In real life, people tend to resist hard lines: “Isn’t there a win-win approach we can take? Let’s just get along!” When there is, excellent. Take it! But, sometimes there’s not a win-win option. It’s a zero-sum game, and someone’s going to prevail. In that situation, having been trained as a lawyer is hugely valuable. With years of experience objectively examining the facts, you’re likely to identify the reality of the situation sooner and to process the alternatives more accurately.
Was Law School Worth It?
Would you do it again? This summer, as graduates prepare for their next steps — whether they’re heading off to law school or studying for the bar or thinking it’s a good time for a gap year — it’s likely you know someone (maybe it’s you?) who’s wondering: Is law school worth it? In this Attorney at Work classic, JD Nation’s Annie Little reached out to ask 10 top J.D.s.
There’s no shortage of advice on whether or not anyone should attend law school. In most discussions, the prominent concern is money. Is the cost of law school worth the Juris Doctor? Is the initial debt worth the eventual (and increasingly unlikely) partner payday?
But after the money has been spent and the hard-earned J.D. hangs on your wall, the notion of monetary value becomes somewhat irrelevant. After all, it’s not like you can go back to your alma mater and obtain a refund.
But let’s say, arguendo, that you could return your law degree and get your money back. With the “Esquire” stripped from your name and a firehose-like infusion of funds into your bank account, would you find yourself back at square one? Without any job prospects or opportunities? Or would you make out like a bandit?
As a “recovering” lawyer myself, I’ll admit the idea of a tuition refund sounds like the ultimate equalizer. But even without that hard-earned prestigious piece of paper, you’d likely walk away with a valuable set of skills and experiences you wouldn’t have earned but for your legal education.
Was Law School Worth It? Where’s the Value? 10 Lawyers Weigh In
Below you’ll read accounts from five lawyers — practicing and non-practicing. Some who have no regrets about getting a law degree, and others who aren’t so sure they’d do it again. But, as you’ll see, each demonstrates their law degree is far from worthless.
1. Keith Lee — Outlet for Creativity.
Law degrees get a bad rap these days. Rightfully so for many reasons. Many people who attend law school either don’t know what it means to be a lawyer or discover they are not fit for the role. But for people like myself who made an educated decision to go to law school, knew what they were getting into, and wanted to be a lawyer, a law degree is invaluable.
Before addressing any of the myriad ways in which my law degree has benefited me, I think it’s important to note that the most valuable thing my law degree has allowed me to do is become a practicing attorney. That’s why people attend law school. That’s not to say that alternative careers may not become available to law students, but the reason the vast majority of students attend law school is to become a practicing attorney. I thoroughly enjoy my practice: the clients, colleagues, and work we do. Without my experience as a practicing attorney, I would not have had the other opportunities that came to me in my career.
Outside of being an attorney, my law degree has led to incredible creative outlets. While finishing my last year of law school, I started Associate’s Mind, a legal blog focusing on professional development for new lawyers. It quickly became one of the most popular legal blogs in the country. Associate’s Mind has led to writing opportunities in all types of periodicals and media outlets, as well as book deals with the ABA.
This writing and outreach, born from having a law degree, has also led to wide and deep relationships with attorneys across the country. Initial interactions on blogs and social media has led to phone calls and then to meetings with attorneys in person while traveling around the country. I count many people I have met as friends and mentors.
None of the above would have been possible without a law degree. And I don’t know if you can put a fixed value on the benefits I have received from having a law degree. But, I do know that given the choice, I would do it all over again without hesitation.
Keith Lee is the founder of associatesmind.com, a professional development legal blog for new lawyers and Founder lawyersmack.com He is the author of the ABA bestseller, “The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice.” Keith formally practiced law with Hamer Law Group in Birmingham, AL. Find him on Twitter @associatesmind.
2. Vivia Chen — Intellectual Prowess.
I’m one of those strange creatures who actually liked law school — certainly much more than practice (but that’s another subject).
I went to NYU Law School, and I thought the students there were razor-sharp, outspoken, and sometimes outlandish (in good ways). They were New Yorkers — even if they weren’t from New York — which is to say they were edgier than the preppies at my undergraduate school or the Southern belles I went to high school within Texas. So what I got out of law school were interesting class discussions that often veered towards heated political debates.
My law school professors, I’m sorry to say, weren’t always as interesting or sharp as the students. Some were plain dull and couldn’t even make a subject like Constitutional Law remotely lively. And some subjects (like Property) were just inherently deadly and probably beyond anyone’s salvation.
Despite what I regard as an uneven legal education, I got an immense intellectual charge from those three years. It taught me to think more logically, to back my arguments with solid support. As an English major in college, I was used to a bit more “fluff;” I loved luxuriating in metaphors, the cadence of words, etc. Law school, on the other hand, made me more direct, more forceful. Plus, it made me more argumentative — which is not a bad thing. It gave me a different perspective on how to approach problems, language, everything.
Vivia J. Chen has been writing about the business and culture of the legal profession for over a decade. She is the creator and chief blogger of The Careerist, and a senior reporter for The American Lawyer. After practicing corporate law for five years in New York City, Ms. Chen worked as a headhunter, interior designer, and ghostwriter. She specializes in writing about careers, often focusing on women and diversity. Find her on Twitter @lawcareerist.
3. Alison Monahan — Keen Discernment.
When people ask what I really learned in law school, they don’t typically like the response: To be an unyielding a**hole on demand. I know we’re not supposed to say things like that when the profession wants to encourage civility and people I like and respect actively encourage lawyers not to be jerks. But it is what it is. Ultimately, it’s a very valuable skill — one that pays dividends in every area of my life … when employed judiciously.
Should You Really Go To Law School? Introducing The Ghost Of Legal Future
That $190,000 starting salary sounds pretty good, right? Or maybe it’s the prospect of doing good for society, especially in the current political landscape. Either way, you’ve found yourself at a crossroads wondering whether you should go to law school.
You’re hardly alone. The last few years have seen a steady increase in law school applications, whether it’s been due to the “Trump bump”, an RBG moment, or COVID-19. Just in this past year, statistics from the Law School Admissions Council showed that as of December 2020, the number of applicants to U.S. law schools were up about 35% and the number of applications submitted were up about 57%, each compared to last year.
Yet, a recent study conducted by the Florida State Bar found that about 60% of young lawyers are so discouraged with their jobs that they were thinking about changing careers. A 2018 survey conducted by job site CV-Library found that about 50% of lawyers disliked their jobs.
There are plenty of other reasons why you shouldn’t go to law school and plenty of reasons why you should, but I won’t share them right now. Over the course of the coming months, my goal is to help you decide whether you should or shouldn’t go to law school. I won’t try to do this by just sharing statistics of how much debt the average law graduate is in or what the bonus is for third year big law associates – I’m sure you could find all of those things on the internet yourself. You are, in fact, smart enough to be considering law school. I’ll help you make your decision by sharing stories, stories of lawyers of all different backgrounds and in different stages of their careers, lawyers who have excelled in traditional paths, non-traditional paths, and everything in between.
Like the Ghost of Christmas Future, I’ll paint a picture of how life might turn out if you go to law school (except much less intimidating, creepy and Grim Reaper-like). My goal is not to dissuade you from going to law school, but rather, like a “choose your adventure” style novel, share the different paths a career after law school can take. I will be your Ghost of Legal Future.
I went to Boston University School of Law a few years ago; I majored in Economics at Emory University, liked to read, was good at writing, and most importantly, I did not want to be a doctor. So, as a first generation child of immigrant parents, of course, law school seemed like the right choice. While I enjoyed many parts of law school – the friends I made, the legal theories I learned, and the critical and analytical thinking skills I developed, working as a lawyer was not at all like law school. I practiced for some time as a corporate lawyer, but it didn’t take long before I realized that it was not what I had expected. I decided that the traditional lawyer path was not for me, and I eventually switched careers into design. I now work as a designer and researcher. I enjoy learning about new technologies and using my problem solving chops to find strategic and innovative solutions.
My path to leaving law firm life wasn’t an easy one. Being a lawyer meant that for most of my adult life, I had been on a path that had been clearly laid out for me. I finished college, took the LSAT, applied to law schools, attended law school, and eventually ended up at a law firm, a path that most law school career centers generally funnel students towards. In leaving the law, I no longer had a clear path laid out for me. Instead, I had to finally do the hard work of figuring out my own non-traditional path.
Law school is often the choice for those who don’t know what to do after college (with the often false promise of a lucrative salary). Even in law school, most often, on-campus recruiting and joining a law firm seem like the path of least resistance (and the path offering the highest likelihood of paying off student loans). While this is the perfect answer for some, for others it leads to unmet expectations and a desire for something different.
Still, looking back, I learned a lot through law school and working as an attorney. The work ethic that I developed, the attention to detail that I honed, and the ability to write as clearly and succinctly as possible were all invaluable skills I gained in the process. I learned how to think critically, advocate fiercely, and negotiate effectively. As I juggled multiple deals at a time, I learned to better manage my time. All to say, that, whether or not I remember the rules for negligence (I do, by the way), I learned valuable skills as a law student and lawyer.
The interesting (or, interesting to me) thing about the legal field is that there’s a whole separate field that’s emerged devoted to helping lawyers leave the law. Studies after studies show that lawyers are unhappy and unsatisfied with their careers. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Florida State Bar found that about 60% of young lawyers are so discouraged with their jobs that they were thinking about changing careers. A 2018 survey conducted by job site, CV-Library, found that about 50% of lawyers disliked their jobs.
What are the cons of going to law school?
Alternatively, public interest attorneys may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which can potentially eliminate federal student loan balances for borrowers who make loan payments for 10 years while working for the government or certain nonprofits. There are also various refinancing options and a plethora of financial products that can help you withstand the weight of debt. No matter what plan of action you pursue, the financial burden of law school must be fully understood and taken into account.
The changing job market is also one to keep in mind when considering law school. Law firms are finding increasingly innovative ways to address the needs of their clients and building broader relationships with stakeholders, but those same changes could imperil your job prospects or make the field unappetizing to you. Legal jobs have a chance of being international outsourced, for instance, and billing models are shifting.
With that said, the traditional legal market has hopeful projections. 89 percent of 2018 law school grads found jobs within 10 months. The same study found that 71 percent of 2018 law graduates worked in positions that required a J.D. Litigators are in especially high demand, and will continue to be in the next two years.
Given these potential trade-offs, one’s decision to go to law school should not be driven by fear or the negative projections of debt or a changing job market. Instead, it is a decision that should be driven by self-assessment, and career goals. Find out what job market trends you want to follow. And if public interest is the path for you, seriously consider the debt balance you will have to maintain with your goals, personal financial situation, and long-term costs.
The bottom-line answer: if you can avoid considerable debt, laser focus on equipping yourself with practical skillsets, and remain flexible about future job opportunities—you can have a successful career in the legal field. Choose your law school carefully, consider the kinds of clinical experiences you want, the possibility of mentorship, and the employment history of recent graduates at schools you’re drawn to.
What is law school like?
When considering law school, many often overlook the sobering reality of the three years of grueling coursework, clinical experience, research, and two summers of internships. Law school is known to be an intellectually stimulating, and challenging experience.
The current style of legal pedagogy infuses the Socratic method, aka cold calling on students at random during classtime, and case-by-case analysis. The Socratic method is a form of teaching based on asking students questions on the spot to encourage students to think aloud and analyze difficult legal and doctrinal principles aloud with their collogues. This method is often intimidating to students; while the material may not be particularly difficult to understand, the methods their professors employ produces anxiety and stress in the student body.
Students are asked to read an average of several hundred pages of cases a day as a way to learn illustrative examples of judicial principles. The structure of the legal classroom is meant to give students practice thinking aloud and with public speaking.
In addition to weathering a rigorous teaching method, law students must immerse themselves in substantive clinical (i.e. mimicking the practice of law) and journal (i.e. writing about the law) experiences in order to graduate with marketable skills. Clinics and journals provide law students with ways to apply their doctrinal, and often theoretical, lessons to help the lives of their community members or in service of important causes nationally.
Hand-on programs and clinical experiences with the supervision of a licensed attorney, will provide law students with a look into the lives of attorneys, the daily challenges of the profession, and an opportunity to manage a real case load. Students might immerse, for instance, in an immigration law clinic, spending a few hours each week seeing how that branch of the law is applied in real life and providing help that’s permitted for someone who hasn’t yet passed the bar.
Clinics and journals will also provide students with lawyering skills, expansive networks that can be integral when entering the workforce, and a series of professional accomplishments and research opportunities that will help differentiate you from other law students.
Finally, all successful law students take advantage of their summers to get exposure in fields they hope to join, build their resume, and get a better sense of the kinds of offices they hope to work for. These internships are crucial, and some students tailor their coursework to the needs of their prospective employers. While internships in Big Law or at other commercial firms are often handsomely compensated, a majority of public interest positions are unpaid, and only a few schools provide students with financial assistance during the summer.
Prospective law students should be prepared for a rigorous yet stimulating three years. One must enter law school with extreme discipline in order to manage fairly challenging coursework, and clear road plan for the types of extracurriculars and internships that could help catapult one from a successful law student, to an employable one.