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Understand What You are Getting Into By Pursuing a Law Degree
Going to law school isn’t a decision you should rashly make. Before the process is complete, you will dedicate three years of your life and probably add upwards of $100,000 of non-bankruptcy-dischargeable debt to your portfolio. Doing well in law school requires the type of commitment that will affect your health, your relationships, and maybe even your sanity.
So, why do you want to go to law school? Why do you want to be a lawyer? If you are going to law school with thoughts of anything other than practicing law, have you researched to be sure that a law degree is necessary? Before you go much further in this process, you really should know the answers to these questions. You don’t need to know the exact details of what you want to do with a law practice; at this point, it’s more important to have realistic expectations.
With very few exceptions, the only good reason to attend law school is because you want to practice law. There are, of course, ancillary benefits to law school and a law degree. But, intellectual stimulation, an extra degree, making new friends, and _____ (fill in the blank) by themselves aren’t worth the steep tuition and personal torment you will face in law school. The best advice for those considering becoming a lawyer comes from one of the very first law student blogs:
"But before I get to the bad reasons, let me first give you the good reason. (Yes, I said the good reason, implying there is only one.) If you can say the following sentences with a straight face, go to law school, and I wish you the best of luck.
I am genuinely interested in the law and I have a sincere desire to become an attorney and practice law. I have come to this conclusion by thoroughly researching what law school and working as an attorney entails.”
—Mike— Barely Legal
Before making this commitment you should have a clear idea of what you are signing up for. Is the law school setting and, more importantly, the law practice setting going to be a place where you can learn to excel?
Do You Like to Read?
Law school will test even the most avid readers. As a law student, you will be assigned an average of 3 to 4 hours of reading every day. If you want to take one day off a week, plan on adding that reading to the other days.
This reading is on top of your other law school commitments. And, as situations that distract you arise—as they always will—you will invariably fall behind and have to spend full days catching up. If you are a slow reader, you might expect that each day will take you an hour more than your classmates.
The reading doesn’t end with law school. Most lawyers will read at least 10 hours per week. And, for younger lawyers, 30 or more hours per week isn’t unheard of.
If you can’t at least tolerate this kind of reading load, you should be very hesitant to go to law school.
Do You Have the Self-Discipline?
The Socratic Method—used in law school—requires you to teach yourself the law. Class time is used to supplement your learning and to answer any questions about the material.
Being successful in law school requires that you complete all of the reading, attend every class, and prepare for the exam—all on your own. Do you have the discipline it takes to do this? Can you resist the urge to sleep in instead of attend a Monday morning Civil Procedure class? “I will just get the notes from someone” won’t cut it in law school.
Again, this need for discipline carries over into your life as a lawyer. Younger associates get projects from superiors with the expectation that they will not need to be micro-managed. Lawyers are expected to manage a task to completion. Can you do it?
If you plan to consistently rely on your mom, spouse, or anyone other than yourself to keep you on track, law school is not a good fit.
Can You Deal With the Law Culture?
The work load of law school ensures that, when you aren’t in class, you will be studying alone. Are you the type of person that needs to be around other people to be happy? Can you deal with the feelings of isolation that come with reading and outlining for hours on end by yourself?
In class, you will face daily conflict. Your professors and other students will challenge your opinions and assertions. You are expected to respond to these challenges without losing your cool. Professors will ask you questions that you don’t know the answer to. You will be outflanked and sometimes corrected by other students in front of the whole class, which will leave you feeling humiliated and incompetent.
And, at the end of the day, each class is a race. Only one person will get the top grade. There are a limited amount of A’s that the professor can award. You will have to do better than virtually every other classmate if you want one.
Practicing law is like law school in many respects. You will spend countless hours by yourself reading and researching law. You will face conflicts between you and the lawyers on the other side, as well as in your own office. People will scream at you; they will curse at you. And, in litigation, there are often winners and losers.
Do you work well by yourself? Can you handle the conflict? Are you competitive? Can you keep your cool in this high-stress environment? Law school and practice are not like this all the time, but you will undoubtedly be exposed to this culture.
Do You Have a Realistic Picture?
Many potential law students—even those who do their homework—harbor some of the more common myths about law school and practice.
For instance, too many people think that a law degree is useful in whichever career they choose. This simply isn’t true. A law degree’s only use is to practice law. The degree does not open any other doors. Don’t listen to people who tell you otherwise. Instead, talk to 10 people with law degrees who don’t practice law—ask them how many doors were opened.
Another common belief is that a law degree will guarantee a secure job. This is another myth. Right now it is not a stretch to say that 20-30% of lawyers cannot get a job practicing law. Ignore the job placement data from law schools. That data includes lawyers who are waiting tables at Chili’s in the “98%” who have a job within 6 months of graduation. Many of those with jobs don’t have much security. The higher the pay is for a job, the less security it will offer.
Others believe that practicing law can be glamorous. It is true that there are some really cool moments in the practice of law. The reality is, however, that these moments are very few and far between. If you think that you will be in a courtroom trying cases, think again. 95% of all civil law suits settle, and upwards of 90% of criminal cases are resolved with a plea deal. The majority of lawyers do not have even one actual trial in a given year. For lawyers practicing less than five years, the number is even lower. If you want to be the “little guy’s” advocate, it just isn’t realistic. Odds are, you won’t be able to afford to work on those types of cases. And, if you think that a law practice is intellectually stimulating, you should know that most of the time it is more monotonous than stimulating. Most cases, and certainly the ones that new lawyers work on, are not new or novel. Rather, be ready to confront issues that have been seen thousands of times.
Bad Reasons for Going to Law School
Even if you manage your expectations for law school (and being a lawyer), you could still be setting yourself up for disaster. Each year a significant amount of students graduate, only to realize they have made a huge mistake. The web is full of disenfranchised law students writing about how big a blunder law school can be. The good news is that there is a correlation between some common reasons for attending law school and unhappiness. If your reason is on this list, be forewarned.
1. “I don’t know what else to do with my undergrad degree.”
2. “I did well on the LSAT, why not?”
3. “I want to make the big money.”
4. “A law degree is versatile. I can always use it for something else.”
5. “Everyone else in my family is a lawyer.”
6. “I want to change the world.”
7. “I have always wanted to be a lawyer.”
8. “My parents/spouse/____ want me to go.”
9. “I love to argue.”
10. “I don’t like my job.”
As stated above, the only valid reason for making the huge commitment to law school is a true, sincere desire to practice law. If this is not you, congratulations – you just saved yourself years of financial hardships and headaches. If this is you, congratulations – you are made for law school.