Should You Go to Law School? These 9 Questions Will Help You Decide
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If you’re deciding whether to go to law school, it may be helpful to look at the decision in reverse. How will you feel about attending law school 10 years from now (or even in 5 years, if a decade is too difficult to imagine?)
Recently I got a survey from Stanford law school. The survey asked me to describe in quite a lot of detail what I’ve been doing with my career since I graduated. Out of feelings of guilt and loyalty, I filled out a rather lengthy survey. In the process, I realized something about my decision to attend law school and thought about the countless others who are deciding every year whether they should also get a J.D. degree.
I graduated in 2004 and it’s been frankly a long time since I practiced law, or even gave law school much thought. My law school story began as many of them do: in college. In college, many students who enjoy political science or get a bit of exposure to legal philosophy start naturally thinking about how to turn these topics they enjoy into a career. My interests took me to a couple of unpaid summer internships in Washington D.C. for different U.S. Senators. I found I didn’t actually enjoy what I observed about professional politics but I wasn’t about to give up on what I thought were very interesting analytical issues that shaped the laws and rules that we live by.
I applied for law school straight out of my undergraduate degree and entered Stanford as a 20-year old with no real work experience under my belt. I was one of the youngest people in my class that year and I started working very hard to achieve my then professional goal of becoming a legal scholar or judge. By the time I graduated, my career ambitions had changed again. At that point, I had two “Big Law” summer associate internships under my belt in New York and I was intent on joining one of those firms full-time as an associate, which is what I went on to do. I moved across the country, took and passed the NY Bar exam, and practiced corporate law…for less than 1 year.
Fast forward ten years, I tell this tale not as a cautionary tale of regret but one that I hope helps others see that deciding to go to law school and what you do after law school do not have to be related and you are allowed to change your mind at any point if you feel like you’ve made the wrong decision. In fact, I do not regret going to law school at all. There are many good things I can say about going to law school. For starters, I learned a great deal, met some of my dearest friends, matured through the process and could not have known at the point of entering law school that I wasn’t going to have a legal career. Moreover, the degree gave me knowledge, working towards it was an exercise in perseverance and discipline, and I was able to enter the workforce earning a salary much higher than I could have gotten that help set the stage for bigger and better paying jobs afterwards.
My story is only one and I’m sure there are countless other people who either regret or don’t regret the decision to go to law school. Therefore I believe that the real answer to the question can only come from introspection and asking yourself some questions about your intentions, your abilities and goals. The X questions are what I would advise anyone to ask themselves if they are thinking about going to law school and feel uncertain about their decision:
1. Why do you want to go to law school?
Sometimes the answer is simple. Perhaps you simply want to be an attorney. If you want to be a lawyer, you have no choice but to go to law school. If, however, you simply want to work on changing laws or being around legal issues, there are many other options such as becoming a legal activist, policy-maker, or working as a legal assistant or paralegal.
If your answer is less certain, e.g. you don’t know what else to do but you know you enjoy certain topics or classes you’ve taken, this doesn’t mean that’s a bad reason to go to law school. However, law school is a big commitment of both time and money (and in many cases comes with a lot of debt) so you may want to first make sure that you will enjoy the practice of law rather than just the subject itself. You can do this by applying for jobs where you don’t need to be an attorney, per se. Some of my classmates at Stanford had done this, and gotten a couple years of being a legal assistant or paralegal or simply working with policy makers prior to attending law school. They had a much better sense than I did of what it was like to practice law because they saw it up close.
Some people feel pressure from their family or socially to get a graduate degree. While that’s not a terrible reason to consider law school, there are many other possibilities for professional degrees. An MBA, for example, can set you up for a much better paying job and job opportunities and usually requires only 2 years of a commitment (rather than 3 for a law degree). A Masters degree is another option.
2. Do you think you will enjoy the experience itself?
A lot of emphasis is placed on the reasons to get a degree rather than the 3-year experience itself. I believe it’s a mistake to gloss over this aspect of deciding whether to go to law school. If you hate school, hate studying and hate classroom environments, ask yourself whether a 3-year J.D. is really worth it. Going to law school is usually an intense academic experience; little about it is practical or hands-on despite there being an increasing number of law schools who offer a few clinical or practical opportunities.
I spent many hours of law school studying, reading, taking notes, going to classes, and writing papers. If this is something you dislike, you may not end up doing well even if you have a sharp, analytical mind and the innate abilities to be an excellent attorney. Doing well at law school is an important part of being successful in getting a job afterwards, so whether you enjoy the experience is not something to take lightly.
3. Do you think you will get into a good law school?
This is an important question to ask yourself because often your job and career prospects as an attorney are impacted quite a lot by where you went to school. Law is an old, apprenticeship-based profession and lawyers as a whole are still rather conservative in how much they value pedigree (that is to say, they value it a lot more than in other types of professions).
4. Do you think you will do well in law school?
It’s not just pedigree that matters. In addition to where you go to law school, how well you do in terms of your grades in law school can determine whether you will get the types of job that will enable you to pay off your student loans. Certain legal jobs are very difficult to get unless you have good grades. For example, clerkships with judges are mainly based on your grades in law school, and many of the associate positions at prestigious law firms that pay the highest starting salaries require a pretty stellar transcript.
5. How many people have you talked to that went to law school?
If your dad is an attorney or you’ve asked your aunt Margot what it’s like to be an attorney that may not be the best and most objective way to get information about what it’s like to go to law school. Try to find people who practice different kinds of law, or even have non-legal careers to find out what they think of having gone to law school. The latter is especially important if you think that one day you may not want to practice law, or that you plan on making it a temporary career move as part of a larger plan.
6. How does law school fit into your other life goals?
Everyone has different life goals. Sometimes it’s too easy to focus on the short-term milestones you’re trying to reach and not think very hard about the longer-term ideas you have for what you want in life. Think about all facets of your life goals. Do you want to have a large family and decelerate your career when your children are young? Do you want to move to Nebraska? Do you want to travel the world? Do you want to run for office?
All of these things may or may not be compatible or very easy with certain types of jobs in the law. Some legal careers will require you to live in certain places, will demand a certain kind of workload, or simply constrain your flexibility and autonomy in ways that may seem distant but will come up as issues sooner than you may expect them to. Since deciding to go to law school is a decision with long-term implications, be sure to consider who you are and what you want in the longer term.
7. What is your opportunity cost of going to law school?
The concept opportunity cost is simple in theory, but often more difficult in reality to analyze. Essentially the question is what are you giving up by going to law school? Certainly you are giving up time since law school is a three year commitment. However, you’re also giving up money since there are tuition and living expenses you must make (likely without any incoming salary) during that time. By going to law school, you’re by definition, foregoing going to any other kind of school or taking a job where you would be gaining work experience and building your career. If you feel your other options are tremendously appealing, then the opportunity cost of going to law school is very high. On the other hand, you may be considering law school precisely because your other employment options are unexciting or even dismal.
8. Can you afford it?
Most people have to take out debt in order to pay for law school. That means the question you have to ask yourself is really something like: “Do I think I can get and stick with a job after I graduate that will allow me to pay back my law school loans, in addition to whatever other financial obligations I have?” One of the questions that struck me when I answered the law school survey was the question about how much student loan debt influenced my decision to take my first, second and third jobs after law school.
Make no mistake that law school has a steep financial price tag and that you may have less choice than you might think for self-fulfillment in your immediate career choices in order to address the high cost of law school.
9. What other information could you get about going to law school before you have to make a commitment?
Have you read books about the law, the practice of law, or perused websites that talk about legal careers and the legal industry? If not, take advantage of these free resources! Do your research and check out the companies and employers you are interested in. Ask people to tell you about their jobs and read everything you can get your hands on in order to make a fully-informed decision.
Deciding to go to law school is a big decision and it’s very personal. There’s no right answer but if you really take these 9 questions seriously, you’re well on your way to making the a decision that you can feel you’ve really thought through thoroughly.
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