FAQ: Should I Go to Law School?

by Brett on February 27, 2012 · 204 comments

in Money & Career

For those of you who’ve been following the site for a while, you know that I’m a law school grad–University of Tulsa College of Law 2009. Because many readers know I went to law school, I get several emails a month from guys who are thinking about taking the same path themselves, and are wondering if I have any advice for them about making that decision. So I finally figured I’d just write up my answer to this query in a post and start directing people here. Hopefully, we’ll get some other law grads (and maybe even some law professors) to chime in with their opinion, too.

So, should you go to law school?

It depends.

Total lawyer answer, I know.

Generally, I tell people considering a career in law to seriously reconsider their decision. Why? Most people I talk to are making their choice without enough information. They often underestimate the investment and burden law school and the practice of law can put on your time, finances, and relationships, (not to mention your sanity) and overestimate their ability to excel in school and later find a great job in our current economy. Personally, I think that most people who want to go to law school, probably shouldn’t.

Below, I flesh out some of the reasons why law school isn’t the best idea for most people, followed by a brief section on who should consider law school. I’ll be honest: I focus on the negative aspects of law school more than the positives in this post. It’s not because I have an axe to grind against the legal field or that I think the law is some evil, soul-sucking career.  I have several good friends who are attorneys who love what they’re doing, and I have a lot of respect for my law professors at Tulsa Law. And it’s also not because I couldn’t hack it in law school myself, and have thus become bitter about my experience; as I’ve mentioned before, I graduated in the top ten of my class and probably could have made a good go of a career in law if I had so chosen.

But I think most people know what the pros are for going to law school: you get a degree that gives you access to a career in the field of law, a mind-sharpening education, and a prestigious credential on your resume. And because of a psychological effect called the “confirmation-bias,” people tend to latch onto any information that confirms their preconceived notions, while ignoring anything that contradicts them. So in this post, I basically lay all the negative stuff out there, in attempt to break through that bias. After all, when making such a big decision, both the pros and cons need to be weighed equally. My goal with this post is to tell you what I wish I would have known before I decided to go to law school, so you can make a fully informed decision.

Note: This post is pretty long. If you don’t have the attention span to read it all, here’s a good infographic summary. Also, if you don’t have the attention span to read it all, you probably shouldn’t go to law school.

Why Law School Might Not Be a Good Idea

Law School Is Expensive and It’s Getting More Expensive Every Year

Law school is freaking expensive, and it’s getting more expensive each year. From 1989 to 2009, undergraduate tuition rose by 71%. In that same time, tuition at law schools went up 317%.

Sweet baby Teddy Roosevelt! 317%!

To give you an idea of the average cost of law school, take a look at these numbers for 2009:

  • Average tuition for public school, residents: $18,472
  • Average tuition for public school, non-residents: $30,413
  • Average tuition for private schools: $35,743

If you’re like the thousands of potential law students who plan on attending a public law school as a non-resident or attending a private law school, you’re looking to spend more than $100,000 just for your degree. When you add in books, fees, and living expenses, that number can easily shoot past $120k.

Of course, most people don’t have $120,000 lying around, so they have to take on huge amounts of student loans. In 2011, the average debt for public law school students was $68,827 and $106,249 for private schools. $106,000? That’s like a small mortgage. If you want to see the average amount of student debt for each school, check out this chart from U.S. News & World Report.

And tuition is still rising. Just last week, Notre Dame’s law school sent their students a letter announcing a 12.7% tuition hike for next year. Instead of paying $40,000 a year for a legal education, students will now have to pay over $45,000.  Zoinks!

Further Reading

Law School Scholarships Look Enticing, But Are Risky

“But Brett, law schools are offering to cover all my tuition because I did so well on the LSAT and because of my awesome GPA. Law school won’t be expensive for me.”

First, congratulations on the LSAT. Second, contrary to the folksy saying, you should always look a gift horse in the mouth. Here’s why.

Pressured by alumni and students, law school administrations spend a lot of time and money trying to increase their rankings in U.S. News & World Report. Two of the factors that go into the ranking are 1) the law school’s average incoming student undergrad GPA and 2) the law school’s average incoming student LSAT score. To attract students with high GPAs and LSAT scores, law schools will offer generous tuition waivers to those who have them. If you have a really high GPA and really high LSAT score, you might get a full tuition waiver. If your GPA and LSAT score were decent, but not extraordinary, you might get part of your tuition costs knocked off.

But here’s the catch. To keep your scholarship, schools will often require you to stay above a certain GPA throughout all three years of law school. For example, at the University of Tulsa, my partial tuition waiver was contingent on me maintaining a 3.0 GPA every year.

I can hear you now. “Pfft… 3.0? That’s a B average. I scored Bs in undergrad without breaking a sweat. How hard could it be?”

Answer: really hard.

You see, unlike in undergrad colleges where rampant grade inflation has been going on for the past few decades, most law schools have stuck with using a strict grade curve which requires professors to distribute grades on a pre-determined percentage. At many law schools, only a third of students will end up with a 3.0 GPA or above at the end of the year. The rest will have C averages or lower.

Even though only 1/3 of students will maintain B averages or above their first year, law schools offer merit-based scholarships to half of their incoming first year law students. Schools can afford to offer so many scholarships because they know a percentage of those students won’t be able to retain them the following two years in law school.

The problem isn’t that law schools give more scholarships than they know they’ll actually renew; the problem is that most law schools aren’t very transparent about the strict grading curve or about the percentage of students who retain or lose their scholarships. Consequently, many students are swayed to going to law school based on a generous scholarship offer without fully understanding that there’s a good chance they’ll lose it.

To be fair, it’s not really the fault of law schools that undergraduates misjudge how well they’ll be able to do in law school. While law schools have maintained strict grading standards, undergrad schools have been inflating grades for the past couple of decades, which inflates students’ sense of their abilities, and gives them unreliable expectations of what their grades will be like in law school. But I think it would be helpful for law schools to recognize the change in grade expectations and do a bit more in educating prospective students about their strict grading curves.

Thankfully, the ABA may start requiring law schools to disclose scholarship retention rates among first year law students to prospective students. Until schools are required to disclose scholarship retention rates, familiarize yourself with the legal concept of caveat emport, or buyer beware. Don’t let a generous scholarship sway you to going to law school. Before you say yes, call up the admissions office and ask about the school’s grading curve and find out the exact percentage of students who lose their scholarships after the first year. After you have that info, you need to decide if law school would still be worth it if you lost your scholarship.

Further Reading

Lawyers Don’t Make as Much Money as You Think They Do

“Okay, Brett, so law schools are expensive and I might lose my scholarship. But even if I do, paying off my debt after I graduate will be easy once my big fat lawyer paychecks come rolling in!”

Many Americans believe that becoming a lawyer is a golden ticket to a hefty paycheck and job stability, but neither expectation is always true. I’ll address the idea of job stability below, but first let’s talk about those big lawyer paychecks.

Despite what you’ve read in John Grisham novels about rainmaker attorneys winning $100 million cases or young associates earning six figure salaries right out of law school, the average lawyer in the U.S. makes somewhere between $65,00 to $90,000. Sure, that’s definitely nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a far cry from the Mercedes Benz-driving image that most people have of attorneys. (Also, keep in mind that figuring out average salaries for a profession is difficult. According to some calculations, only around 53.8% of those with a law degree are working in a law-related field, and the salaries of the other 46% who are working other jobs or are unemployed are unreported. Also, I tend to believe that most of the salary numbers we see out there are inflated due to a larger survey response rate by high earning individuals compared to low earners.)

For example, in Oklahoma the average salary of an attorney is between $54,000-$84,000, and I know of firms here in Tulsa that start out new associates at $35k a year. Sure, $54,000 can go a long way here in the Sooner State, but when you have to pay $1,500 a month on your six-figure law school debt, and you have a growing family, money becomes really tight, really fast.

Also, what people don’t tell you is that the only jobs that offer six-figure salaries to people right out of law school are the big, established firms. And you have almost no chance of being hired by a big firm unless you graduate in the top 10% of your class–really these days you have to be one of the top ten people in your class for big firms to even take a look at you. And keep in mind that if you are lucky to get hired by a big firm, you’ll often be working 60-80 hours a week, so you’ll certainly be earning those Benjamins.

ADA Smith. Make sure to file that brief after you've finished your pizza route.

And if you had fantasies of becoming the next Jack McCoy, you better have an intrinsic motivation for working. Public sector and non-profit attorneys make very little money. Some public sector and non-profit attorneys have had to take on second jobs during this bum economy delivering pizza or working construction just to make ends meet. Thankfully, the government is starting to pass debt relief legislation for law grads who decide to go into public or non-profit law. Unfortunately, many of these programs only apply to federal student loans. If you took out a lot of private loans, you’re still left footing the bill.

I don’t think salaries for attorneys will be improving anytime soon. The Great Recession has fundamentally changed the business and practice of law. Besides relying on technology and outsourcing, many firms are hiring fewer full-time attorneys and using more contract and temporary workers, allowing them to cut costs while maintaining or even increasing productivity. All these cost-cutting moves, coupled with an over-saturated job market (see below), are leading to today’s attorneys having lower salaries than their predecessors.

“Well, hold on one minute! I’m a lawyer and I’ve done very well for myself.”

I don’t deny that there are people going into the law that have made a very good go of it. I know several law classmates who have established solid legal careers and are making a very comfortable living. But for every classmate that I know who’s done well, I know two more who are still looking for work or struggling to make ends meet in their current job.

“Still, you really can’t judge the value of your law degree just a few years out of law school.”

I hear this a lot from older attorneys, and they’re right. On average, individuals with professional degrees, like a JD, have significantly higher lifetime earning potential than people with just a college degree. And it’s silly and immature to expect to be making your peak salary right out of school. Like any investment, an education often takes years before you start seeing any returns.

But while I agree with the importance of looking at the big picture, I’d counter that the rapidly increasing debt load of law grads, along with lower starting attorney salaries and an abysmal job market, might not make the investment worth it even in the long haul for many people. Plus, being burdened with so much debt so early in your life definitely can limit your career options and may force you to put off important life decisions like home ownership and children.

The Abysmal Legal Job Market

The Great Recession hit the legal field hard. Since 2008, law firms big and small have been laying off attorneys left and right. The public sector hasn’t fared any better. Budget cuts at the state and local level have forced district attorney offices to reduce their number of prosecutors, while non-profit legal groups, faced with similar budget constraints, have been forced to scale back. Tens of thousands of attorneys are out of work.

During this same period of time, law schools in the U.S. have been pumping out 45,000 new law grads each year to the job market. Many college grads from ’08 onward who couldn’t find jobs after graduation decided to wait the rough economy out while attending law school. They figured they might as well increase their credentials and expand their career opportunities while waiting for the economy to pick up.

Unfortunately, what many students are discovering is that four years later they’re graduating into one of the worst legal job markets in decades. Not only are today’s law grads competing with other recent law school grads for jobs, they’re also competing with the tens of thousands of experienced attorneys who have been laid off. Which is to say: The job market is over-saturated with attorneys. 

And it probably won’t get any better. Many firms have discovered that they can get along with fewer attorneys. Instead of hiring full-time attorneys, many firms are hiring lawyers for contract labor that pays considerably less. Technology and offshore outsourcing are also doing the work that many young attorneys used to do.  Yes, that’s right. American legal work is now being done by people in India.  So not only is a recent law school grad competing with thousands of other out-of-work attorneys, he’s also competing with computers and a guy in India who’s getting paid peanuts in comparison.

“Wait a minute here, Brett. Law school X says that 98% of their graduates are employed within 9 months of graduation. The legal job market can’t be that bad with such amazing placement numbers!”

Yes, you’re right. Most law schools have been reporting amazing job placement numbers despite the down economy, but if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. That 98% job placement number is an exaggeration; puff as they say in the sales industry. While 98% of students may be employed 9 months after graduation, that doesn’t mean all those graduates are working in legal jobs. When some law schools survey their grads, many will count a graduate as employed even if they’re just working at Starbucks or substitute teaching. Many schools will even hire recent law grads to work in their library at minimum wage just so they can count them as employed!

Some schools puff their employment numbers like this in order to increase their rankings in, you guessed it, U.S. News and World Report. The higher their employment placement number, the better.

Many recent grads feel they were duped into going into law school based on false employment information. There’s a growing class action law suit brewing against several law schools for inflating their job numbers. I have my doubts about the success of the suit, but I do think it will spur schools to become more transparent about their job numbers and actually break down the type of jobs law grads have and whether those jobs require a JD.

A new advocacy group is also bringing light to the lack of law schools’ forthrightness on this issue. Law School Transparency’s mission is to better inform prospective law students about future job prospects and to encourage the ABA to improve its oversight over how law schools report their numbers.

Okay, so the legal job market is bad. It’s still a good idea to get a JD because it will make me more marketable in other professions and give me some flexibility in my career.”

I hear this line all the time, but I don’t agree with it. A JD degree is designed to make lawyers. Period. Unless you plan on practicing law as an attorney or in another profession that requires a JD, there’s really no point in having a JD.

Are there law grads who have careers in non-legal jobs? Absolutely. You’ll find JDs among journalists, real estate brokers, business owners, and yeah, even professional bloggers. Heck, the fire chief of a Tulsa suburb is a law grad. But did a law degree really help them land these jobs? Maybe. A little. I’ll concede that many of the skills you pick up while in law school might come in handy in these non-legal careers. But there are much easier ways to become a journalist or business owner that don’t require three years of intense schooling and six figures of student debt. Thousands of people land these sorts of jobs every year without a law degree.

As far as giving you more flexibility in your career, that often isn’t the case either. I know some law grads who, when they couldn’t find a job in the legal field, became willing to take any job. But they couldn’t get hired in these others sectors either, because the prospective employers said they were “overqualified” for the positions. And I’d also argue that the exorbitant cost of a law degree actually limits your career prospects, especially at the beginning of your career. When you have a boat load of non-dischargeable student debt hanging over your head, your main priority is finding a job that will give you enough money to pay your loans. Taking a journalist job at a big news site that pays $20,000 a year or starting your own business that will at first generate little revenue just isn’t an option when you have a bunch of student loans nipping at your heels.

Further Reading

So to recap what we’ve discussed so far, before you go to law school, you need to ask yourself: Am I ready to spend three years of my life and six-figures on a degree that may not provide good career prospects or enough of a salary to pay for my student debt?

But I’m Different!

“I hear ya, Brett, I do. And maybe law school is a bad choice for most people, but I’m different! I’ll keep my scholarship and land an awesome job after graduation.”

Want to know something funny? Every other would-be lawyer is thinking the exact same thing, except you’re the sucker and they’re the exception. According to a survey by Kaplan back in 2009, pre-law students are very confident about their own abilities to get a job in a legal field, but don’t think their peers will fare as well:

According to a recent Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions survey of 330 pre-law students, 52% report that they are “very confident” that they will find a job in the legal field after graduating law school and passing the bar, but only 16% say they are “very confident” that the majority of their fellow aspiring lawyers will do the same. In fact, only seven percent of respondents indicated a lack of confidence in their own ability to secure employment upon graduation. Pre-law students’ attitudes are in keeping with research showing that students aged 18-29 are more optimistic about their economic future – despite a sluggish job market – than past generations.

Confidence is good, but don’t let your confidence bubble over into hubris.

Who Should Go to Law School

Hopefully I’ve made the case that most people who want to go to law school shouldn’t be going to law school. If you look at it from a purely economic prospective, the value proposition of a law degree isn’t very good in today’s world. 

While most people shouldn’t go to law school, a career in law is still a good option for some people and can provide them the means of having a very rewarding and fulfilling career. So who should go to law school? I’ve discussed this with former classmates and other attorneys. We all have different opinions on the matter, but we agree on a few things. If you can answer all the criteria below in the affirmative, then law school might be a good option for you.

You know a lot about what the practice of law is really like.  If all you know about the law is what you’ve seen on TV and movies, you should not be going to law school. Many law students (me included) go to law school with no clue as to what the practice of law is really like. Two years into law school they discover they hate the law, but by then they’ve invested so much time and money into their legal education that they decide to finish a professional degree that they don’t even plan on using.

What you think most lawyers do.

What most lawyers actually do.

Before you decide to spend three years of your life and a small mortgage on law school, take some time to actually see first hand what the practice of law is like. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. How do you know if you “like” something without actually doing it? There are a few things you can do.If you know a few attorneys, take them to lunch and ask them about their work–What’s a typical day like? How often do they go into court? How many hours do they bill? What’s the pay like? How’s their work/life balance? Ask them to hold nothing back and to be completely candid with their answers.

If you don’t know any attorneys, call some up and ask if you can come to their office for 15 minutes to ask about their work. Most of them will be happy to oblige.

If you really want to see what the practice of law is like, I recommend trying to find some sort of menial job at a firm or non-profit office. Many large firms have gofers who take care of the mail and other similar jobs. Even if a firm or government office can’t pay you, volunteer your time. The insights you’ll gain from the experience will be invaluable to you as you decide whether a career in law is the right thing for you.

You want to practice law so bad that you can’t see yourself doing anything else in life. Don’t become an attorney for the money or prestige. Don’t go because your parents want you to go. Don’t go because you don’t know what else to do with your life! Those are really bad reasons to start a career in law. If you have a complete understanding of what a career in law is like and you can’t see yourself doing anything else with your life, then by all means, become a lawyer.

You have a decent scholarship. If you weren’t able to snag a merit-based scholarship that covers more than half of your tuition, don’t go to law school. First, it’s simply not worth the student debt. And second, if your undergrad GPA and LSAT scores weren’t high enough to earn that sort of scholarship, you probably aren’t going to do well in law school. While not perfect, undergrad GPA and LSAT score do a pretty good job of predicting success in law school. I know it’s hard to admit that you’re not cut out for something you really want to do, but trust me, you’ll be better off doing something else.

Once you land your scholarship, don’t lose it! Work like a crazy person to maintain your GPA so you can keep your scholarship throughout law school. Use the fear of six-figure student debt to motivate you to study.

You’re a hustler. I don’t want you to think after reading all the doom and gloom above that you have no hope of having a lucrative and satisfying law career, or that your fate isn’t in your hands. If you want that brass ring, you can still get it, you just have to be willing to work your butt off all three years to earn it. Get on law review. And maintain the highest possible GPA. GPA is king in landing summer internships with big firms that will hopefully lead to real jobs after graduation. If you’re going to make it a goal to graduate in the top ten percent of your class, and you have the motivation and discipline to obtain that goal, then go for it.

You’re entrepreneurial. The days of landing a steady job right after law school are long gone. Just as in most sectors of the economy, you can no longer expect the brass ring just for completing the law school ride. Today’s lawyer needs to see himself as free-agent, rather than a firm-man.

If you can’t find a permanent job right away, it may mean you’ll need to hire yourself out as a freelance attorney to several firms at the same time. I have some former classmates that are doing this right now. Yes, it’s hard work, and yes, the pay for each job isn’t that great, but they’re making ends meet and racking up experience in the process. After busting butt for a year, most have landed full-time jobs at firms in town.

Even if you manage to land a gig at a firm or government office, you have to treat it as if it were a temporary gig. Larger firms often layoff most of their younger associates within five years. Those that remain are put on the partner track. During those five years, competition is fierce among associates. Be sure that you’re comfortable with that sort of work environment.

I also know many young law grads who have done pretty well for themselves by starting a solo-practice. But hanging out your own shingle isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a highly motivated person who’s not only savvy in the law, but also in business.

Concluding Thoughts

So that’s my two cents on the subject. I’m sure many will disagree, and I hope they’ll add their thoughts to the discussion. If you’re looking for further reading, I definitely suggest checking out this report commissioned by the ABA back in 2009 on the value of a legal degree in today’s market. It does a good job of explaining nicely the pros and cons of going to law school. Their conclusion is pretty much the same as mine: law school is a good idea for some, but not all.

And I bet you’re probably wondering, “Well, Brett do you regret going to law school?”

People ask me that all the time and honestly it’s a tough question to answer. No one likes to admit they regret their decisions. On the one hand, if it weren’t for law school, the Art of Manliness probably wouldn’t exist. Blogging became a creative outlet for me during my stressful law school days and the fear of spending the rest of my life in a career I didn’t like motivated me to make the site the best it could be. And law school did help improve by writing and analytical skills. I guess my legal education has also come in handy in running my business as well, although I still go to an attorney for most legal issues that come up.

On the other hand, I’m not quite sure it was worth the money, stress, and time to earn a professional degree that I’ll likely never use in any significant way. I could have gotten a masters in the humanities in order to sharpen my writing skills, and enjoyed my studies a lot more in the process. With the fear of losing my scholarship and class rank always hanging over me, I was often in the library from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, leaving Kate to be a “law school widow.” I had no social life to speak of. It was a grinding three years that left me weary and cynical. When I look at pictures of myself at the start of law school and then after graduation, I cannot believe how much I aged in just three years.

So I guess my answer to the question is…maybe.

Yeah, total lawyer answer.

I’d love to get some other opinions on the topic. If you’re an attorney, do you recommend that people go into law? Why or why not? Who do you think should and shouldn’t go to law school? Share your thoughts with us in the comments. 

{ 204 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Practicing in Iowa February 27, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Thank you for writing this! I have bookmarked it to share with young people considering legal careers. I am an attorney, earning $37K or so after over 5 years of legal practice. I love my legal aid type job and the fact that I don’t have to worry about running a law office or the “eat what you kill” problems facing many of my colleagues (particularly in this economy). I am successful, have been the president of my local bar and a frequent CLE presenter, and manage a huge caseload with colleagues I love. But seriously, the money is awful. I am lucky to have no law school debt (good scholarship and parental help because my undergrad education was fully financed by scholarships) and a spouse who makes a good living. And I have a steady paycheck and benefits and paid time off, which my colleagues don’t have. When they’re not working, they’re not earning. That’s hard when you want to have a family and a balanced life outside of work.

My kind of general civil practice involves 80% client management (including some pretty intense counseling and hand-holding, for which I often have to dig deep to find the patience), 10% total drudgery, 2% legal research and interesting writing, and about 8% hearings/trials.

I don’t regret it. I tried another career for a while, and ended up back in law. But I remember that moment back in law school when I asked some attorneys what they would do if they had it to do over again, and all of them said, “Teach high school English.” It wouldn’t take much to get the same answer out of me.

2 the muskrat February 27, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I’m an attorney, I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and I completely agree with the above. In fact, I regularly try to discourage people from going for a JD unless they LOVE studying the law and have a connection or “in” with a good job after they finish school (which, I hope, will also mean they have a good idea of what attorneys do all day).

For 5 years, I billed my life in 6 minute increments and was only decently happy because I had friends among my fellow associate attorneys–not because I particularly enjoyed the work. Luckily, I had no debt from undergrad or law school and avoided the urge to take on an expensive car or home loan after graduation. So, I was able to start my own firm in ’09. I’m way happier than I was, but again, I would not encourage most people to go to school unless they meet some of your criteria above (and I’d add “you need to be able to graduate with minimal or zero debt,” too).

3 Sal February 27, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Kudos from another recent law school grad. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones who found work (which I had to hustle for!) and I’m facing a ton of debt even after going to a law school consistently named one of the best values in legal education.

I hope people who want to go to law school aren’t doing so because they’re nearing the end of their undergraduate studies and realize that their degree isn’t as valuable as they once thought, and please please PLEASE do not go to law school because you have nothing else to do. Do it because you WANT to study law. Find a school that not only offers a lot of classes for that area of law, but one that offers practical classes (like clinics or externship programs) for that area of law.

Do your research and you’ll make a better decision, and good luck if you still decide law school is right for you.

4 Fed JD in DC February 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm

We’re getting 500 applicants for open positions, when they come available. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs, since being hired in 2008, after a year of unemployment following graduation from a top-50 school, above a 3.0 GPA. I’ve had 20 interviews, no offers. Don’t do it. There’s way too many unemployed attorneys for the job market. I’m starting to look at Canada as an alternative. Seriously, it’s that bad.

5 Vincent L February 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Hey Brett,

Just finishing 3L myself (in Canada, mind you) and I definitely echo these same thoughts to friends of mine asking about law school/the LSAT. There’s a lot we don’t know coming in that would have made a lot of us think twice, I’m sure.
One thing I would add to the list you noted is that law school is a 3 year trial of your self-esteem. Never in my life have I seen such a collection of type-A personalities walk in on day 1 with a swagger, only to come out with a tail between their legs. Not because they couldn’t hack it, or that they got awful grades; it’s just that for a lot of us, we never saw this caliber of competition amongst our peers. We seemed to always do better than most in high school, undergrad, in the office, etc. To be brought down as ‘below average’ in such an environment is a humbling experience for most.
That said, I don’t regret law school in the slightest. I always enjoy reading your posts. I can relate to a good deal of what you have to say and truly appreciate it.
Thanks,

Vince

6 AMac February 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm

As a lawyer practicing for 5 years let me just say….don’t do it. Law was a good career, but no more. 90% of the lawyers I know who have graduated in the last 7 or 8 years are unhappy with their decision. There are more lawyers than we need and more graduate than are needed every year. Unless your family has an established firm or you are rich prior to becoming a lawyer you will be sorry and 20 years of student loans to remind you of your mistake.

7 Vincent L February 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Fed JD in DC, the NCA process here (foreign accrediation) is pretty lenghy. It’s pretty much like taking 1L again, then taking the bar, then you start as a 1st year associate all over again.

8 Zachary Wyatt February 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Lawyer here (University of Wisconsin, 2006) and I agree with everything you said. People absolutely underestimate the cost and overestimate their ability to convert the degree into big dollars. People also ask me about law school all the time, and my advice to people involves three points:

1. You have to know exactly what you want out of law school. If you have some vague notion of making lots of money or “doing international law,” you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed. I am amazed how many people want to “practice Constitutional law,” even though that effectively means arguing exclusively before the Supreme Court, which only a handful of people make a living doing.

2. Don’t take on six-figure debt to go. You’re on the hook for a four-figure monthly payment for many, many years. That’s hard to do without a good job, which a lot of law school grads struggle to find. Personally, I think the best bet is to go in-state to the school in the city/state you want to practice.

3. Don’t do it. Law school seems to be this weird default option for people who are at a loss for what to do, and who lack the interest or math skills to go to business school. That’s maybe the worst reason to go to law school, and a sure way to end up making a crap salary and begging to defer loan repayments for another six months.

I should note that I am doing exactly what I wanted to do before I went to law school (public policy), but it also took me five years of doing unrelated crap to get there. A JD is not some golden ticket; it’s much like any other degree, and will only get you as far as effort and luck will take you.

9 Kenneth Allison February 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm

I am a solo practitioner in Massachusetts and a 2010 graduate of Suffolk University Law School. Though my practice is a general law practice my focus is on Criminal Defense. I am a Bar Advocate (for those of you not from Massachusetts a Bar Advocate is essentially a privately contracted public defender) and the majority of my work and income comes from my involvement in that program.

I have law school debt (approximately 100k) and some undergrad debt (15k, my parents helped me a lot and I did get some scholarship money) and I am barely making a dent in that debt doing the work that I do. Unlike Practicing in Iowa, I do not have benefits, a steady paycheck, and paid time off. The majority of my work is done from my home office so I do get to be home a lot, basically whenever I am not in court, and I get a lot of experience in court through the Bar Advocate program.

Like Brett my answer to the question, “should I go to law school?” is, it depends.

If you really want to be a lawyer then law school is a must but you should do some reflection before going to school. One issue is that law school, for the most part, is comprised of “top students” who are all seeking the “160k a year dream job.” Unless you go to a top school, or have connections, those jobs are only available to a very select few. The reality is that there are more lawyers like myself, who are forced to start their own practices out of law school. Thankfully I had some great mentors who could help me get my practice started. Without them I would have been lost.

I don’t regret going to law school but sometimes I wonder if I should have taken some time off from education before going to law school. I went from high school straight to college and then straight to law school.

10 Jim Smith February 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Great article. I agree with all of the points.

Very seriously, anyone who goes to law school in the current hiring times as mentioned above should really have some type of specialty undergraduate degree. Engineer, health, whatever. Something that translates directly into enough experience in a particular area of law to set you apart from the dozens of people applying for the same job.

My undergrad is nursing and I landed a job straight out of law school at a medical malpractice firm and have been thriving there ever since. Shortly after passing the bar, my wife and I went out to dinner. Awkward: one of my classmates with a poli sci background was our server. No kidding.

Everyone (that I kept track of) who had a strong background in an area of specialization, had a good job almost without regard to grades. The top 10% fought over those “coveted” big firm jobs only to leave shortly after. Some of them are still there, but they don’t mind being locked up in the research library and carrying someone else’s briefcase.

If you cannot get a job with your current experience and qualifications, seriously, law school might be a bad idea. A waiter’s paycheck doesn’t cover 100k in student debt.

11 Grant Mulkey February 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Brett,

I am a fellow attorney, and I agree with you completely on all of your points (with the possible exception of GPA and LSAT scores being an excellent predictor of success in law school).

I thought it might be helpful to share a little bit of my story. I went to a Tier Two law school, and I was confident in my ability to succeed and my ability to find a good job after school. I decided to go part-time at night and work full-time, so it took me four years to get my JD (I do not recommend doing this to anyone; it is even more stressful than a traditional JD program and the cost-savings are not worth it). Because I was sure I would be making $120-160K out of school, I paid little attention to how much debt I accrued; I just kept taking out student loans to cover my tuition and a little bit more.

I actually did do well in school. I graduated #1 in my class with an excellent GPA. I was also the Assistant Managing Editor (fourth-highest position on the masthead) of my school’s Law Review. I busted my tail in law school. But I couldn’t get a call back at any of the big firms I interviewed with. I know a couple of my colleagues (full-time students) who got the brass ring and now work 80-hour weeks for their six figures, but in my experience, the big firms willing to shell out $120-160K for first-year associates will not even look at you unless you graduated in the top 10% from a Top Fourteen law school.

Bottom line, I graduated at the top of my class from a Tier Two law school, I was a law review editor, and a few years ago I think I would have gotten a really nice, high-paying job. But instead, I work in a very small firm and make $70,000 a year while I service $170,000 in loan debt. Thankfully, I love practicing law, so that makes stomaching this debt a little easier. But I am definitely looking at second jobs I can do in the evenings to try and alleviate some of the burden.

My advice to prospective law students: Unless you can get into a Top Fourteen law school or you pay for school as you go, it is not worth it economically.

12 Jonathan Rogers February 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

The “But I’m Different” section applies to just about everyone in regards to everything. People are just naturally optimistic and consider themselves to be the exception to the rule. Half of marriages end in divorce, but that didn’t stop you from getting married, did it Brett?

13 Scott Hannon, Esq. February 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Very well written. The practice of law today is unlike it was even a couple years ago. Lawyers must be good business people, and be able to bring in clients. Simply reading the law and writing legal briefs is not enough anymore…It still IS A WONDERFUL PROFESSION, but if you are thinking of getting into it for the wrong reasons, it’s not worth it. You can still make a good living out of practicing law, but it will only be extremely lucrative for those very few who have that ultimate pedigree at the pinnacle of American academia – and that is OK. You’ll still be able to help other people, do good things, have a very highly regarded profession, and make enough money if you are smart about the student loans you take and keep your expenses down. Walking into a courtroom and saying you represent another person is a rush unlike any other – and it takes a specialized license – a bar card – to do it.

14 Ian Public Interest Lawyer February 27, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Thanks for writing this, but one thing to add. “But Brett, I am going to go to a top law school so I won’t be like everyone else.” Nope. I graduated from a top tier, top ten law schools. When I graduated about half of my class had trouble finding any job and most aren’t practicing. I have some friends who made 180k starting out and I am happy for them but they mostly were able to get those jobs due to connections or a previous technical background and are now doing ip law. I teach lsat in addition to my public interest job (that I love and needed a law degree for) and at the end of the course I have a frank discussion with my students. I tell them unless you are being paid for going to law school (not only free tuition but actual living expenses as well) go get a masters or another job. Its not worth three years of your life and relationships unless you really have in mind what you want to do. I’m a human rights lawyer and needed a law degree for the work I do and I love it, but for the vast majority of people I talk to, its the wrong choice.

15 Jim Smith February 27, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Sorry for posting twice but I had to mention that A LOT of people got divorced in law school. If your marriage has any weakness, you either need to hire a good marriage counselor to get you through it, or don’t go. My marriage was, and is, very strong and without kids back then. It was tough. Very tough. If he or she is the jealous type, forget it. “Why are you in the library with Janey [Jack] all night?” Yeah, I heard a lot of heated cell phone calls like that. Tough times.

16 Matt Johnston February 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I have a simple test I give to anyone who wants to go to law school (or med school or grad school of any kind). Tell me in 15 words or less why you want to be a lawyer/doctor/whatever. If their answer includes any mention of money, prestige, any other person (parents, teachers, girlfiend, etc.) I tell them they are not ready. It usually ends up with a discussion of the above material, but it is an easy test. I am a litigator and I think people are shocked when I tell them how little time I spend in a courtroom as a 4th year associate and how much time I spend buried under paper. I practice in Washington DC suburb and I can tell that if you want to work in big firms in big cities, that is a dying racket. It is my belief the dinosaurs and mega firms are going to die under their own weight as more and more work can be done either off-shore or by smaller firms (like mine) in smaller markets. Lest you wonder, I won a $3 million contract case on summary judgment because unlike our big firm opponents, we actually looked at every single document, prepped every deposition and researched every legal issue. I worked with one other lawyer and our combined hourly rate was less than what the big firm was paying its 5th year associate working on the case. I believe that more and more of that is going to happen as big firms have to justify big bills and in the great recession, most clients can’t afford the big bills so they are looking elsewhere.

17 CBro February 27, 2012 at 4:07 pm

I’ve been a practicing attorney since 1989. I generally enjoy the work, but over the last 10yrs I’ve crafted a nice gig as a head partner in a small firm, where we get to choose our clients and cases with care, and we’ve built a good reputation over the years.

It helps that I like to read, have a high tolerance for sitting on my ass in an office, staring at a computer screen, and can multi-task like a wild man: small firm work can be rewarding, but you have to do it all and wear all the hats: market, schmooze, teach, collect, write, interview, research cases, argue cases, run the business, hire and fire, etc.

That’s certainly not for everybody. After 23 years in it, I’m occasionally bored to tears, but not so bored as those hapless, unlucky souls sitting on their butts watching daytime tv complaining about not having a job!

So, if you’re brighter than most, love words, love speaking, writing, arguing, can think fast on your feet, keep your cool under fire, and are really just a pretty critical, cynical soul at heart, this profession might be for you.

18 A. Bigger February 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm

As a graduating 3L in May, I totally agree with your article.

19 Greg February 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm

All in all, great job with the article. I think it’s a little pessimistic and over romanticizes the concept of practicing law.

People who practice law or went to law school have a tendency to feel the need to be a gatekeeper of the legal profession. I think law school can be valuable to just about anyone.
Once you get your first job, no one cares how well you did in law school, they only see the degree on your resume.

I graduated from law school May ’11. I had no scholarships, and I didn’t graduate anywhere close to the top of my class. With a 2.8, I might have been in the top 50%, but honestly I just don’t care.

I make just under 90k a year now working in oil & gas. I was employed two months after a graduated – one week before the bar exam. Two days after I started my job search.

I have 135k in debt and my loan payments are around $1400 a month.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I hated law school. It was miserable. Reading case law 7 hours a day after class is not fun. I’ll tell you what is invaluable – a JD.

You’ll get noticed. More often than not, you’ll be bumped above your competition solely because you have a JD. I think everyone know how hard law school is (not to mention how much harder the bar exam itself is) and they respect the time, effort, and sacrifice you made in furthering your education.

They’ll rightfully assume that you’re not an idiot. Law school really hones your ability to be analytical and that skill isn’t reserved to studying case law.

You’ll learn more than the law. I came out of law school with a better understanding of politics, world events, trials, the Constitution this county was founded on, how the legal system works, better debating skills (join your school’s mock trial association – it’s invaluable) and a ton of other things besides black letter law.

I’d love to go on, but this is just a comment, after all. I think your post is valid, and 100% correct. However, nothing good comes easy.

20 Robert Herrick February 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I completely agree. I’ve been practicing for 5 years, gradually paying off the massive 2d mortgage that is my student loan debt. The one thing I would add is that most new lawyers are going to be working in some sort of litigation-based practice, which means that most of your days will be spent in confrontation with very aggressive people, whether in person or via email, telephone, or letter. If you are the sort of person who would rather defuse an intense situation than escalate it, you would do well to avoid law school. (Obviously not everyone litigates, but even 5 years ago only the very top graduates had any say in the type of law they were going to practice, and I suspect now that no new graduates can afford to be very picky). You may find, as I have, that you are not bothered by heavy workloads, or long hours, or public speaking, or difficult writing assignments, or problems keeping organized, but that the anxiety of dozens of daily confrontations has you flinching in conditioned response to the ringing of the telephone.

You should also consider that your loans are likely to be so high when you get out that if you don’t like practicing law, you nevertheless can’t afford to leave it. There are plenty of things that I would rather be doing than practicing law, and which would probably allow me to live a lot longer, but I just can’t afford a pay cut. Caveat discipulus.

21 Fed JD in DC February 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm

If you go to work for any federal agency other than SEC or DOJ, you get NO litigation experience.

And I forgot to mention that I had five years of Capitol Hill experience when i went to law school. I couldn’t get a summer job the first summer 2005, and I barely found one the second summer. I have a stack of over 800 rejection letters I’ve kept to remind myself of what it took to get where I am now.

When i got out and was unemployed for nine months I couldn’t even get a job waiting tables, because I was overqualified. I’m seriously considering a second job because of the debt I acquired. It’s really really not worth it.

22 Not sure if I regret it either... February 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I graduated from South Texas College of Law in the Spring of 2009 and passed the July Texas Bar. I graduated in the top 25% of my class and was lucky to land a legislative job later that year. While having my JD helped considerably, it was my previous legislative experience that truly opened the door for the gig. It was the only job offer I had.

Right now, I make just over $50K. My wife makes about $40K. we have one child — I have another child who lives with her mother. suffice to say, $90K sounds like a pretty decent combined income. However, after rent, student loans, car payment, day care & child support, there is LITTLE left over.

I came into school with mid-tier qualifications (GPA & LSAT), thinking I was going to “ace” the whole deal. I stayed in the top 25%, working my ass off to do so, BTW. Luckily, I was able to earn academic schollies for my 2L and 3L, amounting to about 10-15% of my tuition costs. Despite this, the school loans are absolutely painful. I had about $25K in undergrad loans and managed to rack up about $100K for law school (lived with my parents for 2 years!).

I’m not sure it would’ve stopped me, but I think it’s healthy for potential law school candidates to truly run the numbers on what their finances will look like upon graduation. It’s only the creme de la creme that haul down $100K+. and the step between mid-range pay and top end pay is a huge one.

All this said, I love having my JD and being an attorney…and I don’t even really practice law right now. The school I went to still offers a traditional legal education with a heavy dose of the Socratic method. I can honestly say that I probably learned more about myself in those 3 years than at any other time in my life. Additionally, despite having a liberal arts degree from UT, I feel like I garnered a much greater feel for how the world works after taking classes like secured transactions, commercial paper, corporations, criminal law/procedure, land use, etc.

Tied into the points above is the academic rigor of law school. for many very bright individuals, you’ve just never been pushed that hard before. and it sucks. but for me, in hindsight, I’m very proud of myself for getting through it and am clearly better off for it. I considered myself a pretty solid writer before law school and there’s no question that I improved in that area.

So for me…I guess “the jury is still out” in terms of whether my investment will pay off. But, I do feel like the personal growth I experienced by going to law school has been extremely personally rewarding.

23 Sam February 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Thanks for the article. I’ve been considering law for quite a while now and even after reading this, I don’t know what to do. When I finish my undergrad, I’ll have a degree in petroleum engineering from a top five PE school but I’m not sure it is what I want to do.

Meanwhile, my brother is now three years into practicing law and is buying into his firm in the next few months. He likes it and thinks I would too.

I was hoping this article would help me decide once and for all when I read the title but now I’m more confused than ever. Oh well, back to homework.

24 Sam February 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm

“So, if you’re brighter than most, love words, love speaking, writing, arguing, can think fast on your feet, keep your cool under fire, and are really just a pretty critical, cynical soul at heart, this profession might be for you.”

However I do fit this description so maybe I should go after all! Conformation bias? What’s that?

Ok now I’m really going to go back to homework.

25 Kendall February 27, 2012 at 4:46 pm

How hard is it to attend law school part-time while working full-time?

26 Anthony February 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Regarding costs, that is why I enlisted with the US Army so I can use the GI Bill to pay for law school. I graduated college with 3.5 GPA and have worked with the USAO. I became familiar with the profession during my time with the govt and there is nothing I would rather do, besides serving my country. I’ve heard many of the same sentiments from people dissuading from going to law school. I believe they are accurate. Though, as with almost everything in life, if you believe in yourself and work hard, it can be done and you will succeed.

27 Ty P February 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm

As a recent law school grad in Kansas I would second much of what Brett said. I would stress, however, that the economy has significantly reduced the value of high GPAs and participation on law review or law journal. There are numerous people in my class or that graduated the year before me with outstanding GPAs, ranked in the top ten or five percent of the class, who were on law journal/law review, and in some cases on the editorial board, who have not been able to find jobs. The unfortunate truth is that the economy has made finding a job much more dependent on luck than on merit.

I would also remind anyone thinking about law school that a certain number of legal jobs are always going to be taken by the relatives or family friends of the big bugs at a law firm. The economy has not necessarily effected those jobs so the overall pool of jobs is smaller still.

28 semanticdrifter February 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm

I agree with the article on all points. I earned my J.D. in 2010, so I graduated in the early stages of the legal job-pocalypse. I never felt that burning desire to be a lawyer; I just went to law school because it seemed like a good idea to have something as versatile as a law degree.

I’ve found that you are correct. Most of the non-legal jobs worry that I’m over qualified, while the legal jobs either don’t exist or call for 7-10 years experience.

I would steer all but the most passionate would-be attorneys away.

29 2L February 27, 2012 at 5:03 pm

I’m still in law school and while much this post resonates with thing I’ve heard the recent grads ahead of me say, I would call it (and them) a bit pessimistic. I will be in debt up to my eyeballs when I graduate, and although I will likely graduate in the top quarter of my class I will have a wopping $200k of debt when I’m done. I don’t care. I will repeat: I don’t care. I love studying law. There is nothing like the excitement of your first year of school and the sense of pride and accomplishment you feel at the end of every day. You can also bet money (I’ve got 200k on the line) that this particular form of usury will become subject new gov’t regulations long before you repay it. If you want the tools you need to change the world and you love law, don’t let the price tag or all of the doom and gloom you read and hear from other attorneys scare you away.

30 James Petzke February 27, 2012 at 5:04 pm

I’m not sure I’d want to go to law school. For one thing, the amount of debt mentioned above is horrendous. I personally am going to a state school for business, and will be graduating with a surplus instead of debt (hopefully!). Just my two cents.

31 Andrew February 27, 2012 at 5:06 pm

One advantage of going to law school is that you can learn how to sue yourself – http://www.dailyvowelmovements.com/2011/08/ever-thought-you-could-be-lawyer.html

32 Andrew February 27, 2012 at 5:08 pm

One advantage of going to law school is that you can learn how to sue yourself – http://www.dailyvowelmovements.com/2011/08/ever-thought-you-could-be-lawyer.html

33 Andrew February 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm

One advantage of going to law school is that you can learn how to sue yourself, http://www.dailyvowelmovements.com/2011/08/ever-thought-you-could-be-lawyer.html

34 Jon February 27, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Great post. I was wondering if anyone out there has experiences with business school. I’m considering going for an MBA and would love to read an article like this about MBA’s.

35 Jason Van Dyke February 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm

THANK YOU for writing this article. I am an attorney and not a day goes by that I do not regret my decision to go to law school. All that awaits a law graduate today is a lifetime of student loan debt (which cannot be eliminated of bankruptcy) and many years of waiting tables or working in construction. I am closing my firm in a few months to pursue a career in law enforcement. Why? It’s hard to make a business succeed when you don’t have any clients.

36 Amy Mashburn February 27, 2012 at 5:20 pm

So glad you wrote this post! One of my close friends graduated from Columbia University Law in NYC. The only reason he was employed 9 months out of graduation is because Columbia uses their (sizable) endowment to pay their graduates’ salaries for 9 months post-graduation — not kidding. My friend worked at his state’s AG office and his salary was entirely paid for by Columbia. Now that his 9 months are up, he’s making $35k doing public policy work in an expensive East Coast city.

I have another friend who planned to go to law school, but randomly took an interview at a healthcare software company the summer before. They offered him $60k starting salary, relocation reimbursement, and he has an unlimited per diem when he travels for business.

Just saying, there are other options for good careers.

37 Jeff February 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm

I have a JD and bar card, but have never practiced law and couldn’t be happier about it. I have my share of debt (there’s a date in 2017 circled on my calendar), but the best thing that happened to me when I followed my ill-advised “life-plan” and applied to law school was finding a joint-degree program. There are many disciplines where a legal education certainly comes in handy, including social work, business administration, academia, economics, public administration, and many others, and law schools offer joint programs where you can combine coursework and get a masters degree in addition to the JD.

As my 1L year ended, I was ever so happy with the realization that my “second-choice” degree in this joint program was something I really enjoyed and could actually see myself engaged in for a long career, something I never really saw in the law. Luckily, this gave me an option that most traditional law students don’t really have, and I pursued that “other” career.

So, would I do it that way again? No way, I’d go to grad school and get the degree I really needed (and get into the job market two years earlier with less debt). I’m proud to have earned the JD, but feel very lucky to have found something else to do.

38 Joe February 27, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Would love to see this kind of article regarding medical and business school as well.

39 James E. February 27, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Hit the nail on the head with this post! I am in the middle of my second year and I can attest to the truth of this post. Law school is not for the faint of heart, it is a three year marathon of stress. And the most depressing part is that for many grads there is no light at the end of the tunnel (i.e. a job).
That being said; the law is a fascinating subject of study once separated from the daily grind of law school. I recommend that those looking to go into the legal field do so with a plan of action. The other x-factor for success after law school is knowing people that are already in the field. This can advance your job search greatly. Entering law school without legal contacts puts you behind the eight ball in the job hunt.

40 Bill February 27, 2012 at 5:47 pm

The biggest problem with most law schools is that they do nothing to prepare a law student to be a lawyer. If I didn’t work regularly through law school for small and solo firms, I would have come out like most of my classmates: an absolutely useless holder of a bar card. Most of my friends were lucky. They were hired in the boom before 2008, and because they went to high ranked law schools, most fo them got jobs where the starting salary is 100K. Unfortunately, law firms cannot afford to carry that kind of dead weight anymore.

When people ask me this question, I tell them first: don’t. If they persist, I ask them if they really want to be a lawyer or just can’t think of something better to do with their unused capacity for debt. If they do want to be a lawyer, I go through what my experiences have been (and for someone only 11 years out, they’ve been pretty varied). If that doesn’t scare them, I recommend they do some time as an intern with PD/DA/City Attorney Office or, if they can find one, a gig with a firm.

Without a doubt, Law School was the worst, most pointless three years of my life. It was soul crushing, humiliating experience that I would not wish on anyone who hadn’t committed some heinous crime. All it taught me was that law students are the lowest form of life who must bow to self-important, duplicitous professors who will not admit it when they have made a mistake. All of that so that some university can treat you as a cash machine (since many do use their professional schools as a cash cow) and then ignore you when you say that it is not your goal to work for white shoe law firm.

I do love telling my law school to get bent when they come asking for money now.

Sorry for the rant. I truly believe the profession made a mistake when it moved the profession from being one of study and apprenticeship to the Harvard-model using the socratic method.

If you must go, do yourself a favor. Don’t buy the line that you can get just a good education by going somewhere cheaper when you have the option to go to someplace which is ranked higher on those absurd rankings put out by US News. Go to the higher ranked place. Going to a cheaper, lower ranked place only gets you limited options.

41 Ajay February 27, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Hi Brett,

Thank you for writing the article – you make some interesting points that apply not only to law school but graduate education more generally. I agree completely with the thought that people don’t understand what they are getting into – both from a financial as well as a strategic perspective. I’ve seen that this is especially the case with students going straight through from undergrad – with little time to really understand and weigh what they want to do. I wish that law schools would take a page out of the MBA playbook and encouraging a couple of years of work experience.

I saw the advice not urging people to go to law school if they don’t want to practice law. I couldn’t disagree more! Legal training, reasoning and analytic skills are highly valued outside the legal profession, and I hope to see more people looking for unique situations to make use of their skills. There are many options that make use of this training, and it’s unfortunate that lawyers are not more heavily represented in various (well paying) roles. I would think that the downward pressure on legal salaries and increased reliance on outsourcing for lower level documentation work might help steer people towards the private sector.

I saw the comment that many lawyers will get jobs through ‘connections’. I don’t see how this is any different from any other profession. While in an ideal world, everything would be purely based on merit – the reality is that networking early and often should be an active part of your experience.

42 Andrea February 27, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I think that this advice is useful for ANY person who is considering ANY kind of higher education, undergrad included.

Many students show up on college campuses with undecided majors, newly opened student aid accounts, and the assumption that a college degree guarantees them their dream job when they graduate after the mythical four years it takes to earn a bachelor’s.

College is a worthwhile investment for many people, but students need to be realistic. Besides, perseverance, strategy, focus, creativity, discipline and self-motivation are as valuable as (or even more valuable than) a college degree when it comes to making a living.

43 Ty L. February 27, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Great article for everyone in all fields, not just law. I’m a fairly recent MBA graduate and will tell anyone that fully thinking through any academic venture before starting is well worth the time. Consider the costs and benefits as well as the real demand for your new found qualifications before making a commitment. Graduate school can be a very gratifying experience but it’s not something to be taken lightly. Be prepared for a huge time commitment and many sleepless nights, especially if you’re trying to juggle a family and full time job like I did.

44 Kiwi February 27, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Great Article

Agree with everything you say about making sure you really want to be lawyer before you take the plunge.

I am working in New Zealand. Fortunately it is not quite as bad as in the USA, but the same issues of oversupply exist here. Also most lawyers graduate with much less debt, which is interest free if still in NZ. But the whole law school industry is pretty cynical.

45 Titus February 27, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Brett is exactly right.

One other thing to remember is what kind of law the few jobs to be had involve. There are some litigation jobs to be had out there, as people still sue each other because of what the recession did to their business.

But at the same time, there are ZERO jobs for transactional or probate attorneys. There are a few tax jobs, but those will be taken by folks with tax LLMs.

I’m actually in a different boat than Brett: I enjoy the law itself, but I don’t enjoy all the types of work that trial lawyers do. But because that’s the only kind of job I could get, that’s what I have to do, even though I went to law school to be a transactional guy. I can’t really recommend law school for much of anyone these days.

46 CBro February 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Ok, me again. After 20+yrs in the trenches practicing law, If I had to do it all over again, I would join the Army and work hard to get into Special Forces. No kidding. I’m good with foreign languages, (was a cop and bodyguard, too), and could likely meet the other criteria, and would be on a govt pension right now, having seen the world, etc.

I have a friend from law school is a JAG lawyer, and he loves it! He’s now a colonel, has travelled first class all over the world with his family, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything. Something to consider if you really want to go to law school and become a lawyer.

But here we are. If you don’t passionately want to practice law as a lawyer, then for God’s sake, don’t go to law school! My experience and that of my colleagues is that the law degree is pretty much useless outside of practicing law. Maybe if you’re a congressman it comes in handy, but you can’t parachute into that job.

I was 6th in my class, and won some national awards in law school, but when I graduated I couldn’t get the top tier firms to look at me because a) I was about 8yrs older than a typical grad, and b) I graduated from a second tier school.

Maybe that’s a blessing, because I get to live in Idaho where the skiing is half an hour away, we mountainbike and river raft 9 mos a year, and it’s just beautiful here.

47 Lowdown February 27, 2012 at 6:56 pm

I’ve been an attorney in private practive for 20 years. I agree that it is imperative to have an idea of what the life of a practicing attorney is like on a daily basis before embarking on this journey. I was naive. Once in law school I was amazed at how many students had parents who were lawyers. These students not only seemed to have a better understanding of the process but also knew more about getting outlines and other study aids to help achieve better grades. Never believe a professor who tells you they won’t help you “in his class”. The law is the law, if you know it, you will do better. Minimize student loan debt to the extent humanly possible. Your options once out of school are enormous compared to the heavily indebted graduate.
Unless you have a burning desire to practice law, don’t even think of going. When I started law school I had just taken the state police entrance exam and was called to the academy for training. I received my acceptance letters to law school at the same time and, needless to say, chose the law. Had I taken the other path, I would be eligible for retirement now with a full pension. I will work well into old age as an attorney in order to make ends meet and maintain a modest lifestyle, believe me when I say modest. If you intend to practice law, it is essential that you develop strong business skills, especially if you have your own practice.
Now, a few positives. I am my own boss. I set my hours, although client demands usually help take care of that for me. You choose which areas of law to practice. Your income is only limited, within reason, by your own drive and determination. For the right person, it can be a very rewarding career. For the wrong person, it can be a lifetime of feeling like you missed your true calling but have to practice law by default. One last thing which is the most valuable piece of advice I can give to all of those submitting comments who are either in law school or seriously considering it. Get paid up front! I spent 11 hours in the office yesterday (Sunday) going over old accounts receivable. I am a little over a third of the way through and am up to almost $20,000. I am a sole practitioner. That is a lot of money. Most will never pay or will pay a fraction of what they owe. Get paid up front!

48 Cameron February 27, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Echoing other sentiments, but adding two scenarios where you SHOULD go to law school: if you get a free ride to a tier one law school, and/or if you have an attractive job already waiting for you (e.g., a firm in the small town you’re from has guaranteed you a spot).

49 Sam February 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Would you say that its any different if you would be going into law school with an engineering degree (petroleum as I mentioned above)?

50 Erick Widman February 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Brett – superb article.

I’m a lawyer who graduated in 1999 and I agree with every point you made.

Also, America simply has too many lawyers. Unfortunately, we don’t add nearly as much value as business owners, or scientists or bloggers do! Instead of building something of value, lawyers typically spend most of their time writing long documents that don’t benefit society a huge amount.

In addition, there are some big similarities between the market for lawyers and the housing market. There has been an oversupply of both and we’re feeling the pain now.

We need our best and brightest to be scientists, engineers, writers and entrepreneurs. Cheers.

51 LionelHutz February 27, 2012 at 7:42 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I hope that the more word gets out about what the realities of law school and law practice are really like, the numbers might start to line up with reality. Pieces like this are the first step in that. Having said that, I would just like to add two personal comments. I think if anyone is lucky (and has worked hard enough) to get into a school like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford law, then cost should be less of an issue. Not only is that potential law student probably the kind of person who will enjoy the hard work and intellectual stimulation that law school can offer, but having a pedigree like that on your resume really does seem to me to be priceless. I would also like to push back a little on your conclusion that law schools train lawyers, period. Where I disagree is that I don’t think that that necessarily means that only potential lawyers should enroll in law school. If you are an intellectually curious person, and particularly if you are interested in the role of government in society, law school may be a good choice. I guess what I am saying is, if you can pull a full scholarship or if you get into a top top top tier school, then I think law school is a good idea for someone willing to make the most of it for their own personal intellectual development.

Much respect and appreciation,
Lionel Hutz, 3L

52 Ty P February 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I strongly disagree with the sentiment that law school is a good idea for people who do not want to practice law. There are a large number of people in my class who knew before they ever came to law school that they did not want to actually practice. Over the course of the last few years they have accumulated 100 thousand dollars in debt and they have no more idea what they want to do in life now than they did before they came to school. Far too many people treat law school as a masters in political science or as a substitute for a real estate class. It only contributes to the inflated numbers of people in law school and its one of the reasons that law schools do such a poor job actually preparing people to practice law.

53 Tenessee D. February 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I am an attorney. I’ve been in practice now for 17 months. My advice to folks thinking about going to law school is this: Don’t. Unless you love debt, love stress, love strife, hate free-time, adore bad jokes FROM EVERYONE about what you do, delight in deception, and generally eschew happiness, DON’T DO IT!

54 Michael February 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Brett, this is an awesome article, and I am joining the chorus of agreement here.

I myself am a recent law grad (2011) in California, but haven’t passed the bar yet. During law school, I wasn’t a very happy person; and I suspect that the only people who really have a chance to be happy in law school are the ones who are in the top 5% to 10% of the class.

For any of you considering law school, Brett is not kidding at all about the grading curve; and in some schools, rather than yanking merit scholarships for poor grades, they instead outright dismiss the bottom 10% to 20% of the class.

I also have one further observation to make. When I attended law school, I was very surprised at the amount and quality of the outlines and study guides offered by the commercial bar prep companies, all to aid law students in their studies. And what I discovered later was that in more than a few subjects, the commercial bar prep materials actually taught you the law better than your professors did. Instead of spending over $120,000 and three years, you could spend $5,000 and one year to learn all that you would ever need to know, in order to pass a state bar exam. As for the touted “thinking like a lawyer,” a few internships at a few law offices should be able to teach you this.

Before going to law school, you should get comfortable with the fact that a quality legal education can be had without ever going to law school; and at the end of the day you are spending three years of your life and over $120,000 for only a nice-looking piece of paper.

If what I just said did not make it apparent, I was one of the cynical law students Brett described, and his concluding thoughts also speak for my sentiments: I have mixed feelings about having gone to law school, and I’ve privately been referring to it as my “youthful indiscretion.” This may change as I grow older, but for now it’s just how I feel.

Fortunately, I was lucky and interested enough to pursue an accounting degree by taking night classes at the local community college, while attending law school during the day. My accounting degree has worked out nicely: since graduating from law school, I’ve consistently received offers to work in accounting departments and offices; I’m currently employed in an accounting position. And I can honestly say that the work is interesting, satisfying and that I’m a lot more happier than I’ve been in the past three years.

55 Bill February 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm

The gravy days are over. You should definitely not go to law school unless you get into a top 5 school or have a full scholarship. The costs aren’t justifiable and most will find the studies dull and lacking in practical applications. I was lucky to graduate before the recession and had well-paid jobs all over the world that allowed me to pay off my loans and accumulate a sizable nest egg. Still, I ultimately ended up being laid off and found that my years of shuffling paper did not did not make me competitive in a job market that increasingly demands demonstrations of ability to add value rather than just a pretty resume.

56 Silviu Tulbya February 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Thank you Mr. McKay for taking the time to write this article. I am currently enrolled in my first quarter at the local community college. Having enrolled in an Introduction to Law class, I have begun to feel that this is my strongsuit in intellectual endeavor. However, I have also planned and always have wanted to be an Architect. There is a bit of a conflict here, because I love both subjects.

My thought, in response to your article, is that perhaps I should finish a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture (Which is also a struggling profession) and invest in that for a couple of years. Then, if the situation for law changes, I might begin a degree in Law. However, that approach isn’t too friendly with an ideal of starting a family.

I have a question, Should someone who likes a balanced lifestyle pursuit a career in law?

Please feel free to respond, anyone.

Thank You!

57 Hal February 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Really, there are too many people getting college degrees of ANY kind. We need more people in the manufacturing sector. Badly. If you can weld or machine worth a dang, you can get a job that compensates well and is very rewarding. If you absolutely, positively MUST have a college degree, it had better be one that requires either differential equations or anatomy/physiology. We have too many lawyers and general businesspersons.

On a side note: If you absolutely MUST have an art/theater degree, take a welding and/or machining class or I will strangle you.

58 Paul February 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I graduated law school this past May, took the bar exam over the summer and passed it, and I don’t currently practice law at all. Law school was the best decision of my life, hands down. I work for the federal government, and I wouldn’t have my job if it weren’t for my degree. Law school taught me how to think logically and critically, and it opened doors I didn’t even know existed. Classes I took in law school come in handy at the most unexpected times, and my degree earns me respect in my workplace. I strongly disagree with Brett that you have to have a single-minded focus on becoming a lawyer, and that law school only prepares you to become an attorney. Law students need to have an open mind about employment after law school, and law school prepares you to do almost anything challenging in the workplace.

59 Juan February 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I graduated with a joint JD/MBA in 2009 and to this day I am ambivalent about my decision. I was lucky enough to land a job with the Federal Government during the depths of the Great Depression but do not work in a legal field.

On the one hand, a mountain of debt and three years of soul-crushing studying makes me question my decision. On the other hand, I met some amazing people, was challenged in ways I never though possible, and picked up some very important and portable skills. Specifically, my analytic and writing skills.

Could I have developed those skills to the level that I did through a different program? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.

I finally came to the realization that it is not law school that is the problem, it’s law schools. Specifically, there is absolutely no reason why law schools need to be three-year programs unless you are specializing in a particular field.

You learn the important things, like basic legal theory, reading, and writing during your first year. You second year lets you hone those skills and take a few interesting classes. By your third year you have either figured it out or you’ve dropped out. Forcing students to take two more semesters of specific classes in which they will probably never practice is just waste. Fraud and waste.

Anybody who’s ever taking a bar prep course can tell you that everything you need to pass the bar is learned (or re-learned) during that short prep course before the bar exam. The one thing that a law school could at least do is prepare you for the bar. At that they fail miserably. At the end of three years you graduate without the knowledge you need to pass the bar and, furthermore, even the most basic of practical knowledge about being an attorney. When I graduated from law school I could have pontificated for hours about the Erie doctrine, yet I was absolutely clueless about how to file a legal document at the local courthouse.

Maybe we need to make law school more, not less accessible. Make it a two-year requirement for those who want to learn about the law and legal theory but don’t necessarily want to become lawyers. Make it a three or four-year requirement for those who want to go on to take the bar, or make it a three year requirement with a required year of practical training, as they did back in the days of yore.

Either way, it seems obvious that changes need to be made to the law school system to avoid exactly these kinds of post-law school regrets.

60 David February 27, 2012 at 8:53 pm

I am a 2010 law graduate licensed to practice in Louisiana and couldn’t agree with this post more. It took me a year after graduating to find a job. The job I have now doesn’t even require me to have a JD or to be licensed but having the degree did allow me to start at a higher salary. However, my colleagues who started in the industry when I started law school make just as much as me, if not more, and they don’t have 80k in debt. I work as a title researcher and leasing agent, otherwise known as a landman, in the oil and gas industry. It is also true that attorneys do not make near as much as most people think. I don’t know any of my fellow graduates making over 50k as attorneys. Brett, this article should be required reading for people thinking of going to law school. I met some great friends and had a lot of fun in school but don’t think it is worth the investment.

61 Tom February 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm

I would really love to see a breakdown like this for medical school. Do you think it could happen?

62 Garistotle February 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm

My dad is a lawyer, so… I have, since I was a little kid always wanted to be a lawyer myself. What just came together for me is the relationship between the sacrifices one might have to make to be a lawyer and the idea that in order to be successful both in law school and in practice, it is necessary that the individual be completely passionate about the law. I have always been interested in law, maybe even VERY interested, but never really passionate. What I’ve always been passionate about is the life I liked to imagine myself having if everything came together for me and I was able to become an attorney. I’d be respected by my peers, do challenging work, and always have friends to drink with after putting in long hours. I’d get to spend time in court houses with those marble steps and brass banisters worn smooth by so many people whose lives just changed. Those things don’t require a law degree that I would have to give up so much to get. A law degree that I would only get and put to work if I had an honest passion about the law. I don’t. So many of our laws were written by and designed for people that I find despicable. I really like the idea of being a cool, smart, lawyer. Unfortunately, to be that person, I would have to love law. Thank god I don’t.

63 Kevin February 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm

I have a question, I’m planning on attending law school next fall and have been accepted into several top 50 law schools already. I live in Florida and have been accepted into all of the major schools here as well as Emory in Georgia. Would you recommend taking more money from a lower ranked school or acquiring a little bit more debt in order to attend a better school with more prestige and better job prospects?

64 Aaron February 27, 2012 at 10:10 pm

The biggest reason I wish I had gone to law school and become an attorney is that you really do seem to be invisible to women in the greater NY area unless your profession rhymes with “lawyer.”

65 Stephen February 27, 2012 at 10:22 pm

This is equally excellent advice for PhD programs, as well. The only reason you should ever get a PhD in any field (engineering being the lone exception) is if you find yourself in your idle time contemplating the subject. If you can go a week without thinking about the subject you want a PhD in, you do not actually want the PhD.

In the end, every field has more PhDs than jobs in it, and even if you think you’re brilliant that hardly plays into your ability to get a job. There’s so much politicking and navigating in grad school, and probably 80% of your ability to find a job in the field after you finish has more to do with your advisor and their connections than with anything you actually did yourself. So if you do brilliant work with a guy who won’t stick his neck out for you, you’re stuck being overqualified and unmanageable in the eyes of every “real world job” out there.

66 jonathanwthomas February 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm

I’m not someone who ever considered becoming a lawyer but I think this article hits the nail on the head about education in this country. Not everyone should go to college and certainly not everyone should get a master’s or JD. Our society is focused on educating everyone to the highest level possible but not everyone belongs at the highest level. If you’re a mediocrity, you’re not going to succeed no matter how many degrees you have. There’s so such thing as a gravy train.

67 Paul February 27, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I thought about becoming an attorney until I realized that I would have to work with lawyers all day. IT looked much better.

68 1L at BC February 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Hey, good article. Generally agree with everything. Glad you brought up the points about scholarships being contingent on GPAs that are impossible for everyone to maintain.

I’m too busy working on a memo to say more – so I definitely agree about the heavy workload!

69 Rodeodoctor February 27, 2012 at 11:04 pm

This is pretty depressing. The problem is the idea that law school is a ticket to $ and privilege. I graduated from a mid-level NY law school with about 100k in debt. I was able to take some of that off with fellowships and am now in a fantastic and exciting career with my state’s attorney general’s office. I love my job, make about 65k a year, and help protect abused children for a living. I went to law school not to make money but to help people so maybe the problem isn’t what happens after law school but what you were expecting to happen. Public Interest/government is definitely the way to go.

70 DJ February 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm

As a 1L, I think you’ve got it spot on. In regards to the “But I’m Different” mentality, law school is a whole new game. Most people going to law school have never truly had to compete to be noticed in the classroom. Grades came fairly easily and the work was always easily manageable. In law school, everyone is that guy (with a few exceptions), and most face true competition for the first time in their life.

For me, I love it. This was absolutely the right decision. Why? I love the study of law. I had a good introduction to the field of law in my previous career that spurred me to pursue law school. Though it gets old (7 hours a day of reading gets old), I enjoy the work and I love the classes.

I don’t want to unfairly prejudice people against going to law school, but I’ll say this: make damn sure you know what you’re getting into before you start signing any promissory notes.

One last thing, and someone above mentioned this already, if you are married and are planning on going to law school, get your relationship solid before you go. It takes constant work to remember that school is not the most important thing in your life. If you’re married or in a serious relationship, be aware that it will crumble if you don’t put the time and effort into that relationship.

71 Silviu Tulbya February 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm

I agree with Juan’s comment #59. They should make a law degree more practical, if they can.

72 Nicky February 28, 2012 at 12:33 am

Law school is only one face of the problem. As a few people have brought up, the same can be said for an undergraduate degree, business school or medical school. (LDS readers out there may get a kick out of http://www.seriouslysoblessed.com the satirical Mormon Mommy blog where Tiffany/Amber/Megan/Nicole is married to Jordan/Jason/Wes/Tyler who is going to law/business/dental/medical school.) I’m an alumnus of Brett’s undergraduate school and I saw the law school syndrome all the time there.

A lot of guys seemed to think that providing for a family means pulling down six figures and a lot of young couples seemed extremely glib about medical and law school. Many young ladies seemed besotted with the idea that having a husband in law school or med school would bring a life of ease and luxury. Few seemed to be thinking about the years it would take to pay off the student loans.

Our economy has changed. We live in a world that now rewards creativity and innovation. If you happen to look on the Forbes 500 list, you’ll find that most of the highest net worth individuals never attended college or are college drop outs. They made their money by going into business for themselves. My husband has attended some college but dropped out just short of his associates. He is a self-made man who has always been in business for himself or as a contractor. At 18, he was making six-figures as a computer programmer. After a number of setbacks, failures, and hurdles, he has made the transition towards being a full-time mixed media artist and entrepreneur.

I will also say that there are some types of people who do better at college. I’m one of them. I’m a “program-oriented” learner. I find it very difficult to stick with learning something unless I have a program I’m following and other people such as teachers and classmates. My husband, on the other hand, is a self-taught type. He picks up a book and teaches himself. I got a degree in humanities and LOVED it. It has been a huge blessing. It taught me to think critically, analyze and refined my aesthetic senses- all of which my husband has said has been very useful in helping him start his business. However, I declared my major in my first semester and never changed it. I also graduated debt-free with no help from my parents by utilizing financial aid scholarships, Pell grants, and working. If you’re going to get a college degree that doesn’t have a direct career path, it can be very rewarding, but you have to be prepared to think outside the box and blaze your own trail.

Seth Godin has written a marvelous manifesto on education and the changing job market and addresses many of the issues Brett brings up in this article. I highly recommend reading it. You can download it at http://www.squidoo.com/stop-stealing-dreams

73 Ken February 28, 2012 at 1:49 am

Well said. I’d add: people who like prestige often enjoy being a lawyer – assuming they get the grades for a prestigious job. Not judging, but stating that those are also a happy lawyer demographic. You know if that’s you.

People who can’t work well in groups. Most careers are team oriented. Law isn’t. So if you hate working together, then law might be good. It is extremely isolating a career.

74 steve February 28, 2012 at 3:43 am

Any advice for someone looking to gain a simple “working” knowledge of law? I have an interest in the law but no desire to make it a full time pursuit. I’m looking for an education in practical law that would be applicable to everyday life. I would like to be able to read a contract and actually understand it, protect my personal liberties from authorities and other individuals, provide a basic legal defense or at least grasp the fundamentals that go into the crafting of a defense.

Law seems to be an esoteric field where the average person generally has no idea of exactly what is going on.

Any thoughts, suggestions?

75 Jaay February 28, 2012 at 5:24 am

I’m a Law school student as well, although i’m a student in the Netherlands almost al pros and cons in this article are the same. The only difference is that we have price standard for every academic study. When I first started with Law School I had a very different vision of the study rather than what it really is. It’s true that the pro’s are overrated but I think that popularly every old academic study has such overrated pro’s. I really agree with the con’s and it’s just a study where you can’t predict how your experience will be when you practise Law school. I think that the best option to inform yourself is to participate in trials of the study. Those days where you can try the study at home or even follow a student for a day. That’s the best way to get informed about the study.

76 Bryan February 28, 2012 at 6:13 am

My mother in law is a lawyer with an undergrad in social work. She works as a social worker. She does a few wills and estates on the side.

My brother in law graduated college with a BA in English and didn’t know what he wanted to do so his cousin (a law student) suggested law school. So he went to a state school and 2 1/2 years and $60k in debt later, he decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer and dropped out. Now he works in the warehouse at Amazon.com to support his wife and three kids. He had NO idea what he was getting himself in to. But, he does NOT have the hustle to get the kind of job you talk about in this market, so…

77 Allan Williams February 28, 2012 at 7:23 am

I am really glad that you have asked this question of your readers. I have been answering this question for years: Go to law school if you are a motivated person; and I am not just speaking of motivated to practice law.

I am a layman but I have more education than many. Furthermore my formal education was as grueling as that experienced in law school. And this is my point.

In my life I have worked in several industries and have come to know numerous individuals in all levels of management. We all started with an idea or a desire for success and busted our butts to some satisfactory level of achievement.
Each of us count the discipline we learned in the highest level of our education and especially the confidence accrued from it, as the signal and catapulting factor in our arsenal of assets by which we were able to achieve serial successes.

The number of lawyers, who are oil and energy industry managers and executives, managers and executives in broadcasting, publishing, construction, aviation, banking, engineering etc, etc, is astounding.

Each to a person attributes their successes, at first incrementally and then ultimately, to their motivation primarily and their experience in law school a close second.

Even the interview process changes. Think about this and I have done this with my educational background: you apply for a job in an industry of interest. In the interview and due to your confidence by virtue of the rigors of your education, you intimate to the prospective employer that you are interested and motivated to be trained in management; and have already achieved a level of success far beyond practically anyone else who has sat in his office.
What is the owner, manager, interviewer going to say to you….No?
And if he hesitates, you tell him that you can certainly take yourself and your credentials down the road to his competitors…and mean it.

From your law school education, the learned ability to speak, analyze, organize, work harder and smarter, handle a multitude of non-related tasks, problem solving, etc exponentially, which is demonstrable in your work ethic initially and especially honed over time, will promote you to levels of success which will be limited only by your desire.

78 Sara February 28, 2012 at 7:39 am

Great article! I was completely focused on going to law school when I was an undergraduate. Thank god I decided to work in law firms doing admin work before I made the jump, otherwise I would have blown at least 100k on a career I would have hated. If you think you want to go to law school, GET A JOB AS A CLERK/PARALEGAL/LEGAL SECRETARY FIRST!!

79 Carlos February 28, 2012 at 8:13 am

Where was this two years ago, Brett? Man, I could’ve used it then! It’s funny, I was actually thinking as I was sitting in my Oil & Gas class yesterday that I wished I had worked for at least a year after undergrad so I could have more to put on my resume. I’m a 2L in a Fourth-Tier school (that’s right, FOURTH) which should be a badge of shame signifying a life of joblessness. However, graduates of my program are still getting jobs. It’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile is. Sometimes the jobs are in tiny counties in the middle of nowhere, but they are there.

80 Brian February 28, 2012 at 8:54 am

Great article. I’m not a lawyer and never had much to do with them, but I have worked in engineering and had to deal with all kinds of engineers who could have been in a more suitable careeer if they had known more about the job befor they comitted themselves.
It would be a great service to mankind it post similar insights for engineering, medicine, architecture and other professions and careers.

81 Andy February 28, 2012 at 9:08 am

Great post – I think this could be a whole series on different career/life paths. I’m finishing up medical school right now and could write a similar evaluation of the question “should I go to medical school,” because as you mentioned early in your post, not everyone who is considering law/medical/____ school knows what he is getting himself into.

82 Carlos February 28, 2012 at 9:19 am

Here’s something else I would like to add to my comment above. If someone is on the fence with law school, I recommend checking out information on the state bar website of any state where you would like to practice. The state bar of Texas has amassed a large amount information about the licensed attorneys in the state and their practice areas. They also have some nifty statistics on market saturation. For example, Austin has a ratio of 1 attorney for every 114 residents in the county, which is ridiculous. Don’t go to Austin. El Paso, on the other hand, has a ratio of 1 attorney for every 800 or so residents in the county. If you really want to go to law school, be smart about it. Don’t go to California or the Northeast where Top 10 schools are churning out qualified graduates every year. You have to make yourself as marketable as you can. If you’re still in undergrad, pick a major that’s challenging and different. There are too many English, Philosophy, Political Science and History majors in law school, and as someone who graduated in the humanities, I really don’t think it has given me that much more of an advantage as people told me it would. Be smart about deciding to go to law school.

83 Bryce February 28, 2012 at 9:28 am

I am not a lawyer or law school student/graduate, nor do I play one on TV. That being said, I know a lot of people who are lawyers and who went to law school. From their experience, I’ve seen this:

Although the pay is a LOT less, the hours, working conditions, and overall level of stress and the feeling you’re making a difference is greater when you work for a non-profit, government agency, or in-house counsel. A lot of other lawyers out there know this, though, so competition is greater. Your chances are much better if you went to a Top 10 school.

Making partner in a firm
depends not only on your skill as a lawyer, but also your skills as a rainmaker and schmoozer, and your politicking skills.

I have known a lot of lawyers who have found jobs, but quite a few of these jobs are law clerks in rural counties that pay $35-50K a year. True, the cost of living is lower, but you still have those big loan bills.

Some reasons why law is stressful are that you’ll find quite a few people in law who are perfectionists and, for lack of a better word, “retentive” types. In addition, you’ll often interact with people who are at their worst: people accused of crimes, people involved in lawsuits, people trying to solve disputes, etc. and a lot of law involves taking things away from people, such as their money, property, freedom, and even lives (if you’re prosecuting/defending a first degree homicide case, for example).

There can be quite a bit of unethical behavior in the law, from filing frivolous lawsuits to acquitting someone who’s obviously guilty to finding loopholes. Most lawyers are honest, ethical people…but lots aren’t, and honesty often goes unrewarded while the crooks make out…and then there’s that whole financial pressure thing to worry about.

84 Tim February 28, 2012 at 9:31 am

Good column. One tip I would add for anyone considering law school, and in particular anyone who thinks they will end up at a firm, is to attend a school that 1) has a strong enough national reputation that it won’t matter where you practice, or 2) is well-reputed in the place you want to practice/live. In undergrad you have more liberty to use college as a chance to live in another part of the country for a little while. Don’t do that in law school. If you want to practice in say, Oklahoma, unless you’re attending a top 20 school, you may have better luck landing a job by attending OU or Univ. of Tulsa (nevermind the rankings, except for top 20) than a law school that won’t have a strong reputation in the area. Keep in mind that wherever you land your first job, you’ll need to take that state’s bar exam. Unlike many other jobs, as a lawyer you can’t easily pack up and start practicing in another state (at least early in your career). You have to take the bar exam of whatever state you want to practice in. The bar exam isn’t a nightmare, but most people wouldn’t say it’s a blast either.

Also, at a firm, you’ll eventually need to bring in business, so having contacts (particularly outside of law, and preferably in business) will be important. Think about the people you know that could possibly be clients of yours one day, and where they live. In sum, consider attending a law school that has a strong reputation in a place where you want to live and either have contacts or think you can develop them.

85 Karen February 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

Terrific article. Thank you for an answer that I was thinking about for years. Sometimes the grass is always greener. I work as a mom, Flight attendant, and Realtor. I may just take a law class for fun, or rent a few good books from the library. Does anyone have a favorite class that they enjoyed taking? Thanks again.

86 Steven Carpenter February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am

Anybody have any underdog stories; you know, the typical undergraduate slacker with a 2.4 but then astonishes those when in law school?

87 Mike February 28, 2012 at 10:02 am

I’m not a lawyer, but I did spend a boatload of money on an mba, so I can relate to some degree. Having said that, I will say that if your employer pays for your mba, get it. If you’re funding it on your own, think again.

For an mba, it’s required for a career in banking, consulting, and kind of required in cpg (consumer packaged goods), but outside of those 3 fields, you can probably skip it.

Further, even within those fields, you can probably work around having to get one, or, as I mentioned above, get your employer to pay.

If you want to do anything else, the mba really isn’t needed. I went to a school that’s very well known for entrepreneurship, and I started a company, but looking back on it, I really didn’t need the degree, nor do I need the debt (which I’m still trying to pay back).

One final caveat, if you’re thinking, “well, ok, maybe I won’t get a JD, maybe I’ll just get an mba instead.” Do. Not. Do. It.

There are even more mbas than lawyers, if you don’t go to one of the top 30 schools, it’s a worthless degree (it’s not really worthless, I mean, you do learn valuable skills, but no companies are fighting over Boise State mbas (my apologies to any Boise State mbas who might be reading this, but if you have an mba from Harvard or Northwestern, that might open doors for you, if you have a degree from a lesser school or a school with a less recognized name, you might as well not even have the mba, seriously).

If you want to be successful in business, get promoted. If you’re in a job you don’t like and would like to change careers, just change careers, and start at the bottom, you’ll have an opportunity to really get to know the business from the ground up, and you’ll do it without a ton of debt, which will limit where you can live, and what salary you can handle.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, work for a startup, in sales, start a company, or buy a company. An mba will do nothing to mitigate your risk, and the options listed above will get you to your goal faster, help you build a network (hugely important), and are . . . fun.

That’s just my rant, but if people on this thread decide that the mba might be better, I’d say, seriously reconsider.

88 Steven Carpenter February 28, 2012 at 10:06 am

As mentioned before, there are plenty of fields to get into that involve law but don’t require a JD. Finance is a case in point. We have all these dam laws but we can’t seem to have an intelligent system to finance all these programs and rules. Policy is also a field many JD prospects should consider.

But again, as mentioned before, get some experience. I may have a low undergrad GPA but I have a ton of experience that looks great on my resume compared to 4.0 students. Now if only I could actually graduate on time.

89 Todd G February 28, 2012 at 10:08 am

Brett -
I think you article is very accurate and anyone looking to go to law school needs to read it very carefully. I graduated a top 25 law school in 1999 and graduated in the top half of my class. In 1999 the job market was bad, but nothing like it is today. I worked for a large firm in a smaller market for a while and eventually got tired of the long hours and dealing with terrible partners. The work was mind numbing and I cringe at the thought. I moved to a few smaller firms before I realized that I just hate law firm life and opened up my own practice about 6 yrs ago. I went to a private law school and have the debt to show for it. After 10+ yrs it doesn’t even look like I made a dent. I like working for myself much more but it is hard as hell to make ends meet. Getting clients, getting them to pay you, marketing, admin, and actually doing with work is an awful lot on my to do list every day. I am now at the point where I am considering getting out of law altogether . . . I can’t imagine spending the rest of my career doing this. If only I knew what to do next . . . You are 100% right when you state that a JD actually makes it more difficult to get a job outside the law. You either have experience in the field or you are entry level. No one wants to hire a lawyer who has been practicing for 10+ yrs for an entry level job (not that I could afford to take it even if I wanted to). As for the legal job market itself, it is pretty bad right now. I have lawyers come to me all the time looking for a job. The lawyers have a license and have been out for a few years and often are willing to work for me for free or $10/hr just for experience. My babysitter earns more. I hate to sound so negative, but I really can’t see any reason to go to law school right now. If I could go back in time I would have made different choices. I am not bitter, but I am jaded and have been doing this for over 10+ yrs with little satisfaction.

Brett, thank you for the excellent article!

90 Alex February 28, 2012 at 10:54 am

Great–and timely!–article, Brett! And here is my comment: No! Dear God, no! Don’t go to law school! If I can convince at least one person considering going to law school to not go, then, and only then, will my legal education be worth it.

I went to law school for one of the reasons Brett pointed out as a no-no: I didn’t know what to do with my life. I come from a successful family with many professionals, and I was never encouraged to be enterpreneurial and to strike out on my own but to take the safe, risk-averse path (how lawyerly!). Law school was always suggested as the post-undergraduate career path, and I never questioned why I needed more school. So I enrolled in law school in Boston in 2006 and graduated in 2009. Worst decision I ever made.

Brett left out some points in his article. If you enjoy:
- Dealing with smarmy, socially awkward know-it-alls;
- Spending inordinate amount of time driving and waiting (things you will do if you do any type of litigation);
- Getting stiffed by clients;
- Poring over boring documents trying to decipher the hidden meanings in what you thought were normal English words;
- Playing “Gotcha!” games with other attorneys;
- Trying to guess how vaguely written laws and regulations will affect your client’s itnerests;
Then law school is for you!

My biggest problem with the profession is that it’s all shifting words; there is nothing substantial about it, nothing real. You are not building anything, you are not dealing with objective reality, you are not creating anything useful. You are trying to convince people that 2 + 2 = 5, while your opponent is trying to convince them that 2+ 2 = 6. You become a mouthpiece, a professional B.S.-artist who says anything the client wants you to. It is a meretricious profession. If that doesn’t bother you, then I guess you should be a lawyer. There is a reason all of those lawyer stereotypes exist: they’re true.

And let me tell you, if you want to try to get a non-law job, you’re out of luck. Do not buy the B.S. that a JD opens so many doors. It does not. It closes all others. If you don’t think law is what you want to do, drop out of law school. I sure wish I did.

Now, this is all my personal experience, so take it as you will. And yes, I know that all of my problems are self-inflicted. But I am thankful that I at least have a job (though it took a full year out of law school to get one), and there are an awful lot of nice people who are lawyers. If my boss and my co-workers weren’t so awesome, I’d have thrown my license in the garbage long ago. But you really need to be a certain “type” to enjoy this line of work. If you have any second doubts whatsoever, or if anything I or the other anti-law-school commentators say rings true, don’t go! Do not tough it out in the hopes that you will feel different, because you won’t.

91 Steven Feder February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am

I am attorney of over 25 years’ experience, practicing as a partner in a small law firm in upstate NY. Most of what Brett says is right on the money.

There is some fallout that is occuring as a resdult of these economic times–times that leave formerly employed big-firm associates and newly graduated/newly licensed attorneys out of work.

They move home, to Mom and Dad’s. The NY City associate position is gone, and they can’t afford to stay in NY City, So they go home.

Then they hang out a shingle, having not the first idea of how to practice law. Why? Because as a megafirmj associate, they wern’t taught any of that. They may know, say, everything about municipal bond funding, but that’s not coming their way in a solo practice. Their experience level and readiness to handle a solo practice, sadly, is about the same as a newly admitted attorney’s.

At a reception following a recent swearing-in ceremony of new attorneys in this area, the group was asked, “how many of you are going into solo practice?”

Three-quarterrs of them raised their hands.

Wow.

Now, we used to have an internship system of sorts for attorneys. It wasn’t the formal process that young doctors go through, but it was there nonetheless: we all worked for other more experienced attorneys, and learned how to practice law, and how to run a practice (really, run a unique kind of small business). Later on, perhaps the no-longer-inexperienced attorney would go into solo practice, but by the tiome they did, they were competent and ready.

Now? Not so much.

That system is badly broken, because there are no more jobs out there. As a result, we are seeing an alarming increase in errors and omissions by these young solo practitioners. Some of them are serious enough to get them suspended, disbarred, or otherwise disciplined. I’m handling a case right now that was started by such a young attorney, on his own, in solo practice, never worked for anyone else. The situation is horrific, and was entirely avoidable at several points along the way to the disaster that ultimately landed on my doorstep. Fortunately, I was able to obtain court relief and restore the client to the place they should have been before their first attorney made such a mess of things, but it was by no means a sure thing, and it cost money. A LOT of money. Money the client never should have had to spend.

It’s a very difficult thing to explain to a client that this could happen to him while represented by someone with a law license. As an attorney, it’s not fun to tell someone that a law degree and a license to practice, standing alone, are not necessarily deserving of a client’s confidence.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: why not sue that young attorney for malpractice? Well, the client can do so…but many of these youjng lawyers have no malpractice insurance and no real assets. They’re judgment-proof. Suing someone when you have little prospect of collecting a judgment against them merely throws good money after bad.

The solution, I think, will be a more extensive mentoring program through the Bar Association. It had bettrer happen soon, though; a judge’s Law Clerk told me recently that they are seeing “more and more of this”.

So it’s not just the legal profession’s problem. It’s potentially the client’s problem, too.

92 Ben February 28, 2012 at 11:41 am

No one should go to law school. There are too many lawyers as it is. One of the big problems with this country is that people are LOOKING to sue someone else. I got in a car accident and was injured pretty bad, I spent a couple nights in the hospital. The doctor told me I would make a full recovery and that is mostly true. I was shocked how many people asked me if I was going to sue the people (it was their fault). There is a need for lawyers, but not to the extent that we have today.

93 Wag February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am

Wow. This article and all of the comments are a HUGE eye-opener for me.

I’m 46 and (*finally*) finishing up a 4-year degree. I have been weighing whether or not I want to continue and get an MBA or go to law school or even, horror of horrors, both. Several years ago, a beloved mentor impressed me beyond belief with his acumen in business and law. Coincidentally, he has a law degree and an MBA in finance. He pointed out that they go very well together and coupling the two degrees has benefitted him a great deal.

He made me consider the value of combining the two and I’ve had this notion of doing the same for quite some time now.

I’ve been feeling that this idea combined with my inherent love of reading and writing, even legal “stuff,” might be a great way for me to go. Believe it or not, I like to read legal stuff, even the dense print of contracts and real estate paperwork. I catch the mistakes of attorneys on a regular basis by reading their documentation and have to make them correct things. (None of the fine commentators above, I’m sure!)

Now, however, I realize I need to take a very close second look because I realize I’ve committed a cardinal sin: That of wanting to do the law + business degree because of the lure of a fat paycheck. Now, I realize, that this isn’t a good motivation for the pain of law school. I realize I’m not passionate about it. “Liking” it is most likely not enough.

Whereas a little while ago I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, now I’m wholly unsure. In point of fact, though, I’m glad my little fantasy train has been wrecked because now I’m being forced to rethink and to determine where my passions really lie and how to really get there.

And I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.

To Brett and all commentators above, I thank you.

–Wag–

94 tannerherriott February 28, 2012 at 11:52 am

Perfect timing for this post. Thanks.

95 Greg Byrd February 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

I am an attorney practicing in Ocean Grove, NJ. I agree with everything that Bret said in this well-written post. Here are a few simple suggestions I give to people contemplating law school:
1. If you have a satisfying job that pays the bills, keep it. Spending three years at your current job will probably put you in a better place then you would be fresh out of law school.
2. If you can’t hack it any field and need to go back to school because you can’t find a job, don’t go to law school. If you can’t make it as a teacher or whatever you are currently doing, you will fail in law school. It is a lot harder than you can imagine.
3. Do not go to law school right out of college. You need some real world experience to be valuable as an attorney. On the same note DO NOT major in Pre-Law/Government/Political Science, etc. Even if you are certain that you are going to be a lawyer (see point 4, below) get a real degree (read: Engineering). It will not only give you an out in case law school doesn’t work for you, it will give you a huge advantage in law school and in the legal market.
I didn’t know this going into law school, but there is a large (and lucrative) area of law in which only people with Engineering or Science degrees can even work.
Who do you think has the advantage in a tax law class, a poly sci major or an accounting major? If you must have a liberal arts major I found that my math degree prepared me very well both for the LSAT and the intense logic of law school. I assume a philosophy would as well.
4. Who do I think should go to law school? If you already have a job waiting for you (Your mother/father/uncle etc. is a partner in a law firm) and you know what the job is like and you think that it is for you, first do something else. Get the real world experience. If your dad has a small real estate practice, work for a title company for a couple of years. Get some experience, if you still think that you would rather take over the family farm then by all means go to law school.
Also, if you are successful in a particular career that could become a great specialized legal career, then go to law school. For example, if you are a successful corporate accountant and know that you would make a great tax lawyer, go to law school. Your experience and contacts will keep you above the throng of law grads who went to law school straight out of college and have nothing to offer.

I would be happy to talk to people, especially those in the Central Jersey area, who are contemplating this decision.

Finally, I don’t regret going to law school, I love my current job, but I was always very close to ending up in the substantial minority of my peers who are unemployed or doing a job that is not satisfying.

Greg Byrd- gregorykbyrd@gmail.com

96 Bill February 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Excellent post. I went to law school when it only cost $10,000 a year, and bless his soul my father cut a check to pay off my loans when I graduated. I spent six years in the Navy JAG which was pretty fun, and I have been in private practice for 16 years. Making a living is tough, I feel so bad for the young people coming out of law school. They don’t tell them that a law degree does not teach anyone how to practice law. They don’t tell them that your career is going to consist of taking other people’s worst worries and fears and making them your own. I would never let my boys go to law school. I am spending my free time these days volunteering at the court as a fill in traffic court judge in hopes that when the full time guy retires I can snag his job. I can’t remember what it was like to go home at the end of the day and not have to worry about some other person’s problems!

97 AB February 28, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I am NGO lawyer in Bratislava, Slovakia and except student debt, situation is esentially same here in Europe. But I must admit that at least in Slovakia, law is from all humanities the best option. And do I regret attending the law school? Some choices can be done only once, for good or bad. It is useless to think about again…

98 Andy February 28, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Great article. When I was a senior in college I applied to law schools and got rejected by every one. Turned out to be a blessing. I am about three weeks from graduating with an MA in International Security from the University of Denver. Loved my time here. While it was expensive, they encouraged me to think differently, while law school forces you to think one way (which is good and important for law).

Being a lawyer isn’t the most important thing. Study what you enjoy and don’t know much about. That will prepare you well for success.

99 Erick Widman February 28, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I’d like to add in a positive for the practice of law: being in-house counsel. I did this for about five years at a tech company in Silicon Valley and loved it. I negotiated sales contracts with companies like Sony and Nokia and advised engineers and the purchasing department on liability and confidentiality issues. Most importantly, I felt like I was adding real value to a business that was creating great products.

Overall I’m glad I went to law school and it opened doors like being able to teach at a college in Hungary for a year. But my lawyer friends who have been involved in litigation work have been doing their best to get out.

The two best areas for practicing law are: in-house counsel and public interest work.

100 Henry Evans February 28, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Brett,
Thank you for the post. When I entered law school, I was lucky. I discerned these challenges before I entered. If one is aware of the inherent challenges that law school and the practice create, the one-will become an effective attorney. Otherwise, the person entering the professional may leave the profession either voluntarily or involuntarily. Being aware of these factors: 1. low pay 2. long hours 3. prone to alcoholism 4. prone to depression and perhaps career dissatisfaction prepared me. From the preparation I am to discern to the law and and to watch my mental, physical, inter and intra personal communication and financial position. This is easier to write than it is to live. I, like many reading this blog, created my own firm out of necessity, I do know every day that my associate and I are making a positive difference in people’s lives. It is a blog like yours that enable all attorneys (female ones too) and other people to find and discover the perspective on to practice and live positively. Brett, thanks for looking out for your fellow attorneys!

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