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Sound Advice Thursday: Should I go to law school?

Dear Steph,

I just finished my junior year of college. I wanted to reach out to you to ask about your experience with law school and with law as a career. I get that you didn’t find law as a career to be particularly rewarding — could you elaborate a bit? I’ve always had law school in the back of my mind as a main post-grad option, but I’ve increasingly become skeptical that it’s the right path for me after reading insights like yours. I find it really inspirational that you left law to write. 

Sincerely,

Law School or Bust?

Dear LSOB,

This is a question I’ve gotten many times, in some form, over the years, even before I ever left the law to pursue writing, and I always wonder how to phrase my answer (which basically boils down to: “don’t go to law school unless you have a REALLY good reason”) while still getting across the fact that I actually really liked law school. So let me take a crack at it here.

First, I’ve written before on this blog about my experience of law school in the context of being a woman at Harvard Law School, and I blogged about my time in law school on my old blog (here, for example, and here). If you don’t feel like reading my archives, the basic gist is that I (mostly) loved law school. There were things about it that were highly annoying (see, e.g., 90% of the people), and three years of studying/writing papers could get monotonous (as I illustrated here), but mostly, I really enjoyed it. Law school, for me, was often intellectually engaging, challenging, and, turns out, fun.

No, seriously, I REALLY liked law school. Steph, circa October 2006.

No, seriously, I REALLY liked law school. Steph, circa October 2006.

Keep in mind, however, that I was in law school from 2006-2009 and I secured a job with a firm before the economy completely went to hell, so when I graduated, I was looking at a completely different job landscape than kids who are graduating from law school now (turns out that law graduates are now experiencing a “jobs crisis,” even graduates from top law schools). My experience was also helped by the fact that I was not gunning to be a Supreme Court clerk, so I made time for clinicals that interested me, language classes, salsa dancing, cooking, and hanging out with my now-husband, all of which helped to make my three years at HLS feel fun and easy. If I had been chained to my desk, trying to get on law review or trying to get all A+’s, I might be singing a different tune right now.

So here’s my first big piece of advice about law school: don’t go unless you’re POSITIVE you want to be a lawyer and know exactly WHY you want to be a lawyer. This is what I used to tell Harvard undergrads when I was in law school and was a pre-law tutor at one of the colleges. I’d beg these kids to please please please please not look at law school as a “fall-back” option. There are many reasons why law school is probably the absolute worst choice for a post-undergrad fall-back option, including the huge expense, the crazy debt you will probably rack up, the dwindling job market for lawyers (see the frightening Atlantic article cited above, and this article about how almost half of 2011 law grads can’t afford a house), and the fact that MANY people who go to law school end up not liking either law school or the practice of law (or both).

Consider that if you get a job after graduation (which is no longer a guarantee), there’s a decent chance you’ll go to work at a firm. Which means billable hours. Which means, unless you really love what you’re working on, your life is not going to be much fun, especially when you’re first starting out. Sure, I have friends from law school who are the kind of lawyers who go to court and get to say “Your Honor” and “may I approach the bench” and stuff, but they are the exceptions. The vast majority of my friends work at corporate law firms and have terrible, soul-crushing hours. Just like I used to! And the only way to make those soul-crushing hours worth it is if you’re doing something you care about. Period. Otherwise, life’s too short.

This probably won't be your life.

This probably won’t be your life.

This might be.

This might be.

As you’ve gathered, being an attorney was most definitely not my cup of tea. I did it for three years and then I got out, and I’m approximately 1000% happier now. The lesson here for you is that it’s possible to go to law school and hate being a lawyer, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean I regret going to law school. I enjoyed it, plus it was the right (and well-reasoned) choice for me at the time. I happened to have a crisis of disillusionment with what I was doing (human rights law) midway through my time at HLS and switch horses midstream, which contributed to me ending up at a law firm, which I hated, so there are lots of individual circumstances that affected my experience both as a law student and as a lawyer.

Here comes my second piece of general advice: WORK for a year or two once you’ve graduated college, rather than going straight to law school. Save some money, experience life a little bit, and then reevaluate and see if law school is still something you’re interested in. You can even do what I did, which is to apply to law school when you’re in college and have easy access to professors for rec letters, etc., and then just defer for a year or two if you get in. But really, I think it’s better to just apply to law school when you think you want to go. Everyone I knew at HLS who had taken more than a year off before law school (including my husband, who took three years off between college and law school) was happier, better adjusted, and more focused, because they tended to have entered into law school with clear ideas about what they wanted to do post-graduation.

If you think law school is something that you’d really like, and you’re sure you want to be a lawyer and have a type of law in mind that you think you’d like to practice, I’d strongly recommend working as a paralegal first and getting a sense for what the lawyers’ lives are like and what the work is like. If you can work as a paralegal in the type of practice area you’re interested in, all the better. I worked as a paralegal for a year in Brazil before going to law school, but the horribleness of the lawyers’ lives/work didn’t dissuade me because I wasn’t planning on working in a firm after graduation (but, guess what — I did end up at a firm, anyway. Oops!).

When all is said and done, whether or not to go to law school is an individual decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to sit down and consider what actually makes you happy.  What do you enjoy doing? What interests you? Do your skills and interests match up to a realistic/attainable job within the law? There’s no rush here, so take your time, think it through, and then make the most informed decision you can make.

Best of luck,

~Steph