Should You Go to Law School?

My answer:  probably not.  Here’s the e-mail I just sent to a kid who asked me for advice about whether he should apply to law school.

Dear Young Wanna-Be Lawyer,

Thanks for your note! Teach for America sounds like such a good program — good for you for doing it.  As for law school, here’s my advice: the market is incredibly tough for all kinds of entry-level jobs, from law firm jobs to government positions.  The days of people with English degrees going to law school, doing well, and getting whatever job they wanted, are long gone.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  After all, if it’s THAT hard to get a job, maybe it will make you wonder, as it’s making you wonder, whether this is something you REALLY want.   If I had to do it again, I’d only go to law school if I loved the law, or thought I did — or if I had something I really wanted to accomplish as a lawyer and felt driven to do it and saw the law as the proper instrument for that.

I don’t know if you’re the person whose destiny it is to be a lawyer, but I think it’s worth spending some time really thinking about what kind of work you’d do for free because you love it so much. That’s the kind of work you should pursue. And if what you love doesn’t come in job form at all, because maybe what you love pays nothing, then you might want to consider getting a job that allows you to pursue the thing you love, a job that isn’t going to demand all your time (which is very much what being a lawyer requires, at least in the beginning.)

The truth is that being a lawyer in the wrong job is hell. Being a lawyer doing work you really believe in and enjoy is heaven. The latter is a rare situation, but if you’re that person you WILL find a job — a job that doesn’t pay much, but a job nevertheless. But whatever you do,  stay out of debt, keep your expenses to a minimum and do the thing you’re pretty sure you love.  I wish someone had told me this when I embarked on my own legal career, which is why I tell it to you.

All the best to you,

So, here’s my question, dear readers — are you doing what you love?  If so, how did you get to that point?  What advice did you get that got you on that track?

And if you’re not, how come?  I could write volumes about my own twisting trail to becoming a lawyer and THEN a writer, when maybe I could have skipped the lawyer part altogether and gotten right to the writing part.   But this morning, I’m really interested in what you have to say.


21 thoughts on “Should You Go to Law School?

  1. It is interesting how many people I’ve met who went to law school but then never took the bar, or never passed the bar, or passed the bar but never practiced and instead opened a comic book store or whatever.

    I don’t think I’ve seen that with doctors. Just lawyers.

  2. I *think* I AM now doing something I love, and my career path was almost as twisted. Started after HS as a heavy equipment operator (for which I took vocational training), migrated to being a construction truck driver, and then was shifted by management into computer & IT technical services, where I not only support users, but also get to teach them. Funny that when I was in my Sr year at WSH, I wanted to be a fighter pilot…….

  3. Anthony: I can understand the idea of going to law school and then not wanting to practice law. I think law is fascinating but being a lawyer pretty much sucks (from what I have observed working in law firms).
    Lily: I always ask you for advice dearie.

  4. Debs — Yes, but was it ever GOOD advice? Not like when I ask you if my outfit works, and you always tell me the truth and you’re almost always right.

    Kathy — I can see you piloting all those big things! And I agree, jobs in which you get to support and teach, are among the best jobs there are.

    Anthony — You know, I can think of people who did that too. And good for them, because generally they’re people who ended up doing things they seem to really like: running a foundation, raising good kids, to name two.

  5. Kafke. I’d know that goofy, pensive face anywhere.

    My husband, a lawyer for nearly 30 years (much to his horror), is anxiously awaiting retirement so he can write his magnum opus, “101 Reasons Not To Go To Law School.” It seems like every day he comes home with a new reason.

    • You’re right, Tai — goofy and pensive both! It occurred to me that if your husband’s been a lawyer for 30 years (for me it’s been 22 years, gawd), and comes home almost every day with a new reason, it’d have to be way, way more than 101 reasons. But at least he gets to come home to you, so it can’t be all bad.

  6. Great advice, Lily. So many of my friends who went to law school are doing something different now. I was one of those “should I/shouldn’t I?” kids, because I come from an entire family of lawyers and it seemed logical. But I followed my heart, studied Eng Lit and Journalism instead, and have been earning my living as a writer – in various guises – for 18 years.

    • Charlotte — I love it that you have been doing just that. And in such an interesting way, too. I hope the book and the class are both going well. xoxo

  7. Sound advice. Life is too short to plan your career solely around financial stability or a societal stamp of approval. I understand in some situations, to survive, some may have to work in jobs that are less than challenging to make ends meet. But, I truly believe in the adage of “doing what you love”, because eventually it pays off.

    I wouldn’t go back to corporate design or advertising for all the tea in China. I want to make meaningful art and teach and contribute to my field.

    [I will also be working as a waitress at Fridays if things don’t pan out. lol…so, those that ARE living the dream, please tip accordingly.]

  8. Sound advice. Life is too short to plan your career solely around financial stability or a societal stamp of approval. I understand in some situations, to survive, some may have to work in jobs that are less than challenging to make ends meet. But, I truly believe in the adage of “doing what you love”, because eventually it pays off.

    I wouldn’t go back to corporate design or advertising for all the tea in China. I want to make meaningful art and teach and contribute to my field.

    [I will also be working as a waitress at Fridays if things don’t pan out. lol…so, those that ARE living the dream, please tip accordingly.]

    • What a year you’ve had, dear Tammy. (Or is it two?) You’re so on the right track!! As for Fridays, I’ll keep the tip about tipping in mind. xoxo

  9. That sounds like good advice. I think all or nearly all of the lawyers I have met have been in the wrong job, and deeply unhappy.

    On the other hand, I’ve often wondered whether professions that are associated with low job satisfaction simply draw people who are difficult to satisfy. I remember reading somewhere that a pessimistic personality was strongly correlated with success in law, suggesting that negative people — the type of people who might be unhappy in any job — would actually be well advised to go into law, knowing full well that they’d hate it as much as they’d hate anything else. It is also true that most of the lawyers in big law who are so famously unhappy tend to be very talented, and it is probably not hard for most of them to imagine many other uses for their talents, which would tend to increase their dissatisfaction.

    I have often debated going to professional school — either medical or law — and one thing that has struck me about law by comparison with medicine is that lawyers often have more varied interests. I found a blog post by a J.D.-M.D. that reinforced this observation (on Glorfindel of Gondolin). If professional school is a necessity, I think this personality factor may be an important consideration.

    • Hey Mr. Williamsburg — That is very smart, very logical thinking. Why aren’t you in law school? Just kidding. But I am going to pay attention to your thesis while I’m around my lawyer friends. There are, of course, great exceptions, people who made good livings as lawyers and doctors and made art at the same time. But that seems to have happened a long, long time ago, when the job didn’t suck you in quite so much. Glad to have met you, and good luck schlepping those books to the library. xoxo

  10. Funnily enough the road not travelled has been on my mind quite a bit lately and you’ve now been the catalyst for some more reflection.

    I wasn’t someone who knew at an early age what they wanted to do, superhero and starship captain having been ruled out. But, somewhen during my post-graduate degree I thought I had found my vocation: it would be an academic one studying neuroscience – dealing with computer models rather than the squidgy stuff directly, as my background was engineering not biology.

    It didn’t work out that way, of course. After a rather protracted but, ultimately, a successfully completed doctorate, I was accepted for a post-doctoral position at a local university, pending the procurement of funding. Unfortunately, after waiting four or five months, the funding was not forthcoming. So I accepted an offer at a local software firm, working in computer-aided manufacturing. A few weeks after starting there, I was invited to give a presentation of my doctoral research to a member of the funding committee. But, not wishing to run-out on my first ever commercial employer so soon and, my confidence a little dented by some remarks another would-be employer had said, I declined the offer. I had crossed my own little rubicon.

    That was over ten years ago. I’ve thought about that decision many times since then and, more often than not, concluded that it was the right thing to do, although with sufficient discomfort that I may be retrospectively rationalising. Though I have considered trying to return to academia, whether for want of courage, confidence or inclination, I never did so.

    I’ve stayed at my first job. The work is interesting, albeit without the potential for spellbinding-fascination of before. The working environment is good and, most importantly, my working conditions flexible, which helps me look after my mother. I tend to think that, or again, perhaps that should be ‘rationalise’, for me personally, perhaps it was better to be outside the bubble of academia, that the path I took, directly or indirectly, has led to me being a better person than I was before, but then maybe that would have happened anyway, something called ‘growing-up’. Still, and not just because it makes for a nice finale, I think that by not getting what I wanted, perhaps I got what I needed (cue chorus).

    Well, I’ve gone on for quite a bit and produced a volume of my own. My excuse is, you did ask …

    • My dear Lokesh, I don’t know if it’s the path you’ve taken, or the one you didn’t take, but your decency, kindness, and just all-around goodness are evident every time you write something. Your post makes me think of the many forks in the road I’ve taken because the way I wanted to go was denied me, either through some outside force or because I couldn’t see the way — the ph.d in English I thought I should get, being a judge, wanting to write well at an early age, staying home with my children. I think the jury’s still out on how I feel about those decisions. Probably it’s a mixture of regret and avoidance — but also a sense, as you have, that you get what you need. And then I think you make something good out of it. It’s like in formal poetry — you’ve got limits to how you can say what you need to say (a sonnet, for example), but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something elegant and fine out of it. Same with life, perhaps. Here’s to the elegant and fine in you, xo, Lily

      • That’s a beautiful analogy. Words to live by. You are, as ever, my dear Lily, elegant and fine and your words a gift gratefully received. Thank you.

  11. Pingback: Law School? No Thanks! « Solinitae

  12. Lily,
    I have an undergraduate in pre-law, a Masters in Employee Relations/HR and have about 10 years experience working in HR and Employee Relations. I currently love employment law, and have considered going to law school to be a in-house counsel. I am 32 years old, and I am wondering first if a JD will help me move into an in-house role and secondly if it is worth the cost at this point. I have heard that you need at least 5 years of firm experience (most likely with employment/labor law I would imagine) before large companies would hire you in house. Any advice would be appreciated!

    • I’ve never worked in-house, but I have a lawyer friend who works in house for a big tech company in employee relations. She graduated from a good law school, worked as an associate and of-counsel in the employment group at a big San Francisco corporate law firm for about ten years and then moved in-house, to work for a former client. I think, though, that it might be different for someone who’s worked already in the field in terms of how long it takes you to connect with a company that’s looking for an in-house person. As I’m sure you know, the key to getting a job, once you’ve decided that’s what you want, is to tell everyone you know who has the kind of job you want that you’d like to work there too — also, is it possible your current employer would want you to go in-house after you get your jd? In any case, good luck with this, and let me know how it goes.

  13. I certainly think I am! I knew I wanted to be an academic from late teens, I attended a couple of good universities to get my first degree and my PhD and then a stint as a Research Assistant. After two year’s of that I got a position which has been (generally) extremely rewarding for the last 25 years. I’m now one of three Deputy Heads of one of the largest School of Engineering in the UK university sector. I am, however, a particle physicist.

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