Why Are You Even Thinking About This? (Law School, Part 1)
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This is the first of five posts I offer about law school.
Law school admissions are down overall, but people still ask me about law school – whether they should pursue that path, or what lies ahead on that path to help inform their decision. Assuming that the person I’m speaking with is of at least average intelligence, my usual response is to first ask them to watch the above video, and then when they’ve hopefully completed that assignment, I ask why they’re still interested in going to law school, or in the alternative why they’re still interested in practicing law.
Let’s begin with the answer I get from people who actually watch the video. It is a variant of “You learn all sorts of things in law school that are useful for business, so it’s a good versatile graduate degree even if you don’t practice law.”
If you want to go into business rather than practicing law, then I submit that law school is a terrible decision. It’s a hundred thousand dollars worth of expense, that consumes three full years of your life, to little tangible benefit unless what you want to do is practice law. If what you want is to do business, then just go do it already. If you must go to school, then get an MBA instead. Law school teaches a lot of stuff that isn’t useful in business (rules of evidence, rules of civil procedure) and it turns out that actual businesspeople hire lawyers to deal with the legal stuff because it’s not important that they know the contours of the ancient documents exception to the hearsay rule. Besides, law school is about rules, which is mainly defining and understanding stuff you can’t do and the consequences of doing things you ought not to do.
Businesspeople need to be imaginative in their approach to problems, and let lawyers clean up for them afterwards. Some are smarter about it than others, to be sure, but law school will only narrow your business imagination by teaching you a lot of rules about things that you can’t do in business. Law school is for people who want to become lawyers.
So after excluding the (to me) bizarre idea of someone wanting to go to law school and then not practice law, serious answers to the question of “why do you want to go to law school?” seem to fall into five broad categories:
- Arguing with people is fun.
- I want money and respect.
- I can’t think of anything better to do.
- A hero of mine was a lawyer and I wish to emulate her.
- Something Is Terribly Wrong With The World And I Intend To Acquire And Use Super Attorney Powers To Fix It.
Of all of these, I’m coming around to the idea that reason #4 may actually be the best of these, assuming that the hero in question is someone that the prospective lawyer has had personal contact with of sufficient quality as to understand what the lawyer really does all day long.
I suspect that most lawyers, if they are honest, will confess that their true motivation to enter the legal profession was a blend of reasons 2 and 3. That would be true about me.
Those are also the reasons why I continue to do it – I can’t think of anything particularly better to do with my life and intelligence and skill set; the money is, if not nearly as great as I’d hoped, still good enough for a comfortable lifestyle. While what most people call “arguing” isn’t particularly a thrill, I do enjoy solving the puzzles that cases present to me, at least often enough to keep me engaged with my work. And sadly, after a certain amount of time in a career, one gets a bit “stovepiped” in terms of what other people think you can and cannot do.
If Reason #3 (“I can’t think of anything better to do”) is the wrong reason to go into law, then Reason #1 (“I like to argue”) is even wronger. Law is about solving problems, not about arguing. Arguing is one way that helps problems get resolved. And what most people think of as “arguing” is really nothing more than contradiction and name-calling.
But Reason #5 (“I’m going to save the world”) is in my opinion the wrongest reason to go into law. I am deeply cynical about attempts to save the world. The world resists saving. Like an alcoholic still in denial, it will insist, forcefully, that it’s doing just fine, thank you very much, so get out of its face. You will not solve racism or poverty or the exploitation of children in a court, adorable stories about starfish notwithstanding.
True opportunities to use the legal system to solve real problems of society as a whole are few and far between. I won’t say nonexistent. It costs you your life to be a lawyer and if the reason you did it turns out to be something almost certainly doomed to systemic frustration, that’s a poor bargain. David Boies and Ted Olsen are indeed heroes for using their Super Attorney Powers to advocate for same-sex marriage, one of the pivotal legal struggles of our day. Notice, though, that they’ve spent most of their careers fighting about big dollars, generally acting on behalf of big corporations. Thurgood Marshall is a hero for a reason — he’s also very much an exceptional figure.
So before you go to law school, get a good idea of what you’re going to be doing with that law degree: in all likelihood it’ll be unglamorous and tedious work that doesn’t pay anything close to what you imagine it would. Go back and watch the video again. Then consider this very true and very recent story, about unemployed lawyers.
I had a drink about a week and a half ago with a friend from law school, who is the managing partner of a small litigation boutique. The work his firm does is pretty typical. Some insurance defense, some business litigation, some real property disputes.
His firm lost a good associate attorney recently; they have been having trouble finding someone to replace her. It’s not that there aren’t young attorneys recently out of law school and presently out of work; finding someone who meets that description is no problem. But when they start doing the actual work, they leave quickly. One lawyer left after less than a week. My friend is confused and so am I – we’re told in the legal newspapers and journals and blogs that jobs are few and far between. But three times in a row, young lawyers with brand-new bar cards get a taste of the actual work and go running for the hills.
If you become a lawyer, in most cases, you’re going to be working for people richer than you who see your profession as an obstacle and your bill as an avoidable annoyance. You will absorb their stress, and the courts and opposing counsel will generate more of it for you. You will necessarily depend on other people to do things that they simply won’t do, and when they do them they will not do them to anything approaching the level quality that you would call “minimally acceptable.” Your clients will ignore your advice and d things you think are crack-smoking stupid, which you will have to then mitigate. And you will get asked lots of questions about lots of stuff you really aren’t knowledgeable about at cocktail parties and no one will pay you for the actually quite risky proposition of answering those questions.
Comparing the debt and stress to the financial and intellectual rewards, I find myself constantly vacillating these days as to whether I would make the same decision if I were in college again but know what I do now. The cost-reward calculus for becoming a lawyer and then practicing law does not look particularly favorable to me, and I’m not alone.
If your real reason for wanting to go to law school is one of the six I’ve discussed above, I’d advise you to look very seriously at other alternatives before proceeding because practicing law is unlikely to make you happy later in life. Now, if the inherent work of being a lawyer looks good to you, then by all means prepare for and apply to law school. Which is what the next post in my series will be about.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.