Book Tackles the Motives, Choices Behind Pursuing a Law Degree

Law School Dropout, Graduate Wrote Book About Choices

Posted September 23, 2004 at 10:50am

Eight years ago, Deborah Schneider committed what turned out to be a big mistake: She enrolled in law school.

After leaving a job she took right after college in Washington, D.C., Schneider had been a first-year law student for only a couple of days when she began to question whether practicing law was indeed her ideal career. Because she later came to regret her decision — which she attributed to a lack of accurate information — Schneider teamed up with longtime friend and journalist Gary Belsky to write the aptly titled “Should You Really Be a Lawyer?”

“People spend more time researching a vacation than they do their next career move,” explained Schneider, a former career adviser at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “On my third day of law school, I realized, ‘My God — I don’t know anything about what lawyers do!’”

Despite her aversion to a legal career, Schneider ignored her co-author’s advice —Belsky dropped out in the middle of his second semester of law school — and ended up finishing her juris doctor degree, although she never became a practicing lawyer.

“Should You Really Be a Lawyer?” is not another “how-to” guide on acing the LSAT or getting accepted into that top-10 law school. Schneider and Belsky combine their personal experiences with anecdotes and advice from prospective, current and former law students, practicing lawyers and nonpracticing lawyers, in addition to many career counselors.

“There are books for prospective law students that go into the other things, but they only spend at most a few paragraphs or, at the very most, a few pages on the question of ‘Should you go?’” said Schneider, who said she had the idea for the book on her third day of law school but assumed it was only a matter of time before such a “no-brainer” book was published. “I waited and waited and no one ever wrote it, so I thought, ‘All right, I’ll have to write it myself,’” she said.

The book’s most unique feature is its structure. With different sections tailored to three separate audiences — prospective law students, current law students and those with legal degrees — “Should You Really Be a Lawyer?” uses principles of behavioral economics to identify the assumptions that often lead ill-suited people to pursue law school or sustain a legal career.

“People have to analyze their true motives,” said Belsky, whose 2000 book, “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Prevent Them,” applied lessons from behavioral economics to financial decision-making. Now executive editor at ESPN The Magazine in New York City, Belsky helped Schneider craft self-assessment exercises to help readers avoid using false assumptions to justify their decision to pursue a legal career. “All of these assumptions are based on inaccurate facts or no facts at all,” he added.

‘Choice Challenges’

Schneider and Belsky outline 12 such “choice challenges” that function as mental barriers to rational decision-making. For example, they include the “herd mentality” as one of the more well-known pathologies used to justify decisions on the basis of surrounding peer activity. In other words, the decision of many students to study law is often little more than a reflection of what the majority of those around them — friends, classmates or colleagues — are doing.

Rules of thumb also can be a source of faulty decision-making. While sometimes these assumptions are correct, other times they are misleading or applicable for some but not for others. In her decision to attend law school, Schneider relied on an all-too-common rule of thumb — the notion that a law degree is simply a good credential to have, and therefore law school must be worth the investment. However, students who enter law school with that assumption often have no idea what they are getting into, she said.

“Law school is a tremendous investment,” Schneider said. “It’s a bigger investment than a lot of people realize in terms of time, money, the amount of energy and effort you’re going to spend on it.”

Decision-making paralysis — in which prospective law students decide on law school because they view it as a way to postpone making a career decision — is another common choice challenge.

“When college seniors or even college graduates are so overwhelmed by the thought of what to do, they have no idea how they would decide so instead, they go to law school,” Schneider said. “But that just isn’t the right approach. You’re not going to learn how to make better decisions if you keep making decisions to avoid making decisions.”

Schneider also rejected the popular idea that going to law school is a way to keep options open. “Now think about it: Do you have more options after you’re $80,000 in debt or before? Facing debt and not knowing what you want to do is a scary place for a lot of people.”

For those students already in law school who, like both authors, have realized the experience was not what they expected or that a legal career is not for them, Schneider emphasized the role of the sunk cost fallacy in preventing unhappy law students from dropping out and pursuing another career.

“Emotionally, even if you realize, ‘I think I’m not on the right career path,’ it’s very difficult to switch gears at that point — all your identity and everything you’ve invested is tied up into being a lawyer,” she said. “Even if they hated it, they think, ‘Well, I’ve invested all this time, money and effort, and I would hate to see that going to waste.’ But no matter what, you’re not going to get that time and money back.”

So what is the right way to avoid these common mental traps and make good decisions about pursuing a legal career?

“It’s asking questions, but also asking the right questions,” Belsky said. “There’s no absolute right decision about these things — it’s much more about what fits for you.”

Making the Best Decision

While the right choice will vary from person to person, the book enumerates several steps that all prospective, current and former law students should take to ensure they are making the best decision. Most importantly, Schneider and Belsky advise prospective law students to do their homework by speaking with both practicing and nonpracticing lawyers, as well as research the many ways one can use a legal degree.

“There is a process,” Schneider said. “That is why there’s a whole field of career counseling.”

The first step for any prospective law student, Schneider and Belsky write, is to examine the reasons for going, which requires several self-assessment exercises. The second step is to explore what law school is all about and to look at opportunity costs such as the other possible careers that would be sacrificed for a legal career. The next step requires students to identify subjects of interest and skills they enjoy using when it comes to choosing an area of legal expertise.

“It’s very rare that I find an incoming law student who has thought through these things,” Schneider said. “The happiest lawyers I know are the ones who really found the job that’s the right fit for them.”

She added that it is a good idea for even current or former law students to reassess their decision-making processes.

“I think it’s also helpful for current law students and lawyers to take a look back and retrace their own steps,” Schneider said. “In order to make better decisions in the future, you’ve got to be looking about how you’ve made decisions in the past.”