Above the Law

For at least as long as there have been law schools, prospective law students have asked themselves the same question: Should I go to law school? (Not surprisingly, there’s significant debate over when the first law school was started in America. For our purposes, we can safely assume it was a long time ago.)

Particularly in the current economic climate – where almost half of recent law grads aren’t finding full-time legal jobs – this is a question to take very seriously. Making the wrong choice here isn’t like having one bad date. It’s more like a really, really messy divorce – one that totally destroys your life, leaving you wondering why you
ever found your ex-spouse appealing to begin with.

So, how can you avoid such a fate?

Things to Consider Before You Apply to Law School

Before you apply to law school, ask yourself two questions:

    Will I be content as a lawyer?
    Can I afford this?

Let’s break it down.

Will You Be Content as a Lawyer?
It’s no secret that there are a lot of “recovering lawyers” in the world. To avoid being one of them, it’s critical to determine before you apply to law school if you’re likely to be content working as a lawyer. Figuring this out requires two steps:

  • First, know what you’re getting into.
  • Second, decide whether law’s a profession you’ll be good at and enjoy (or at least happily tolerate).

#1: Do you know what you’re getting into?
To understand what it’s like to be an attorney, you need to really research the profession. The very best way to do this is to – wait for it – go out and talk to some lawyers. Yes, I know real-life lawyers seem scary and mean, but most of them aren’t that bad. (And if you think they’re scary now, wait until you’re facing off across the
negotiation table.)

If you want to find out if law’s the career for you, make a commitment right now to interview at least three practicing attorneys about their careers (and lives) before you decide to go to law school. (If you’re not sure how to set up and conduct an informational interview, here’s a detailed guide.) If you talk to three lawyers, and you can’t see yourself being happy doing the work they do, talk to more people. Don’t stop until you find someone whose life you’d be happy with (or until you determine that, indeed, law school’s not for you).

If you can’t find a single lawyer whose life you’d like to emulate, be very, very wary of going to law school! Things are unlikely to end well.

#2: Is this something you’ll be good at?
Even if being a lawyer seems appealing to you, it’s still important to think about whether this is something you’ll actually be good at. There are many different ways to be a lawyer, but there are certain skills, talents, and personality traits that are generally favored in the profession. Understanding whether you possess these characteristics can be challenging in advance, but it’s worth exploring, so you’ll know if law’s a good fit for YOU.

Is your personality a good fit?
Like it or not, we’re all born with certain personality traits. In a fascinating series of articles Jennifer Alvey discusses the most common “lawyer” personality characteristics and explains which aspects of your personality are likely to cause trouble in the legal profession. (I finally understand why BigLaw billing practices drive me completely bonkers, for example.)

As she makes clear, it’s not that having a certain personality trait will necessarily doom you to misery as a lawyer, but it is important to be aware of areas where you might struggle, so you can evaluate the extent of the potential problem before spending lots of time and money on law school.

One aspect of the lawyer personality deserves specific mention: the competitive drive. If you’re going to be a successful litigator, you need to be driven to win. If you’re not über-competitive by nature, you’re unlikely to be happy as a litigator. Most unhappy litigators I know, including me, eventually just grew tired of “the
game.” Everything is a fight, and most of it’s zero-sum. If that sounds great to you, you’ll probably love litigation. If not, steer well clear!

Are you good at the right things?
To understand the skills and talents lawyers need, it’s useful to think about what they actually do. Newsflash, it’s not like on TV. Most lawyers don’t spend much time arguing in front of a jury. Instead, they spend the majority of their working hours alone in an office, turning out written work product on behalf of their clients.

Obviously, different types of legal jobs require different skills (another reason it’s so critical to talk to practicing lawyers about their jobs), but there are certain skills that are widely in demand. These include:

  • The ability to write clearly and convincingly, on a tight deadline.
  • The ability to find necessary pieces of information quickly.
  • The ability to analyze a high-stakes situation, identify potential pitfalls, and think logically about the best course of action.
  • The ability to explain complicated concepts in easily-understood language.
  • The ability to absorb large quantities of information and identify the important details.

In addition, it’s useful to:

  • Be extremely detail oriented.
  • Have a high tolerance for boredom.
  • Not require large amounts of social interaction.

If it sounds like I’m being needlessly negative, that’s not the intent. One of the most surprising things about being a lawyer is how solitary it can be. There were many days where the only person I spoke to was my secretary, and that was just a morning greeting. For the remainder of the day, I was alone in my office, researching
and writing. Not every legal job is like this, of course, but many are. If you need a lot of ongoing human interaction, law might not be the best field for you!

Finally, don’t forget the client-service aspects of being a lawyer. Law, at its heart, is a service profession. You’re not the one calling the shots – you work for a client. Too many potential lawyers forget this, and are surprised when they’re expected to network and drum up business, or to build relationships with demanding clients.
If you’re socially awkward and uncomfortable interacting with other people, this aspect of the legal profession is going to be difficult for you.

The Bottom Line
So, should you go to law school? Ultimately, you’re the only one who can make that decision. My advice to you is simple: Talk to lawyers (and ex-lawyers) about their lives, and really listen to what they tell you. Identify the characteristics of happy, successful lawyers, and map these to your own skills, interests, and personality
traits. You don’t need an exact match, but it should be pretty close. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. If law’s not for you, better to find that out BEFORE you waste three years and $200,000.

(One final note. You might have noticed that I’ve simply assumed you want to be a lawyer if you’re considering law school. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, don’t go. Simple as that.)

Next Question: Can you afford law school?