Twenty years ago, the top reason cited for becoming a lawyer was the “intellectual challenge” that it offered (40%) followed by the “social service” aspect (17%). Indeed, one Biglaw associate (who received his JD from the University of Michigan and his LLM from the University of Edinburgh), told us that law school might be worth investigating if “You like problem-solving and helping people.” Another Biglaw associate and a NYU Law alumna echoed his sentiment: “You love to solve problems.”
If your interest in law comes from a sincere desire to help people – and yes, clients of Biglaw are people (corporate campaign contribution opinions or otherwise) – navigate the legal system, then you may find law to be a very rewarding profession. But even jobs helping the little people (that is, public interest law) are tight today as many would-be corporate lawyers are applying to those openings when they can’t find work in their preferred specialty area.
If you’re hoping to pursue public interest law, a background in social services may be particularly valuable when it comes to landing a job. Jess Levy, a rising 3L at the City University of New York’s Queens College law school, majored in social work as an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis and had several years of work experience as a social worker. She believes that this gives her an important perspective: “I still find it important to remember my social work background, and cases often remind me of former clients.”
Of course, there’s a particular way in which a lawyer goes about helping people, and it relates back to Brinnehl’s point about what she perceived as “tedium” and “details”. “If you really like filling out forms, and like to read the fine print on the back of a form for any field that you’re not exactly sure how to fill out, then you probably have the disposition to deal with much of the mechanics of lawyering,” said a law professor who practiced for a decade before transitioning into academia. “Of course, it’s very important that you like solving problems, especially problems like helping people to navigate lots of intricate, complex forms.”
There are many law jobs within city, state, and federal governments. With budget cuts, these jobs are rarer than they used to be, but if you have prior experience in government, you’re likely to find a job after finishing law school. Agrees DeVivo, “In my experience as a currently job-hunting attorney in central Illinois, people with government backgrounds seem to have no problem getting attorney jobs. The starting pay may be very low, but there are openings.”
Corporate tax attorneys, some of whom are not only JDs but also MBAs and/or CPAs, ensure that their clients – which can include sprawling multi-nationals with post office boxes on small, sunny islands – are compliant with tax laws. Think of all the tax transactions that a company might engage in during sales, mergers, and contributions; it’s the corporate tax attorney that helps navigate these complicated waters. Because of this complexity, even for many lawyers who love curling up to a nice complicated form with a glass of Merlot on a Friday night, corporate tax law is perceived as relatively tedious. However, it requires complex problem solving skills, and for some, this is stimulating and rewarding. If you’re one of those people, lucky you! This is an area of law where there will always be a demand for bright, talented people. Death and taxes, after all (which reminds me: keep your eye on elder law to become big).
There’s always a consistent albeit relatively small demand for lawyers who have solid backgrounds in science. This is particularly true in the area of patent law, which centers on the question of whether products can truly be considered new or innovative. And when considering a technologically complex product, the ability to answer this question requires an advanced understanding of science. This, coupled with the scarcity of people with backgrounds in science who pursue law degrees, means that if you have a science background coupled with a degree in law, you’re likely to be a hot prospect when you graduate.
Agrees one New York City Biglaw associate and Fordham Law School alumna, “It is almost mandatory that you have a science background for Intellectual Property law.” This gives those of you with science backgrounds a leg up on people who’ve never heard of a scanning tunneling electron microscope.
“My science background has opened doors for me, and not always in obvious ways,” admits Virginia Wallace, who received a BS in Cell and Molecular Biology at Tulane before receiving a JD on the Intellectual Property Law track at George Mason. As Virginia explains:
"Of course it helped getting a job at a small patent firm, but it also helped me get an internship because the attorney at a general practice firm told me he thought I would be more meticulous. It also seems to act as a proxy for intelligence. At my current job, a non-technical one, I almost didn't get an interview because I didn't have the state bar for North Carolina, but when he heard I had the patent bar, that requirement was suddenly waived."
The science background will definitely allow you to sit for the patent bar, but bear in mind that the field is highly specialized. Non-technical people read all the ads for jobs and say "Oh! There are tons of jobs for patent attorneys." On closer inspection, nearly every one is for someone who is an electrical engineer or computer scientist. In bio-tech, a Ph.D. is the preferred degree, probably because law firms hire people straight out of Ph.D. programs. Sure, other science backgrounds can be successful, but it is not guaranteed, by any means.
When it comes down to it, this is the very best reason to apply to law school.
DeVivo says, “People who feel law is a calling should still go to law school. But you shouldn't take out $100,000 in loans and expect to graduate and walk into a job that pays $120,000 - $160,000 per year. People thinking about entering law school need to dig deep and decide whether they will be happy in their career choice if they graduate with all that debt and earn a starting salary of $35,000 to $45,000 a year.”
If your answer to DeVivo’s question is “yes,” then law school may be a good choice to you.
And the good news is that, while some types of academic and professional backgrounds are particularly attractive to employers, if you’re an intelligent, motivated critical thinker, any academic background can be a good preparation for law school. Falcon, who indulged us with the last-minute self-portrait on the right by dashing outside, says, “Quite frankly, short of going to law school, there is nothing you can do to prepare. You can't go to medical school without the pre-med requirements. You can't get a Ph.D. in math without the requisite background and so on. However, law schools take all comers. Why? Because there is no singular training that is truly helpful.” And Angel should know; he double-majored in Religious Studies and Art History during his undergrad at Yale, received a Master's in Theological Studies from Harvard, and a Master’s in Library and Information Science from Rutgers.
Just as only you can prevent forest fires, you’re also the only one who knows if law school is right for you. And remember: the person you are today is different from the person you’ll be five years from now. So even if law school isn’t the perfect fit today, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t evolve into it.
Unless, of course, you really hate filling out forms.
Jennifer Baker is a Brooklyn-based writer. She has an MFA in Writing from The New School and a Master’s in Education from Pace.