I loved law school, and I am incredibly glad that I decided to go. I am happy with where my career is, and excited about where it appears to be going. In short, my life is good: I am a lucky girl.
Perhaps that is why people expect me to reply with an enthusiastic “yes, definitely!” when they ask me if they should go to law school, and why they are surprised when, instead, my response is: “Well, do you want to be a lawyer?,” and then “no” if they tell me that they don’t.
A surprising number of people answer “no.” A really, really surprising number: probably at least 50%. And of the rest, at least another 50% say “well, I’m not sure…I don’t think so…but maybe.” And these people are not asking my advice idly: they have usually taken the LSATs, and sometimes have already applied to schools. When I ask them why they would got to law school if they certainly-or-probably do not want to practice law, they always give the same response: “Well, it’s such a great, all-purpose professional degree.”
Memo to all of the people out there who might be thinking the same thing: do not go to law school. Seriously. I know that you have heard that a J.D. is a “great all-purpose degree,” but it isn’t. That’s a lie put about by parents who are trying to trick you into middle-class professionaldom and law schools who are trying to take your money. A J.D. is not an all-purpose degree, it is a law degree. It does not qualify you to become a diplomat, a “senior policy advisor” to anything, a politician, a banker, an aid worker, a political operative, or any of those other jobs that seem like they might be a fun way to satisfy your West Wing fantasies. It qualifies you to be a lawyer, and it doesn’t really even do that -there’s still the pesky matter of the bar exam.
I know: right now you are mentally listing the names of all of the diplomats, senior policy advisors, politicians, bankers, aid workers, and political operatives who have J.D.s. I’m sure it’s a long list. Having a law degree certainly doesn’t disqualify someone from holding one of those positions. It might even help a little. But it’s not a requirement, and it’s not the easiest or cheapest way in.
There may be J.D.s in every walk of life in this country, but lawyers’ dirty secret is that their proliferation is due less to that degree’s versatility than it is to the fact that thousands of lawyers flee the profession every year. Seriously. I am not even kidding. Do you really think Cake Love’s Warren Brown runs a successful bakery because of what he learned at GW law? There’s a difference between torts and tortes, my friends. If he’d liked the former, he’d still be practicing law. But he didn’t, and so he’s not. And, given that he really wanted to pursue the latter, he’d have been better off going to cooking or business school.
A law degree takes three years, and costs at least $100k. That means that you’ll be in lawyer-level debt when you finish, which is a problem if you plan to take a non-lawyer job that doesn’t pay well. There are other options, of course: if you go to a good law school, you will be able to get a high-paying job after graduation to repay those loans. But that will take you several years. Once you’re done working them off, you’ll need to find a way back into your chosen field. I’m sure that will be possible -you’re still smart, and educated, and dedicated. It will take time, though. If you choose that route, you’re probably looking at at least six years out of your chosen profession: three for law school, and three to pay off your loans. Ask yourself if your plans sound as rosy once you factor in a six-year detour. (Law schools also have Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, “LRAP” for short, but these usually require graduates to work in a law-related public interest job, and they don’t pay off loans, they just cover the monthly payments. More on LRAP in a later post.)
Imagined J.D.s come with their own proprietary magical thinking, in which dreams of a high salary appear whenever you are feeling broke, and images of skipping a few rungs on the career ladder hover tantalizingly above your mean boss’s head. You delight in the potential “security” of having a highly-paid career as a “backup option,” while imagining that you would never sell out and stay at a corporate firm; you revel in the prospect of an exciting career scripted by Aaron Sorkin, without wondering how all those legislative aides can live off of $40k a year while servicing their six-figure debts. Imagined J.D.s can be everything you want them to be.
But resist the lure of magical thinking: real J.D.s can only be anything you want them to be. They require choices: money or fun, stability or excitement.
If you want to be a lawyer, and you love law, those choices aren’t so bad -the time at the firm will bring you skills and knowledge, and help make you a better lawyer for whatever you choose to do later. The six or seven years that you spend going to law school and grinding away as a junior lawyer are necessary steps in your legal career. But if you don’t want to be a lawyer -if you’re just going to law school to get that great, versatile degree- then you’ll feel like you’re wasting your time, and eventually realize that you also wasted your money.
Don’t do it.