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 $$$
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 people. If 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?
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
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