Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On why I will never tell someone NOT to go to law school

Well, at least one of you expressed some interest in my passing mention of a post titled,

"why I would never tell someone not to go to law school." 

So, here it is. If you have no interest in the law and are not considering law school, I apologize in advance. (editor's note: I'm feeling sassy today, for whatever reason, so if this comes off in such a tone, well, there's your warning.)

All it takes is a quick google search using the key phrases "don't go to law school" to turn up dozens of articles riddled with reasons why law school is a bad idea.

The first time someone told me "don't do it" (that sufficiently traumatized me), I was a 21 year old college junior preparing to take the LSAT (law school admissions test), and drafting personal statements to accompany my applications. They told me the job market sucks, the debt isn't worth it, and you'll hate your life. This coming from a new associate at the firm I was working at who did, in fact, hate his life. This meme continued throughout law school itself- my first year often coming from "upperclassmen" (2Ls and 3Ls). I'll be brutally honest, it down right pissed me off. Here I am, only a YEAR behind these people, and they're basically saying,
a) I'm more seasoned than you are, I understand the way this works, you don't, and
b) I know I'm going to graduate law school and look for a job in a career I will enjoy, but I'm quite smugly telling you NOT to.


Here are my own thoughts on the common refrains heard regarding this topic and some advice of my own:

1) It costs a lot of money. Um, duh? I'm not really sure who goes to law school and applies for financial aid that doesn't understand this. My advice/if I could do it differently? Well, for starters do better in undergrad and try to score some scholarships! (I will say, a lot of schools make it REALLY hard/downright impossible to maintain these, but even a year break would've been nice!) I was lucky enough to work/live at home for a while during school, so I took out very minimal living expenses. If you can- try to keep those low. Also? If you are in a position to make payments during school: DO IT. It's nice to stick your head in the sand for 3-4 years (which is what I did) but when you see your first payments and realize how much is interest you die a little inside. Just make sure you research it thoroughly and structure it wisely and be braced for that first repayment bill. There's income based repayment, in addition, if you find yourself strapped for cash or without a job after graduating.

2) The job market is over saturated/crappy/impossible (whatever). Again, duh? This is the case for many professions and law is no exception. Here are my thoughts:
  • This partially depends on what jobs you're willing to accept when you graduate. If you're dead set on being a criminal defense attorney, yeah, you're going to have a harder time finding a job. If you're willing to accept a variety of practice areas, there is naturally going to be more opportunity. Even still, there are plenty of ways to better your chances at such a specialized field of practice while in law school: volunteer, participate in clinics, network in the field, etc. AND, although it's an expensive graduate degree and an MBA may have been more affordable, JD's serve people well in the business world as well if you're willing to not limit yourself to just practicing law. Being educated is never a bad thing.  
  • If you keep at it, and keep involved in the legal community, you will eventually find a job. I graduated in May of 2012, took the bar July 2012, and was sworn in October 2012. I have been lucky enough to get to stay at the firm have been clerking at since Summer 2011 while I look for something else (since they've indicated they likely won't be able to hire me on as an associate. I am ETERNALLY grateful for this). If it means taking a non-legal job to pay the bills, so be it. If you're scared it means you'll get out of practice, there are TONS of volunteer legal services in the twin cities (and I'm sure in your area as well, if you're not from MN) that will keep your resume current and keep you in practice while you support yourself. Taking a non-legal job is not admitting defeat. It's just buying yourself some time.
  • I fully intend on practicing law and having a career for the next 35-40 years. So what, I should forgo a 40 year career doing something I enjoy because it might be hard to break into it for a year or two? As this NYT article that M's step-dad sent me SO brilliantly put into words everything I feel, the focus on the stress of a "first job" is misplaced, since law school sets you up for a 40+ year CAREER.
  • The more work you put into networking, your schoolwork, extracurriculars.. the less harsh this reality will be. I'm blessed to have a LOT of family friends and family in the legal profession. These connections have not outright handed me jobs by any means, but, at times it can feel like a lifeline when you still want to be involved in the community and have feelers out there. Plus, it never hurts for you to be on peoples' minds.
3) You'll work long hours in an exhausting career and hate your life. This also depends on what type of law you get into, but as a first year associate? Likely. This is something you should prepare yourself for if you're going to law school. If you want a very structured 9-5, no weekends ever, routine job.. then maybe the law isn't for you. Also, I think there's this myth that all attorneys work 50+ hours a week. Wrong. It depends on your case load and field of practice. We go through "slow" times just like anyone else.

All of these issues boil down to one common theme, and the only time you'll ever hear me utter these words: Do not go to law school, unless you've done the research and understand and appreciate the financial burden, the job market, and what practicing the law means in the real world. (i.e. NOT Law & Order).

That seems like a no brainer, but I often find the people who complain the loudest were the ones who were the least prepared: The people who were wicked smart in undergrad, argumentative, and figured law school and a nice salary sounded like a good tradeoff for 3 years more schooling. The people who said "meh, why not, seems interesting" and applied to law school and got in effortlessly- and yes, these people exist. (And as someone who struggled a bit to get into law school but desperately wanted to practice law, I sort of hated them). The people who hate reading and writing and apply to law school not realizing 95% of practicing law, civil or criminal is reading and writing.

Here's my reality: I have known since 4th grade I wanted to practice law. I didn't know at that age what it meant. In undergrad I got a legal assistant job at a civil insurance defense firm. Not what most people think of when they think of glamorous law jobs and yet it simply affirmed my desire to go to law school. Applying to law school I KNEW what the reality would be: lots of research and writing. No "AHA!" law and order courtroom moments. I like the atmosphere, I like the process, I like the creative problem solving. I like knowing more about current affairs because 75% of the stuff on the nightly news is law related --> that new bill in the legislature, that guy's murder trial, taxes.. all law related! If possible do some volunteer work or get involved in the legal community before applying to law school- make sure it's what you want to do!

The bar exam was hell, but I made it. I am making decent money at a not permanent job (a rare luxury whilst job hunting, I know) and have $130K in debt. No I'm not ashamed of that, and yes that's high. And still, I wouldn't go back and redo it or wish I hadn't gone to law school. Sure I have moments when I'm envious of friends who have had jobs for the last 4 years and minimal undergrad debt, but I know that EVENTUALLY I'll get a more permanent position and there's no price tag on loving what I do. A year or two of struggle is worth a lifelong career that I am passionate about.

So, when smug 2Ls or attorneys (who admittedly enjoyed what they do) had the cajones to look me in the eye and essentially tell me my career aspirations, which were essentially the same as THEIRS, were "too much work" and "not worth it" I'd smile and chuckle and then silently flip them the bird under the table.

The working title of this post was: justifying my outrageous debt and jobless existence.
Just kidding.

I look forward to a lifetime of whining about my job like everyone else.. I just have to figure out where that's going to be. :)


  1. Ha! I love this. You tell them! :) And no - i'm not a lawyer... nor am i going to law school (I am a college dropout...:o/ ). I have a friend who just finished law school. And i love Law & Order, ha! That's about the extent of it!

    But you sound so wise about it, and that is awesome! You'll one day be able to pay off that debt & have a fantastic career! And gosh - i cannot stand people saying things like what they said to you. Anything like that annoys me! Just b/c that was YOUR experience doesn't mean it will be mine, so - shove it! LOL

  2. You make me so proud to be acquainted with you. Seriously. This needs to be your cover letter for every job you apply for. You have an undeniable passion for practicing law. There isn't a law firm out there who wouldn't benefit from your legal prowess. Get it, girl.

  3. I'm a law student and this makes me so happy to read!! I also got (and get - it still happens!) so pissed off whenever anyone tells me not to go to law school.
    I love working hard and obviously law is a difficult profession to go into. It just frustrates me when people say these things like I haven't considered them!

    Loved this - you're a great writer!


  4. I think your advice is spot in. In my year there were so many of those people who went to law school because they didn't know what else to do and were really smart and aren't sure if law was something they're interested in as a career. From that perspective law school seems to promise little happiness, a tough job market and a career you hate - BUT - that happens in many situations where you make a decision based on the wrong reasons and not your own evaluations. I 100% agree with you that people who are passionate about law and want to practice law should go to law school, in fact, you HAVE to go to law school! I'm guilty of throwing out the "don't go to law school" but it's generally a sarcastic answer to "what have you learned in law school?" and I would never say it to someone actually interested in law school or already IN law school. Rude.

    I love reading other law student/lawyerly blogs - I wish there was a page for us to find each other!

  5. This is awesome girl! People love to discourage anything that takes work and effort, don't they? Don't you want to just scream "Shut up! if it sucks and I hate it, at least let me find out on my own."

  6. Thanks for this! I have a close friend who is currently in her third year, and she echoed your sentiments. The NYT article was interesting, and I really appreciate how straight forward this post was. You should've been able to submit this to the bar instead of sitting for the exam. :) I think, like all professions, hard work will ultimately pay off. Best of luck to you!