Saturday, March 2, 2013

Go to Law School, or Not

I got a request from a blog reader to write about the most recent in what seems like a long stream of articles about Why You Should Not Go To Law School. I thought this particular one made a few good points, particularly on reason #1 why not to go to law school, though it should be noted that the author never actually practiced law.

For my part, I love being a lawyer. I really do. I love reading, I love thinking, I love writing. I love being paid to read and think and write and being rewarded for doing it as clearly and analytically as possible. I loved school my whole life, I loved every subject I ever took and I did equally well in all of them (except physics, my brain is fundamentally incapable of understanding physics, which I always found ironic everything we do is governed by it, but I digress), and I sometimes wonder if I should or could have done something else. But any time I think about the "what ifs," I remember what I just wrote- that I get paid to read and think and write and to do it all as practically and clearly and analytically as possible. There is truly no better combination of my love of reading and writing and my inability to think outside the realistic and practical box I live in (which is why I could never have been a true liberal arts major and was a Plan II biology/philosophy + a lot of math classes major instead). I think I had some of that in my head when I applied to law school, but it wasn't nearly that defined.

As I wrote when I posted the Huffington Post article on facebook, "I love being a lawyer and it's a career that's been good to me so far, but there is way too much truth in this post not to share." That's still my review of the article generally, but since I haven't read it again since I skimmed it on facebook a couple weeks ago, I'll take each of his 6 reasons not to go to law school and add some commentary of my own:

1. I like arguing and everyone says I'm good at it.

This is a stupid reason to go to law school. First of all, arguing is a stupid thing to like. Who likes arguing? Debating, sure, but arguing- to me that just means you didn't grow up enough after about 5th grade when you're supposed to start learning that you don't just insult someone when you disagree with them. And even if we pretend like "arguing" is the same thing as intelligent debate, lawyers don't spend a lot of time doing it. As a transactional attorney you will spend almost no time doing it- you negotiate, you push for your client's goals in whatever deal you're working on, and you spend a ton of time reading and editing form deal documents. (For the record, I hated being a transactional attorney.) But even as a big law litigator, you still don't spend much time arguing. You read a LOT, you research and read more, you write, and you persuade and advocate through your writing. You argue in person before a judge almost never, but even when you get to do that, you're not really arguing. You're advocating your client's position, presenting the facts and law in a way that is most favorable to you. You're listening and adjusting and persuading. To do your job well you area always ALWAYS more analytical than argumentative. Incidentally, this is also the more successful approach when "debating" with anyone, including your spouse.

2. I want to be like Jack McCoy from Law & Order [or insert your favorite legal TV show character].

I don't have much comment on this one except that it's clearly another dumb reason. I've never seen Law & Order and I avoid legal type dramas on TV, in books, and in the movies because they either annoy or bore me. There was a show on some network a few years ago about junior associates in a large law firm that was supposed to be more realistic- "The Deep End" or something like that, and it was terrible. It was by turns either boring or unrealistic. I enjoyed being a junior associate more than the average person, and there were times I truly genuinely loved being a junior associate, and even then I could not describe my job to my parents or to JP in a way they found very interesting. If I can't do that for my loved ones, there's no way any TV show can really show what lawyers actually do and get good ratings from the masses, so they make stuff up, as they have license to do, and pretty much everyone is the happier for it.

So, talk to lawyers, talk to junior associates, talk to recent graduates from your law school to find out what they really do. But round up a little on the enjoyment factor- cases are always more interesting when you're actually involved in them than when you're just hearing about the assignments outside of the bigger picture (a large portion of which is privileged and can't be shared).

3. It's the only way I can use my humanities degree.

False. I have no stats for you, but I'm pretty sure that's false. Don't get $150,000 into debt because you're out of ideas. If you really don't think you can use your humanities degree, it would be far more cost effective to simply change your undergrad degree to engineering or computer science or nursing and spend 3 more years where you are.

4. I want to change the world/help homeless people/rescue stray kittens/do something noble.

This can be a good reason, a very good reason, but you need to know a lot more about what it is you want to do and what your financial situation is going to be right before you do it. Be practical about it- learn a little something about getting a job in public interest- it's hard, it's not like they just hand those jobs out- learn about the job, learn about the pay, and learn about your potential school's loan repayment programs. And then, once you've learned all those things and you decide to go anyway, hold strong. If you are really passionate about public interest, odds are you will be substantially less passionate about being a first year at any law firm in the top 100. It's a lot of fun to enjoy what you do and you might be the rare person who knows what that would be- hold on to that during OCI. Also, if you're really passionate about a cause, there are lots of other ways you can work for it, both directly and indirectly, that don't involve having a JD, so explore that too.

5. I don't know what else to do.

See #3. That $150,000-200,000 you're now in debt means that you will have to do this thing you've apparently randomly selected for a very long time after you're done learning these expensive things that will have little practical applicability to what you're about to go do for a long time.

6. I want to make a lot of money.

I don't know what to say about this one. Starting salary for a 1st year in Big Law is $160,000/year. It goes up from there topping $200k about 3-4 years in, depending on your firm's bonus structure and if you have the hours to earn one. 2,000 hours is the usual standard, and let me tell you, 2,000 hours blows. It requires long periods of utter misery. It's not 2,000 hours worked, it's 2,000 hours billed directly to a client. Meetings, writing article, some travel, training, firm events, entering time, spending 30 damn minutes to clean the mountain of papers off your desk- none of this is billable. You're at work, you're not with your family, you're working, but none of it helps you get to 2,000. Want to know what does? Nights and weekends, lots of them. But everyone already knows that, and it is precisely what you're paid that "lot of money" for. So, knowing that, and knowing you have up to $2,000/month of law school loans you're repaying, you have to decide if it's worth it to you. You also have to keep in mind that there are very few of those high paying jobs, there are a TON of law school graduates every year, and you will only last in that job for an average of 4 years before you inevitably can't stand it anymore and leave to go make much less money somewhere else. For the average graduate of a top law school, it will take a long time to ever again make as much or more than you did in your first few years out. It's a strange path. So, this isn't a good enough reason. I made more than JP when I was at the firm and he was at Big Co, but the payments on my loans are 3x his and I was out for 3 years for grad school while he was out for 2. After all that I suppose I still made a little more, but not much, not enough to make someone who doesn't have a better reason to go to law school go to law school. Don't let this be your reason.

I wrote on this topic two years ago too, but the truth is, no one call tell you if you should go to or not, and no one really should. I didn't go for any of the reasons above, but I'm not sure mine were any better. I enjoyed law school quite a lot, particularly once I survived 1L year, and I wouldn't change my decision to go even if you'd erase my loans for doing it. I like being a lawyer quite a lot too. I like being able to speak a language and understand a system that seems mysterious to many. I like explaining that process to others. My career so far has been hard and rewarding as I think one can expect any fledgling career to be, which of course means many days it was only hard and not rewarding and many other days it was not hard and rewarding only if you are someone who gets a genuine thrill from creating charts and tagging a million documents in a certain orderly way. Lucky for me, I am one of those people. I like being a lawyer and economy notwithstanding it's worked out for me so far (yet another reason why law hasn't worked out for everyone, even those who do really like it).

So I'm glad I went to law school and if you think you should go, don't let all the recent articles stop you. If you're not sure, read the HuffPo article- read all the articles, talk to others, learn more, and really try to think of other things you could spend your time and money on and then explore those too. Though really, that's the sort of analysis you should do for any kind of career path that involves grad school, law school is just getting the sharp focus right now (which, for the record, I don't think is bad, as long as you take all the articles, including mine, as part of a wide collection of thought, and with a big grain of salt).


  1. I found this Tucker Max post quite frustrating- partly because it is an exact copy of a blog post he wrote a long while ago that had already done the facebook rounds. Also because it is overstated at most every part. But mainly because of #4, which is where I fall. I really appreciate your more thoughtful treatment of that point. As a public interest attorney doing exactly what I went to law school to do, I absolutely adore being an attorney and cannot imagine a better job.
    Yes, as you mention, such jobs are not easy to come by. But with perseverance and dedication jobs are to be found. And, as you mention, there are fantastic loan repayment options these days. I'm not making a ton (although much more than Max suggests) but nor do I have a single dollar of loan repayment to worry about.
    Caution is appropriate, but the level of discouragement in Max's piece was inappropriate and annoyingly condescending.
    Thank you for being more thoughtful.

    1. Well, as someone who wants nothing more than to be a public interest attorney but CAN'T GET HIRED BECAUSE PUBLIC INTEREST GROUPS DON'T HAVE MONEY TO PAY ATTORNEYS, I have to side with Tucker Max on this one. When I went to law school I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I knew I wouldn't make a ton of money doing it, but there's a difference between "not making a ton of money" and "28 years old and still borrowing money from your parents to buy groceries".

    2. I didn't even mention this in my response below: I've seen too many friends end up in cruddy jobs to really be able to support other people attending at this point. It took several friends quite awhile to find a job at all. Ugh.

  2. A lot of people analogize lawyering (advocating for your client) to boxing. It is much more like Chess. Slow. Slightly boring at times. And much more strategy required. There are fun tasks and there are not so fun tasks. Overall, I absolutely love it-- litigation that it. I do not think I would be cut out for any other kind of law. There are so many types of lawyers out there that it is hard to generalize the profession and so much harder to give advice to someone else. And lawschool is so different than practicing law! I agree with your advice...make an informed decision. Talk to junior associates and lawyers fresh out of lawschool.

  3. Ugh, Tucker, what a waste of space/premium debt-free education. Now that he's gotten too old for the drunken whoring schtick, he's rebranding himself as some sort of reformed life-coach for wayward souls, blaming his past drinking and whoring on his sad childhood. Bitch, please. Also, anyone from Lexington who goes to Duke just sucks, and his opinion should be immediately disregarded.

    LL, I think you've made really good career choices based on your interests and talents. I could never do the kind of work you do (or that Magic Cookie does), because, geez, I am so not that smart. Then again, I couldn't have gotten into Chicago, Harvard, etc., either! It's important to be self-aware and understand your interests and your personal limitations when making these sorts of major life decisions. Sometimes it takes just a little bit of luck too to find the right path.

  4. Like most everyone who goes to law school, I was great at school and liked all the right topics. I was in the top of my class in law school but I really didn't like it other than a handful of classes and the satisfaction of mastering tough topics. I guess I am glad I went because a lot of good things happened because of my circumstances at the time. I practiced in a small firm because of the lifestyle. I hated litigation except the court part. Court rarely happened. Most of the time I sat at my computer researching and trying to figure out how in the heck I was going to write some long, boring document (sorry for errors, on phone). I did a long legal internship before law school and clerked during school, so I even knew what I was getting into. I found it difficult to advocate when I disagreed with my clients. I didn't like being a part of a resolution that left someone out of money. I did business, banking, employment stuff for the most part under partners and only had a few of my own cases. It wasn't all bad, but it wasn'tfor me. Took me a few years to figure it out because I felt like I was letting myself and others down. I hated to lose my attorney title and to "waste" the degree. Anyway, I am using my degree I'm a non-traditional way and am way happier. All that said, I don't recommend law school to people. Most people probably shouldn't go. It's expensive. It eats up your life for three years. It can be miserable for a lot of people. Many attributes know don't realty enjoy the lifestyle or the practice after awhile. Some do. So many people go to law school who shouldn't. There are so many other ways to save the world for most people without the costs (socially, emotionally, financially). I encourage people to intern and ask a lot of questions before going and to figure out finances (get a picture of what income will be and what loans will look like). I am also not sold on top schools for everyone. For what it's worth, thanks to some scholarships, I graduated with 36k in debt, but only made 45k to start in the Midwest at a small firm. Few billable hours, but hated billables nonetheless.

    1. "many attributes" = "many attorneys I"

      P.s. I am happy for people who go and enjoy it and practicing, as you do, LL

  5. This is fascinating. (I'm so glad I didn't go to law school. Even though reading, writing and thinking is within my realm of skills.)

  6. Thanks so much for your thoughts on this!