“Should I go to law school?” As a law school grad, this is a question I once debated at length over myself. For starters, if you’re considering getting your law degree, 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 five years, if a decade is too difficult to imagine?)
Recently, I got a survey from Stanford Law School, my alma mater. It asked me to describe in quite a lot of detail what I’ve been doing with my post-legal education life since I graduated and embarked on my career. Out of feelings of guilt and loyalty, I filled out the 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 my life as a law student much thought. My story began as many of them do: in college. It’s at this juncture where many students who enjoy political science or got 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 law 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 one year.
Fast forward 10 years, and you’ll find that I tell this tale not as a cautionary one of regret, but as one that I hope helps others see their full scope of possibilities. Meaning? Deciding to go to law school and what you do after law school do not have to be related, and you’re allowed to change your mind at any point if you feel like you’ve made the wrong decision.
Though my career ambitions have since steered me away from the legal profession, I don’t regret going to law school at all. In fact, there are many excellent 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 couldn’t 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 toward it was an exercise in perseverance and discipline, and I was able to snag a high-paying job immediately upon entering the workforce, which helped set the stage for bigger and better-paying jobs afterward.
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 this question can only come from introspection and asking yourself some key questions about your intentions, abilities, and goals. These nine questions are what I would advise anyone to ask themselves if they’re thinking about going to law school and feel uncertain about their decision:
Sometimes the answer is simple. Perhaps you simply want to be an attorney. If joining the realm of lawyers is your dream, then you have no choice but to go to law school. If, however, you simply want to work on changing laws or enjoy being around legal issues, there are many other career options to consider, like 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’ll enjoy the actual practice of law rather than just political science 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 legal experience (as a legal assistant, 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’d already seen it up close.
Some people feel pressure from their family or socially to go to graduate school. While that’s not a terrible reason to consider law school, there are many other possibilities for grad school-level degrees. Going to business school for your MBA, for example, can set you up for a high-paying job and better job opportunities, and it usually requires only a two-year commitment (rather than three for a law degree). A master's degree is always another option.
A lot of emphasis is placed on the reasons to get a degree rather than the three-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 three-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 students a few clinical or practical opportunities.
I spent many hours of law school studying, reading, taking notes, going to classes, and writing papers. If these are things 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’ll enjoy the experience is not something to take lightly.
Law school admission standards are no joke. Whether you’ll realistically get in is an important question to ask yourself, because often the job and career prospects of lawyers 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). So while paying in-state tuition at your local college is obviously financially enticing, in the long run, foregoing an American Bar Association-approved (or similarly prestigious) school may cost you big bucks.
Of course, not everyone can afford tuition prices the likes of Harvard Law School, but if you’ll be relying on student loans regardless, taking out a bit more in order to go to a better school is unfortunately something you may need to consider when it comes to the legal profession.
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 can determine whether you’ll get the type of high-paying job that will enable you to pay off your student loans. Certain legal jobs are very difficult to get unless you have good grades (not to mention high LSAT scores). 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.
If your dad is an attorney or you’ve asked your aunt Margot what it’s like to be one, 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 thought of life as a law student. The latter is especially important if you think that one day you may not want to practice law, or if you plan on making it a temporary career move as part of a larger plan.
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. So, 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, demand a certain kind of workload, or simply constrain your flexibility and autonomy in ways that may seem distant now, but will come up as issues sooner than you may expect. 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 long run.
The opportunity cost concept 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’re 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 factor in for (likely without any incoming salary) during that time. By going to law school, you’re by definition foregoing 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.
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 about how much student loan debt influenced my decision to take my first, second, and third jobs after law school.
Make no mistake — law school has a steep financial price tag, and 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.
Have you read books about 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’re 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 major decision, and it’s very personal one, too. There’s no right answer, but if you really take these nine questions seriously, you’re well on your way to making a decision you can truly justify.
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