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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Death to Socrates

Or at least the Socratic method. It’s week 5 of the semester and I’m hitting that same point I hit last semester where I just stop caring. Excellence in law school seems to demand an unwavering perfection, an obsessive attention to detail, and a commitment to conformity. Color me jaded.

The truth is, the study of law itself is not inherently boring. But it is taught in a way that discourages creativity and engagement. The Socratic method was, I’m sure, intended to be a tool in which students learned by thinking critically about their studies with guidance from their professor. In practice, it falls far short. We come in 1L year scared to death, knowing nothing, and then we find out we have to stand in front of the entire class and get grilled on a case. You don’t know where or when your name is coming up, but it’s coming. The dread looms over you and finally, when you get called on, you freeze.

At this point, whether you read the case immaterial because sheer nerves have you come off like a bumbling idiot (in your own eyes at least) either way. Your already fragile ego takes a blow that it doesn’t recover from until next semester, at which point you have realized that class performance is pointless because your entire grade is based on the final. By your second year, you have realized that with adequate notetaking and the help of a good outline (commercial or borrowed from an upperclassmen), you can pass all your classes by doing little more than showing up. This is certainly no standard to live up to, but when the classroom routine is “speak when spoken to” and you often don’t know how to word your confusion about the material into a coherent question, it’s reality.

One thing I miss about my undergrad days studying history is that professors only cold called on students as a last resort. Generally, my peers were enthusiastic about speaking. I have never been the class chatterbox–I learn by observation, so I prefer to mull over my own thoughts while considering new perspectives from others. Still, knowing that I was free to speak, or not speak, as I chose made me far more willing to do the reading and I participated a fair amount as well. Moreover, I never came to class feeling ashamed or worried about my ignorance of a particular facet of the material.The problem is, although class participation counts very little, if at all, toward your final grade, it is the only impression of you as an individual that your professors have. Many of the jobs and almost all of the scholarships you apply for require at least one professor as a reference, and of course you want to ask a professor who has a good impression of you!

Added on to that is the fact that I am not in the law school with the goal of becoming a traditional practicing lawyer and some days it’s just hard to shake off the apathy. Law school is just so far divorced from the reality of what lawyers do, and have the potential do. THAT reality is what really excites me and keeps me on this difficult path, because while a Master’s in Public Policy would have been easier and more fun, it would not have prepared me as well for the chameleon career I have ahead of me. And so, I keep on chugging…