Choose Freedom Before Law School

If you are nearing the end of your college years and are considering law school, you should already know that there are not nearly enough law jobs to go around, and that the crushing debt burden most law grads take on can ruin your financial future. You may know law schools have developed a reputation for, um, not telling the truth. Finally, you may know that many lawyers are unhappy in their jobs, but feel trapped in law practice.

Despite all this, you may be considering law school anyway simply because your undergraduate education isn’t going to get you a job that excites you. You are considering taking the risk on law school because you don’t see any real alternatives. Or, perhaps you already know you can’t be happy unless you become a lawyer.

But there’s another factor to consider. If you go to law school, it prevents you from doing something else. Economists call it an “opportunity cost.”

In simple terms, while you are in law school racking up debt and worrying about your (lack of) job prospects, you aren’t doing something else, e.g., starting a business. After law school, if you want to start a business, your debt burden (plus the fact that you have 3 fewer years left as a young person) put you at a disadvantage. Plus, your business is 3 years farther from success than it would have been 3 years ago.

But there’s another way to look at the opportunity cost. Law school costs you your best (and probably last) opportunity to be free.

What Now? Whatever You Want

So you really ought to take advantage of this literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Let’s assume you will eventually go to law school and work as a lawyer. Here’s what will make you a better and happier lawyer: experiencing life outside the academic environment for a while before you go to law school. And I don’t mean for a summer. I mean for a year, or two, or three. That way, when you start law school, you’ll be refreshed mentally, wiser, and maybe even have a few dollars in your pocket so you don’t have to borrow for every last necessity.

Most law students are in a terrible hurry to leave the carefree days of youth behind. They go to college, then immediately (or very soon after) go to law school. Then, if they are lucky enough to find a law job, they start slaving away. Maybe that’s you. Maybe the idea of freedom frightens you. Maybe it shouldn’t.

Hit the road, Jack/Jackie

I think the best thing you can do is travel. You don’t need a fortune to tour Europe. People tour the US all the time with nothing more than a bicycle and a tent. (Pack carefully.) Use the internet to find people looking for someone to kick in gas money to get to cool places you haven’t seen yet. You might make a friend. (Pick your travel partners with care.)

Got a bachelor’s degree in NoMarketableSkills? Don’t worry about it. If you want to work, go work somewhere. If you think you want to be a particular type of lawyer, go find a law firm or organization that does that work and convince them to give you a job doing whatever needs doing. That means fetch sandwiches, clean conference rooms, deliver mail, create powerpoint decks, whatever. You’ll be able to learn what it’s really like to work there. Maybe they’ll even pay you.

Or, just work in a location you like. A young, single person doesn’t really need to earn much to survive. I spent 6 months as a lifeguard at an outdoor pool in central California. Not a financially rewarding job, but I sure remember it fondly. I didn’t go hungry and there was always beer in the fridge.

If you happen to have a degree that will get you a job, go get one, and work at it for two years. What will you learn? That work is a grind-it-out proposition. Most days at work (at least if someone other than you signs your paycheck) are not fun or rewarding. Two years of cube life may make you enjoy law school more, or give you the drive to succeed as a solo practioner afterward.

Got diversity?

Get among people who are not like you. If you are white, middle class, and went to a state university, get a job waiting tables at a very expensive restaurant. Or, work at a factory for six months. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Join a kickball team. If you are a church-going person, go to other churches. Have coffee with the people there after the service. Join a book club devoted to books you don’t usually read. You’ll be a better lawyer if you understand how to talk to people who are not at all like you. And you will be happier because you will see yourself as a grain of sand on a beach instead of as the center of the universe.

Join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or one of the many, many other service opportunities that will get you out of the library and doing something. Anything but law school.

I recall watching a documentary about Jeff Bezos. He said he founded Amazon in 1994 as a “regret minimalization framework.” That’s geek-speak for “I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t start my own internet company. So I started my own internet company.”

You’re not the next Jeff Bezos.* But this is your moment. Don’t spend it reading textbooks, writing papers, or, for goodness’ sake, looking at US News law school rankings.

And, after you bear-hug the opportunity to not be a student for a few years, you may well wonder why you were considering something as foolish as law school in the first place.

*If you are the next Jeff Bezos, you owe me a cushy job in a few years for giving you this invaluable advice.

(photo: author)

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  • In retrospect for me, 22-year-old college graduates have no business going to law school. It’s the rare 22-year-old person who is mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared for that three-year grind. Instead of immediately going to law school, get a job; make some money; buy a nice couch; learn how to be an adult for a while. Then go to law school, if you still want to.

  • The best thing I ever did was move to Los Angeles for 4 years to become the next Spielberg—before going to law school. I gained lots of the intangible, but invaluable “life experience.”

  • Mark

    This is a tough call. I opted for “freedom” rather than law school when I graduated from college. I had been accepted to a top ranked, T-1 law school. I also had a job offer in hand at a then “Big 8” accounting firm. I opted for the job rather than more schooling. I had a blast. Travelled, worked hard, and never looked back. I subsequently earned an MBA from a TT business school. In 2008 I started law school, part-time, at a local TTTT. My current employer (not the “Big 8” accounting firm) sponsored my law school “experience” (I mention this only because their sponsorship drastically limited the amount of debt I would have otherwise been forced to incur in order to complete the program). I finished law school in 2011 and passed the bar. For grins, I have explored the local legal job market by responding to various job postings at medium to large law firms. Because this is more or less exploration rather than hard-core job hunting, I have not tried to leverage my relationships with friends who are lawyers, or with firms with which I currently do business. Mind you, I have fifteen years of experience in finance, M&A, VC & PE, an MBA, a JD, and a license to practice law. I have not received a single response to any one of my job enquiries. My lessons learned: (1) If you hope to get a job paying enough money to pay-down your student loans and one day support a family, go to a top law school or do not go at all; (2) Law school in your mid-thirties (with a full-time job, wife and children) is far worse than it ever could be in your early twenties. If you are serious about a career in law you need to attend a top law school, full-time, while you are young and unattached (i.e. no wife, no children, no full-time job). Law is so ultracompetitive that you actually need the time that you would be dedicating to the wife, kids, and full-time job to clerk, intern, write law review, whatever. Also, you need your youth because during the first ten years of your career at a firm you will be little more than a glorified law clerk; and (3) The opportunity cost of attending law school only makes sense for those who will (a) have the grades, pedigree, drive, and ability to excel at a an established law firm, or (b) be able to be entrepreneurial and satisfied working as a solo practitioner in essentially a lifestyle business (e.g. think a dentist, but paid less for more work).

  • I worked at a direct marketing company for 5 years after graduating from college. I put a strong 5 years between my college degree and my decision to attend law school. I don’t think i could have done it any other way.

    The experience I got and the maturity I gained helped me get through law school successfully and with my sanity. I also worked full time while going to law school and I don’t think i would have been able to do that as a 22 year old.

  • Philip

    I opted for surly furious as well. I haven’t regretted my decision for a minute. I just wish that young college students would “see the light” so to speak and give craft brews a chance. If you’re not drinking a top 15 beer, you may get stuck in a world of mediocrity. The first craft brew is the hardest, once you acquire the taste however, the rest is pure bliss.