The 5 Worst (and 5 Best) Reasons to Apply to Law School
In a world of fewer Biglaw jobs, make sure you go for the right reasons
by Jennifer Baker
Published May 25th, 2010
We’ve all heard the jokes about the world’s preponderance of lawyers. Even Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once cracked, "There is no shortage of lawyers in Washington, DC. In fact, there may be more lawyers than people." These jokes have been around for a long time. But in today’s oversaturated job market, they may hit a little too close to home for many lawyers. With massive layoffs and budget cuts over the past few years a law degree is no longer a golden ticket to a six-figure salary, let alone any job at all.
So if you’re thinking about applying to law school, the rough job market may be giving you second thoughts. However, if you’re entering law school for the right reasons, it may still be a good idea. In the words of one lawyer, “There is always room for the truly bright, truly interested, truly diligent or truly gifted future lawyer, but applicants should think much more carefully now before spending over $100,000 for reasons that might not be able to withstand what can be a long, hard slog to the promised land.”
So, what are the best, and the worst, reasons for applying to law school? Let’s take a look.
The 5 Worst Reasons to Apply to Law School
1. You really like Law and Order
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If you’re serious about applying to law school, you know by now that the reality of practicing law is very different from what you see on television. (Right?) Actually, it’s surprising how many people enter the field of law under the impression that a legal career will fill their lives with drama, glamour, and glory. Law can be a wonderful, rewarding career, but it involves extensive research, rock- solid concentration, and few (if any) heartfelt courtroom speeches.
2. You’re “good at arguing.”
A propensity for arguing doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll make a good lawyer. Yes, sophisticated critical thinking skills and the ability to make an intellectual argument are important skills for any lawyer. For example, if you’ve studied philosophy and can put together a meticulously researched and presented proof, this may be an indication that you’d make a good lawyer. But if you think that the ability to get people to do what you want means that you’d make a good lawyer, you might want to think again.
3. You want to earn a six-figure salary.
The job market for lawyers is tight right now, and if you apply to law school, you should understand that it might take awhile to find a job with a modest salary after you graduate—and that it may take years (if ever) to work your way to “the promised land”. In fact, even before the economy tanked, the salaries of law school graduates in 2006 exhibited a bimodal distribution, with an initial hump at $40,000, a mean of $62,000, and a secondary hump at $140,000.
Angel Falcon, a 2L at Rutgers - Newark, says that the preconception that attorneys can walk out of law school and land a six-figure salary “may have been true historically but may not be true any longer. There are large waves of law school graduates going out into the field who do not have jobs and have over $100,000 in debt. The salad days of Biglaw just scooping kids with JDs up and giving them $120,000 fresh out of school are gone and, in my opinion, will not come back. If you think ‘I'll go to law school and get a good job and make money’ then you may be better served going to get an MBA.”
Natasha Chua Tan, the 1L at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law shown on the right, has spoken with many still-jobless 2010 law school graduates. “It seems that less than a third of the students have firm offers leading up to graduation. I think what’s even more compelling is the school and its professors are taking students on as research assistants, and students are allowed to continue to take classes towards an additional certificate, in part to prolong the student health insurance.”
4. You don’t know what else to do.
Even though the third most popular reason for becoming a lawyer twenty years ago was “no attractive alternative” (14%) [source] doesn’t make it a good reason. (“If everyone jumped into a lake …”) And yet, law school has a long history of being a refuge for young people who are intelligent, underemployed, and unfocused. If this sounds like you, should you enroll in this “real life” refugee camp?
Probably not: “Law school is a trade school with a $100,000 price tag, not an extended liberal arts education,” warns Chicago lawyer Rayne DeVivo, an alumna of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Law shown on the right moments after her law school graduation. But don’t let her bright smile fool you: law school is tough!
And life after law school isn’t necessarily any easier. In fact, 54% of lawyers report being unhappy that their career doesn’t allow them much time for themselves, so this isn’t something you should pursue unless you’re sure it’s what you want to do. Yes, you may hear stories of people who “accidentally” entered law school and ended up being happy, successful lawyers. However, it’s much more likely that you’ll end up wondering how you ended up in a demanding profession that you don’t have a passion for. And frankly, in this economy, that may not be a $100,000 risk you can afford to take.
How can you tell if law might not be your passion? Elizabeth Brinnehl, a current candidate for a PhD in Classics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, did careful research before making a six figure law school investment:
"I initially wanted to go to law school because I was interested in con law and the intellectual challenge that I thought the "brand shiny new field" of Internet law would be. I was fascinated by the technology and really intrigued by how it would shape the law. But a little more research made it obvious that I liked the Law and Order version of things better than the very real tedium that intellectual property law – which would be the real battleground – offered.
In short, I realized that I liked big ideas, not the details of the law. So I headed into academia. And I also realized that while I loved con law, there was very little money in it that would justify the expense of law school. HA! So I went into classics."
Fortunately, Brinnehl realized this before sinking money into a degree towards a profession she wouldn’t love, and was able to redirect the energy she’d put into LSAT prep work towards studying for the GRE. (She ultimately received her MA in Classics from Indiana University.)
5. Someone else wants you to be a lawyer.
Did your mother, father, sister, or grandfather go to law school? Or is there someone who’s always wanted to have a lawyer in the family, and who thinks that you’d be the perfect candidate? You’re not alone; 4% of lawyers said they became one due to “family pressure”. But if that’s your primary driver, you’ve got to stand up for yourself. Law school is hard work, and being a lawyer is even harder. No matter who you’ll upset, or how much you might upset them, this is too big a decision to be pressured into.
And frankly, your family may want to think twice about pushing you in that direction; 44% of lawyers complain about not having much time for their family!
So even though one Los Angeles lawyer says that “we need more Latino attorneys,” don’t just take her word for it; only go for law school if you’ve got more than just the urgings of friends, family, and articles on GradSchools.com as a reason.
So what are some good reasons for becoming a lawyer? Glad you asked:
The 5 Best Reasons for Applying to Law School
Photo by CubanRefugee