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.

Esquired.

Bar results came out yesterday and I PASSED!

it's a celebration

Because you can’t be excited without referencing Dave Chappelle as Rick James.

Hugely relieved. Results weren’t due out until today, and I actually went to the website just to see what time they’d be dropping and saw the link. I scrolled down the list in slow motion and there my name was! Texas actually gives you your score and I actually passed by a comfortable margin, which was a nice ego boost. Husband and I went out for dinner at Cheesecake Factory to celebrate. Still in a state of disbelief- I’ve been dreaming of this day for so long and it finally happened. I’m a lawyer. Of course, my friends and family never doubted me. I was 75% sure I had passed, but it’s such a grueling exam and I had to learn new law since I was coming from out of state. Plus, this was a hard bar year- passage rates were down a full 10% from last year! Oh well. This news has made my month. I’m out of J.D. limbo and I feel like I finally have some job options. I’m a lawyer, y’all!

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The bar exam

It’s finally over.

Actually, it was over a week ago but I’m just now getting to the point where I’m no longer too exhausted to talk about it. I studied hard, did my best, and prayed. A lot. I’m still praying for favor over my exam since it has to be graded and I won’t get the results until November. Jesus keep me near the cross and the curve! Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot of my experience.

 

Bar prep isn’t fun, but it doesn’t start out completely horrible. You can focus because the fear of failure is like your very own Strict Asian Dad, goading you into reading outlines when you’d rather be using the internet.

 

facebook study

 

After the first two weeks, I realized that the bar exam is creeping closer and maybe I didn’t remember as much from 1L year as I thought I did. My anxiety levels were starting to rise, but it wasn’t completely out of control.

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A month out, the daily grind of waking up and studying all day was starting to wear on me. It was like reliving all the worst parts of law school without any of the breaks or socializing.

 

bar studying

 

 

At two weeks before the test it’s probably time for a nervous breakdown if you haven’t already had one. I didn’t shed any tears, but I did spend a whole day feeling sick and gave my husband the silent treatment when he dared suggest that the multiple choice portion of the bar exam couldn’t be any worse than the SAT.

are you serious

 

 

In the final week before the test, I alternated between complete apathy and utter despair.

not sure

eff this

 

The day before I took care of all the logistical details. including buying 2.5 gallon Ziploc bags to carry my laptop(!) in since apparently the Board of Law Examiners is worse than TSA. I was a little keyed up but managed to get a good night’s rest. Day 1 was a half day for the procedure & evidence short answer and the practical essay, which  I felt very well prepared for. Most of the questions coincided with my review so I was pretty confident at the end of the day.

 

tim-gunn-make-it-work

 

Day 2 was the MBE, which should stand for Most Blatant Evil. This was the multiple choice test that made me understand why so many people HATE multiple choice tests. Even the practice tests were hard. They’re super tricky even when you KNOW the law. And unlike the SAT, each question is its own separate fact pattern. And said fact pattern is sometimes so long that one question just about takes up an entire page. Although I made significant progress during bar prep, I honestly have no clue how I did. I couldn’t do anything but go home and hit a dramatic wall slide.

Wallslide-Cartoon

 

 

Day 3 was the state essays. Written tests are my forte because you can fudge your way through and still get points. It’s the old W.C. Fields strategy- “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” To put it in bar exam terms, make up a rule, throw in a dash of public policy and move on.

 

Razzle dazzle

Of course, 6 hours of feverish typing and thinking on the fly had me feeling like I was putting on a show.

mad men tapdance

The hardest part was managing my anxiety. I was so ready to be done that my nerves were shot and every little thing was irritating me. I had to call my husband and a law school friend on lunch break because my fellow bar takers were giving me homicidal urges. There’s always a few people who who take “dress for success” to an extreme conclusion and show up in a silk dress and pumps, or suit and tie. Then there are those who are either a) completely unbothered and feel the need to smugly announce how well they did; or b) completely freaking out. Either way, people from one or both camps will inevitably be sitting next to you or walking towards the exit with you on lunch break and making you want to punch them in the face.

stayoverthere

 

Finally, the test was over for real for real, and I had my life back. Or so I thought, since the bar examiner proceeded to keep us for another 30 minutes while the proctors painstakingly collected tests, counted tests, made us backup our tests to USB, etc. All very necessary things, but I didn’t want anything more than to be out of that room!

 
let my people go

 

And then it was done. I survived the bar exam! Let’s all pray that come November I’ll be Wifey, Esq.

 

Boldly Myself

Being your own person can be liberating and scary at the same time. The scary part is the lingering doubts. What happens if you don’t conform, take the safe route, do what’s expected? But that still pales in comparison to owning who you are and what you want. I realize that I’ve spent a lot of my life tip toeing around, trying not to make a fuss, and giving people what I thought they wanted while internally freaking out. I know now that a few things would have turned out differently if I had stood my ground and been more assertive from the start. But everything is a lesson, right?

I’m learning even more as President of my law school’s BLSA chapter. I took the position not just because I needed the resume boost, but because I knew I usually avoid visible leadership positions and I would learn a lot. Lately there have been some murmurings about a few folks finding me unapproachable and “hostile”. A couple years ago I would have either a) bent over backwards trying to seem friendlier and lost sleep over it; or b) dug in my heels and acted purposely ornery (as a Capricorn, I tend toward the ornery). This time? I did a gut check with my friends and laughed it off. You can’t please everybody, and I make a very conscious effort to be personable despite my desire to spend most of my time alone. Some folks are just over sensitive and I don’t have to internalize their issues. Their problem does not have to become my problem. How freeing is that?

My 3L year is also the test of me breaking away from the law school crowd, for real for real. There are networking events left and right but I’m holding myself above the frenzy. I choose very selectively where I do and don’t go based on who I want to meet, what I need to do, what I want to do, and how I feel. Tomorrow there is an alumni cocktail mixer but I won’t make it because I don’t want to use another skip day in class to beat the traffic and also–I just don’t feel up to it. It’s been a very busy, trying week for me so I know I don’t have the energy to “sparkle” in a room filled with 100+ people. However, next week I am volunteering at a community law clinic hosted by someone who has had a very nontraditional career path and also happens to be a graduate of my undergrad alma mater. I’m hoping to cultivate her as a mentor and I know that in that smaller setting, we’ll have a chance for productive conversation.

So, I’m being very deliberate and trusting that God will put the right opportunities and people in my path. Every event I’ve gone to where I made real connections, I was either more excited than nervous or I just had a feeling that I needed to get over my reluctance. I’m not getting that feeling about the event tomorrow so I don’t feel bad about not going. You know what else I don’t feel bad about? Taking the February 2014 bar exam. I’m so sick to death of law school and everything related to it. I just don’t see myself settling in for 6 weeks of law school on steroids a week after graduation. My mind is totally on getting married and finding a non-law job and I don’t do anything half-assed if I don’t absolutely have to. A 6 month delay won’t mean anything in the long run.

This right here is MY life and I won’t live anyone else’s.

On Networking

Never underestimate the power of networking to further your ambitions. I must say that is the principal thing I’ve learned while being in the Capitol. Just hearing the word “networking” makes me cringe inwardly. Why? Well, I’m an introvert so talking to people I don’t know is something I dread. I fear that I will end up having a completely awkward and stilted conversation and make a horrible impression. Also, the way some people present it makes it sound like you’re taking advantage of someone rather than getting to know them and seeing if they have any information you can use.

I am definitely looking forward to law school, but with trepidation. Everything I’ve read says that law school is thankless and demanding, and the practice of law is even more so. Furthermore, public interest work drains your spirit and leaves you destitute. And believe me, that is no exaggeration of what I’ve actually heard! But the sponsor for my summer internship hosted a networking dinner and panel that proved very fruitful. I met a Harvard Law graduate and environmental litigator who loved law school, and loves her job as well. Happy lawyers do exist! I am so glad I met her, because she is where I want to be someday. Seeing a living, breathing example of someone who doesn’t regret their career decision calmed my fears, and reassured me that I’m not making a huge mistake.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I have been drawn to two career paths– law and non-profits. I thought that I would merge the two by pursuing a J.D./MPA (Master’s in public administration) dual degree program, but found out today that may not be necessary. I had coffee with a non-profit consultant last week, and she said that since I would already be working in the non-profit sector, after a few years of working as a lawyer I would have the experience I needed to more into policy work if I desire. “The J.D. and MPA are both advanced degrees, so you don’t need both. If you really want to do policy, get your Master’s first and think about getting a J.D. later. But if you really want to be a lawyer, don’t worry about the Master’s. You don’t want to spend your whole life in school.”

Hmmm. Getting a Master’s only adds one year to my grad school trajectory–but that’s one more year of loans, and one more year before I can enter the workforce. I’ve been thinking about it and I really might forgo the Master’s. I can accomplish the same good deeds as a lawyer, and I want to be a judge someday so I have to say that practicing law is my primary career goal. I’m so glad I was able to meet with this woman because she had the experience needed to give me an educated opinion on my situation.

So, to all of you introverts out there I say– get out there and network! You could missing out on meeting someone who has the knowledge you need to figure out your own path. And if you ask an open ended question such as “How did you get where you are today?” or “What’s the advice you wish someone had told you when you were in my position?”, the conversation starts to flow pretty freely. Most folks are more than happy to help someone with a genuine interest in their field.