Don’t go to law school*: A lament and a warning

This Blaugust challenge has given me a lot to think about. For example, how should I fill up an entire month with daily posts when I can normally barely manage a weekly schedule? I hope I’ve done well this month with not too much tossed off bullshit.

There is one matter I’ve never really touched on the site, or not in much detail at least. It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for almost ten years, just about as long as I’ve had the blog up, but since it wasn’t really related to the blog’s subject matter I never wrote about it. Now seems as good a time as any, though, since I’m trying to finish out this month of daily posts, so here it is: don’t go to law school.

This will take some explanation as you can tell from the length of the scroll bar, so prepare

I guess I could have ended this post with its title, but there are a few more important points and clarifications I should make. That’s what the asterisk in the title is for, since there are always some exceptions. First, I’m talking about American law school in this post because that’s the kind I attended and the only one I’m familiar with. I’ve heard that attorneys in Europe and other parts of the world major in law in university and don’t necessarily have to pursue an advanced degree past that stage like we do here (I’d say a law degree in the US, a JD or Juris Doctor, is roughly equivalent to a master’s degree — we’re not doctors despite the degree’s formal name, though we do get the right to that fancy Esquire title upon passing the bar exam that I’ve never used once in my life.) I’ve also heard the Canadian system of law schools is similar to ours, but I don’t know nearly enough about the situation in Canada to address it.

But I can speak to the situation down here, which is utter dogshit. I’ve been reading recently that law school admissions are down in the US. To any younger American lawyer or law grad who’s grown up in this environment, this should be no surprise at all. For those who don’t know the profession, here’s a very rough rundown of the typical path to becoming a licensed attorney (obligatory note: nothing in this post is professional advice and don’t rely on it, do your own research, it’s all based on personal experience.)

1) Get a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t matter what kind, but given law’s emphasis on reading, writing, and rhetoric, most people go for something in history, political science (this was mine), or English, something in the humanities. Master’s degrees, MBAs and the like are also fine if you happen to have them, but not necessary at all. If you’re STEM, depending on your focus, you might also be able to break into patent law, which most of us are practically barred from.

2) Take the LSAT. As the name suggests, this is sort of a much harder and more frustrating SAT only without the math, designed specifically for law school admissions. It’s administered several times a year and scored on a scale from 120 to 180. Anything above a 160 is generally considered respectable, though if you can break the 170 mark you’ll be in a much more secure position. It is possible to improve your performance somewhat by studying and practicing on old exams and samples, and many candidates sit for the exam up to three times to try for a higher score.

3) Apply. This is a real pain in the ass and requires you to submit a lot of documents and transcripts similar to what you had to do for college admissions, only this time you probably won’t have a school counselor to walk you through the whole process.

This part of the process is filled with traps and pitfalls. Most law schools aren’t worth attending (more on that below) and charge insanely high tuition. Many students aim for the very top elite schools (Yale, Stanford, and Harvard being at the top of that pyramid) but if you can get in-state tuition at a respectable public law school, that may be your best bet. Though note that some states’ “in-state tuition” is still unforgivably high (California being the worst offender. In-state at 50K a year, huh? Why even bother with the distinction at that point?)

4) Get accepted and make it through three years of law school. Easier said than done.

5) Pass the bar exam. Also easier said than done. On top of your almost certainly extortionary tuition, you’ll have to pay out the ass for a bar prep course, money that goes to many of the same companies that run SAT and LSAT prep courses. Kaplan and their competitors are scavengers that feed off of the corpse of the rotting American post-secondary educational system.

If you fail the bar your first time, it’s not the end of the world — unless your new legal job is tied to your passing it, that is. But there’s really no shame in failing once otherwise. The exam tends to be pretty difficult, specific difficulty depending on the state, and pass rates are typically around 60-65% and sometimes even lower.

Failing twice is another matter. You can theoretically take the exam as many times as you need to pass it, but eventually it can become both a running joke and a waste of time. This has unfortunately happened to law school grads before.

That’s, again, a very very rough guide to becoming a licensed attorney. Note that I didn’t say an employed licensed attorney, however. Because even passing the bar absolutely does not guarantee you a job. Maybe it did back in the 80s, but it doesn’t now and hasn’t for a long time.

Here’s one piece of advice you’ll hear over and over if you seek it out (say on one of the subreddits or the forum top-law-schools.com): if you want to attend law school in the US, you have to attend one with a great reputation. There are about 200 accredited law schools throughout the country, and of these maybe a few dozen are worth attending, and even then only under the right circumstances, i.e. a serious reduction in tuition for merit because you got a high LSAT score and have a high or at least a respectable undergrad GPA. Or maybe you got into your local paper because you saved several children from a burning building, but even that might not help you out here.

Make no mistake: numbers matter here. American law schools live and die by their US News & World Report rankings. This list is reissued once a year and is based largely on the average LSAT scores and GPAs of incoming and recent students. Partly for this reason, schools with good reputations are very selective, and schools with stellar reputations won’t even bother considering you unless you have great numbers to show them. And no, they won’t give a shit about your great personality, unfortunately. An utter asshole with a 180 and a 4.0 GPA will excel in place of a decent person with more standard numbers (and note that Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis are Harvard Law grads if that tells you anything.)

Time to recycle this now even more relevant screenshot. The LSAT logic games are a massive pain in the ass, but you can and will learn them if you’re taking the exam.

Yes, there are a ton of American law schools that will accept you without those great numbers, but these schools are almost without exception not worth attending because of their mediocre and in some cases abysmal bar passage rate and job placement numbers post-graduation. If you’re interested in any single law school, be sure to check their stats on Law School Transparency. Don’t believe the lies told by law school admissions officers who are only interested in securing your tuition funds. (Here I should add: I’ve known excellent lawyers who graduated from schools lower down in the rankings, and after a few years in the profession people care far more about your professional ability than the school you attended. The real problem is actually getting that experience to start with. It’s rough, but name and reputation absolutely matter at this point.)

But let’s say you make it through and manage to pass the bar and land a legal job. Great! Now you’re a working attorney. But is that something you really want to be? You’ve surely thought about the reasons you might want to get a law degree. I’ll run through a few of the most common reasons I’ve heard, both from fellow students in the past and from prospective ones. Here’s the template: I want to become a lawyer because…

I like to argue.

I’ve heard this one a lot. Often it seems tongue-in-cheek and there’s really more to it, but taking it at face value, this isn’t a great reason to become a lawyer. Sure, being an attorney can involve making a lot of arguments in briefs and possibly also in court depending on where you work and what you work at, but if this is really your reason for entering the profession, don’t. If you like to argue, then get on Twitter and argue. You don’t have to get an expensive and life-draining degree to do that.

Also, overly argumentative lawyers are pains in the ass. There’s being a zealous representative of your clients’ interests, which you’re duty-bound to be, and then there’s being an asshole, and the attorneys who consistently cross that line are widely hated in the profession. Usually hated by judges, too, and that’s something you want to absolutely avoid if at all possible.

I want money.

This is at least a refreshingly honest reason if you’re willing to openly admit to it. Some students are attracted by the money, after all. But it’s probably the worst reason of all to become a lawyer for the simple reason that this perceived “lawyer money” largely doesn’t exist. Back in the 80s and 90s, the profession may have been more lucrative, but it sure as hell isn’t now, and take that from someone who’s been in the legal job market for years now. The attorneys who make $120K+ salaries almost all work at big law firms, either straight out of school or after clerking for federal judges for a couple of years. Such jobs are difficult to get because of just how competitive the hiring process is, and if you’re not at an elite law school you’ll have a hard time unless you’re at the top of your class. Additionally, these attorneys are worked like dogs and are expected to bill massive hours, and as a result the long path to equity partnership at these firms (where the real money is) is littered with the bodies of burnouts.

No, most available legal jobs in the US are at small firms, government agencies, legal aid, and district attorney/public defenders’ offices and pay normal person salaries. I won’t tell you my own salary except to say that it’s regrettably not over $120K. It’s decent enough, but not more than what a lot of other “middle-class” professionals make, and certainly less than what a lot of my friends in IT make. If you want money, maybe consider IT instead? Because the vast majority of lawyers are not making amazing money and start closer to the 50-60K range. Some of these same jobs, particularly those at high-volume firms, will also work you to the bone and may even make you question the meaning of your own existence, and all without a commensurate salary (and again I speak from experience there.) If that’s shocking to you, then good — maybe you can rethink this reason for attending law school if that’s what you were aiming for.

Also consider that either way you may be saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt that you can’t even discharge with a bankruptcy. You probably won’t end up underground like Kaiji here, but it’s not much better.

You can do anything with a law degree.

Anyone who says the above to you is either misinformed or lying. A JD is a shackle; it chains you to law as a profession, and you can’t very easily break free from it if you decide you’re sick of law five or ten years down the line (a common angle taken by non-legal employers: “Why would you leave the lucrative and wonderful practice of law? You’ll just run back to a legal job at the first opportunity.” Both of which are complete misunderstandings as you can see above, but good luck convincing them otherwise.)

Though if you do manage to get out of the profession for something more lucrative and/or personally fulfilling, then God bless. I hear Hololive is taking audition submissions, and knowing Nijisanji they’ll be putting out about twelve more waves of VTubers in the next year. Your army of simps will pay you more in superchats and donations than your legal employer ever will. Just don’t ever, ever tell them you’re a lawyer. On top of the usual doxxing concerns, they will ask for legal advice in superchats and you absolutely do not want to risk creating an implied attorney-client relationship with GuraFan_420_69.*

I want to be a respected professional.

Nobody respects lawyers, and a lot of people downright hate us. If you care about what society thinks of you, do something else with your life.

Okay, this answer is partly a joke, but not entirely, because this is still a bad reason for studying law. Entering a profession just because of its perceived respectability, often at the insistence of family, is a terrible idea. I say that fully understanding how difficult it can be to withstand that kind of pressure. Just remember that you’ll be the one going through this ordeal, not them.

I want to help people.

Out of all the common reasons for attending law school, I think this one is the best. As an attorney, you can become uniquely positioned to help your fellow human, especially today in the United States where certain rights that many consider fundamental are being dissolved (yeah, I already got political here with the Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis comment so whatever.) Aside from that extra-publicized issue (and rightly so) of reproductive rights, there are all sorts of issues to deal with in the fields of immigration (bonus points here if you speak a second language commonly found in the US like Spanish), labor, and landlord-tenant relations.

However, there’s another warning to heed here: getting into these areas can be difficult depending upon where you’re starting out. For one, they don’t pay that well (as you might imagine, since your clients generally won’t be rich.) Legal aid organizations do exist around the country and keep attorneys on staff, but these also don’t pay much. If you’re thinking that might make it easier to get those jobs, however, think again, because even low-paying legal aid organizations have selective hiring processes. And if you’re in a position where you can barely feed yourself on top of paying your probably large student loan debt, you won’t be in much of a position to help others. Still, if you can make it work, legal aid is an excellent calling, and if you’re instead in a traditional firm, taking pro bono work after you’re established is a great way to give back to the community.

I don’t know what else to do.

The final reason I’ll be considering, and another bad one. This was also my reason. I wasn’t sure what else to do with a fucking political science degree anyway. I certainly didn’t take it into politics, which I am thankful for at least.

All that said, does the title of this post still hold up? I’d say it does as long as you keep the exceptions in mind. I believe that likely most Americans thinking about law school now shouldn’t apply for it. That group might have even included me ten years ago, but I’m stuck in the profession now. I thank God I’ve found a niche that I can tolerate, but that was partly thanks to luck, and a lot of people can’t manage it. It’s not even a niche I would recommend getting into, which is partly why I’m not going into detail about it. It was more of an escape for me, and then not even a complete one.

But in the end, it’s your life, and you have to make your own decisions about how to spend it. If you’re dead set on also working as an attorney, all I can advise is that you do your best, take in and properly filter all the information and advice that you can, and absolutely do not walk in expecting to get the best possible outcome for yourself, because that’s just not how life works. I know I’m a pessimist, but here I think I’m being balanced — realistic expectations are vital to maintain. Law school is viciously competitive, everything is graded on a curve, and if you don’t already have connections in high places or a guaranteed well-paying job waiting for you by the end, you’ll have to rely on a mix of luck and skill to make it through to the other side in good shape. If you’re up for that challenge, then I honestly wish you the best of luck. We need good, decent people in this profession — otherwise society will suffer even more than it is already. The problem is the system doesn’t make always make it easy to do the best thing possible.

If you’re already a law student reading this, I also don’t want to discourage you. Sheer motivation isn’t enough to secure a great future, but it’s a necessary element and it does help a lot. And look, I’m still around and doing relatively okay, so it’s not actually the worst decision in the world to study law in the US if I’m any indication. It’s just a decision I might not make again, knowing what I know now. And again, my experience is just mine — I’m drawing from that and stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues in the profession, but other attorneys and law grads might have different stories to tell you.

And anyway, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I hadn’t gone through these ordeals. I can’t say whether that would be a good or bad thing, but it’s hard to talk about regret when you factor that element in.

We’re not kids anymore and life isn’t supposed to be easy anyway. I just don’t want to see people making it harder than it needs to be. And Azumanga Daioh is actually relevant here if you can believe that. I’ve been rewatching the whole series lately, so expect something on it soon-ish, it’s worth a serious look — I can appreciate some parts of it a lot more at my current age and point in life.

Now I’m at the point where I’ve really been rambling too long, so I’ll leave it here. Tomorrow I’ll write about something lighter (and it will be a far shorter post, I can promise that. Until then.)

 

* I know there are lawyers who stream on YouTube, yeah, but I’m sure they have ways of dealing with this. I just don’t know what they are. Not sure a plain disclaimer is enough, but I haven’t looked into it anyway since I have no interest in streaming myself.

4 thoughts on “Don’t go to law school*: A lament and a warning

  1. How secretive you are about your lawyer niche has made me intensely curious as to what it is lol

    Reading through the entirety of this post honestly makes me glad I bailed on the idea of going to law school. It was a consideration at one point, but I ultimately bailed and went to community college for a cheap comp-sci diploma. The play there was to get educated for as cheaply as possible, and then get into the workforce by any means as education doesn’t matter a lot once you’ve got experience. A decade on and I can say with some degree of certainty that I made the right call.

    The big thing that urks me with all education in North America (not specifically this) is how the whole system is designed as a business. Tuition is high, and depending on what school you go to the reputation is what you’re paying for more than your actual learning. People in their early 20s shouldn’t be bled dry of their future financial prospects while seeking basic education. It’s just…it’s shit.

    • Ha, I wish I could be more specific. The field itself is pretty small, but I can say what I do doesn’t involve my going into court anymore, which I used to have to do and don’t recommend except for those who enjoy a lot of bustle.

      Sounds like you made exactly the right choice. I might have been happier doing that too, but since writing and reading were my thing and my family is pretty traditional and hardcore into the “you have to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer” thing I ended up falling into law (so a little of that reason for me too. It’s bullshit and I’m wiser about that now, but it’s too late for me.) It also helped me that I was able to keep my attendance costs down, though I still have plenty of loan money to pay back myself. Just not the 100/150/200K+ I know some do. That’s unimaginable to me.

      Absolutely agreed about education here. I’m not sure if the situation is any better there in Canada, but it sounds like the Canadian system has some similar problems. President Biden here is supposed to announce 10K in forgiveness along with another payment pause and some very limited total debt forgiveness, which is fine, but the entire system badly needs an overhaul. It’s an absolute crime the way education has been handled.

      • No amount of court room movie dramas could ever convince me that the bustle of the court room would be a worthwhile day to day in my working life. Shit seems like hell. Doubly so if you’re an introvert, and you really can’t be assed to speak to people on the daily.

        Yeah well…there are advantages when you’re born into a third generation family of middle class white people. The bar is pretty fucking low for some things, which, ironically, opens the door to a lot of opportunities provided you keep your eyes peeled for them. Though I have a really hard time faulting the traditional “you need to be a doctor!” mindset when it is commonly held by people who fled to North America so that their children could have more opportunities in life – ones that they themselves never had. Though…probably speaking a little out my ass now as I’m not in that boat, despite knowing and working with several people who come from that, or are themselves doing it to their own kids.

        As a general rule, assume things aren’t all that different in Canada. A lot of our systems were deliberately designed to mirror the American ones so that there would be less friction from a legal, financial, and cultural standpoint between our countries. We’re like…America’s less successful younger brother who still lives at home.

      • You’re right about it being hell for an introvert as I can attest to. I thought I could plow through it but turns out you can’t just turn into someone else that easily, and the other lawyers I saw all the time in there were stressed too anyway.

        You make a great point here. The side of my family that’s all about the traditional career approach is also the one that fled from war and dispossession and all that decades ago, so I can’t exactly argue with them on that point, since my upbringing was very middle-class, downright wealthy by comparison to theirs. Still not exactly a fun time for the children to have that imposed on us, but I can at least understand where that past generation of the family is coming from in that sense — there’s no time to have your head in the clouds I guess.

        That’s interesting to know about Canada. You’ve given me that impression before. I’ve never been, but I know a lot of people here have probably mistaken ideas about life up there (and of course it’s the planned haven for a lot of Americans if Trump somehow isn’t convicted of a crime at this point and wins reelection in 2024. At least that’s what they claim they’ll do. Sorry in advance for all that bullshit if it happens.)

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