Counterpoint: Go to Law School

I was recently reminded of Aaron Street’s  post Thinking of Going to Law School? Please Reconsider! Aaron did a good job of giving prospective law school applicants a moment of pause before they starting firing off applications to whatever school will take them. He does this by painting a fairly accurate and bleak picture of what the landscape looks like for new lawyers. It’s something very different from the Potemkin village that law school admissions departments like to portray to its eager applicants. But whenever I hear practicing attorneys say “don’t go to law school,” I’m reminded of how much I hated hearing that before I applied. I didn’t listen to those lawyers then, and I’m glad I didn’t.

“Seat’s Taken.”

When I was thinking of applying to law school in the mid-aughts, I heard from numerous attorneys that going to law school and becoming a lawyer was a bad idea. They would say that the market was too saturated, that law school sucks, etc. None of those points were altogether wrong, but I still couldn’t help but feel like poor little stupid Forrest Gump getting on the school bus for the first time and hearing “you can’t sit here” over and over. I remembered wondering: “if lawyers are telling me that being a lawyer sucks, then why are they still lawyers?” (note: my inner monologue uses horrible vocabulary and sentence structure)  I would contend that ours is a profession that doesn’t invite new lawyers and graduates with much warmth. Aaron’s post takes a very “macro” view of what law students entering the legal field can look forward to, and his message that going to law school is riskier than it used to be is spot on. But I would like to offer a slightly more encouraging message; a little good cop/bad cop if you will. When I came away from reading his article, I wondered two things: first, is training to be a lawyer that much riskier than training to join any other career field; and second, should that matter?

Is going to law school riskier than anything else?

Breaking: It’s hard to get a job in any sector right now. I know, I know, my bowtie hasn’t stopped spinning ever since I read that news item in my local periodical, either. College graduates and graduate students in nearly every vocation are having a hard time finding work. The legal profession isn’t much different. The one significant difference is that law students usually start their careers with a much heavier debt load than most new professionals. But all that this does is sharpen one of the debating points down to a finer edge, and it asks: “does going to law school make sense financially?” That, to me however, is a worthwhile question but not the question of whether you should consider the legal profession.

Being a lawyer kicks ass for a lot of reasons. It can also be pretty lame for a lot of reasons. Other more experienced attorneys could riff on what those reasons are better than I, but to my mind the day-to-day benefits and drawbacks of being a practicing lawyer are far, far more important a set of considerations than what your student debt load and income level will be. Obviously, employment potential is an important factor to consider prior to starting law school since the pros and cons of being an attorney don’t matter much if you are taking a job as the PetCo distribution manager for western Pennsylvania after you take the bar. But this very blog and the Lawyerist LAB are testament to the fact that being a solo-practitioner is a possibility for a lot of new graduates or out of work attorneys. Lawyerist encourages attorneys to turn the godawful job market on its ear and strike out on their own. This isn’t easy, mind you, but the fact that you can start your own law firm for under $3,000 should help prospective law students feel a little more at ease about the doom and gloom job market waiting for them on the graduation stage.

Career Darwinism

It is certainly true that going to law school now is a less lucrative and more risky proposition than it used to be. But so what? All that that hopefully means is that the new batch of lawyers will be individuals that applied to law school because they actually want to be lawyers rather than just make BigLaw salaries. I used to tell people thinking of going to law school that if all they wanted was to get rich, they should go be investment bankers (now I don’t know what to tell them… be a hipster iPhone protective case maker?). Aaron’s post is dissuading folks who maybe shouldn’t be considering law school in the first place. If you are scared away from the legal field by the simple fact that the traditional and more lucrative attorney jobs aren’t there, then perhaps you shouldn’t be considering law school in the first place. And I’m not judging mind you, I need money too. The mortgage on the White house ain’t free, and the organic groceries my wife makes me buy costs money, too. But the legal profession is stressful enough, crowded enough, and so chalk-full of ego that if you aren’t deriving your job satisfaction from something other than cashing a paycheck, I happen to think that you will hate being a lawyer anyways.

Before you go decide to law school, you really do need to put a lot of thought into it; and student loans, income and employment prospects are factors to consider. But if these are the only factors that you are considering, then forget it. Take that awful movie “The Paper Chase” out of your Qwikster Netflix queue, and start applying to business school.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2970993575/)

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  • Jennifer Gumbel

    Couldn’t agree more! I get annoyed with people who say that law school was a waste of time… unless they genuinely can’t make a pay check in the legal field. I’ve been lucky enough to. Granted, sometimes I think I’d be making as much if I had become a teacher and have benefits, but I love what I do. I have zero tolerance for someone who was only in it for the paycheck and now laments their decision because they can’t get the paycheck.

  • I like hearing counterpoints on this. And your suggestion that you shouldn’t being going to law school for a paycheck only is also right on. And as long as prospective law school students understand what they’re in for, I’m all for more citizens getting a legal education. I mean if we’re not going to teach civics in high school…

    And I think that a legal education has value outside of practicing law.

    However, with one lawyer for every 260-something Americans, it would be foolish for folks to think that they’re going to be gainfully employed as lawyers at all, let alone, have a high-paying lawyer job upon graduation.

    The math simply isn’t there.

  • Jeff

    Gyi: your remark “legal education has value outside of practicing law” is spot on.

    For perspective, I WAS in investment banker before returning to law school. When I saw the investment market tank in 06-08, again, thousands of would-be retirees lose a generation worth of savings overnight, and 6-digit salary VP’s lose their jobs one after the other, I thought that I had gotten everything I could from my degree in history and sociology, so I took the risk. Law school is an investment, and every investment comes with risk.

    For those who think there are too many lawyers out there, you should count up the MBA’s. I also learned, when MBA’s are out of solutions, they hire lawyers. Bottom line, if you are flexible and willing to do the “less than glamorous” legal work, a lawyer should never worry about starving or losing everything.

  • Troy

    “if lawyers are telling me that being a lawyer sucks, then why are they still lawyers?”

    To use a poker term, many of those lawyers are “pot-committed.”

    Also, the fact that you can start your own solo practice for $3,000.00 is very misleading. You could do many other things that give the illusion of a career while actually having a large probability of leading to nothing. For $3,000, you could:

    Write and self-publish a book
    Record and self-publish a record
    Open an online newspaper
    Start a tutoring company
    Etc.

    None of which would require nearly as much professional (non-academic) knowledge as starting a firm, but all of which are likely to be about as lucrative. Being able to cheaply start a law firm when you are fresh out of law school is a good thing for a very small number of very entrepreneurial, very self-starting and motivated new lawyers.

    The fact that it is so cheap is actually a very *bad* thing for the rest of new lawyers, for it will tempt many who should never do it, certainly not fresh out of law school.

    IRAC does not a competent practitioner make.

  • On Facebook, a friend wrote “law school was a bad return on investment, but I’m still glad I went.”

    That’s probably true for me, too. However, I think it’s fair to ask law schools to be honest about the likely return on investment, at a minimum. And maybe consider whether the high cost of going to law school is justified by the actual job market.

  • CAL Grad

    I am currently in the process of applying to law school. I graduated from Berkeley with a 3.97 GPA, and just got my LSAT score from October. I got a 153, which I believe is a disaster, esp since I was consistently scoring between 162-166. I took a prep class, studied full time for 3 months, and instead of getting a score that reflects what I normally get (mid 160’s) I ended up dropping more than 10 points on the real thing. Its very discouraging to say the least. I’m born and raised in Norway, and moved to the US after high school to attend college so English is not my first language and the LSAT is anything but forgiving when it comes to non native speakers. Here’s my question, I studied a great deal in order to graduate with a 3.97 from Berkeley so if I retake the LSAT in Dec and still dont get the score that I need to get accepted to a top 25 school should I still even consider law? I have a really hard time picturing myself attending anything ranked significantly lower than my undergraduate instituation and feel really uneasy about attending a tier 3 or tier 4 law school. Thus, if I cant see a significant improvement in my LSAT score would it be wiser for me to get a masters degree in Public Policy from a top ranked university in CA? I understand the risks involved with masters degree, but at least its more affordable and I truly have an interest in policy issues. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

    • Tyler White

      First, bummer about your LSAT scores—I get that you were expecting something higher, but honestly you should be proud of whatever you scored if you gave it your best. Yes, going to a well-regarded law school is important but it isn’t everything. If you feel like giving the LSAT another whack, and you know you can do significantly better, then go for it.

      Second, I think the main question is: do you WANT to go to law school? If you have more of an interest in studying public policy, then you might want to consider that. But if you actually want to practice law, then stick with it; take the LSATs again if you know you can improve, and increase your odds at getting into a higher ranked school. Now even if you can only get in to a 2nd-tier school, but are sincerely motivated to go to law school and practice law, then do it. But that’s just me, I’m sure lots of other people would disagree and say that you should only go to a top 15 school or whatever. I don’t subscribe to that at all, though.

      • Tyler White

        And let me add that there is nothing wrong with a 153, btw. Scoring high on the LSAT simply says that you are good at scoring high on the LSAT.

  • Jealousyisyucky

    Many lawyers are desperate to prevent others from coming into the profession, so they spread lies and exaggerations about dismal job prospects and such. Yes, the job prospects are not so great, but there is some hope out there.

  • Angrytier4lawstudent

    people are saying, attending tier 3 or 4 is a ‘real waste of money’. if so, why are there tier 3 and 4 exist at first place? also if tier 3 or 4 is soo bad (especially its publicly announced, why does students are still applying and attend tier 3 or 4 law schools at first place? )
    i get angry whenever i heard people are telling me or sharing ‘if you don’t get into tier 1 or 2, don’t even think about attending tier 3 or 4. you are not meant to be a lawyer. all you are going get is six digit debt’.
    i would like to encourage for those student who are attending or considering to attend tier 3 and 4. if you have an opportunity and always wanted to be lawyer, don’t get freeze up by ignorant statement. stick with your dreams. yes, realistically you may face huge debt, but putting effort with something will lead you to a good job. The competitiveness does not only get to apply in legal field but other fields are too competitive as legal field. Personally, I attend whitter law school. YES, whitter law school is consider as ‘shitty school’. Even though i attend shitty school, i am confident that i can get better jobs than those who doesn’t have JD degree. so don’t lose hope. with JD degree you can make better money compare to McDonald’s worker.