Real Lawyers’ Advice on Going to Law School


Lawyers are leaving the profession, and fast. Law-school enrollment is down because the best students aren’t applying. It’s starting to look like a brain drain, and that’s not good.

Despite that, it’s still hard to recommend law school. There is some reason for optimism, but most law students are in for disappointment when they graduate. So last week I asked our email subscribers what they are telling people who ask for their thoughts on going to law school.

Some Agree on the Brain Drain Thing

I agree that the profession is headed for a decline in quality with fewer and less qualified applicants going in to law school. It is all the more important that the young lawyers take it upon themselves to uphold the integrity of our profession and mentor the next generation of attorneys as they enter the ever changing legal landscape.

And That it’s Probably Not a Good Thing

Smart folks are going to run away but there will be plenty of competent but unhappy folks left.

But Most Say Only Go if You Want to Be a Lawyer

If the answer is—specifically—because they want to practice law, then I encourage it.

… and …

If they aren’t sold on the profession, even to the point that they’ll hang a Shingle if necessary, then they should consider another path. Law school is a professional trade school. If you won’t get the job you want at the end, don’t do it.

… and …

I would caution someone who was not in love with the legal profession from pursuing it right now. But, if someone is willing to do whatever hard work and sacrifice it takes to become a lawyer and has an internal burning flame to succeed then please do not discourage them because those are the people we need to become lawyers.

Also, Don’t Go if You Just Want to Get Rich

It depends on why they are planning to be lawyers. I try to discourage them if their idea is to go into law for the money, power or prestige.

Some Urge a Big-Picture View

Don’t pick a career for money–you will be disappointed. If you pick a career you think you all love and you do, the money will be enough.

Some Give Detailed Advice

I tell my younger friends, people I met while getting my bachelors degree, to not even consider law unless they can satisfy one or more of the following conditions:

1. Be able to do it debt free. The absurdly long wait between graduation, taking the bar, and waiting for bar results means that your loan deferment is gone before you are generally employable on your own.

2. Know lawyers already. Have friends or family who can use some good ol nepotism to get you a job because most of the jobs I see posted (especially from my university’s career development department) require a certain ranking in class. If you aren’t absolutely sure you will be in the top 10 or 15% of your class then you’ll be better off majoring in basket weaving because no one who doesn’t already know you will give a damn about hiring you.

3. Learn to kiss ass. Have no dignity and be willing to spend hundreds of hours listening to attorneys talk about their practices on the off chance that their firm is hiring AND that you make a good enough impression for them to mention it. By the way, supposedly you have to do this without seeming like you are only talking to them because you desperately need a job.

4. Don’t go to law school unless you already know the exact tiny niche of the law in which you want to work. There’s no time to figure that out after you graduate and if you can afford to live and work an unpaid internship to figure it out why are you working at all?

5. Especially if you don’t already know a ton of lawyers, do not live in a small town or a suburb. You better be living close enough to a courthouse or bar association where you can go to CLE’s or just hang out in court and get to know people. Of course this usually involves living in the downtown area of a fairly large city, and if you can already afford that why are you wasting time going to law school?

6. Law school class grading is stupid and horrible. Literally, going to Iraq and getting shot at and blown up is less stressful than taking a single test which decides your grade for a class. Know this ahead of time and be prepared. If you screw one up then take the extra time and money to retake the class because your GPA is often the sole factor in getting a job.

In summary, the job market has left me thinking that going to law school without a written post-graduation employment contract in hand is downright [stupid].

Some Aren’t So Encouraging

I strongly discourage young people from going to law school for three reasons: expense, lack of meaningful employment opportunities, and the absolutely horrible reputation that lawyers have (and, all too frequently, deserve). Looking back, I regret having gone to law school and choosing law as a career. On my tombstone they’ll probably write (if anything), “He pumped out a lot of paperwork.” Completely not worth it.

Finally, Some May Have the Best Advice of All

I tell them to open a hot dog stand.

(If you recognize your comment and want credit for it, just let me know. I’d be happy to add your name with a link to your website.)

Featured image: “Emergency button withe the text Advice Needed” from Shutterstock.


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  • I am not an attorney, although I am considering apply to law school in the coming years. My greatest resistance comes from the huge amounts of debt required, unless you are going to school in Puerto Rico or North Dakota.

    I have stayed my decision until the economy improves, and the overall job prospects for attorneys become more in demand. I am looking at a part-time program or online program through William Mitchell. Which means that I would be joining the work force in 4-5 years.

    My intention after graduating would be to hang my own shingle after gaining experience, and a mentor network to support my practice or work in an alternative law career if non-attorney ownership has come to the United States by that time.

    So I would like to ask Attorneys and those closely following this… Do you believe the job prospects for attorneys will improve by 2020 considering attrition of baby boomer attorneys, and the trend of falling law school admissions.

    As Warren Buffett advocates… “…be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

    James Bellefeuille

    • The job prospects will only look better if law school gets cheaper. The value proposition outlook still sucks.

      • ,At what price does law school make sense in your opinion. As pricing for an ABA approved education vary wildly.

        North Dakota Law School – Its tuition is full-time: $11,029 per year (in-state) and full-time: $23,866 per year (out-of-state).

        University of Puerto Rico Law School – Its tuition is full-time: $7,131 per year (in-state) and full-time: $9,919 per year (out-of-state).

        At those rates for an ABA accredited law degree the value appears to be intact. Overall, though I agree with you that tuition needs to continue to fall and hopefully competitive powers from ABA accredited online programs will speed the inevitable drop in law school cost.

        • Law degrees are not fungible. If you actually want someone to hire you, then you’ll need to have gone to a school that person considers to be a good school. And what has happened in the last decade or so is that graduates of good schools are willing to work for less and less (not by choice, of course). So if you apply for a job with your fourth-tier diploma and you’re up against someone with a first-tier diploma — and you will be, because there aren’t enough jobs for first-tier law school graduates, either — you’ll lose nearly every time.

          If your goal is to hang your own shingle right out of law school, that stuff is mostly irrelevant. All you need is to be well-prepared to practice law. But here again, the quality of the school matters. There are certainly better-value schools than the top 14, but almost certainly not the bargain-basement schools. If you want to be well-prepared to practice law the moment you get your license, you’ll need to shop for a school that will do that.

          So if your aspirations hinge on getting a job as a lawyer doing the sort of work a typical lawyer does now, you’d better go to a top school and be a top student, because there will almost certainly be fewer of those jobs in 2020 than there are now.

          On the other hand, if you want a “newlaw” job, then it’s hard to know the economics. Will a cheap diploma prepare you for those jobs? Maybe, but it’s impossible to know since we’re just starting to get an idea of what those jobs will look like. More likely, you will still need the same first-year legal education law students get now, plus some skills schools mostly aren’t teaching just yet.

          • CharleyCarpenter

            If you’re going to practice in North Dakota, then going to law school there isn’t just a great value, it’s the right choice.

          • Barry_D

            “If your goal is to hang your own shingle right out of law school, that stuff is mostly irrelevant. All you need is to be well-prepared to practice law. But here again, the quality of the school matters. There are certainly better-value schools than the top 14, but almost certainly not the bargain-basement schools. If you want to be well-prepared to practice law the moment you get your license, you’ll need to shop for a school that will do that.”

            In addition:

            It’s well known that law schools don’t teach anything on how to practice law. The assumption has been that grad learn that as associates. A grad hanging out their shingle right after the bar is trying to practice a profession with no apprenticeship.

            Practicing law requires connections, which a new grad doesn’t have.

  • gts109

    Overall, pretty good advice.

    One bone to pick: Law school grading isn’t that bad. It can seem random, but the smarter people generally do better. It’s not that stressful either if you’re good at tests. If you’re not, I guess it is, but if you’re someone who does well on exams and doesn’t needlessly stress over them, law school exams aren’t so bad. In fact, not having to do all that much during the semester and then cramming for an exam is pretty great for a certain type of person. I certainly miss it. It beats the daily billable grind.

  • Erin

    Let me preface this with saying that I am not easily offended and am generally very thick-skinned. That said, your comment about a law school exam being more stressful than being shot at and blown up in Iraq was assinine. The article wasn’t littered with hyperbole and this was out of place and uncalled for.

    The proud sister of a Marine who served in Iraq and then in Afghanistan as a sniper.

    • From the portion of that person’s email that I didn’t quote since the whole thing was quite long:

      My perspective is from someone who chose law as a mid-life career change after getting kinda blown up in Iraq.

      For what it’s worth, it sounds like the lawyer who wrote it actually knew exactly what he was talking about.

  • DKoor15

    Re: Law-school grading: If you were a good essay-test writer in undergrad, that skill can actually work against you in law school, because you’ll get more credit in a law school class for identifying ancillary issues in a fact pattern, even in scrawled half-sentences, than for thoroughly briefing the main issue(s) to the expense of the smaller ones. If you pick up on the issue-spotting aspect of exams too late in school, your GPA will suffer no matter how smart or hard working you are. Most professors won’t take the time to show you how to take a law-school exam properly. Why not? My guess, it makes it easier to grade papers when not everyone knows what’s going on yet. ;-) I kid but little. I won’t plug, but there was an online seminar on this topic that helped me immensely – I wish I’d taken it before first semester instead of after.

    My tale: I graduated with significant laurels, finished an enviable appellate clerkship, and then found that of the few firms that were hiring in those wintry economic climes, those that got around to looking at my app paid poorly for generally unappealing work. Hang a shingle? I look at my classmates who did so right out of law school, and shudder. But I shifted into a quasi-legal field that pays better than most firms, with challenging but rewarding work, and a work/life balance that even my more successful classmates would love to have. It’s not a job that requires a JD (many of my colleagues don’t have, but many do). I do think having mine helped. I therefore pronounce my law school experience fun and challenging, but a mixed bag at the end, and that’s coming from someone who was relatively lucky. Money ain’t everything, but you’ve got to be able to pay your bills and butter your bread.

    I suspect we will see a some corrections and over-corrections in the legal field in the near future, and I’m gratified to see that prospective law students are already responding to the wounded legal market with their feet and dollars.

    My advice: if you want it, if you think you can make it work, do it. But do it smart and do your homework. It will take hard work and brains to see your reward, but know that hard work and brains are not rewarded per se. Assess your situation honestly, and keep in mind that the bigger a gamble law school will be, the more you’ll need to reconcile yourself with the fact that it may not pay off like it once did. And always look out for #1. Well, don’t *just* look out for #1…but I’m sure you know what I mean. ;-)

    • J. Chaperon

      What was the name of the online seminar? I’m a 1L mature student and often get into conversations with my professors about the dim economic outlook for the legal profession. Me, I just want to study law and help in a niche area, but I sure would like to improve my grades! Thank you in advance.

  • oorang

    IMO, the people who graduate from top law schools, or from the top of their class in mid level law schools, have pretty good options available to them. The people who don’t fit in one of those categories are having a really, really, rough time of things these days. I would suggest not going unless you’re very confident that you can land in one of those top schools or at the top of the class in a mid level school. One way to do that is to spend some time with some of the materials before you accept to see if you’re good at it and you like it. Here is one list of materials you might check out-

  • Gast

    Studying law and practicing law are two different things. It is in the
    country I live in (the Netherlands). Law school doesn’t prepare you for the
    real world, it’s an academic education that turns out academics. The
    bar association discourages going solo straight out of law school by making it
    almost impossible to fulfil their requirements. I was lucky enough to find a
    mentor that needed my specific niche to add to her firm`s practise areas in
    exchange for the required 3 years of compulsory tutelage and the opportunity to
    work as a solo practitioner from within her small law firm.

    During law school I lived at home, having an above average law school at
    20 minutes away. This and the fact our government heavily subsidises a person`s
    first bachelor and master`s degree, kept my loan`s to a minimum.

    So many of my classmates without niche qualifications are now jobless or
    working in non or semi legal jobs basically fading away legally speaking because
    every year the university turns out new qualified people ready to take any
    legal job that comes along. Besides this most of my classmates have sizable
    student loans which weigh on them financially. Loans also make it more
    difficult to start on your own because the bar association requires solo practitioners
    to be able to get credit from banks to guarantee continuity in their practises.
    Having student loans disqualifies you from getting the credit you need.

    Last month a client with a son in law school asked me what her son would
    need to do to make sure he would get a job as a lawyer when he graduated. While
    extra-curricular activity would have sufficed before the crisis hit, I see
    people who have double masters, international legal intern experience, actual legal
    work experience and experience with legal aid organisations being turned down
    everywhere. I had to tell her that I didn’t know anymore.

    I was lucky enough to know someone who needed my qualifications and had
    sheer luck to run into that person on the street at that time and strike a conversation.

  • Martha

    I really shouldn’t be, given that this is a column filled with advice from attorneys, but I’m shocked at the level of pessimism displayed here. Why are we all so convinced that the legal profession is a horrible choice? Because so many others entered it expecting a golden ticket filled with first-class perks only to find that they might have to *gasp* work for a living? There are certainly problems with a system that creates incentives for young people with little life experience and even less self-awareness to assume massive amounts of debt without any evaluation of the reality of the profession, but that doesn’t mean that going to law school is The Worst Choice Ever for someone who actually wants to practice law. Being an attorney is hard work, and often frustrating, but for the right person (much like every other profession) it can be very rewarding. I love what I do, and I do not regret going to law school.

  • Joan

    You might get a kick out of this video on every reason people give to go to law school — and what’s (potentially) wrong with each of them:

  • Tweeter

    The advice to only go to law school if you know concretely what you want to do is unrealistic. It’s impossible to know what being an attorney is like, or the full range of what we even do, before you go to law school. I say just be responsible about the commitment to law school; save enough money to cover at least one semester so you can quit once you know what it is, if you don’t want to keep going.

    • Barry_D

      Another way to put it is that back quite a while ago, there were massive margins for those who didn’t really know what they were getting into. Bad results were something like owing several months’ salary for a degree which was never used. People who didn’t want to be lawyers might have had to put in a few years as an associate to pay those debts off, while looking for a job more to their liking.

      Bad results now are far more likely – the median starting salary is now less than $65K, while the chance of getting those jobs has dropped, and the tuition has skyrocketed. This means that if you graduate with a law job, owing two years’ gross salary, you are *above* the median outcome.

  • JCN

    I recommend making sure you have a clear goal in mind before applying to law school. Be realistic. Also – unless you gain admission to a top tier school, gaining work experience before and during your law school years, in the area of the law that interests you, goes a long way.
    Some of the best trial lawyers I have witnessed neither graduated from a top tier law school nor graduated in the top 10% of their law school class.