Reasons to Avoid Law School

Paul Gowder has written an essay on Why you shouldn't go to law school.. There's a lot of truth there, but it also leaves out a few crucial things.

The truest parts are surely these: a lot of legal jobs are no fun. Some of the most no-fun jobs pay very well, but many of the no-fun jobs don't pay that well if you consider the need to repay law school (and perhaps also undergraduate) debt.

A law degree is absolutely not a guaranteed meal ticket. Nor is it a guarantee that you'll be doing something interesting. For one thing, before you even get to the negatives that Gowder lists, there's an even more basic issue that makes some people unhappy: you are a lawyer. Some people — notably a significant fraction of the people who drifted into law school straight from college because they couldn't think of anything else to do — find that they don't like being a lawyer. Gowder captures that problem. And it is a very real problem.

One thing he doesn't capture is that there are also people who actually discover they love the law. It's about important things. You get to solve people's problems. Perhaps you get to solve puzzles, or you get to deal with people.

Gowder's essay is aimed at all the people who are not landing at the elite of the profession. People who do really well get to choose some of the firms that are still run by nice people with decent values.

Gowder is writing to the rest of the world, and he paints a grim picture. What he says has a lot of truth (although I think he's overly grim about what the experience of public interest law is like), but also dramatically incomplete.

The biggest thing Gowder's essay leaves out is the attractions of government work. There are a lot of good government jobs at the local, state and national levels. The federal jobs even offer decent wages. The local jobs don't always. But government jobs do offer some other important things: because the offices are chronically understaffed and under-resourced, young lawyers get responsibility early in their careers. These jobs often offer the satisfaction of using one's talents for the public good.

Government work has many faces: prosecutors, public defenders [link added 1/17], agency lawyers, state AG's offices, advisers to legislatures and to the executive. Lots of these are frustrating yet fulfilling places to work.

The prospects for lawyers are not as bright as they were in the Good Old Days (whenever those were). The profession is stratified, pay and job quality varies enormously, satisfaction levels are shrinking while (not coincidentally) hours (especially in the highly paid sectors of the private sector) are at unreasonably high levels. And the billing rates are climbing to levels that are sure to incite client revolts.

So there are indeed many reasons not to go to law school. You should only go if you know why you are doing it (although you should also expect that you are likely to change your mind about what kind of law you like best once you are exposed to new things), not because you can't think of anything better to do. And I also suggest a couple of years working full time before law school — there's nothing like seeing the working world from the inside to both make you a more disciplined student, and also to give you insight into many of the situations that give rise to the legal issues you will spend three years analyzing. (Second-best: graduate school in an affiliated discipline, as it gives a different and also valuable perspective.)

That said, I have to admit I enjoyed many aspects of the practice of law. At the end of the day I didn't care deeply enough about which oil company got the money, but I cared about my clients (and they cared a lot which oil company got the money!), and I had pride in the quality of our work. Unlike Gowder's dismal prediciton, I was never in a position where either I or anyone around me even contemplated anything unethical. I did have the advantage of parlaying elite credentials into working for a very good and very decent firm, but not all firm jobs (at least 15 years ago) amounted to complete corporate serfdom.

I enjoyed law school more, which is a large part of why I came back to it. There really is a distinct kind of rigor and reasoning style which characterizes the law. Law is how we decide (or, sometimes, should decide) important social issues. It is the means by which we implement the large majority of public policies. It matters. Unless you are caught up in the sort of associate treadmill that eats all your waking life, a law license is also a license to take part in a meaningful way in politics, law reform, legal aid, and many other things that can be very satifying even if your day job isn't as exciting as it might be.

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14 Responses to Reasons to Avoid Law School

  1. spencer says:

    I spent my first five years out of law school representing migrant and seasonal farmworkers. I then went into private practice where I specialized in federal civil rights cases for victims of police misconduct with a bunch of prisoner rights cases on the side. After 20 years of that, I returned to the legal aid community where I have been for the past five years. I haven’t made a lot of money but I have enjoyed my career and have kept my self-respect representing the downtrodden. Why not?

  2. tax_man says:

    I had a long talk with a 05 UM Law grad the other day who interviewed at our small-mid firm in PB county. This guy was Law Review near the top of his class. But since he didn’t do any BigLaw summers (I think he said he did the county SA) he’s pretty much shunned by top firms now and can’t even get an interview. He started in insurance defense and was interviewing with us for commercial law…I liked him but the partners took a pass because he didn’t have the commercial experience. He said he has no hard feelings towards UM but regrets nobody told him how the job market really works. He said half joking that if he can’t find a decent paying law job he’ll throw in the towel and get back into his prior career in computers. Sadly, I put his name in my rolodex only because our IT guy is incompetent and maybe this guy could moonlight for a few extra bucks next time our email goes down.

    Its odd how UM’s Tax LLC did wonders for me, but this guy’s JD isn’t worth much.

  3. Andrew DeWeese says:

    This is a fantastic piece for 3Ls without job offers to read. Oh angst! what new horror doth the future hold? Wait… I’m starting to put it all together…

    The devil Halloween costume, and now this?

    Professor Froomkin, your forthcoming proposal to erect a gilded sign reading “Abandon all Hope, Ye who Enter Here” over the entrance to the law library has my full support.

  4. Andrew DeWeese says:

    On a related note – I noticed that “tax man” (above) mentioned that the partners at his firm didn’t want to hire this stellar recent UM grad b/c he didn’t have “commercial experience.” What exactly do people think that this means – commercial law classes or commercial law firm experience?

    For the practicing attorneys out there: any courses that are especially useful for getting hired? Courses that you look for on an applicant’s resume? Or is it pretty much a sorting process based on law review membership? And if so, is there some essential skill that those in law review learn that others do not, and if so, what is it and how can those of us not in law review learn it – or should we just be seeking a painless way to end it all sooner rather than later?

  5. Michael says:

    FWIW, I understood that to mean post-law-school experience. Firms that hire mid-level associates very often want people they don’t have to train much, so they want practice experience relevant to what they do.

    If you want to do commercial work, you should take some business courses, including commercial law, but I still think you will be a better lawyer and serve clients better if you go for as generalist a legal education as you can. Your clients, after all, will also have regulatory issues (take administrative law!), trademark issues, labor issues, and so on. You want to be able to spot those issues and guide them to sources of good advice even if you are not expert yourself.

    While I’m sure firms like law review credentials, the smart ones also like transcripts that show continuing improvement. If you started weak but finished strong, that suggests it just took you a little while to get it, but you got there. That’s not a bad story. It is certainly much better than a strong first year followed by a collapse.

  6. Skyler says:

    Well, at least you’re less gloomy than most. I’m a 2L now, starting my third career (Marine officer, manufacturing engineer) and I really hope that you guys are exaggerating.

    As a manufacturing engineer, my salary growth was severely limited because there’s always some young kid out of school that can do what I did for a lot less money, and I could see that someday I’ll be too old to be climbing on machinery.

    Also, after the collapse of manufacturing in 2001, I don’t trust any company to provide employment for very long. That market has recovered slightly, but the drive to move manufacturing to China and Mexico is very powerful.

    I needed another degree to keep moving up. MBA’s are uninteresting to me, and my years out of academia make the rigors of mathematics for an advanced engineering degree impractical.

    My choice was to get a law degree and go into patent law. This either pays off or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I have some debt, but I can go back to engineering. It’s a gamble, but you don’t win if you don’t play.

    I just hope all this doom and gloom turns out wrong. But if you’re right, I guess I’ll go back for another tour in Iraq. Then Afghanistan. Then whatever is next.

  7. azaghal says:

    I agree that government law should be considered. I graduated from law school in 1977 and just retired after 27 years in an investigative job that I found, by and large, to be very rewarding. Certainly it was nowhere near as boring as most of the posters on this topic complain of. I know most of the lawyers I encountered envied me, but were often tied to the money. No, I’m not rich, but I’ve got a good pension, I had a good time, I’m proud of the work I did. It would be unreasonable to ask for more.

  8. GenX says:

    azaghal,
    adjusted for inflation what did you pay for lawschool in 1977? that spiel means little to people who are laying down $100K or more in today’s dollars.

  9. azaghal says:

    GenX, you’re absolutely right about the money. I paid for law school doing 20 hrs. a week of minimum wage law clerking. However, my major point was that there are rewarding jobs in government work of all sorts for lawyers–although not necessarily AS lawyers. I was/am far from unique and those jobs are still out there. The catch to my job was that you had to like people and enjoy interacting with them. The other side of the coin was that I never aspired to be anything other than what I was, an investigator, as a profession. I had plenty of time to pursue other serious interests outside work while still enjoying what I did at work. Not everyone can handle that–ego, money,family pressure get in the way.

  10. GenX says:

    Azaghal, no you’re right, and they always say there’s much you can do with a JD besides practice law. I just think some of the less marketable schools need to come clean about the job and earning prospects of their students. If law school had cost half (well maybe a quarter) of what it did me, I would very likely have gone into the public defender or state attorney. But remember the age when we get out of law school is for many of us contemporaneous with marriage, then children, buying a home, and so on. With other mouths to feed the picture changes and doing public service isn’t justified if it means my family will also be on the public dole.

    Which kind of begs the question, why don’t more semi-retired (i.e. don’t need the money but are at risk of getting bored) lawyers get into public service?

  11. I am a current 2L at UM and I have mixed feelings on the subject, specifically the financial aspects of law school. I took on a tremendous amount of debt to come to school down in Miami (I am from Saratoga,NY). I was told by guidance counselors that I should go to the best school I could, in the state in which I wanted to practice. I took that advice and often regret it. I would have only had to pay in-state tuition if I had chosen to study law at SUNY Buffalo. Perhaps being up north would make studying for the Florida bar a little more challenging and finding work more of a hassle as well. But, I would have had a tuition of under $10,000 a year, instead of the almost $40,000 I pay at UM. I often regret the decision to study away from my home state. I will graduate with almost $155,000 dollars of student debt. In many parts of N.Y. that much money can buy a 2000 sq ft home. I do not have my financial calculator handy, but by the time interest is calculated, my law degree will likely cost more than the house I will be living in.
    I would love to work in a prosecutorial role after law school. However, unless I marry a rich gal, that option is pretty much closed. Crushing law school debt works to crush career opportunities. I feel I should have taken time off between undergrad and law school. I could have spent that time working and experiencing the world. I am afraid now that I will be a fiscal slave to my own education, working forever to pay for three years of b-s Socratic dialog and mindless classroom hours watching fellow classmates online at the Facebook, AIM, or shopping for shoes.
    Somewhat off topics, the professors at UM are of a higher caliber than those at a lesser ranked school. Nevertheless, in the age of internet blogging, podcasting, and online journal data bases; I have unlimited access to great legal minds. Was this “investment in my future” really worth it? So far, I am a little disappointed with law school.

  12. H. M. says:

    I went to law school in the midwest in 2007 (from NYC) to my first choice, a Top 100 school. I was unprepared for the academic program involved and began experiencing severe anxiety towards the end of my first semester due to the pressure of family obligations 2000 miles away and returning to school at a fairly advanced age (39). I was given the bad advice by a teaching associate to proceed with my finals because “noone gets below a ‘C’ with the curve;” my grades were: B, D-, and an F. I took a medical leave of absence to have the symptoms of anxiety and depression I was experiencing evaluation and treated by university medical professionals. I returned the following Fall semester to repeat the classes, and found myself unable to balance work, and school, and still a little bit rattled by having receiving the poorest grades of my lifetime in my first semester. With the loneliness I was feeling, symptoms of depression, and concern about not being able to work as a part-time student in the prime earning years of my life, I withdrew from school. Two months later, I immediately regretted the decision, and was re-admitted for the third time to retake the first semester already $30,000.00 in debt. My third semester was somewhat of a success however I made two critical mistakes: I did NOT take practice exams in preparation for the final, and handed a paper that represented 60% of my grade late; I ended up with a B-, C, and C this time around. The anxiety of being on academic probabtion and having little margin for error eventually resulted in more severe health problems for myself, an inability to concentrate, pressure from my family and friends, a decreased and weakened confidence in myself, and I eventually withdrew from law school altogher, $79,000.00 in debt. I will always regret having quit, even with the mounting debt, and not securing the J.D., and not having found a way to enhance my mental fortitude and find the right mindset and support system to get the job done. I am now faced with trying to explain to my family and friends what went wrong, address psychological issues I never experienced before attending law school, and returning to a career I have been absent from for three years without being able to explain why I went to law school and did not work for three years and do not have a law degree to show for it. If I had to due it all over again, I would have went to a Tier Three school and a little more relaxed environment for someone my age – the first year is the toughest and if I was successful I could transfer; otherwise I could remain in the Third Tier School and earn of the most coveted of graduate degrees: a J.D. Think carefully about yourself, especially if you have been out of school for sometime, about what you are capable of, and what this degree might mean to you. I now dread turning 55 without a professional degree, and not a minute goes by that I do not wish I knew in 2007 what I know now; as of today, the law school experience, while providing some of the fondest memories of my life, has in many ways ruined my life. A law school curriculum, particularly for non-conventional students, should be designed to give such students every possible chance for success (e.g., three exams per class in the first semester, not one final and an automatic dismisally for students with a G.P.A. of 2.20 or less).

    • Bobby says:

      I am a 30+ entering student who has decided to drop my tier 2 school to go to a tier 3 that is near my girlfriend of 10 years and her family. After reading your comment, I think that might be the best thing for me. I’ve been out of school for so long, and I know that if i went to the tier 2 school which is far away, I might not be able to kick ass there. Im just hoping that it all works out and i can do well. Thank you for your comment and I wish you the best

  13. RUFIO H says:

    Boof! Brrrrappptt!

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