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Understanding Law School: 3 Common Misperceptions

The traditional arguments against going to law school are: (1) there are too many lawyers and not enough jobs; (2) tuition and student loan debts are too damn high; (3) the high-paying or high-powered jobs are available only to the top students of the top schools; and (4) most “JD Advantage” jobs could have been obtained without a law degree.

The typical response to the above is something along the lines of, “That won’t apply to be because I’m going to put in the work and be one of the top students.” Now those of us who lived through law school might find this amusing and even ridiculous. But we can’t really blame them for their determination. We were their age once. Back then, the world was a playground and full of opportunities. If 0Ls today know all of the risks and can obtain a decent scholarship at least for the 1L year, then they should take a shot and see where they fall on the bell curve.

Today, I am going to talk about a few issues regarding law school and law practice that have not been discussed (at least extensively) amongst the law school critics. The issues apply to most students (even the top students) of almost every law school….

1. You may not practice in the area you initially wanted. Many people enter law school with some idea of what they want to practice after graduation. Some want to practice “Wall Street” law like M&A, antitrust, or Fortune 500 litigation. Others want to do “Main Street” law, like criminal defense, real estate, or workers comp. And there are some who want to do something lofty, like human rights law.

But for various reasons, you may end up doing something else when you graduate. The biggest reason for this is the anemic job market. While you are a law student, if you do not get the summer associate or government positions you want, you will have to scramble on Symplicity and take what you can get. Ditto after graduation.

You might be thinking, I’ll just work this job until an opening for my dream job comes along. The problem is that your dream job will probably be twenty other peoples’ dream job too, so it may take a while before you even get an interview. Also, the longer you are out practicing in a different specialty, the more likely you will be typecast and be unemployable in the field you want to enter. Trust me — I am dealing with this now. It is not unusual to meet lawyers whose careers were chosen for them based on the law clerk job they took during their 1L summer year.

Another problem is that the field in which you want to practice may not be viable financially in the future. For example, someone mentioned that he wanted to set up a niche practice representing Uber drivers. That’s all well and good unless the state legislature decides to side with the taxi companies and outlaw Uber’s activities.

To be fair, some people voluntarily decide to do something different because they found that they like another area better. And that’s fine.

While you should expect to deal with change in any profession, in the legal profession, change happens early, quickly, and constantly.

2. Many practice areas are nothing like what you think they are. Last week, I advised people to work for a law firm before going to law school to understand what lawyers really do. The mainstream media still glamorizes the legal profession, which gives wrong ideas to impressionable minds.

For example, some people think that practicing “international law” involves traveling to exotic locales, schmoozing and boozing with European bankers, and finalizing multi-national trade agreements at the Monte Carlo Casino. And “human rights law” involves working with Interpol to apprehend the members of SIRI, FARC, Kim Jong Un’s generals, and that Kony guy, who will all be prosecuted at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Reality is a little different. For the elite law school graduate, practicing “international law” might involve staying up until 3 a.m. so she can talk to her client’s local attorney in Kuala Lumpur arguing over whether the contract written in Malay or English should control in the case of a dispute. For others who can speak another language, “international law” is pretty much foreign-language document review.

Similarly, “human rights law” might not be what you think it is. You can be practicing human rights law by helping the local homeless person get welfare and unemployment benefits. Or by helping an immigrant family stay together by representing the parents at their deportation hearing. Or by helping to prevent or delay an eviction because the tenants can’t afford to pay rent because of a recent robbery. While this is honorable work, it isn’t glamorous nor lucrative.

But people’s impression of “entertainment law” is the worst. Most of my non-lawyer friends think that entertainment law involves hanging out with a celebrity all day and watching her try on clothes while saying, “That’s legal. That’s legal too.” But in reality, entertainment law is basically specializing in certain areas of the law — contracts, copyrights, some litigation — focused on a certain industry. For example, you have to make sure that the movie contract does not expose your celebrity client to a shady compensation agreement attributable to “Hollywood accounting.”

So before you choose a legal specialty that sounds cool, do some research and talk to the people that are actually doing it. Don’t rely on what you see in the movies or the news.

3. Most of your law school extracurricular activities will not help you. During the wonderful undergrad years, most people participated in extracurricular activities because they thought such activities would make their law school application more attractive. And that might have worked. But don’t expect that line of thinking to work for law school.

For those who don’t make it to the top of the class, participating in other extracurricular activities can make you look more attractive on your résumé. But outside of law review and moot court, I do not think that extracurricular activities in law school will help you find a job.

For example, being a top-level member of the Student Bar Association will eat up a lot of time. You have to go to meetings, events, and meet with law school administrators. And if there is a contentious student issue (like tuition increases), you will have to spend time dealing with that on behalf of your constituents.

But from my experience and after speaking with others about this, it is better to work for a bar association committee, where you can meet with lawyers who can help you find a job. Or if you have a legal job already, then spend more time at work.

If you are into these types of things, then by all means do it. But don’t do it just for the purpose of résumé padding; you’re better off working for a bar association instead.

The point of today’s post is that because of factors beyond your control, there is a good chance you will not be the lawyer you saw yourself being. This may be one reason why a lot of lawyers are unhappy. If you are adamant about practicing in a certain area, you may have to figure out how to do it on your own.

Earlier: Go To Law School — Seriously. Just Do A Few Things First.

Shannon Achimalbe was a former solo practitioner for five years before deciding to sell out and get back on the corporate ladder. Shannon can be reached at sachimalbe@excite.com.

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