You’ve probably found yourself in a situation that is familiar to many of us – talking to a law student or a lawyer. If so, you’ve also probably experienced a phenomenon that is seemingly endemic to that career path. Sooner or later the conversation almost inevitably morphs into a monologue about law school. Horror stories of the Socratic method; hour after hour cramming in a study carrel in a dark corner of the library; rabid, antisocial, book-hiding, ultra-competitive classmates; a nonexistent job market; terrible absentee bosses; the evil bar exam; billable hours… Misery abounds. Woe is them.
I will tell you a secret from personal experience: the stories are mostly true. Fortunately for the reader, I won’t spend this column rehashing the many dysfunctions of a legal education and the practice of law. There is certainly no shortage of material outlining the many ways to improve both.
It takes a certain type of person to be attracted to the idea of spending their career arguing (though if you still think that the practice is anything like what you’ve seen in the movies we should be having a different discussion altogether). You’re confident that you could get through law school relatively unscathed, get a job, and live happily ever after. You might even be among the increasingly small percentage of people for whom that remains true. Even if it is, there are still reasons why a legal education might not be for you.
In defense of legal education and the legal profession, there are plenty of exceptions to these cautionary tales. I personally found my classmates to be among the most conscientious and diverse group of individuals I have ever had the pleasure of working with. My professors for the most part were at the tops of their respective fields, accessible and affable. I have been fortunate to have many colleagues and mentors in my relatively short career whom I was happy to also call friends. I know plenty of attorneys who have found a career practicing traditional law, whether in the private sector, for the government, or in some other capacity, to be highly rewarding.
That said, an increasing number of new lawyers and law students are realizing that contrary to the conventional wisdom, a law degree does not necessarily “open doors.” Rather, they are finding that the onerous and antiquated the licensing requirements, combined with hefty financial obligations, limit both where they can live and what they can do.
The following hypothetical is becoming alarmingly common in an increasingly mobile culture and a weak job market. A Virginia-licensed attorney, 2 years out of school, now wishes to relocate to a different state to take advantage of a stronger job market. To avoid taking the bar exam again, that person will have to practice, in most instances, for 3 more years before reciprocity will apply. Further, in certain states, like New York, California, and Florida, reciprocity is not available, meaning attorneys’ options are limited even further.
Compound that with the financial constraints that many students face in student loans and their professional choices are further diminished by the fact that many careers, particularly in the nonprofit sector, simply do not offer salaries sufficient to satisfy loan repayments and cost of living expenses. No, the will be largely relegated to striving to make partner at second tier law firms with billable hour requirements similar to the high-paying firms… but at half the levels of compensation. If they’re lucky. Retirement saving? Vacations? You can forget about them.
Those unsure that law school is the right choice, for any of the reasons listed above, would be well advised to spend a few years in the “real world,” gaining valuable work experience and actually earning a paycheck rather than hemorrhaging money on tuition and books, not to mention the prohibitive costs that come with living in many of the locales where schools are located.
An increasing number of law school graduates, predominantly younger lawyers, find themselves trapped in localities and practice areas simply because they don’t have more attractive alternatives. That doesn’t sound like freedom to me. And if you do ultimately decide to enroll, law school will still be there. I promise.
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