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There was a time when law school was an excellent default option for very bright individuals who didn’t have any other ideas about what to do with their life. Rather than asking themselves “why do I want to be a lawyer?” they probably just thought, correctly, that they could do a whole lot worse, and off to school they went. While this probably made for a lot of unhappy lawyers, at least they had enough money for alcohol, so everything was okay.

Now, everything has changed. The legal economy was very fragile during the great recession. As a result, media coverage of the profession’s woes reached a frightening din. While some say the problems were temporary, others think the legal industry has undergone permanent structural changes and will never return to its former strength.

That’s the big picture. The little picture is that wandering blindly into this profession can now land you in six-figure debt with lousy job prospects. That’s a bad scenario for anyone. Avoiding this is reason #1 why it’s more important than ever to answer the question “why do you want to be a lawyer?” Doing your research and answering the question diligently can help you avoid a severe crash landing.

While we counsel you here to do some serious self-reflection, do not mistake us for being members of the very vocal anti-law school camp. Choosing the legal profession is still an excellent idea for many people. It can be a financially rewarding, interesting, and even fulfilling career.

A recent study suggests that law school tends to be a good value over the long term regardless of economic downturns. (This article has been the subject of intense debate. If you want me to highlight some of the better arguments on both sides, let me know if the comments and I’ll play referee.) While past performance is never a guarantee of future results (as any prospectus tells you), there are some things you can do to help increase your chances of being among the “winners” in the legal profession. This is a good starting point for discussing reason #1 most people have for being a lawyer:

I Want To Be A Lawyer For The $$$

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Lawyers in the popular imagination

Money isn’t the first thing a lawyer tells you when you ask why they chose the law, but let’s be real, it’s a chief concern for most peopleIf you attend a highly ranked school, there remains a reasonably good shot that you will end up making big money.

At lower T14 schools, somewhere around 40% of the class finds work at NLJ250 firms (that’s the largest 250 law firms by the number of lawyers employed). These jobs pay a lot of money with starting salaries well into the six figures. By the time you get into the T6 schools, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, UChicago, and NYU, the chances of getting into one of these jobs is usually better than 50%. That’s not the whole story either, because at these schools almost everyone who wants it finds work at a firm of some kind. Even if it’s not a massive NLJ250 firm, the pay is usually still good.

However, things get rapidly get less rosy when you drop below the T14. Look at the ABA employment summary for Washington and Lee University (currently ranked 26 by the USNWR), and you’ll see that 1/5th of the class was still seeking employment nine months from graduation. Only about 60% of W & L students secured a job where a J.D. is required or preferred. This isn’t the brightest picture given that most law students attend law school hoping to secure legal employment right away.

By the time you get into the bottom end of the top 100 and below, the employment situation is downright bleak. Yes, people do still have excellent outcomes going to those schools. However, the vast majority of people (meaning this almost certainly includes you, the reader) are better off not going to these schools unless you are incurring very little debt. While you might have individual circumstances that make going a good idea, before considering any law school it’s essential to look at the ABA employment data and any other employment data you can find to assess whether you can handle the risks associated with going to that particular law school.

If you don’t make careful decisions, you run a substantial risk that going to law school won’t be a financially sound decision. In the current market, the overwhelming majority of people should only attend law school in the following circumstances:

1. You get into a T6. T6 schools are still worth the price even at full tuition (though obviously, you should usually go to the one that gives you the most money). Pretty much everyone at a T6 school can secure legal employment without overwhelming difficulty, and they are doing well by most measures, except for the ones who are unhappy because of the long hours and not liking the work (see section on “I want to be a lawyer because it seems interesting” below).

2. You go to a lower T14 with some substantial scholarship money. I still think almost everyone is going to have good outcomes coming from these schools, but life will undoubtedly be a lot easier if you don’t have over $160K in debt.

3. You go to a lower school in the T50 with very substantial money. I believe that most of these schools are not going to be giving you enough value unless you are getting over half tuition to attend (or your parents are paying the remainder, see point below). Even half tuition leaves you with what looks like a lot to pay back given that you might struggle to obtain a high paying job. You also must be entirely satisfied with the possibility of working in the region where the school is located.

4. You go to any decent law school with full tuition or close to it. In many cases, this will be preferable to attending a higher ranked school at a higher price tag.

5. Your parents are paying for your degree. If you emerge with no debt, law school is still a pretty great idea from any school in the T100 (provided you want to be a lawyer).

Go only under these circumstances and law school is a lot likelier to have a positive payout. You can’t eliminate risk here or in any other profession, but you can do a lot to minimize it. There is a fifth subset of people who might go in a broader set of circumstances:

6. You can’t even fathom being anything other than a lawyer, and that is all you want to do in life. 

For a tiny subset of the population, this is how they are going to feel no matter what anyone says. This subset is still well-advised to make intelligent decisions about cost before attending.

However, I want to be clear that I think this is a tiny group of people. Most people are going to have other options in life that are just as rewarding as law.

I Want To Be A Lawyer Because What Else Do I Do With This English Degree?

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A lot of people are highly critical of those who attend law school partly for this reason. However, we don’t necessarily join in their opinion. In the recent recession, it was very difficult for a lot of humanities major to do much else profitable with their time right after undergrad. You often hear the opportunity cost assessment that by going to law school you are missing out on three years of wages elsewhere. This argument is going to ring hollow for a lot of people who were out in the job market in recent years.

Evan’s identical twin brother didn’t go to law school when Evan went in 2009. Instead of finding some profitable alternative immediately, he knocked around in various jobs barely scraping by before finally landing a decent writing job only recently. We don’t mean to criticize the bohemian lifestyle — Evan was a huge boho before law school. The point though is that often you aren’t missing out on a whole lot of money by being in law school.

Now the economy is picking up, and this is changing, but for many young 20-somethings, debt (as opposed to opportunity cost) is the primary factor in your financial calculus.

The more important thing, however, is to correctly assess whether you are going to enjoy the work of being a lawyer more or at least as much as you might enjoy some alternative path. While a JD may not hurt you in a whole host of occupations, most people are best off going only if they are entirely comfortable with the idea of being a lawyer.

I Want To Be A Lawyer Because It Seems Interesting

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Not a real lawyer

Here we are going to yell at you a little bit to make sure you are thinking this through correctly. BEING A LAWYER IS NOT LIKE [INSERT TV LEGAL DRAMA OR LAWYER MOVIE HERE]. You don’t typically ride around in a Lincoln dispensing legal advice (If someone can confirm that anyone in history has actually done this, please let us know).

Here’s what lawyers, especially ones in the first five years of their career, do most of the time: They read. Then they write. Then they read some more. Then they write more. Follow this up with a bit of reading and writing.

Yes, there is some speaking in there. Yes, arguing a case in front of a judge or negotiating a deal might be exciting. Yes, talking with clients can be fun.  However, it might not be enough to get you through the meat of the work.

We know a bunch of new lawyers who have found that they just can’t stand the work. They are toughing it out to pay down their student loans before they become football coaches or English professors in Japan or whatever else they might have been better off doing in the first place. We are both trying to avoid practice as well, so if you want more on that story, ask in the comments.

A sizable percentage of people who go to law school find out it isn’t really for them only after going to law school. Dig deep and think whether this game is for you. Here is the type that tends to flourish in law school: Someone who likes to read and loves to write. Someone who loves to be just perfect at everything that they do whether or not it kept them up all night to get it right. Someone who is very, very self-motivated. Someone who is a classic type A. Above all, you have to be competitive. It’s the competitive type that tends to do well in law school and the legal profession.

You also have to be passionate. Yes, it helps to be smart, both book-smart and people-smart. It may even be necessary- you are going to be competing against a lot of intelligent people when you get out in the legal world. However, being smart often isn’t enough. You’ll be competing against people who are smart and passionate about what they do. Go into law for the wrong reasons, and you raise the likelihood that you’ll be out-competed by people who belong there.

There are hundreds of personal reasons that might make the law an attractive path. Maybe someone you know is a partner at a firm and is going to give you a high-paying job if you get a law degree. Maybe your father is going to disown you if you don’t become a lawyer or a doctor and the sight of blood makes you faint. However, when answering the question “why do I want to be a lawyer,” these incidental reasons aren’t enough. The big thing you have to know is that you’ll likely be happy doing the work.

Take this from this article: You need to know two things before you even think about entering law school– first, that you’ll likely be able to find a job and pay off your law school debt, and second, that you will be happy doing the work.

If you are struggling with whether to attend law school, please let us know your situation, and we might be able to help. Comments can be made anonymously if you so choose, so don’t be embarrassed to ask. We promise you our honest advice.

-Joshua Craven & Evan Jones

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University of Chicago, J.D., 2012 -- CLICK HERE to find out how I got a 177 on the LSAT. Ready to Kickstart your LSAT Prep? Join the LSAT Mastermind Study Group

49 Comments

  1. Hi Josh & Evan,

    This website is great! I’ve already read numerous articles and I just discovered it yesterday.

    I would love your advice. I will be starting the beginning of my senior year of undergrad this coming fall. I am a Biology and Environmental Science double major. I currently have a 3.348 gpa, but I am hopeful I can increase it this coming year.

    I would love to be able to help shape environmental regulations and policy to create a more sustainable future. I know that this is what I want to do, but I am curious if law school would be the best avenue for me to do this. I didn’t really think of law school until now and had been planning to take a year off from school after I graduate. So far I have done research on this website and other ranking websites and have a few questions.

    The top environmental law program according to usnews is Vermont Law School, but it is ranked #134 on the usnews top law school list. I have found that the top 3 environmental law programs are 135, 100, and 120 on the law school list. What do you make of this? Would it be better to look into the top environmental programs or the top law schools?

    Also if you have any more advice about environmental law and what you think about the usefulness of a law degree for what I would love to do, I would love to hear it!

    Thank you!

  2. Love your website! I’m in my late 40’s with a BS in Electrical Engineering and a MBA. I started working as an engineer then moved up into Sr. Management of a mid-sized engineering firm. I’m thinking of making a career change into law. Based on my experience, I’m thinking about either becoming a Patent lawyer or Corporate Lawyer (preferably inside counsel). Since I have to work, I’m looking at either Temple or Widener’s part-time law school. Following your advice, I’m planning to kill the LSAT and get at least a partial scholarship from the school.

    Any thoughts about my plans, the schools, or any other advice? Please advise, thanks!

  3. Hi,
    I’m an incoming undergraduate freshman. I am going to major in Public Policy with concentrations in Economics and international relations. I’ve wanted to become a lawyer for most of my life and am planning to go to Law School (hopefully Columbia Law). I know that I’m really young to be considering prepping for the LSAT and law school so soon, but I’m passionate about becoming an attorney. Do you have any advice for me regarding college or LSAT prep since I’m starting so early? Please don’t tell me to relax and take things easy though.
    Thank you.

    • Stephanie Baldwin on

      Your first priority needs to be a 4.0 GPA, or as high of a GPA as possible. The median GPA for Columbia is 3.7 Your LSAT score can be changed but your UPGA is locked in stone once you complete your first degree, so you must get good grades. Schools also seem to moving towards preferring professional work between undergraduate and law school. You can study for the LSAT as long as it does not take away from getting good grades.

  4. Amani Richardson on

    Honestly not sure if Law School is for me, but I most certainly want to work with legislature and policy making. I enjoy advocating and protesting for various issues (mainly social justice) but i’m not sure which is the best route for me to take. I am a Public Health Major and I am not sure whether or not I want to minor in Political Science or English. I do believe that I am a great writer and I want to push myself to my limits. Maybe policy writing? But ESSENTIALLY, I want to be at the table with the big dogs discussing what lows/policies are going to be put in place. Definitely want to be on a state or national level creating change and implementing policies. But where in the world do I go? I am a rising junior in my undergraduate years. I am getting more nervous as I only have two more years to get this right before I walk across the stage and hit the real world. I definitely like hands on work and protesting.

  5. Hi, I loved this article, and the website in general. It sheds a lot of light on questions everyone has, but no other one website has answers to.

    My question is, if I went to law school it would have to be a newer school most likely. I use a wheelchair and old universities just aren’t accessible. So from what I can tell, that pretty much removes T14 or above schools. My undergrad degree is in agricultural economics, and I would maybe like to do ag law because it seems like a more niche market, and it would be more comfortable. However, are any of those schools good? The University of Florida is close to me (I don’t think they have ag law at all though), and I don’t know what else to look at. I looked at the ABA for UF but I couldn’t tell if the numbers were good or not. Any advice?

    Thanks for your time!

  6. I’m struggling with the question of Why do I want to become a lawyer? To be perfectly honest I thought I would want to be a lawyer because of the money. But after doing research and reading some of your articles, its opened my eyes that I might not make that much money. I really don’t know if I’m the type that could make it through law school, I don’t think I’m the “Type A” competitive person you described. I’m definitely not a softy but I’m unsure if I could handle the work load. Another reason why I wanted to be a lawyer was the interesting factor as well, clearly I watch too many movies!

  7. Firstly, I would like to thank you for providing such detailed information online. I am writing to you from Ireland, and as an international student this site is an extremely valuable source of insight into the law school process and experience.

    I have just completed my final year, studying a four year Bachelor of Commerce. I major in Economics, and minor in Commercial Law.

    As part of my BComm degree, I was fortunate enough to spend a year studying abroad at Boston College, where I took solely Business Law classes. Although I have always been interested in a legal career, this experience furthered my interest in the U.S. legal environment.

    My primary goal is to practice in the United States, and attend U.S. law school. The entire experience appeals to me, not just the end goal of passing the bar and securing a job. However, as I am sure you can imagine, it is a daunting prospect. I am primarily concerned about the LSAT, and at this point I am planning to self study. I am pretty disciplined and have always been self sufficient through university but I definitely don’t think it will be easy. I am also wondering about my chances of being accepted to a good school, having invested time in preparing for the LSAT. So, I want to make sure I am being realistic in my expectations!

    I am a reasonably good student, and have maintained a upper second class honor right the way through college. I expect to graduate with a 2:1 or possibly 1:1 degree (I think this translates as approx. GPA of 3.6 +). I am very aware of the level of competition for top law schools, but do not want to invest such a large amount of money to come out with a degree from a mediocre school. Are international students at a disadvantage when applying for the J.D program?

    I am working in the Tax department of a big four accountancy firm for the summer. I have been accepted on an International Business Law L.L.M program in Ireland, starting this September for one year. What are your views on how valuable this would be to my applications? Or to my future job prospects. I am yet to decide if this is how I will spend my year, while taking the October LSAT, and completing the application process.

    Any advice at all that you could give me on how to go about deciding where to apply would be greatly appreciated.

    Many thanks,
    Nicole

  8. Chris Del Monte on

    Good afternoon Josh and Evan!

    I want to be an attorney simply because I have the interpersonal and writing skills. And I also have the desire to be an attorney. (I did show interest interest in immigration law in one of your other articles, but I am also looking into constitutional and civil rights law.)

    I did point out the good interpersonal skills on my behalf. In other words, I am very good with people and I do enjoy helping those in need. As an attorney, I see my own abilities coming out and bringing the best results for the people who do indeed need the assistance to resolve their issues. My question is this: since I do want to become an attorney for the reasons stated above, are those reasons enough for my wanting to become an attorney? Maybe this question has been answered in the article, but I may not have caught that.

  9. Hello Josh and Evan,

    I found your site while going on a “should I go to law school” morning internet search. Well, it actually began by reading Joyce Curll’s book on admissions…and when I read the part on the LSDAS calculating your GPA I freaked out. You see, I’m Brazilian…and I’ve graduated from a prestigious private university here, with a major in International Relations. But grade inflation isn’t a thing in my country….so I have a 3.38 GPA, according to a conversion tool I found online (8.9 on a 10 scale, didn’t shy from tough courses with strict professors).
    While it might seem weird for a Brazilian to want to pursue law studies in the US, I’ve had my mind set on International Law for some time now and the law programs here in my country aren’t prepping their students well on the topic. Also, I dream of working at international level – be it at a law firm that represents countries in WTO litigation processes (Brazil only hires American firms, btw), as a lawyer for defense/prosecution at the ICC, possibly as a judge for the ICJ. I know, I dream big. Since I’m interested in IL, my dream schools are top6, hence the GPA scare.
    I haven’t taken the LSAT yet, but I test pretty well. I also have a Masters in International Relations from my alma mater and interned with the ICC in 2012. I’ve tried to demonstrate an interest in law also by publishing papers in the area, taking summer courses and reading a lot. But I’m still worried – in your experiences, what does it take to get in as an international applicant? And as far as scholarships go, are they fair game for us at T14 schools? Does my GPA kill me as a non-traditional applicant?

    Thanks a bunch for your awesome tips! I’m officially hooked and will be adopting the