Don’t go to law school just to “save the world”

Law school has had a lot of bad press lately. The Wall Street Journal reported that only 55% of 2011 law grads had a full-time, long term job that required a law degree nine months after graduation. Forbes said going to law school is the worst career decision one could make. The New York Times has run a series of scathing articles over the last year; discussing schools’ failure to teach students how to be lawyers,  criticizing law schools’ lack of transparency about employment prospects, and suggesting that law schools are facing an existential crisis.

Now that my three years in the fifth level of hell law school are over, I can speak very confidently as to my agreement with much of what those articles have to say.* Law school is not a good idea for many of the people who choose to enroll. It is usually  too expensive.** Far too many people enroll in law school because they have a liberal arts degree and can’t get a job anywhere else. You know who law school is a great idea for? Those people who have a precise idea of what they want to do with their law degree; those people who spent enough time in legal internships or shadowing attorneys to know that they will actually love legal work. And those people who spend enough time researching the legal industry to know the inherent risk in applying, enrolling and getting wrapped up in six figure debt. (So yes, that excludes the folks who took the LSAT on a whim, got a 178 and stumbled into a top tier law school because they had nothing better to do after college graduation).

Despite the negative sentiments above, I’m actually happy that I went to law school. And I’m looking forward to practicing law.  Whenever I speak at pre-law panels or with the undergrad students that I’ve helped with the application process, I try to present both sides of the coin. Yes, there are many of us who enjoyed the process and/or the rewards of the law degree. But there are MANY who regret the day they enrolled. People considering law school need to do extensive research to ensure that it’s the right decision for them. If the only reason you’re going to law school is to avoid the terrible job market, here’s a newsflash: the job market is terrible for  almost everyone, lawyers included. You’d be better off settling for another job than taking on enormous debt which may leave you in the same sad state of utter joblessness.

I think the “stay away from law school” advice is really pertinent for people whose sole goal is to “save the world”. These are people who have a desire to do good and have somehow decided that getting a J.D. is the best way to achieve said goal. They are often unable to articulate exactly how they plan to use their degree; or if they can articulate it, it’s usually in a way that could be easily achieved by getting a cheaper, shorter degree or by simply working in the field of interest with just their bachelor’s degree.  They have bought into the idea that a law degree is some sort of  potion that enables one to cure society’s ills without knowing how that potion actually works.

 

For example, Jill may say she wants to help solve the healthcare crisis. Jill decides she should get a law degree to do this. After all, lawyers make the laws right? Jill doesn’t consider alternatives which may be more suitable, like an advanced nursing degree, or a Masters in Public Health, or being a health justice activist, or mobilizing her community to demand elected officials focus on health-related issues, or being a lobbyist. Or Jack wants to work in international humanitarian law. But Jack hasn’t done enough research to discover how scarce those jobs are and how they never go to fresh graduates. Or how most other countries don’t follow the US legal system and so his legal degree will not translate directly to their needs.

I’m not knocking the save the world types at all. In many ways, I was one of them. (Okay, maybe in every way). And law school worked out for me. So I’m sure it can work out for others too. However, I often find that much of the discontent with law school stems from the fact that many of us had no business being there in the first place.

And here’s a sobering fact: though there’s a glut of lawyers nationwide, there are not enough lawyers serving needy communities.  There are several reasons for that. Many law grads who want to serve needy communities cannot afford to do so because their salaries wouldn’t be enough to cover their immense debt. Many of the places that offer legal services to needy communities cannot afford to hire lawyers because their budgets are so constrained. And some of those who enter law school with the intent of doing good get lured away by enticing six figure jobs, neglecting a life of public service. The sad paradox is that the tens of thousands of unemployed lawyers cannot afford to provide legal services to the people who need them the most.

So if your plan is to go to law school so you can “save the world”, think long and hard about what your impact will be. Are there any lawyers working in the area you’re interested in? If not, investigate why.  See if you can do some work in that area before enrolling in law school so you can be sure it’s what you want to do. Will you be able to pursue that job with the debt load you’ll have? And is it something that you need a law degree to do? If not, save yourself – and your wallet- the trouble.

 

*Okay, okay. Law school wasn’t THAT bad. But I only realized that in the latter part of my program. That first year was pretty hellish.

**This would require a separate post to explain, but I am a HUGE proponent of debt free education and I generally don’t think anyone should be going into six figure debt for a degree in any field, except medicine.

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