Students frequently ask me for advice about going to law school. The student’s mouth says, “Should I go to law school?” But his or her mind (and heart) is really only looking for affirmation of the decision to go — a decision made well before asking me for advice.
I hate this question for two main reasons. First, I know what I say ultimately will be rejected out of disbelief or disregard. Second, I know that my answer is dream-killing. So, at the end of the conversation, the student is bitter, and I feel like a jerk. But, I promise that what I say is true, not only from my experiences as a law student and a lawyer but from my experiences of serving on a law school admissions committee and educating future lawyers. I serve it up here with the hope that you really consider these things before sending in those applications.
1. You Probably Are Not Ready to Make This Big a Decision. If you’re the average law school applicant, you are about 23 years old. That’s old enough to drink yourself stupid, vote, join the military, maybe even rent a car in some states. You’ve graduated from college — probably at the top of your class — and you think you know everything. So of course you know you want to go to law school. Well, no matter how smart you are – or think you are – you cannot predict the future. Are you going to get married? Will you buy a home? Will you have children? Will you stay in the state where you live now or move away? What type of law do you want to practice? In what type of place? The decisions about going to law school (especially if you are taking on debt to do it), where to go to law school, and where to practice law significantly impact many other decisions in your life and not always in a positive or predictable way. Among the very worst reasons to go to law school is that you just don’t know what else to do with your undergraduate degree or yourself after college graduation. You seriously limit your options when you come out the other side of a J.D. $100,000 in debt, especially if you are also painfully aware that you don’t really want to be a lawyer. Before you make a decision of this magnitude, take some time off. Expand your horizons a little, get some perspective and — better yet — some professional experience. If you still really want to go to law school, a five or ten-year gap between college and law school won’t make as big a difference to your law school admission or employment prospects as it will to you and the quality of your life.
2. Law School Is Not College. Law school admission is a competitive process. The number of applicants for most schools exceeds the number of available seats. Consequently, many law schools can cherry-pick applicants to construct an incoming class comprising the best of the best from colleges and universities around the nation and world. When you went to college, you were surrounded by students of widely varying abilities and levels of preparation. If you were a naturally good student, rising above the crowd wasn’t all that hard to do. Believe me, I’ve graded enough undergraduate papers now to know this is true. But, when you go to law school, you are surrounded by people who are at least as smart and probably smarter than you. They were all in the top ten percent of their respective classes. Now, some of those ten-percenters will be on the other end of the spectrum. Someone must be the bottom of the curve, and your instructors do not give a damn that you were a straight-A student in whatever irrelevant thing you studied before you got to law school. They know full well you were a rock star where you came from or you wouldn’t be standing there now, whining about your B+ (which was earned and not given by the way). Trust me, what that professor is thinking, as s/he explains why your undergraduate performance no longer matters, is that if you don’t understand the apple-to-orange analysis you are advocating, you are Exhibit A to why your grade is not a mistake.
3. College was Hard, Law School is Harder, but Law Practice Is a MF’er. You think college was hard? You have no idea. Your law professors will assign you 150 pages of more of reading per week, per class without blinking. There will be few papers, no extra credit assignments and no feedback. You will read, you will “discuss,” then you will be tested in the highest-stake and most subjective exam format there is — a single set of essays determining your entire course grade. If you attend a law school following a more traditional curriculum, a fair percentage of subjects tested on the Bar exam are not required courses. If you survive to graduation, you will take that little state quiz standing between you and gainful employment as a lawyer, having to learn most of the material covered on the exam for the first time during an eight-week “review” course. And yet, that all pales in comparison to the first time you draft or oppose and argue a motion upon which someone’s emotional, financial or literal life depends. As you handle a case of this magnitude, you will long for the days where your biggest concern was your Torts outline. The first time I had to defend a client doctor against a malpractice claim by deposing the plaintiff – a woman dying of breast cancer, bald from chemotherapy and too emotionally drained to stop herself from crying through the entire thing – I realized that law school and the Bar exam were almost a sick joke. Law school does not offer an elective in Asshole 101, and I wouldn’t have taken it anyway. [Insert joke here about how I would’ve aced it. Go ahead.]
4. Law School Does Little to Teach You About Being a Lawyer. Law school is great for sharpening (but not teaching) reading comprehension skills, logical reasoning skills and critical thinking skills. It will probably help you build stamina for the long work hours law practice requires. It may make you more comfortable speaking in public. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you might learn a thing or two about legal research and legal writing. Outside of that, however, there is precious little about a law school curriculum that actually prepares you for the work of being a lawyer. There is not a damn thing about Laurence Tribe’s triangular theory of hearsay that will be of remote help in asserting or refuting such an objection in court. I’ve yet to meet a freshly minted lawyer who knows jack about drafting an admissible declaration in support of a motion, having an intelligible conversation with a client (who is an actual human being, not a “character” from a casebook), participating in a mediation (save the blustery theatrics for the jury, please), or developing a marketing plan for getting and keeping clients who pay the bills (no, your paycheck doesn’t magically appear from thin air each month). And, be prepared for clients who do not appreciate law firms who “train” their new associates on the client’s dime. As you can imagine, clients are not generally thrilled about paying $250 or more per hour for some green pea lawyer to spend 16.1 hours “shepardizing” cases on an issue of law that should be obvious to a seasoned attorney.
5. Law School Is Not for Everyone. We can’t all go to top-tier law schools. (See Paragraph 2, above.) Some of us can’t do it for academic reasons, and some of us can’t do it for financial or familial reasons. Thankfully, you do not need a perfect LSAT score or a 4.0 college g.p.a. to go to law school or to be successful as a lawyer. Law school admissions rely heavily on LSAT and g.p.a., because they are measurable, objective criteria by which to separate otherwise equally qualified candidates. But the only thing meaningfully predicted by your LSAT score and your undergraduate grades is the likelihood you’ll make it through the first year of law study. Even then, your undergraduate grades are valuable only as to certain subjects and your LSAT score has predictive value only on the outliers — if you score in the top 30% or the bottom 30%, you have a better than average or far less than average chance of success, respectively. Anything else in between is a coin flip. Plenty of law schools equipped to provide a good, sound legal education realize this and have more flexible or holistic admissions standards. At the end of the day, the law in the library at Harvard is the same law in the library at any other law school.
But, be realistic. If you have a 2.5 undergraduate g.p.a. and a LSAT score in the 31st percentile, you are not prepared for law school – period. Your grades and LSAT score strongly indicate that you lack the reading comprehension and logical reasoning skills critical to success both as a law student and a lawyer. Yes, there is a law school out there somewhere that will admit you. That doesn’t mean you should go; it’s an acceptance letter, not a subpoena. Either academically prepare yourself by improving your core skills or accept the fact that this is not the field in which your talents lie. Do not let yourself go into debt that is the equivalent of a small mortgage to learn this lesson. (See next paragraph.)
6. Be a Critical Consumer and Do Not Believe Everything You Hear or Read. I have seen people spend more time debating the purchase of a $50 pair of shoes than debating to which law school they will give their hard-earned money for the privilege of earning a law degree. It’s insane. Even those students who do some investigation ask all the wrong questions. I’m sure the backlash on this will come fast and furious, but I’m gonna say it anyway: you should not care what a school’s bar pass rate is unless it’s practically zero. You are the best predictor of your likelihood for success on the bar, not your classmates past and present, and law school isn’t a three or four-year-long Bar prep course.
What should you care about? Two things: (1) how many people flunk out the first year and (2) your job prospects during law school and after. If the first-year attrition rate is more than 30%, that’s a good indication the school is admitting too many students not well-prepared for the study of law. These are not folks you want to rely upon as study partners, that will heighten the quality of classroom dialogue, or who will enable the faculty to teach to anything but the lowest common denominator. Not a recipe for a great law school experience. Also be wary of overly optimistic employment numbers. If it seems unreal to you that 98% of graduates are employed, trust your gut. Ask about opportunities to intern or clerk somewhere; it’s the only hands-on experience you’ll get before the real show. Do some homework and randomly select graduates to ask about their pre and post-graduation employment experiences to determine your true chances of finding employment you need or desire. Don’t rely solely on the alumni served up to you at a prospective law school’s open house or recruiting event — these folks were carefully selected, and I’m sure you can imagine the marketing office wasn’t asking any unemployed or underemployed alumni to talk up their experience.
Be especially critical if your law school path takes you down a non-traditional road, such as to a state-accredited law school. Investigate the consequences of attending such a school (such as where and when you can take the Bar exam in other states) and your employment prospects with an even greater degree of scrutiny. If you can choose between an ABA school and a state-accredited school, choose carefully. You need the reasons for attending a state-accredited school to really outweigh those for attending your ABA option, if only because of the serious limitations on your mobility and employment prospects attendant to the state-accredited degree. (For example, you can never sit for the Bar exam in Arizona if you hold a J.D. from a non-ABA school, no matter how many years you’ve practiced.) If your options are limited for academic reasons to non-ABA schools, rethink your decision about law school altogether. You are about to plunk down $20,000 to $30,000 for the first year of study, and you will still owe that money even if you are academically disqualified after the first year. Non-profit does not mean “no profit;” the law school admissions committees do not have your best interests at heart no matter what that glossy marketing brochure says.
7. Law Is Not What You See on T.V. I have been a lawyer for nearly 12 years. In that time, I have tried one case. Oh, I’ve prepared plenty of cases for trial, and I see the inside of a courtroom often enough, but the reality of law practice in this country is that only about 4% of cases ever get tried. Any higher number would grind our already beleaguered judicial system to a halt. Consequently, I spend the vast amount of my time reading, writing and negotiating. If you are either not good at these things or do not like them, you are making a career choice that will doom you to a life of misery no matter how much you might like law school. If the idea of sitting alone in a library for hours to read case law, working furiously through the night to write a brief on a deadline, or pleading with opposing counsel (or your own client) to be reasonable makes you want to poke your eye out with a hot stick, I highly recommend you consider an alternate career path, lest you find yourself blind two weeks into your first job.
8. You Cannot Be a Law Firm Lawyer and a Parent and Do Both Well. Because law school is ridiculously expensive, you’re going to need a decent paying job when you graduate. The vast majority of those are at law firms with high annual billable hour requirements. Whether your annual requirement is 1,900 hours or 2,300 hours, you are going to find that requirement mostly incompatible with things like parent-teacher conferences, Little League practice, music lessons, field trips and homework help, to say nothing of maternity leave if you are the one birthing the future Little-Leaguer or paternity leave if you are lucky enough to land at a firm that not only has such a policy and doesn’t make you feel like a complete jackass for utilizing it. In fact, you will find a billable hours requirement quite difficult to balance against being home for dinner, taking a vacation or getting more than 6 hours of sleep per night (sometimes on the floor of your office). And, I’m just talking about making it through a year meeting the bare minimum of what’s expected of an associate. If you have aspirations of earning a bonus or making partner at a law firm, you better have a stay-at-home parent or a nanny and a high tolerance for watching your children grow up in pictures, because rest assured your weeks will be 80-100 hours per on a regular basis. You will have to make difficult choices more often than you’d like: go to dinner with a client who unexpectedly popped into town or go to Junior’s playoff game? More often, though, you’ll just have difficult conversations because you don’t get a choice. Ask my husband how he took the news that I’ll be away for an entire month this year for a trial. I’m sure you’ll get an earful. And my husband is a lawyer, too, so the professional part of him at least understands even when the parent/husband part of him is frustrated.
9. Not Every Lawyer Plays by the Rules. You would think that lawyers, having gone through all the same hazing rituals, would be kinder to each other. Sometimes, that’s the case. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with (and against) some lawyers I’m quite proud to call colleagues. But, I’ve encountered more than a fair share of lawyers whose ethics, motives, tactics and gamesmanship are appalling. You know those stories you’ve heard about students stealing pages out of law library books to prevent the “competition” from completing an assignment? Well, those jerks end up practicing law, too, and they take those bad habits right along with them, honing them over years of practice. It’s bad enough when one of them ends up on the other side of one of your cases. But, it’s far worse when one of them ends up working in your firm on one of your cases.
10. Being Argumentative Does Not Make You a Good Lawyer. If I had a dollar for every student who said to me, “I like to argue, so I’d be a great lawyer,” I wouldn’t need a day job. This is, however, probably the second worst reason to go to law school. (See paragraph 1.) I’d explain this, but I couldn’t do a better job of it than Mark Herrmann did here.