Lawyers who regret attending law school are green with envy of those who made other decisions, while some aspiring law students are green in their naive approach to what it means to be a law school graduate. The grass is greener on the other side… And let’s not forget the green cash that magically appears (or is that disappears??) upon graduation from law school.
There’s a fascinating post on the WSJ law blog, entitled Law School: Does It “Keep Your Options Open”? The question is whether, because of the cost of law school tuition, it’s a cost-effective strategy to attend law school to keep open a variety of options, rather than to become a lawyer. The answer appears to be a resounding no:
There’s something wrong with a system that makes a whole lot of people pay a whole lot of money for jobs that are not worth it, or that have no future. If we wanted to be honest, we would inform students that law school doesn’t keep their options open. Instead, we should say that if they work hard and do well, they can become lawyers.
So says Cameron Stracher in a WSJ article (available online only with a subscription). A New York Law School professor and author of Double Billing: A Young Lawyer’s Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair, Professor Stracher is also a blogger who asks whether one man can change his life by making dinner with his family at least 5 nights a week for a solid year. (It looks as if the answer to that question is yes, but perhaps we should wait for the “great book, and a great movie, then a great bathtowel and beach chair, and finally a great sequel” to follow.)
The publisher’s synopsis of Double Billing says, “As the author vividly describes, law school may teach you how to think like a lawyer, but it’s being an associate that teaches you how to behave like one. Or misbehave. Stracher doesn’t mince words about the duplicitous behavior and flagrant practices of many lawyers in his firm, which is one of the premier partnerships in America.” Notwithstanding Professor Stracher’s current employment, that’s a rather unflattering view of law school and practice. In candor, I haven’t read the book (yet, though it’s on my constantly growing list), but it could be either an accurate portrayal or a Swiftian satire or possibly a combination of the two. So, perhaps the gist of Professor Stracher’s article is not surprising.
What is surprising about the WSJ blog is the comments. A few aspiring law students provide the tenor voice begging for guidance while the percussion section provides a drumbeat of danger warnings: tuition is expensive, law doesn’t pay well enough for the vast majority of graduates, the work is dull and oppressive, and business school (presumably investment banking) is the route to true wealth. The composition is rounded out with a staccato of reeds who ask when lawyers came to be such whiners.
It’s certainly true that law school is now very expensive, even at most state school. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial number of college students go to law school because they don’t know what else to do. (I was a college senior in a 1990 English class when the professor asked how many of us were headed for law school. A forest of hands went up. Then he asked how many of us had any intention of going to law school before junior year, and mine was the only hand still up.) And frankly, I do believe that those who end up in law school for lack of anything better to do have a much more difficult road to professional success (certainly in terms of personal satisfaction and enjoyment) than those who actually want to be lawyers. I think the group next likely to suffer the consequences of an uninformed decision to attend law school are those who lack a realistic understanding of what a legal practice is all about.
If you’re headed to law school, ask yourself why. If your answer is some version of “Eh, what else would I do?” start thinking now. You can save yourself a lot of pain and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars if you clarify your reasons and your goals now. If your answer is that you watched a lot of Law and Order (or Ally McBeal or any other tv show) and you know you’ll enjoy practice, do some informational interviewing now. You may save yourself lots of money and heartache as well. Personally, I’m in favor of an entrance and exit exam for law school: “Why are you entering law school” and “Why are you a lawyer”? A cogent answer to these questions may be the best indicator for a meaningful career.
Does that mean it’s all gloom and despair if you went to law school and didn’t particularly want to be a lawyer? Or if you’re practicing now and you’ve lost the passion — or perhaps never had it? No. It may take some self-examination (and the answer may be challenging, such as to change your area of practice or to leave the law altogether) but just about anyone can find a viable path in the law or a productive use for a law degree. (For some resources, check the books on my Resource page.)
The road from law school is not paved with gold bricks. It’s a lot of hard work, and the reward cannot be viewed solely as a matter of finances for the great majority of graduates. As Professor Stracher says, hard work in law school promises only that a student can become a lawyer, and even that isn’t guaranteed.
If you have a vision for your practice (a reason for your decision to become a lawyer), be sure that vision is somehow integrated into your day-to-day life. If you don’t, work to develop one. The surest route to become permanently seasick-green is to finish law school, to be a lawyer, to be swept into a career that you didn’t want or intend and to see no way out. If that describes you… Please, stop and think. Get a partner to help your strategize what is and isn’t working. It is possible to be a happy lawyer or to be otherwise happily employed with a law degree.
But, really…. Check out those WSJ blog comments.