Clarifying the Law School Bargain

In my last post, I wrote that after practicing law for more than 25 years, I have little to complain about. I am proud to be a “professional,” I make a respectable living and at times, the work is satisfying.  In a thoughtful comment to the post, one reader challenged that view. More specifically, he noted that he has been able to “(a) make a positive difference in other people’s lives; (b) understand the function and limits of government, and; (c) be a leader in my respective community” and referenced the “Attorney’s Oath” in our state of Minnesota to support his position.

As an initial matter, I certainly did not intend to imply that lawyers should not strive to do those things. Indeed, in my own career, I have accomplished all of them.

I once represented a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace and am confident I made a positive difference in her life. As for the limits of government, I never felt more proud to be a lawyer than when I successfully helped to defend the First Amendment rights of a client. Finally, my record of community service speaks for itself.

As for the Attorney’s Oath, nothing special there. It says, among other things, that lawyers should conduct themselves in an “upright and courteous manner . . . and will use no falsehood or deceit, nor delay any person’s cause for lucre or malice.” Hardly a ringing endorsement that attorneys have a some form of higher obligation to society.

Why Did You Go to Law School?

I now spend much of my time coaching attorneys on all types of career issues. I have worked with hundreds of lawyers of all shapes and sizes; big firm, small firm; solo; in many different states. In my first session with every client, I always ask “why did you go to law school?” By far the most common answer is “Lawyers seemed to earn a pretty good living and I could not think of anything better to do” or a variation of that.

There is not even a close second most common response. On occasion, someone wants to save the world or make a lot of money, but that answer is rare. In short, at least from my anecdotal evidence, most attend law school for no real compelling reason.

In a nutshell, the premise of my post was that unlike my generation, young lawyers are hardly guaranteed an opportunity to make a decent living and to add insult to injury, are saddled with ridiculous amounts of debt. Of course, if you have a well thought out reason to become a lawyer, go with my blessings. Chances are good you will reap the benefits of the law school bargain.

However, if you are seeking benefits such as making a positive difference in people’s lives, understanding government functions, and leading in the community, you do not have to be a lawyer to achieve those goals. There are probably better bargains in the career marketplace for that.

(photo: Roadsidepictures)


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  • I think law school is also an excellent time to start identifying and building an expert brand. There are many opportunities in LS to research and write on topics of interest. Law students should take every opportunity to write on subjects they enjoy and share that research via their own blog. It’s never too soon to start building one’s “expert” brand. It’ll make the student more marketable if they’re looking for a job, and could potentially start lining up clients if the student wants to hang a shingle right out of law school and start serving clients in an area they know and love.

  • Oh, and yes, I talk about this a great deal in chapter 3 of my book Fuel the Spark: 5 Guiding Values for Success in Law School & Beyond.

  • Troy Pickard

    I remember the first day of law school, when all the 1Ls went into an auditorium to hear some speaker. He asked us to raise our hands if we wanted to practice tax law, family law, etc. I was ashamed (of my class) when nobody else raised their hand with me when it came to “public interest law.”