Sunday, December 7, 2008

Law School Advice

In the past month I've had two friends (really, younger siblings of friends, but I like to think we're old enough to all be friends now) ask me for advice on law school. And since I was already sharing my wisdom, I thought I'd write it here for other people to add their own. My points will all be a bit superficial- there's a nuance to these questions that an email can't reach and everyone's situation is unique, but for what they're worth, here's my thoughts on law school.

1. Go to the best school you get in to. I can't emphasize this enough. Prior to starting law school, I had no idea how much rank mattered in the legal profession. It was only because I was under the delusion I wanted to be a law professor that I restricted my applications to the top 10 schools (and I only knew to do that because my thesis advisor told me it was necessary). And now, even with $140,000 in loans, I'm so glad I wasn't swayed by the promise of scholarships at lower ranked schools. A first year attorney at a top law firm makes $160,000 a year, but that doesn't do any good if you don't have a job. Of course there are plenty of people at non-top 10 schools who get great firm jobs, you just have to be at the top of your class and/or on law review (or know someone or be really lucky). The higher the rank of your school the less grades matter. This is wonderful because as far as I can tell, much of law school grading is completely random and it's nice to not have your future employment depend on what number your professor decides to throw at the top of your exam.

2. Ask about OCI before you pick a school. This is an extension of the first, but getting a job after law school is supposed to be the reason you're there in the first place. OCI stands for "on campus interviews" and it's the process where a bunch of firms descend on campus for short screening interviews of potential candidates. The ones they like are then flown back to the firm's office for more in-depth interviews (called a "callback" or "flyback." They also usually involve a night at a fancy hotel and a lunch or dinner where everyone pretends to be relaxed you're really still being interviewed. Do not forget this.) I think that at most schools the firms have a say in who they interview at the OCI stage, but at UChicago they do not. We "bid" for interview spots, but it's based on luck and I don't know a single person who didn't end up interviewing with a firm they wanted (most firms add extra spots if there's more interest than anticipated). Firms get our resumes in advance but don't get our transcripts until the interview itself, which means regardless of your grades you get a chance to charm them. UChicago should advertise this more because it really is a huge draw for that school (whereas the quarter system, in my opinion, is a huge drawback). Another plus is that we are not ranked, we are told not to put our GPA (which is never calculated anyway) on our resumes, and our grading system makes no sense.

3. Think about whether or not you really want to be a lawyer. Are you really just trying to stay in school a few more years? Law school is an expensive and stressful way to spend three years of your life if you don't want to make use of your J.D. once you're done. I know there are people working outside the legal profession who would say that law school was an important part of their career path, and I can understand that completely- I may even be one of those people one day. But in general, you're going to be doing something law-related and it's nice if you think you'll like it. And it's completely possible that you can love law school and hate practicing law or hate law school and love practicing law. I'm not sure one has much to do with the other.

4. Mind your debt. I may think it was worth taking on my loans to get that $160,000 job rather than have less debt and no job at all, but that doesn't mean they don't bother me (or haunt me, depending on the day). So remember that student debt is something you have to pay back, with interest. Don't try to keep up with high-spending friends, it'll be worth it when your debt is paid off before theirs.

5. Believe in yourself. That sounds cheesy but I spent my first year of law school overwhelmed by the intelligence and study habits of the people around me. I'm a last minute studier, it's just the way I work. Trying to be like everyone else starting months before exams and making 100 page outlines only made me more stressed and produced my lowest grades. By 2L I trusted myself and my 1-page summary outline worked much better for me than any hyperlinked 100-page all-inclusive bible of legal precedent (all of our exams were open-note, open-book, probably another good thing to ask about before enrolling). You got in wherever you got in for a reason. Yes law school is very hard and you will probably have to work harder than you ever did before, but that does not mean you have to completely abandon the methods that got you there. This also applies to study groups- if you didn't like them before, don't feel like you have to pretend to like them now. I love people, I study alone.

That's it for now. As I said, I know these points aren't universally applicable. There are good reasons to go to less expensive, lower ranked schools, especially if you know what you want to do post-law school and know you will have a way to do it. I've just had friends take the scholarships and graduate jobless and regret their short-term decision. The extent to which law school rank matters (even within the top 10) was shocking to me. I'm not defending the system, there are fantastic future lawyers at schools outside of the top tier, but I think it's important to know about. And even if it isn't a factor in your school decision, it might be for things like whether or not to try for law review or other activities.

And now I'm going to bed. JP's finals start tomorrow so it's just Landon and me every night this week and I'm tired just thinking about it.


  1. also, for those looking for more, the book "law school confidential" is basically a more expanded version of this advice ...

    dude, my word verification came up "dulnes" - what does this say about me?

  2. I totally agree with you on go to a good school. I got lucky in that the only school I applied to was a pretty good school, because I would've ended up here regardless. I think geography is another big factor - if you go to a top school, you can probably get a job anywhere, especially if you do well there, but if, for example, you want to work in Texas and don't go to school in Texas or at a top school, I think it would be a heck of a lot harder to get a job here.

    Find out about the atmosphere at the different schools. For example, UT and Chicago are about as different as it gets in terms of study habits and general atmosphere.

    Your entire life 1L does not have to (and should not) be law school. It's ok to do law school activities 1L year (I hate that people told me not to) and it's good to have friends outside of school.

    Even though you didn't, I highly recommend working before law school. It helps you be sure you know you want to go, and I know it has helped many people separate themselves when it came time to get a job. If you get the best grades or go to a very top school, this is less important, but it helps so much if you aren't on law review or don't have amazing grades.

    There are so many things I wish I had known going in. I hope this is helpful to people.

  3. My law school advice is just don't go. I regret going to (and staying in) law school almost daily.

  4. Nine years ago, I quit law school after one semester. I had taken a partial scholarship at a lower ranked school, and it just wasn't a good fit. I didn't want to be a lawyer, and it seemed like a mistake to keep borrowing money for a degree I might not ever use. So I quit in a very irresponsible way: I took exams for the first semester without studying (still passed everything, though, which goes to show how random the grading really is) and just didn't show up for the second semester. I still cringe at how I left, and I can assure you that it was totally out-of-character for me.

    The experience helped me to clarify what my priorities really were, and luckily for me, my husband and I were on the same page. We have two children now, and I'm finishing up a master's degree in a subject I love so much that it doesn't even feel like work.

    The irony is that I'm thinking of going back to law school now that I am much more sure of myself and know exactly what I want to get out of it. I probably won't have the options I did when I was applying the first time around, but I'm not the clueless 21-year-old I was then, either.

    My only advice is to think about the big picture and follow your instincts. I had major reservations about starting law school when I did, but I plowed ahead because I didn't see any alternative. I would have been much better off working for a year or two, or making the necessary sacrifices to go to the top tier school.

  5. If you have a top 30 or better state school where you'll get in-state tuition, consider it. Lots of people will get those big firm jobs and there will be plenty of opportunity thru OCI. But if you'd like to clerk or do govt work, you'll be in a better position with only $60 K or so in debt.

  6. I went to a public law school that was regionally based and wish I had known what the "regional" part meant for law school job placement post-grad. I am happy my debt is manageable, but it's still kind of crazy when you don't have a guaranteed job right after and are struggling for over a year (I moved out of the "region").

    I will say that just having attended a young lawyer's networking in event in Austin, I was shocked by how many people there (even from such a high ranked school like UT) were still jobless. I thought that kind of thing was mostly concentrated on the Tier two grads, but apparently not.

    I've also had a few friends (one with an MBA!) recently ask me about going to law school, so I'm going to forward this on to her. I think I talked her out of it, but it wouldn't hurt to emphasize again the hierarchical nature that no one seems to know about before applying.

  7. Yes law school is very hard and you will probably have to work harder than you ever did before

    unless you were a math/science person in undergrad. Then it's a piece of cake. :)

  8. Great advice. Just two things to add: 1) if you think you want to be a lawyer, spend some time first trying to talk yourself out of it. 2) If you STILl want to go to lawschool, consider working for a year or two first. Even a couple of years "out there" gives some perspective (see#1) and also will make you a better job candidate and lawyer.

  9. Thanks to everyone for their advice, as a person, who is waiting to be accepted to law school, after being in the workforce for a couple of years, it's nice to hear some real life experience and advice from real students- something you can't get reading a law school brochure-

    I would have to say this. I know that rank matters, and it will help getting a job, but going to one of those schools is not always an option for everyone, so I would say as someone who passionately wants to go to law school- while school rank is very important, don't let the lack of access to one detour you, if law school is what you really want. It may be cliche, but a person can overcome anything- even a tier 2 law degree.

  10. I received two opposite pieces of advice when considering which school to attend: (1) go to the best school you get into, or (2) unless you get into Yale, go to the best school that gives you the best deal. Even though I didn’t apply to Yale, I followed the second suggestion. I turned down a number of top-10 schools to accept a full scholarship at a top-20 school. I don’t regret my decision for a moment. I was offered summer jobs at the top firms in DC (even though I have no ties to the area), and DC was a very tough market this year. More importantly, because I will graduate with no debt, I can afford to pursue a judicial clerkship, a DOJ Honor’s position, or a Skadden Fellowship. And if I decide this summer that big firm life is for me, then I can choose that, too. But I don’t HAVE to work at a big firm. Unlike most of my classmates, that decision wasn’t made for me the moment I chose to attend a private law school.

    Everyone says go to the best school you can. But they also say work in study groups, write outlines, do the write-on competition, do moot court, run for senior board of the journal, don’t talk about pro bono during OCI, apply for appellate clerkships because they are more prestigious than district clerkships, etc. At some point, you have to ask yourself how long you plan to stay in the rat race. At some point, you have to make decisions based on your own values, not those of the cut-throat profession.

  11. Just to be clear, I do not think a top 10 school or a top law firm are the right choices for everyone nor do I think everyone even wants them, my point is just to say that rank matters in the legal world. Can you overcome that? Of course. But it is harder and I think someone thinking about going to law school should know that.

    The two people who have asked for advice were single, seniors in college with the GPAs and LSAT scores to go just about anywhere. Even at U.T., a great top 20 school, people graduate without jobs, or at least without the jobs they want. Your class rank and activities (and contacts) matter a lot more. In my class at Chicago the only people who graduated with $160K/year jobs were those who didn't want them. I had no idea of the disparity until OCI kicked up and my friends at other schools (still top tier) faced a much more competitive and stressful few weeks than I did. Geography, work history, personality, etc. also play huge roles, but I think those are more obvious to the uninitiated.

  12. I think this is generally good advice, but as you acknowledge it is pretty focused on one particular avenue - working at a firm. If you are going to law school with a public interest career in mind then there is definitely a lot more to consider. Not only do you need to consider scholarships, and the schools LRAP program, but also you need to look at the public interest facilities the school has to offer. I know from experience that some of the top schools do not have separate public interest career departments, and while their OCI programs might be strong the public interest folks generally get left to the wayside.

    Having said that I think it is definitely easier to get a great public interest job by going to a top school, but among those schools there is a lot more to consider than OCI and rank.

  13. I'm a 1L at a Tier 2 school and I'd just echo what a lot of others have said. It IS important to go to the best school you can get into...for a lot of reasons. I didn't do that, but it was an educated choice. I knew what region I wanted to work in and focused my decision on which schools had the strongest reputation and strongest alumni base and recruitment in that region. I'm going to a school that will offer me the opportunity to work at a firm in the area, do public interest work, or work for the government...granted my grades are good :)
    Obviously if you go to a Top 10 school you'll stand out of the pack, but I know that a lot of great firms in our area will give a grad of my law school an interview with just as much interest as someone from a Top 10 school.

    I think that the main point of what everybody has said is that you have to really THINK about why you want to go to law school and THINK about where you want to be in 3 years. It's not enough to think about a year down the road, you have to think about where you want your JD to take you...otherwise you might find yourself miserable.

    One of the guys in my section dropped out last week. He was doing fine in class, and actually one of the brighter contributors to our discussions. But he realized that he DIDN'T WANT TO BE A LAWYER and figured, why go through finals hell if he doesn't want to do this?? The sad part is, in his words, if he had thought more about it he wouldn't still be stuck paying off $20,000 in loans for one semester of law school.

    SO, that's my advice - think long and hard, and then go where you fit best. I could have gone to a higher ranked school, but the atmosphere is amazing here and I love it. Oh, and check out the alumni connections...some schools are kind of iffy on including alumni in the law school happenings, but others are amazing. One regional alumni chapter here will find you housing and set you up with interviews pretty much anywhere you want in their area if you just make the effort - and they'll do it for anyone who's a student at my law school, just out of love or loyalty or whatever.

    Okay, world's largest blog comment OVER...back to studying for finals.

  14. I'm about to graduate -- summa cum laude -- from a low-tier school, and I can second the advice about getting into the best school you can. And if you do really well your first year at the low-tier school -- TRANSFER, TRANSFER, TRANSFER. Do not make the same mistake I made. I try to tell 1Ls at my school this all the time, but no one listens.

    Yes, I was very naive, I honestly thought I had a chance at a big-law job or even a mid-law job (the ones located in my city all did OCI at my school). But the top of the class was competing for only one or two spots. The ones who transferred? Got BigLaw jobs. I still have a very bitter taste about my OCI experience and I'm still mad at myself for being so uninformed about how much rankings matter. And in this crap-tastic economy, you need every edge you can get.

  15. I generally agree with what you say here, even though I took a slightly different approach. I would say that law school is three years of your life, and even (maybe especially) if you want to work in a firm, you should live your life for those 3 years. Don't spend the whole time thinking that you'll kill yourself for that time, and then have fun after you earn what you wanted from school (a good job). I went to a lower ranked school because I felt more at home there and the location was the best of any schools I looked at. While it would have been easier (in theory) to get a bigLaw job from a higher ranked school, it's also much easier to do well here than it is at a higher ranked school. And I have really enjoyed this time... I have school, but I also enjoy my free time.
    Which is my other point... I guess this is just trust in yourself. I would phrase it as "don't pay attention to what anyone else around you does." People all study differently and handle stress differently. There is no reason to stress out or pull all-nighters... just go to class, pay attention and stay healthy during finals.

  16. I just want to second that not everyone going to law school is interested in a firm job. I am a 3L, and I am going to law school solely to do public interest work. I have never been interested in private practice- I want to work for legal aid or some other non-profit providing legal assistance to low-income people. What I wish I knew going into law school with this career plan is to really really really investigate OCI, look at LRAPs (both already mentioned), and to check out the public interest group at each school. Are they active? Are they raising money for fellowships? Is there an active group of people also choosing non-firm work? It's vital to have a way to find a job, the money to pay your loans back when you're broke but happy, but having a group of like-minded students and the various speakers and other opportunities that creates is very important too.

  17. I stumbled upon your blog while avoiding my preparation for my Payment Systems final. My wife and I are planning on moving to Austin in June, and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind answering a few questions or offering some advice on getting a job after law school, living in Austin, networking, etc. I'm extremely upset with my career services office at my school and I feel like I will graduate jobless. My email is - any time would be greatly appreciated. However, if you can't I will understand completely.

  18. Another thing I tell people considering law school that isn't mentioned so far is that it was perhaps the most depressing three years of my life (and from talking to classmates, I wasn't alone). So I warn them that if they feel horribly depressed it's normal. Also, if you decide to go to law school, make sure you get to know your professors and that they know who you are. You need them for references, and they can help you with connections (and some are really nice).

    A quick second on some of the other comments--definitely go to the best school you can get into (a regional connection might be an exception). If you want to go into public interest, you have to start early volunteering and meeting people. It is hard, and the law school track seems to push everyone towards BigLaw. Oh yeah--working before law school is also a great idea.


  19. i think no matter how smart you are everyone feels inferior and "not smart" during 1L year.

    OCI experience at my school is so different thsn yours but I go to a school that is only rank in the 80's. At lower ranked schools like mine, even people in the top 15% can barely get callbacks. None of my friends got callbacks despite trying to interview for 5 or more firms. At my school OCI just depress everyone. Maybe its the smaller Seattle market?

  20. The entire legal job market is sh***y. Don't go to law school unless you can get into a Top 10. I know that is the ONLY reason I currently have a decent job. And, despite popular belief, a Top 10 school DOES NOT guarantee you a biglaw job.

  21. Excellent post. Especially that first one. I really limited myself by going to the school I chose. I could have gotten into better schools (and did get into one better school) but I took the advice of people telling me if I wanted to practice law in this state, that I should go to school in this state. Totally not true. The alumni of our school have no particular loyalty to our grads, and the big firms around here are quite happy to take people from Vandy, etc., over our students instead. Just growing up in the area is "contact" enough to have an "in." Also, I might have paid less for my education than some people, but I also got significantly less out of my education. Some people learned law and had fantastic experiences that will help them become better lawyers. All I got was a lousy diploma from a school continuously slipping in rank.

    I say talk to current students and recent graduates of a particular school and ask for their honest opinion. And don't talk to the people at the top of the class, talk to those in the middle, or even at the bottom.

    And considering there's currently a lack of jobs in the legal profession... go to nursing school instead. You'll make good money, you'll help people, and you'll work fewer hours. :P

  22. I second (or third or fourth) the comments about not going to law school right now with this economy unless you make it into a T10 school. I know a LOT people at top 20 schools who still don't have jobs. I wish that it was more widely known that going to law school does not guarantee you a job in the legal field! I know a lawyer in a T1 school who is managing a subway right now! The last thing anyone needs is $100k of debt and no job and 3 years of your life down the drain. People should wait it out a year or so and see how the economy rebounds.

  23. That's awesome advice, LL - I never would've thought of pretty much any of that stuff! (Except the loans bit. Got a bit of expertise there. :)

  24. Wow - this post came at the most amazing time. When I finished college, my Con Law/Dev prof really wanted me to go on to law school. I decided to try acting for a few years... and now, here I am - 45 years old, a fairly successful actress, longing to use my brain and seriously contemplating whether or not I could go back to law school, now. Your post has given me a lot to think about (but mostly, I think I could really do this!) Thanks much!

  25. I agree that if you want a job at a big firm in a big city, go to the best school you can get into - it's worth the investment. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship (plus a stipend for living expenses) to a lower-ranked law school with a great local reputation. This has given me lots of options and $0 in debt to pay off after graduation. If you do decide to go with a regional school for financial reasons, make sure you ask all the practicing attorneys that you know in the area what they think of attorneys who come from each of the schools. Reputation really does matter when you start interviewing. I was able to get a job with the biggest firm in my state, but only because I ranked in the top ten of my class. I second the advice about transfering to a better school after the first year if you want to practice somewhere out-of-state. You still save some money, but you may have more opportunities. It's a very personal decision, so make sure you know what you want before investing that much money in a legal education. Good luck future attorneys!

  26. If you go to a second tier school and graduate at the top of your class with no debt and intend on staying in the area of the law school, your chances at landing a job at a big firm are actually pretty good. So, it all depends on what you want to do and where you want to live after graduation.