Considering Law School? Advice from An Attorney
For some, it is the greatest mistake of their lives; for others, it has provided a path to a successful and well-paid career. Attorneys comprise the profession with the highest rate of alcoholism and depression in the United States, but yet, being an attorney can also provide one of the most rewarding experiences when helping a client in dire need of help. The legal profession is also currently one of the most competitive industries with an overabundance of attorneys looking for jobs.
It begs the question that I am constantly asked by students and graduates: should you go to law school? This is a deeply personal question and depends on your life and career goals, personality, and current financial situation. I’ve put together a list of important, and perhaps too-honest, considerations that you should ask yourself before making the big decision.
Is your primary motivation money?
If so, take a couple steps back. SPOILER ALERT: most relatively new attorneys I know don’t make a lot of money. Students in the top 10% of the class who work in BigLaw or in-house make earnings worthy of the debt required to go to law school. Others struggle, at least during the first 5-10 years. If you decide to work in government, salaries are egregiously low compared to the monthly loan payments you’ll need to make.
Many law grads will work in boutique or smaller firms, where salaries can average $65,000, even in large cities. If you are prepared to have a 3.5 or better in law school (which is not easy, I promise you), then you will be in the running for a higher-paid job upon graduation. If not, or if you plan on having a part-time job during law school, then you should re-consider your financial motivations for going to law school.
Do you enjoy reading and writing on repeat?
Being a lawyer can mean many different things. A corporate lawyer does something totally different than a litigator, real estate attorney, or landlord-tenant advocate. Litigators themselves can have very different jobs. Most fans of Law & Order will be disappointed to know that even trial attorneys don’t spend a majority of their time giving emotional speeches in court.
What all attorneys have in common is that they do an exorbitant amount of reading, writing, and analysis based on facts. Most attorneys – whether they are transactional or litigation practitioners – spend a heck of a lot of time reading, writing, and yes, more reading and writing.
Are you passionate about representing a specific cause?
Would you find absolute life-long satisfaction if you could represent victims of domestic violence in a court of law against their abusers? Or tirelessly advocating for criminal defendants who would otherwise not have representation? Would you still feel that way regardless of the amount you were paid? Is your passion rooted in providing legal representation for that cause? If the answers to these questions is unequivocally “HELL YES,” then go to law school.
Are you prepared for a highly competitive market?
Probably most important on this list is the disillusionment that many attorneys have about the current state of the market for attorneys and legal professionals. It’s COMPETITIVE out there, people. Like, really competitive. There are an overabundance of law school graduates and a dearth of opportunities for attorneys with <3 years of experience.
Many law school graduates, even academically successful ones, are forced to settle for low-paying jobs that they didn’t necessarily want. Others venture into non-legal positions, such as risk management, privacy and data protection, or compliance (which is hiring in droves – and you don’t need a law degree).
This isn’t meant to scare you or dissuade you from going to law school. In fact, many law school graduates jump from clerkships to small or boutique firms to large law firms or in-house corporate positions with relative ease. Just know that if you do graduate from law school, you will be competing against a highly intelligent (and typically naturally competitive, type-A crowd).
If you only get one thing out of this article…
An attorney’s happiness and job satisfaction lies primarily in what type of law she practices, where she works, and who she works for. But this is true of any profession.
Becoming a lawyer has been one of the most emotionally rewarding things I’ve accomplished in my life. Law school and working as an attorney have enabled me to see the world in a more objective light, understand and see more details, and earn an innate sense of accomplishment. Simply put, being an attorney in itself does not immediately or easily bring a high salary, a wealth of job opportunities, or intrinsic satisfaction for everyone. Do your research, be diligent in understanding what you want, and work hard.
With over 8 years of experience helping others improve their careers, Hayley Panasiuk founded Unfold Careers to provide affordable career advice to students and professionals struggling to meet their career goals. When she’s not coaching, Hayley works as a corporate attorney in California.