Should You Go To Law School?

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Here is the list of reasons you should consider law school:

1. You want to practice law.

That is the entire list.

Unless you have independent wealth with no strings attached to it (i.e., parent/family expectations), there is no other reason you should consider law school. Really.

Do people go to medical school for any reason besides becoming a doctor? No.

Do people get themselves into engineering programs because they think, well, even if this engineering thing doesn’t work out, it’s a great degree to have? No.

But people think there are so many reasons they should go to law school that do not include “I want to practice law.” Many people conflate being a lawyer with practicing law, and they are not the same thing.

Practicing Law Is More Than Having a Law Degree

Our society packs a whole raft of things into the idea of being a lawyer. 

Even though the general populace may not actually like lawyers as a group (and I don’t blame them), lawyers always command a presumption of intelligence, wealth, and success. It may not be deserved, but usually that’s where folks start when they meet someone who is a lawyer.

Here’s the mythology—and the reality—of the three most common ones:

Myth #1—Intelligence

Most lawyers are presumed to be above-average in intellectual ability. That part of the myth is true, at least for people who attend the top 50 or so law schools. I’ll discuss this at length in another post, but remember that book smart does not equal street savvy, let alone equaling good with people. 

Yet parents/friends/strangers see analytic intelligence alone as something that will unlock the keys to the job kingdom beyond law. The idea that social skills and good old common sense are important is not something that most Boomers or Gen Xers grew up believing. Consequently, the “intelligence = better job” mythology continues, fueling the “but it’s such a useful degree!” mythology.

Go grab a copy of A Whole New Mind, by Dan Pink, to dig into why intellectual prowess no longer rules the economic roost.

Myth #2—Wealth

Yes, there are lawyers who graduate law school and immediately get paid more than $175K. They nearly all went to top-tier law schools, graduated near the top of their classes, were on a law review, and maybe clerked for a judge. If they aren’t in NYC or the Bay Area, they are in other large cities. They are not first-year associates in Omaha, Louisville, Youngstown, Reno, or Raleigh.

Vast numbers of experienced lawyers (say, 4 years out of law school) pull in less than $100K—sometimes far less. They might be public defenders or other lawyers who work for the downtrodden. They might work as state prosecutors, or in other federal, state, or local governmental roles. They might, like more than half of all attorneys, work for themselves or for smaller firms. http://prelaw.umass.edu/topics/firm_size

When you cross-tabulate that with data from 2019, it means that 

  • New lawyers in small firms very frequently make between $62K and $90.5K;
  • Somewhat experienced lawyers (1 to 3 years) in small firms average $72K to $103K;
  • Experienced lawyers (4 to 9 years) usually make somewhere between $95K and $158K;
  • Veteran lawyers (10 years+) at small firms average $128K to $181K. https://www.ilrg.com/employment/salaries/

While making $110,000 might sound fantastic if you otherwise would be making $65,000, do not forget about student loan payments. EVER. 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Not only can loan payments eat up the difference between $110K and $65K, they can command repayments so high that you actually have less discretionary income than if you were making $65K in a marketing or legal admin job and had no loan repayments. Just as in the rest of society, the middle income jobs for attorneys have been disappearing for the last 2 decades.

Myth #3—Job Security

Many people, especially parents, teachers, and college professors, deeply believe that a career as a lawyer is stable and predictable. And sure, it was—before about 1990, say. But even before 2020, the large, corporate law firms (aka BigLaw) had been downsizing, especially after 2008. 

This year in our brave new world of Pandemia, firms have laid off scads of attorneys, and many firms do not anticipate hiring that same number back once the pandemic is over. Read the writing on the wall yourself: https://abovethelaw.com/covid-19-special-coverage/)

Photo by Charles Koh on Unsplash

One other thing to keep in mind is that a surprising amount of lawyer tasks are being conquered by artificial intelligence (AI). First it was document review, then legal research, and now there are some highly competent legal writing AI packages out there. 

AI will be a huge disruptor in law. I expect that it could help small and solo practices gain enough efficiency that they can offer their services to the middle class at actually affordable rates, which would be a win for everyone. But that remains to be seen.

One thing that usually happens with improved technology is job displacement, and I would be shocked if that did not happen in law.

I’ll dig more deeply into each of these myths in a subsequent post. I know if you are considering law school, chances are you’re the kind of person who wants to know why these societal myths aren’t true.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who went to law school because she wanted to work for a legislative committee. Silly rabbit, she could have done a year of law school and done that easily. Or not gone to law school, oh, at all. If you’re interested in assessing whether you really need law school to do what you want in the world, you can contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to set up a sample session.

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