There’s a movement afoot to discourage young folks from attending law school. The argument focuses on the exorbitant debt that most students incur attending law school coupled with bleak statistics about the current job market. Sometimes the argument is broadened to include information about lawyer unhappiness and even the high rates of alcoholism within the profession.
While I certainly don’t think law school is for everyone, I worry that the current anti-law school fervor will discourage some people from pursuing a career in which they would be truly satisfied. I remain convinced that if you really want to be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer.
I would no more attempt to convince a budding lawyer to try a different career than I would a budding poet or artist. I’ve also, however, seen friends get into trouble when they don’t want to be lawyers but attend law school nonetheless.
As attorneys, we may be the first people that young people turn to when considering whether to attend law school. What to say in such a situation? My recommendations:
Check out the lawyering world
Any potential lawyer should check out the profession before committing. And there are lots of ways to dip a toe into the lawyering world.
After receiving my undergraduate degree, I thought about attending law school, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant to be a lawyer. So I headed to Washington, D.C., for four years, where I worked in politics and met and spoke with bajillions of lawyers. After concluding that I loved the research and writing aspects of my job (and missed the fun that I had participating in college debate), I decided to take the law school plunge. Of course, my way is not the only way.
College activities provide the impetus for some. For the past two years I coached the University of St. Thomas mock trial team. Mock trial is a breeding ground for future lawyers, and the activity helped several students decide whether they wanted to pursue a legal career or try something else. Several team graduates went on to law school, but others realized that their passion lay elsewhere. Some former team members are pursuing doctorates in political theory and working in Washington, D.C. — a nice reminder that an interest in government or public policy does not automatically result in a legal career.
Other friends worked as paralegals or in the offices of local judges before choosing law school. Not only did these friends know what they were getting into, but they had a real advantage in Civil Procedure when the rest of us had no idea what the class entailed.
I would encourage anyone interested in the law to spend time interviewing lawyers about their day, work at a law firm or try out pre-law college activities to get a taste for the profession.
Do it for love
When I got to law school, I was surprised to meet several people who had given up a career they loved in order to go to law school to make more money or find job security. Some people had left careers in creative writing and others had left jobs in politics and teaching. One (ridiculously cool) guy had left his band. Some of these individuals decided they loved the law, but others were just miserable.
In two particular instances, I remember friends stating that they had only left careers that they loved because their spouse wanted them to earn more money. I found all of this depressing. I had an inkling that being a successful lawyer was going to prove more than a 9-to-5 job, and giving up so much of your life in pursuit of a career you did not love seemed like a recipe for unhappiness.
(Disclaimer: I am not independently wealthy. My father is an artist. My parents just instilled the mantra “do what you love, and the money may or may not follow, but you can always have a day job to supplement the bills” at an early age.)
Minimize debt, maximize happiness
Finally, I would encourage a future lawyer to think about the decision as more than a simple economic investment. Law school costs a lot, but there are multiple ways to finance a legal education.
I borrowed the whole enchilada ($160,000 or so). My theory? If I had $160,000 at the end of my life, I would have wished that I used it to finance a career I wanted. And after law school, I did not pursue the highest-paid options available (big firm on a coast) because my legal career investment is about creating the life I want.
But there are other options, too; lots of law schools offer full rides to folks who could attend higher ranked schools. And several of my friends who did not want to work at big law firms pursued this route. Another friend (now a public defender in Vermont) attended Berkeley Law because of its generous loan forgiveness programs for those working in public service. With a little advanced thought, there are ways to calibrate the amount of debt incurred with your own career plans.
The bottom line? Law school is not the automatic paycheck it was eight years ago, but that does not change the fact that a legal career may be the most fulfilling career for some folks. The trick is to know what you’re getting into and get into it for the right reasons.
While my student loan payments are more than my mortgage payment, I am happy. And hey, whatever happens, creditors can’t repossess your brain. I would never discourage another young and ambitious future colleague from taking the same path.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.