Is Law School the Right Choice? Some Advice

Posted September 17, 2008 at 10:09am

We are all aware of the downturn in the economy. Historically, during a downturn the number of new jobs for recent college graduates decreases. As such, graduate school can be used to conveniently postpone the challenge of having to find that perfect job, or even deciding what type of career it is you really want. One of the most common routes for college graduates working on Capitol Hill is the law school route.

Let’s be very clear from the beginning: I am not going to try to talk you out of law school. (I am still very happy I attended law school.) I am, however, going to share what I believe to be the most common “wrong” (term used loosely) reasons that people attend law school. I will also share my own story about deciding to go to law school. It’s embarrassing, but I’m still sharing because hundreds of attorneys have shared with me, behind closed doors, a strikingly similar story. My views are rooted in my experience as an attorney in a large Washington, D.C., law firm and as a legal recruiter in D.C., where I’ve spoken with literally thousands of attorneys in depth about their careers.

“Wrong” is probably a bit harsh, as law school provides an excellent way to strengthen your logical, analytical, research and writing skills. Also, despite all the lawyer jokes, law school has always been viewed in our society as one of the most prestigious forms of higher education, and there are many very happy lawyers. As they say, “It can’t hurt to have a law degree.” True, but it also can’t hurt to have a black belt in karate or to be able to fly a helicopter. The question is how much you really want to learn this skill and whether the investment of time and expense associated with law school makes sense in light of your desire.

I think two of the most common wrong reasons for going to law school are either to delay having to make a decision about what you “really” want to do when you grow up (more common during a down economy) or going to law school because it satisfies that part of your ego that wants to be associated with a powerful and successful career. These were my two exact reasons.

I grew up with my parents telling me that I argued all the time and that I would make a great lawyer, and my father was a lawyer. Somewhere during my preteen years I got the clear sense that being a “doctor or lawyer” equals the epitome of success. My friends who had lawyer or doctor parents seemed to have nicer houses, fancier cars and sharper clothes, and their parents carried an undeniable air of confidence and poise. To me, they seemed like the elite and powerful of our society.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college, and the worst grade I received was in biology. Becoming a doctor was out of the question. What’s left? I had no idea, but my knee-jerk reaction was that law school was in the cards. Bear in mind that I didn’t take any pre-law classes, wasn’t particularly interested in the law and, truthfully, I hated mock trial in high school. But a career in law always seemed to be the quick and easy answer to appease that side of me that was anxious about having to make the difficult decision about my future career path.

When I graduated, I was even more confused about my career direction. I moved back home, spent too much time reading “What Color is Your Parachute?” and got frustrated that the “perfect career” didn’t pop out at me. I took vocational tests and didn’t agree that being a park ranger was the ideal fit.

One night, though, my decision to attend law school happened within a split second. I was on the phone fighting with the telephone company about some excessive and unauthorized charges on my phone bill. I was losing the argument. A family friend, a litigator, saw my struggle and said, “Danny, let me show you how to handle this.” He took the phone from me, and within one minute, he had used some type of magical logic to completely dismantle the customer service representative’s position. The charges were removed, and I stood there in awe. I wanted to be a lawyer so I could defend myself like this. Nobody would mess with me. (I told you this would be embarrassing.)

Later that night, I went to a bar with some friends and somebody asked, “What are you going to do next year?” Normally, I’d hem and haw about how confused I was about my life and career, and have a pity party right there in the bar. But this night was different. I grinned and exclaimed, “I’m going to law school” and she said, “Oh wow, a LAWYER … that’s great!” I thought to myself, “Now I’m a success.”

If you are thinking about law school and you can relate to this story (which many lawyers can), it may make sense to step back and really think about this decision. Again, law school is a great education and being a lawyer is a wonderful career … for some people. Not everyone. If there’s that little voice inside your head whispering that you may be using law school as a way to avoid thinking about what you really want to do or you may be seeking to identify yourself with a successful career, law school could be a very expensive and timely exercise. That being said, there are certainly lawyers (myself included) who chose law school for the wrong reasons but are glad they did it. It’s just a bit riskier.

People who use law school as a “second undergraduate degree” can find themselves unfocused, confused and stressed out about what in the world they should do after they graduate. Just go speak with some third-year students in a local law school. They are always happy to give unsolicited advice.

Having a good reason for attending law school is also helpful when you look for a job. I volunteer giving mock interviews at numerous law schools and can almost immediately (within 30 seconds) tell which students are attending law school as a default and which ones are attending because a career in law is what they truly want. As you can imagine, the latter students are always more impressive. The legal market is exceedingly competitive, especially in D.C., and having a law degree in no way guarantees a job when you graduate.

My best advice is to talk to lawyers about what they do on a day-to-day basis and determine whether you could see yourself enjoying what they do. If you are unsure, I strongly recommend spending time working in the legal field and figuring out what you like and don’t like. When I worked in a firm, many of the law clerks were “on the fence” about law school. Some decided law school was aligned with their goals, and they pursued it with a focused confidence. And some weren’t quite sure so they held off or chose a different path entirely. But I can assure you that each and every one of these people was very glad they stepped back and spent time working in the real legal world prior to making such a big decision.

Best of luck, and please, take it slow.

Dan Binstock is a legal recruiter with BCG Attorney Search in Washington, D.C. Prior to becoming a recruiter, he practiced law in a large D.C. firm.