I recently received an email asking for my thoughts on how an aspiring law student should handle the finances of law school. Given the extraordinary cost of tuition, I’ve previously written about why students should think twice (and perhaps three or four times) before enrolling in college and law school.
But students should not consider the cost as the most important factor. Should you go to law school? Here is the way to think about it.
Bad Reasons to Go to Law School
Do not go to law school if you want to get rich quick. Though people are often impressed with the high salaries of young law grads, because of the high debt load and the grueling nature of law firm work, there are easier and quicker ways to get rich. Frankly, if you did nothing at all, you would come out ahead, because at least you wouldn’t be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Don’t go to law school for a generalist career or to learn the law. Law school is far too expensive to dabble. Further, you don’t learn a lot of practical skills in law school. You could more quickly and cheaply learn legal skills through online courses, books, podcasts, etc.
Don’t go to law school just because you have good credentials. Of course if you have poor credentials, that’s something to consider before applying, but having good grades, a good LSAT, a good personal statement – those aren’t sufficient reasons to attend law school. Good reasoning and writing skills can translate to success in a wide variety of good jobs.
Bad Reasons To Become a Lawyer
Law jobs are demanding. Further, if you want to switch careers, some people find the lawyer credential to be an obstacle rather than a bonus to find a new job. It’s a huge career risk.
Do not become a lawyer if you seek a diverse environment. 36% of lawyers in the U.S. are female, even though women outnumber men in law school. Minority women are the most underrepresented group at the partner level. I was interviewing a woman for an associate position who quit the fashion industry because it wasn’t diverse enough and I thought to myself, and you chose law instead? If you want diversity, you will have to be the change.
A lot of men are intimidated by women lawyers. It’s a dating risk. For women, men may be intimidated. For men, women may try to dig for gold.
There are Options Beyond Law
A lot of people don’t like law school, they don’t like being a lawyer, but they also don’t like quitting, particularly when they have six figures of debt looming over their heads. It’s a mental health risk.
A lot of people don’t like law because of other lawyers. I mean, it’s hard to avoid interacting with lawyers at all in your life, but (duh) it’s going to be even harder in a legal job. Lawyers will be your colleagues, your bosses, your past and future network. A lot of lawyers are great but a lot of jerks. Law is not high on a list of professions where you might like your colleagues.
If you care about injustice, there are other options outside of the courtroom. Just look at how weeks of protests have made dramatic changes in our conversations regarding police brutality and policing laws.
Don’t go to law school thinking we need more lawyers. I agree with Elon Musk when he said too many smart people go into finance and law. Finance and law are high-paying, high-prestige, but we have plenty of both types vying for all the plum jobs. Further, there are plenty of people vying for those low-paying save-the-world jobs too.
Law is not a recession-proof industry. Companies regularly reduce their legal budgets when recessions hit.
The legal industry was hit hard by the recession in 2008-09. The people hit the hardest were recent legal graduates who were met with delayed start dates or layoffs while simultaneously being laden with burdensome student loans. They didn’t have the benefit of years of experience to help them look for a new job and they didn’t have a cash cushion to tide them over.
Based on the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems very likely that another recession could hit the country. That means law firms may be hiring fewer associates and making existing associates work longer hours in order to compensate for reduced personnel. State and local budgets are reeling, meaning state and local governments are less likely to hire new attorneys. The same may be true for lawyers working in hospitality or commercial real estate and other industries heavily affected by the pandemic.
Remember, law school is three years, and you have no idea what the legal economy, let alone the national economy, will look like in three years. Of course, many people go to graduate school to avoid the question of looking for a job for three years. Many do not consider the monumental costs of tuition on their future career outlook.
Should I Go to Law School?
So now that I’ve written all these terrible parts of the legal industry, does that mean I would discourage anyone and everyone from going to law school? Not at all.
If you desperately want to work as a lawyer, go to law school.
Look, law school is expensive. It’s not the guaranteed investment that it may have been in the past. It’s a huge financial risk. And it still might be worth taking.
If you desperately want to do something, you can find the money. If law is your passion, then you should follow it.
Students should think of becoming a lawyer the same way they think of becoming a stand-up comedian. You are unlikely to become Dave Chappelle. Then again, even Dave Chappelle hit the top and walked away. Neither is a guaranteed or even likely road to satisfaction, fame, or riches. It’s a long and difficult road. But if you want to be a stand up comedian, you just go out and do it. If you want to be a lawyer, you just go out and do it. I have nothing to offer you but my admiration.
My Experience As a Lawyer
I entered law school during the bottom of the legal recession in 2009. I saved $65k in money in preparation. While in law school, I scrimped and saved and still I paid over $112 in debt. Law school was the most expensive purchase of my life by a wide margin. I worked for seven years at a law firm, working very long hours under very stressful circumstances. And after all that money, and effort, and all that time, I quit my job.
Yet, I don’t regret going to law school at all. I wouldn’t enjoy doing it again, but I would.
Being a Lawyer Changed Me for the Better
Being a lawyer isn’t a one-and-done. Law school changes the way you think and how you see the world. Being a lawyer, certainly a litigator, means you learn to be brave. You learn to stand up for yourself, to fight, to value your opinions and your work. People look at you for answers, for guidance, for counsel. In many ways, becoming a lawyer made me finally feel like an adult.
Of course, I know plenty of lawyers who regret their decisions. There are plenty who are miserable in their jobs, who are swimming in debt. There are others who are happy as lawyers but could have achieved the same or more happiness in another job at lesser cost. I know so many lawyers who discourage others from entering the law because we all know so many unhappy colleagues. Honestly, we are trying to look out for you guys. If it’s true for many people, it will likely be true for you. You are not a special snowflake. You would be wise to listen to the advice of those who have pursued the path before you.
But also remember, that those people aren’t you.
Don’t Let The Price Be a Determining Factor
Yes, law school is expensive. But your dreams are likely to be expensive.
Too many people think life should be riskless, constant, and boring. That’s why budgets are built for safety and not for fulfillment. Too many people think the main purpose of money is to be conserved for 45 years, and then you can spend it.
But money is meant to be used. Too many people focus on saving a few bucks on buying things they don’t want or need and then can’t pursue their dreams. But people who put their dreams first often find the money they need to live.
Conclusion – Should You Go to Law School?
It’s a sad state of affairs that the high cost of law school deters those with less financial means. But while you need to look at the price, and strategize on how you’re going to pay for it, your first question should always be, what do I want to be when I grow up?
If you’re dead set on becoming a lawyer, then godspeed.