shingle but very difficult when they have a business to work on, not in.

  • Jason

    I disagree with your sentiments about going solo after law school. First of all, just because you had a run-in or two with a new solo practitioner that looked clueless to you does not mean that first years are incapable as a whole. We went to law school, just like you did. We passed the bar exam, just like you did. Many of us are capable of figuring out how to get the guidance and direction that we need in performing work for our clients competently. Therefore, I’d like you to consider the idea that going solo after law school is good for those with the moxie to do it, but is not for everyone.

    Second, guess what? You’re right about those jobs. Some of us started school in 2007 with dreams of becoming a lawyer, not of a market crash. You and your classmates probably had the luxury to work for a firm right out of school. I am not guaranteed that option, and it is uncertain when a job will come by. Now, the example you gave of the new young lawyer is litigation practice. It is a complex area of law where mistakes are easy to make. What is wrong with starting a practice that drafts wills, or business contracts? How about using that as a way to build a book of business, which a firm may find attractive in a prospective new associate?

    The lack of consideration of other aspects of solo practice makes it look like young solos merely rub you the wrong way. You give one scenario–since you are an adjunct professor, wouldn’t you have more? In my opinion, by writing this article, you are placing a black mark on the profession by denigrating your peers in this profession. Yes, your peers, because if not now, in due time, we will be on the other side of the table, court, or bench from you.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Deal – I’ll consider the idea that going solo after law school is good for those with the moxie to do it, but it’s not for everyone. OK – I’ve considered it – not a good idea. And by the way, do you have moxie or are you trying to build a book of business so a firm will hire you?

      Jason – the target audience of my article is people considering law school, not a solo. But as a fairly new lawyer in the trenches, how would you advise someone who is considering law school but didn’t necessarily have a passion for it, nor $, nor the stomach to face a tough legal market?

      Sorry if you think I am putting a black mark on the profession but we’re talking about this very serious issue and that’s good. Isn’t it? Or should we bury this issue so potential law students think that law is a safe career choice?

  • Guest

    Good post Matt.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Thanks.

  • Violetta

    This does not make much if any sense at all.
    Regarding a successful career choice nonsense. What is really a safe career choice today, especially with the global economy that we are facing today?
    It is not a matter of a career choice. But, perhaps working your way up.
    I hope you can agree that it is not just law graduates that are facing problems after they graduate.
    Regarding debts, unemployment, low wages and etc..it is a very common issue amongst British graduates. Not to forget that a high percentage of them are unemployed.
    Perhaps your article should have concentrated on whether everyone should chose to go to University.
    The real problem is everyone thinks they need to go to University in order to achieve success. Some professions merely need a degree.
    I can give you an endless list of successful people that never even finished school yet alone achieve a higher education.
    Also there are laws planned for 2014 in increasing minimum wages and preventing underpayment in the legal profession.
    I just don’t understand why you picked law! :)

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      You don’t understand why I “picked law”? Umm.. because I’m a lawyer publishing on the LAWYERist. Sorry Violetta but you gave me a soft ball.

      Regarding “University”, there’s been a lot of people in favor of high school grads going to trade school rather than college. I’m more comfortable speaking to what I know.

  • m.sola

    Interesting article. You could probably do a little less bashing and still come off powerfully. I get your points. And I get the criticisms made in the comments. More than likely, the “truth” lies somewhere between the two extremes. I am not a lawyer and don’t I intend becoming one.

    Hey the shingle hanger, unemployed or underemployed out there, I’m appealing from a district court order. My opening brief is done, but I could take brutally objective criticisms. If someone is able to review pro bono or for a small fee, I think the experience may be more than what you expect. I know the lawyers who post here, for e.g. Sam Glover, will outright dismiss this pro se. I can tell you my experience (I never saw the inside of a law classroom) rival that of the vast majority of the lawyers that will ever post here. It amazes me the hype around lawyering. I recall a magistrate telling me, “Google is the next law school.” So more powers to the shingle hanger. Trust me, with a LOT of patience and a voracious appetite to research and read, you can totally make it. If the “ignoramus” pro se can, you can!

    My offer above stands: m.sola@live.com.

  • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

    Thanks James. I especially like the part of your comment which reads “I learned more about trial advocacy, motions practice, evidence and preparing a case in that one year at the PD’s office than I ever would have learned at a firm.” I assume you are a better lawyer for having the PD experience. I’m a firm believer in post law-school training, whether it’s from a quality law firm or the PD’s office…

    So when young lawyers come to me with problems after they have run into trouble in a personal injury case, I do my best to get them on the right track. To date, I have never joined them as co-counsel on a case or taken one over completely. In full disclosure, I probably would. However, the main point of the article is to get potential law students to REALLY think hard about going to law school.

    • jameshartlaw

      Thanks Matt – I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

    You really think so, huh? The massive job shortage in the legal industry doesn’t have anything to do with it?

  • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

    Thanks for your comments Deb. You may not feel an obligation to let what most (not all) potential law graduates are in for, but I do. I wish I could have written – “Go to Law School Right Now” – and discussed on how, if you do, legal jobs will be plentiful, you’ll knock your debt out in no time, you’ll be self-employed and thriving. However, that would be “ridiculous”.

  • Noelia

    I agree that going to law school is a horrible decision from a financial standpoint. However, I think this is more so for students with substantial financial need, often times members of a minority group. This raises a concern as to who are we really deterring from entering the legal field. I am, however, very disappointed with the attack on solos out of law school, especially because the author is a professor at my alma mater. I have been preparing to launch my solo immigration practice since I was a 2L. Students who make this decision with time often find a niche as well as all sorts of resources to get the proper guidance and support in starting their own firm. In the end, they can perform as well or even better than the average associate because they know their practice will suffer the full consequences of their actions. I wish the time and money that was put into creating such a scholarship would have instead been used in the mentoring of new attorneys and the support of incubator programs such as the Justice Entrepreneurs Project of the Chicago Bar Association.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      C’mon Noelia – this isn’t a minority thing. You’re better than that. It’s an article targeted toward people who are considering law school. The gist of the article is that potential law students should think long and hard about law school. As I would recommend to my children, if you have a passion for law school and/or the law, the $ to go and the stomach for a tough legal market post law school, then by all means, go! If not, then consider taking a pass… for now. How would you advise your children regarding the same?

      In terms of you being disappointed because I teach at your alma mater, I feel that what I have accomplished in my legal career just might lend some credibility to my opinions, whether you agree with them or not. Given my track record in a profession that I’m very proud of, I feel an obligation to occasionally speak up on something that needs to be discussed, just like I feel an obligation to help people who have made the decision to go to law school and just like the obligation I feel to mentor new attorneys, which I have done for years. If, once you develop some professional credibility, you spend 1/2 the time that I spend teaching future lawyers and mentoring new lawyers, our profession will hopefully prosper and law school will once again be a safe route to a successful, satisfying career. Just please put away the minority card on this issue. It’s simply a supply and demand problem.

  • Guest

    Matt:

    You have made millions of dollars before the age of 40. What
    else could you have done that would have given you such success?

    You went to NIU, so you didn’t have the paper credentials
    for investment banking or high end business. You were not a science major, so medicine,
    engineering and tech start ups were out.

    Everything that you wrote about the terrible state of the law
    business is entirely true. But what else could you have done with your life
    that would have made you so much money so (relatively) quickly?

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      For every guy like me who has had some financial success as a lawyer (though most of it post-40) there are hundreds/thousands of lawyers who are not as lucky.

      I’m not sure what I would have done if I didn’t choose law, but when I see other financially successful lawyers, my hunch is that there success comes more from being driven, determined, savvy, smart, willing to take risk…. and not so much from having a law degree. I assume these folks would have had as much success selling widgets as they do practicing law.

  • J. Flanders

    My thoughts: don’t read silly posts on Lawyerist. Go bust your ass. You will do fine (whether you are a lawyer or a shoe salesman). Get busy living, or get busy dying. No more dooms-day, boo-hoo posts, please. They only feed the beast (websites like Lawyerist that rely on regular posts and heavy traffic). Instead, make an effort to stop young lawyers drown in their own tiresome, self-pitying sorrows.

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Thanks for reading my silly post on the Lawyerist as you advise others not to. Sorry J. – couldn’t resist.

      • J. Flanders

        I know, I agree. I feel bad that I read the post too. You did a nice job, but, come on, we are supposed to be advocates for the truth. I have made way more money and been, generally, much more happy with my career after I attended law school. Nobody gave me any handouts, either. You make your own way – no matter what you do in life.

  • Brett

    Times are tough right now for sure in the legal jobs market for attorneys. I agree with some remarks made by the author and disagree with many others. I graduated in 2008, just before the market crash. I did, in fact, wait tables for a good year or so! I then worked as a lowly counter clerk for one of the state courts, but I was able to network and get hired on with a small firm for a time. I disagree that it is requisite to have years and years of experience before opening up shop. I had 8 months experience (in a firm) and, granted, I did actually learn quite a bit about the actual practice of law while working for the court as well. I have been out on my own for a year and a half and have loved it. I have purchased a house, have had a couple kids and have never looked back. Yes I have made some mistakes along the way, but it has been an incredible experience thus far and I have learned very quickly from those mistakes. No, going solo is not for everyone. Practicing law while running a business is not easy. I have several colleagues and friends who are trying to make it work and they are having a tough time. Figuring out the marketing and getting a steady stream of clients is challenging. Having a background in sales definitely comes in handy as well. Anyway, just thought I would add my two cents, for what it’s worth.

  • Abolitionist77

    As an current undergraduate student in my final semester, with the LSAT already scheduled for February… I appreciate these words of advice. I know that this is a huge responsibility and I am thankful that there are those out there who give reasonable warnings to others. I currently work as a paralegal, and I have witnessed other attorneys competing for the positions in which I am applying for! It’s discouraging to see that experienced lawyers are suffering to this extent- but it also complicates my OWN job market as I can’t compete with an experienced lawyer who is willing to accept comparable pay. Thankfully, I have a 4.0 going for me, but that may not be enough to pay the bills. When it comes down to it, I am asking myself if I am willing to risk so much in a market that is so insecure. Thanks again for your advice. Perhaps being “teachable” is more worthy of a characteristic than being arrogant, like so many others posting here. God bless~

  • Jayme Kruse

    Hi Mr. Willens! I was in your trial ad class last semester (spring semester of this year). I graduated in May and quickly became aware of the unfortunate realities you wrote about in this article. It is all a bit depressing. Regardless, I really enjoyed having you as a teacher. Hope all is well!

    Jayme Kruse

    • http://www.willenslaw.com/ Matt Willens

      Thanks for your nice words Jayme. Keep your chin up and network your tail off., and don’t say, “I have” because I have yet to see you for a cup of coffee. Why haven’t you tapped into my network?

  • Han Solo

    Matthew:

    I agree in large part with your article. Like many others commenting on your post, I cannot agree with your sentiment on starting a law firm fresh out of law school. I’m going to try not taking your pointed advice on the matter as a personal insult, as I am one of those fresh out of law school “hanging a shingle.” I disagree with your position for three major reasons: 1) Every lawyer has the necessary tools to do the job fresh out of law school; 2) Experience isn’t all you make it out to be; and 3) hanging a shingle is an unattractive prospect, but not because of the incompetence of law graduates. Let me explain.

    1) Every lawyer has the basic tools to practice law on the day they were admitted to the bar. Before you burst out with laughter, hear me out. Law schools teach each and every lawyer the basics of substantive law, procedural law, and how to find the law. Additionally, law school clinics (such as the one I staffed) give law students an opportunity to practice law in the real world. Most law students also have the opportunity at some point to clerk for a law firm. From these basics, every attorney should be able to relate to clients on a personal level, identify basic substantive issues, look up the rules of court/procedure that apply, and talk to mentors to get practical/strategic advice on how to handle the case.

    You cited an experience that you had with a young attorney who made the mistake of using a subpoena before suit was filed. Your unspoken assumption was that this is a necessary mistake for anyone who is inexperienced. This assumption is false. If the young attorney had bothered to consult the rules of court and procedure (as she was taught in law school), or even asked a mentor, she would not have made this mistake. This is bad lawyering, something you will note that some experienced attorneys are also guilty of. In effect, you are saying that all inexperienced lawyers are bad lawyers, which is simply not true.

    2) It seems that assume that experience is the golden ticket to competent lawyering. This is not entirely correct. While there is something to be said for *good* experience, many lawyers who work for large firms (or even mid-sized firms) are not given much meaningful experience at all. For example – how many big-law lawyers do you know who have their own clients within the first 5 years? I know plenty of big-law lawyers who have zero clients within that time frame. I know plenty of mid-sized firm lawyers who fit this description as well.

    I once spoke to a big-law lawyer who had been in practice for six years what the “coolest” thing he had ever done as an attorney was. He said that the week before, he had taken his first deposition. Six years – one deposition. Most of his time during that six years was spent writing memos for senior associates and junior partners. While this is an extreme example, it is illustrative of the truth that junior lawyers at mid-large sized law firms don’t get the kind of “experience” people like you think that one needs to start their own firm until at least a decade into their practice, and even then, that experience only takes a lawyer so far when it comes to running your own shop. For those that do get good experience fresh out of law school, that experience is often tainted by the good or bad habits of the lawyers who they work for. Getting that experience carries some value, but is not entirely a good thing in every situation.

    3) Your position arrives at the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. Being a solo attorney sucks (although it is nice to have the freedom to set your own schedule, develop your own book of business, and take a larger percentage of the profits). However, it does not suck because of having little experience, as you have argued. It sucks primarily because the solo has no idea if or when his/her next paycheck will come. It sucks because the **responsible** solo will have to refer some cases (and business) that they aren’t quite ready for. Finally, it sucks because solos have to make a name for themselves instead of relying upon the mask of a big-law name to develop a network.

    Perhaps instead of saying that new grads should never start their own practice, you should say that they should only start their own practice if: a) they have business experience in the real world outside of law school (including working before going to law school); b) they have a credible understanding of how business finance works and how to run a small business; c) they aren’t afraid to get out and network with potential clients and other attorneys; d) they have access to at least $5-7k to start and float their law practice until they get clients; e) they don’t mind working 70+ hours per week (sometimes for no return); and f) they don’t mind working a second job doing doc review, delivering pizzas, or doing other menial work for about a year while their law firm gets off the ground.

    This would carry much better than arguing that all new attorneys are not real attorneys, and that only those attorneys fortunate enough to land attorney jobs should even bother trying to capitalize upon the hundreds of thousands of dollars, several years of hard work, and the grey/missing hair it takes to earn a JD and pass the bar.

    • J. Flanders

      Being a solo does not suck. Parts of it suck. Parts of every job I have ever had suck. But, in general, being a solo does not suck. I love it. Mostly.

  • Guest101

    Matt, thank
    you for writing this article. I agree wholeheartedly! People should know what
    they are getting into. But! Finding a job is difficult in a lot of fields, not
    just in the field of law. But sure, it’s important to at least let people know
    that choosing law school does not guarantee a successful career as the never
    ending cliché suggests. Times have changed. As for me, I’m a law student from
    the Netherlands. I chose to graduate in criminal law (master’s degree) and I
    had planned to do some civil law subjects on the side as every good lawyer has
    to have a civil law basis. No one has told us that criminal law has NO job
    perspectives. I wish I was exaggerating! The prosecution office, the police
    departments and many more offices and organizations all have a hiring freeze. We
    didn’t know it was that bad, how were we to know? You find that out when you
    start looking for an internship or when your friends start to reach out to
    practice to do extracurricular activities AFTER you’ve chosen the specialty,
    after which you come in contact with people who are focused on the same
    specialty. I wish someone had told me, I would have made different choices! I
    still would have done criminal law, but not as a full specialty! I feel
    Universities have an obligation to warn us. And that’s why I applaud Matt for
    writing this article. Not every letter might be true to the core, but the
    message is clear and should be given by someone! Even if only it’s meant to
    make people think harder and be aware of what is coming. As for my situation, I
    continued with Intellectual Property and it still sucks because the economy is
    not in our favor, but that is a situation we all have to deal with and at least
    there are perspectives if you’re willing to work hard, which I am doing! But I
    still regret losing time over Criminal law, more than would have been
    necessary.
    And I strongly disagree with Deb. I don’t know where your arrogance comes from,
    but I know, for example, one guy, who has the looks and all the skills, but he
    is working as a waiter for a Spanish restaurant. He graduated in Criminal law
    under a famous professor, finished his degree Cum Laude and did everything
    right, but he just couldn’t find a suitable job for at least a year and in the meantime
    he continued working there. There is nothing wrong with what he is doing, I
    think he is showing humility by doing it, because it isn’t easy to do such
    prestigious things and then end up waiting tables. It IS a reflection on the
    law school for not telling him about the sucky perspectives, it IS a reflection
    on the legal profession, it IS a reflection on our legislator who have made it
    a lot harder to get into education to become a judge (they can now only hire
    experienced lawyers not freshly graduated according to law) and it is NOT
    possible to find anything in between. Maybe things work differently across the
    ocean, but it’s either taking a sucky job packaging toothpaste or waiting
    tables or do legal work, there is nothing in between! Companies aren’t really
    jumpy to hire a graduate of Law when they can hire someone who has the specific
    background for it, for instance, HR, I would have hired someone who has studied
    Human Resources to! And that list goes on. Of course you need to be marketable,
    be prepared, work hard and all that, but you CAN NOT say that is only a
    reflection on the person.

  • LBA

    I’d donate money toward such scholarships — if I had any. I’m a 2010 graduate in the top 10% of my class at a top-20 law school. I make under 50k a year and have over 100k in federal student loan debt. I’m on an IBR plan under which my payments are less than the interest that accrues each month, meaning that my debt is getting larger, not smaller. Mr. Willens is saying something that begs to be said.

  • Kelsey

    As I hope to attend law school in the coming fall I have to agree and disagree in part. I recently had a sit down discussion with my boss at my legal internship. She explained to me not to get scared by the job market for big law because big law has enough lawyers, instead she pulled down the composite of our local bar association (we are in a small rural county). Only 4 out of 40 were under 50. So within the next 10 years we are going to have a shortage in these smaller bars where lawyers are still needed. So yes the amount of debt I’m signing onto is scary with the current job market but I believe that a person must be smart about what they are doing. Look for the scholarships and aid. Borrow but don’t live lavishly off the money, also perhaps look at the cheaper school that is perhaps a bit less ranked. Law is more geographical than ranking anymore. I guess I’m just saying that yes the outlook for getting a 6 figure salary at a big law firm that won’t eat your soul is a bit too far fetched but getting a job at a smaller firm that will pay the bills is not.

  • thecollards@yahoo.com

    My impression is that the author view of the legal field is quite narrow. He clearly does not realize that his 12 years working for someone else before starting his own firm constitute the exception rather than the rule.

    Lawyers make be broken into two mentalities: servants and entrepreneurs. Servants work for others and will always work for others. Entrepreneurs will go solo as soon as they can. Were I to guess the author’s mentality, I would guess that he is either a servant who came to entrepreneurship by accident, or a weak-willed entrepreneur who whose fear was overcome by circumstance.

    Neither mentality produces better lawyers. What produces good lawyers is intelligence, sense, and a willingness to seek help from other lawyers. The idea that one should not start ones own practice until one has served a dozen years working for another is simply ludicrous – as ludicrous as suggesting one should not open ones own garage until he has worked at a dealership for 12 years. Law practice is mentorship-driven by its very nature. All that one needs to practice law are 1) clients and 2) the sense not to get in over ones head. It does not take 12 years to acquire either of these; indeed, if you haven’t developed them in the first year you should get out of law altogether because the ensuing 11 years are unlikely to change things.

    Practicing law is not about knowing answers, but about having the sense and humility to ask all the right questions. The woman who erroneously subpoenaed medical records in the author’s example is not an incompetent lawyer because she did not work law for someone else first. She is an incompetent lawyer because she is a fool. There are probably too many fools in the law these days, but that doesn’t mean that people who are not fools should become computer programmers instead.

    There will always be legal jobs for intelligent, sensible people with realistic financial expectations who are willing to seek the guidance of others and able to find it. The problem with the legal job market is not that good people cannot find jobs but that the profession is still reeling from years of being bloated with bad lawyers.

    If you have what it takes to be a good lawyer, you will survive after law school and eventually succeed. If you don’t have what it takes, you will fail. It really is that simple.

  • Jon Roy

    I am currently waiting to hear back from the University of Montana law school on acceptance yet I’m still not convinced to go. I have in state tuition at 11,000 a year and including living costs it will be about $75,000 all said and done. The financial burden is what discourages me the most. I plan on “hanging my own shingle” as it’s called and believe I am realistic about the hardships to come. I am trying my best to be rational in this decision as I know I can handle the academics but it’s not only a financial sacrifice but three years of school is three years less money earned. I’m 23 and already have two degrees, excellent grades, and lots of work experience so I have plenty of options as far as starting a career or business of my own in various fields. I feel compelled to take the opportunity to go to law school, however, because I love to learn, I have no debt, nothing tying me down, and a father who is just retiring as a judge and looking to go back into private practice as a small town (12,000) attorney where he lawyered for 25 years before 14 years of judicial service. He’s eager to teach me everything he knows. I believe you have a lot of great advice and I agree with what you say but how would you change your input for someone in my position? Or would you say the same? 75,000 (less due to summer jobs) and 3 years in Missoula, Mont

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      For the majority of lawyers, law practice is a really hard way to make a lower-middle-class living (51% of lawyers make $40–65k, according to NALP). Are you really willing to spend $75,000 for what is most likely to add up to a Starbucks manager’s salary?

      I’m not optimistic that the market is going to be way better for new graduates in three years. So the only reason to do this is if you are sure you want to go out on your own or work for your dad, and you have some reason (i.e., more than a strong belief in your abilities) to think you’re going to be able to do better than the majority of lawyers.

  • Jon Roy

    U Montana specializes in training small town attorneys and emphasize application rather than theory). I know they’re not a top tier but I love the school and think it’s a perfect fit.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      A law school’s “specialty” is pretty much worthless as far as employers are concerned, FYI.

  • http://resipsalocquitor.blogspot.com/ Res Ipsa

    I wonder if you tend to find that no matter what you say along these lines, and this is an excellent essay that many lawyers would fully agree with, that those outside the law, including those outside and wanting to get in, just cannot believe it.

    At least by my observation, no many how many lawyers say the exact same thing as you, those ignorant of the law continue to believe that a law degree is a golden ticket into easy extremely lucrative work, and generally can’t be dissuaded from believing otherwise.

  • Ashley N. McCord

    It has been my lifelong goal to attend law school, and i was accepted everywhere I applied. However, the amount of loans I would have needed to take out at any of the schools (after subtracting some very hefty scholarship offers) was too much or so I thought. My family thinks I’m crazy because I decided to save money before reapplying. I do have a question: How much debt makes sense for a law student? My total would have been about 6k a year… Am I crazy???

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      First, don’t go. See above.

      Second, $6,000 per year is a steal if that number includes your living expenses, books, tuition, etc.

  • Colin

    For example, I haven’t been able to find a job as a waiter at all. And I was a good one for about 7 years before I went back to school.

  • AC

    Good article, however, I’m afraid it’s too little too late for me as I sit here awaiting my bar results and endlessly struggle to find a job, to no avail. womp womp.

  • Jessica InTruBeauty

    Depressing and true. I think newer lawyers certainly can have a good practice on their own if they put in the time and effort and research what they need to do.

  • David Wolkowitz

    Many more people should attend law school because many lawyers charge too much. It’s simple economics. Further, taking a job with an “experienced” lawyer and working at a law firm is no guarantee of receiving proper training – most likely the training will center around figuring out how to bill a client as much as possible.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Supply and demand doesn’t seem to work the way you would expect when it comes to lawyers. We have had a glut for several years now, and fees are barely moving.