Don’t go to law school unless you’re one of these five people

Starry eyed dreamers continue to consider law school. One of my sorors posted this on Facebook:

“…… thinking about law school. I see law everywhere I am. All the products I use (copyrights, trademarks, consumer safety) to driving down the street (city, county laws) to even being on social media (privacy and communication laws). I’m intrigued…..”

My reply ( because we are acquaintances and I didn’t want to be a dream crushing jerk) was: “Really think hard about that. The legal job market is awful and the practice of law is not what it seems from the outside looking in. There are literally licensed attorneys doing unpaid internships trying to get a foot in the door. You can be equally overworked and underpaid as a teacher, except teachers get summers off, federal holidays, and benefits! That is almost impossible to find as an attorney.”

But here on my blog, I am going to let you all know that there are five kinds of people who are successful in law school and if you don’t fit entirely into one or more of those categories, you need to hang it up. TL; DR: people who enjoy the academic challenge of law are not the ones who are the most successful lawyers.

The people making enough money to be comfortable fall into one of these categories:

  1. The Trust Fund Babies. These kids may not have a literal trust fund, but they have connections. This group includes future Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, of course, as well as people who have lawyers in their family going back to the Mayflower. It’s the legacy admissions who have Thanksgiving with your Torts professor because he taught dear old dad 20 years ago. It’s the children of the senior partners of the biggest law firm in the state. It even includes the son of the local personal injury lawyer whose commercials everyone laughs at. Well, while you’re stressing over exams, he’s got a job for life lined up. While you’re struggling with the finer points of Bluebook citation over spring break, they let daddy’s paralegal revise their memo and hit the beach.
  2. The Second Career Veterans. These people spent 8+ years in corporate America, and have industry specific knowledge that put them head and shoulders above the competition.  A human resources benefits specialist is a shoo in at the employment law firm who needs a worker’s comp or ERISA attorney. Maybe it’s a real estate agent who gets a law degree so they can do their own closings and stop splitting commissions. Whatever the particulars, they have something you don’t– prior job experience that is highly valued enough to launch them into a six figure job after graduation, and a strong professional network in their desired industry.
  3. The Sharks. These are the hustlers, the go-getters, the ones who will succeed by any means necessary (and for some that means buying old exams from alumni to get the edge on finals). These are the folks who started reading the WSJ business section freshman year of college so that they wouldn’t be at a loss for conversation with a potential employer. They are intensely competitive and love working 24/7. They don’t have time for the law fraternity kegger but they are at every alumni mixer and go to local bar association section meetings. They can come from any rung on the socioeconomic ladder but they pursue their goals with single minded focus and precision. 
  4. The True Detectives. Crime is a constant, so it’s a good thing to stake your career on. The thing is, it takes a special type of person to do criminal law no matter which side of the aisle you’re on. Criminal law, much like medicine or the clergy, is a calling. Every successful criminal attorney I’ve met says they knew coming into law school what they wanted to do, and the same was true of my classmates who have taken that route. You must have a bone deep desire to uphold the integrity of the legal system by ensuring fair trials for any accused person, or a bone deep desire to put away the bad guys. Passion required. 
  5. The STEM nerds.  Even in the legal industry, a J.D. alone isn’t  good enough for you to breathe the rarefied air of intellectual property law. But if you’re a nerd who would rather read and write about inventions than build them, IP law is made for you. You need an undergraduate degree in a scientific or technical field along with your law degree in order to take the patent bar. But the overeducation will pay off immediately. For every Google, Microsoft and Samsung, there is a team of IP attorneys writing their contracts, doing their litigation and locking down their patents and being paid handsomely to do so. 

If you aren’t 100% sure you fall into one of these categories, you are not one of these five people. That means you are NOT the exception, you are the average and will likely have an average law career with an average salary. The average is around $118,000 according to US News & World Report, but that number is heavily skewed since they solicit survey responses from lawyers working in large law firms, who are among the highest paid and made up mostly of the 5 types of people listed above. Half of that number is would be a much more realistic average. And yes, you can be an “average lawyer” and still have a satisfying career and a happy life.

I don’t believe that average is a dirty word and if America was more honest about the fact that you cannot actually be anything you want, we could reform our educational system in a meaningful way. Besidesif everybody was exceptional then exceptional wouldn’t mean anything. My point is that a) you don’t need a law degree to get to a $60-80k/yr lifestyle and b) if you are going to end up in the average lawyer position, you should not go to law school unless your cost is being subsidized. If you can get through law school at a cost of no more than $30,000, it’s worth it. Even on an average salary, that is the same debt load as a new car (a lower end car at that) and you will easily be able to carry the payments. If you can get into a top 50 law school I’d say your ROI makes sense if you can get out under $60k. I won’t get into any other hypotheticals because if you aren’t one of the five people above and don’t fall into the two scenarios I’ve already listed, law school is quite simply not for you.

I love my career but if I knew then what I know now I probably would have been an accountant, who dreamt of being a lawyer so who knows? I’m a tax lawyer though, so it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Feel free to drop me a note in the comments or shoot me an email. If you’re considering law school and have questions, I’m happy to chat with you.

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