Here at Above the Law, we frequently sound gloomy notes about going to law school. In the past week or so, for example, we’ve written about one recent law school grad on food stamps and another one with almost no employed classmates. We’ve discussed the bleak market for legal jobs and the crushing burden of student loan debt.
As I’ve said before, our criticism of law school does not spring from malice. Rather, we want people to make an informed decision about whether to invest three (or more) years of time, and $100,000 (or more) in money, in pursuit of a law degree.
In today’s post, we’d like to talk about the other side of the coin: law school success stories. Let’s hear from people who went to law school and have no regrets — or even view going to law school as the best decision they ever made. Perhaps you might be one of them?
We’ll prime the pump with a few law school success stories, to get the conversation going….
I predict that some people will react to happy stories of law school graduates by saying that they are not representative of the broader experience. But, as it turns out, the sob stories may be the non-representative narratives. As noted in the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (via TaxProf Blog):
The vast majority of students rated their overall law school experience favorably; 83% reported that their experience in law school was good or excellent.
Eighty percent of students said that they definitely or probably would attend the same law school if they could start over again.
It’s simply not the case that everyone who went to law school hated the experience and regrets going. Many lawyers and law school graduates are happy with their chosen path (as reflected in the LSSSE survey data).
Back in 2010, in a post entitled In Defense of Going to Law School, I offered five arguments in favor of pursuing a J.D. degree. I then asked readers for positive law school stories or additional arguments in favor of legal education. I heard from a fair number of folks. Here’s a representative response:
I love the work…. I love listening to people’s problems and having the power to advocate and often solve those problems. What other profession can say that? I’ve wanted to do this type of work since I was a high school student. Sure I could be a psychiatrist, but I don’t want to solve people’s internal problems. I want to fight against a hostile adversary. Sure I could be a political activist, but I don’t care about politics or have any desire to wine and dine sleaze balls (much less wave heavy signs out in the heat). Law itself is a unique profession….
So, in short, this reason for law school is the same reason that underpaid elementary school teachers and firemen say they do their work. It’s a unique profession, and as long as I’m not starving, everything else can be damned.
This is an entirely valid perspective. As I said in reason #2 of my five reasons to go to law school, “Go to law school because you want to be a lawyer.” That may sound insanely obvious, but there are a fair number of people who go to law school for the wrong reasons — e.g., for the pay, or for the prestige. It makes more sense to go to law school because you actually know what day-to-day legal practice involves, maybe from having worked in a legal office in a non-lawyer capacity (such as a paralegal), and you know that you’d enjoy it. In other words, to quote the tipster above, you “love the work.”
Of course, wanting to be a lawyer is arguably a necessary but not a sufficient condition for going to law school. There’s also the matter of economic viability. It would be helpful if you do not have to ruin yourself financially in order to get a law degree. A different email received in response to my pro-law-school post offers this test:
Is it economically viable for you to go to law school?
1) Do you have the opportunity to go to a Top 20 school?
2) Do you have the opportunity to go to a Top 50 school that is the best school in the city or region where you plan to work after graduating?
3) Do you have any qualities or experience that would convince an impartial and reasonable lawyer that you have a substantial chance to be in the top 5% of your class at the law school you plan to attend?
4) Do you have a full scholarship to the law school you plan to attend?
5) Do you have someone willing to pay for you to go to law school, e.g., a family member or employer?
6) Do you have a guarantee for post-graduation employment, e.g., from a family member, current employer, or strong connection?
If you can honestly and accurately answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, then there is a rebuttable presumption that it is economically viable for you to go to law school. If you cannot honestly and accurately answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, then there is a rebuttable presumption that it is not economically viable for you to go to law school. If you can honestly and accurately answer “yes” to more than one of these questions, then the presumption in favor of economic viability grows stronger; however, the strength depends on the specific combination of questions to which you answered “yes.” For example, answering “yes” to Q1 and Q2 creates a favorable presumption that is slightly stronger than answering “yes” to only Q1, but answering yes to Q1 and Q4 creates a nearly irrebuttable presumption of economic viability.
Please remember that it may be problematic to use economic viability as the only factor in your decision to go to law school. If you do not know what a rebuttable presumption is, then look it up. If you do not know what the term means and either do not know how to look it up or do not want to look it up, then do not go to law school.
This advice is generally sound, although if you’re risk-averse, you might want to raise the bar a bit — e.g., require strong affirmative answers to at least two of the questions. For example, if you can go to a top 14 law school for free — perhaps because your parents or your spouse will pay for it — then law school might be the right decision. If you can go to your state’s flagship law school for free — perhaps because you have a full-ride scholarship for all three years (guaranteed, not contingent on maintaining a certain GPA) — and you want to practice in that state after you graduate, then law school might be the right decision. In either case, you really don’t have anything to lose except for time and opportunity costs.
Even if you must borrow some money to go to law school, and even if you can’t make it into a lucrative Biglaw job, law school might still be the right path for you. From a third reader:
[T]here are LOTS of solo or very small-firm types who well financially, get to work as legal entrepreneurs, and are their own boss….
Lots of us represent people, not large entities, and earn a respectable living doing so; very few of my clients have ever cared where I went to law school. Don’t forget most lawyers until less than 100 years ago never even went to “law school” and there were some pretty good legal minds then.
Nicely stated. We’re interested in hearing from additional readers who are happy they went to law school. Please email us, subject line “Law School Success Story,” if you fit the following criteria:
1. You have already graduated from law school. (Sometimes current law students email us to talk about how happy they are that they went to law school, but until you graduate and enter the world of work, you don’t have a complete perspective on your experience.)
2. You are happy with your decision to go to law school.
In your email, please provide the following information:
1. Where you graduated from law school.
2. When you graduated from law school.
3. Why you are happy with your decision to go to law school. This can be somewhat free-form — people define happiness in different ways — but we would be interested in hearing about such factors as what type of job you have (legal or non-legal, firm or in-house or government, etc.); how much you earn (you can give a range, e.g., “over $100K”); whether you have any educational debt still outstanding; and what you’d probably be doing if you didn’t go to law school (perhaps law school gave you an earning potential you never would have had otherwise).
That’s about it. As we traditionally do with our tipsters, we will keep you anonymous (unless you request otherwise). But we may use any and all information you provide to us, even to the extent of reposting your message to us in its entirety. So if you have any special requests — e.g., you want us to be vague about your year of graduation, your alma mater (“a New York-area law school” versus “Columbia”), or your employer (“Cravath” versus “a Vault 100 and Am Law 100 firm”) — you need to be explicit about that in your message.
So please, please email us with your law school success story (or, if you prefer, you can post your story in the comments instead of email). We will collect the happy tales, review them, and share selected ones in these pages, to balance out all the horror stories.
Thanks in advance for your submissions. We truly do look forward to hearing from you.
UPDATE (10:30 PM): I just noticed that the ABA Journal did something like this last year. For inspiration, check out the reader accounts collected in their story, Why I Love Being a Lawyer.
Earlier: From J.D. to Food Stamps: The Personal Cost of Going to Law School
In Defense of Going to Law School
NALP 2012: Good News, We’ve Probably Hit the Bottom
Law School Debt: By the Numbers
Quote of the Day: Feels Bad Man