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?
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:
- In debt
- Hanging a shingle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)