Am I really doomed to misery if I go to law school?
December 9, 2008 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Are you a lawyer who loves your job? What do you do, and why do you love it?

I'm asking because I've decided to go to law school, but everyone I've told so far comes back with numerous anecdotes of friends who went to law school/are lawyers and hate it. That's the only thing anyone has to say about my new career choice, and it's got me second-guessing myself, so please let me hear the other side of the story!

A good salary is admittedly one part of the attraction, but I actually think I might enjoy it since I'm a hard-working, analytical, and competitive type who thrives on stress to some extent. (Side question: am I naive to think that if I enjoyed studying for the LSAT, law school and an eventual legal career might also be something I'll happily tolerate and continue to find stimulating and engaging?)

I'm specifically interested in hearing what kind of law is practiced, or what kind of positions are held, by lawyers who don't hate their jobs. I know there are also plenty of JDs who have fulfilling careers in other areas, but I'm not so much interested in that (if I do invest over $100k in a JD, I'll certainly plan on using it for its intended purpose).

Another thought: are lawyers who go to top-tier schools more likely to like their jobs? I'm wondering if all these miserable lawyers simply went to inferior schools and are suffering for that in the long run. I will only go to law school if I'm accepted to a top 10-ish school, so if this is a significant factor in the likelihood of my later career happiness, let that also be taken into account.

Oh, and do lawyers ever have holidays or sabbaticals? I understand that law school graduates are destined to a few initiatory years of slavery, but there is a light at the end of that tunnel, isn't there?
posted by xanthippe to Work & Money (36 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I mostly love my job. But to some extent I got the brass ring -- I work in a well-run, stable legal nonprofit in my first-choice areas of law (disability rights and employment law). I get to do litigation, technical assistance, legislation, amicus work, policy work. We don't have a sabbatical program (yet), but we have great benefits including vacation.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:44 AM on December 9, 2008


I absolutely love my job. I'm a criminal defense attorney at a small (6-7 attys) high-quality firm that does nothing but criminal defense, both street crime and white collar.

We work on a wide variety of cases, so I'm always learning something new and interesting. The lawyers I work with are all top notch professionals. The hours are normal (most of the time), and the pay is quite good (but not as high as Big Law).

All my friends who went to Big Law firms hate their jobs, and would do anything to switch places with someone like me. I think it's not just criminal defense, although that's part of it; it's that I work in a small firm where we get treated like human beings. I talk to a lot of other lawyers who work for small boutique firms, and they also seem to be a lot happier.
posted by mikeand1 at 8:57 AM on December 9, 2008


Quick Answer: I'm a public defender and I love it because it's great work in terms of helping my community in line with my moral and political inclinations and the pay, hours, and benefits are reasonable to good.

The rest of your post raises other questions you would be wise to consider before concluding that you will go to law school.

First, why do YOU want to go? If you have a job in mind and law school is the only way to get there (i.e., corporate defense attorney who makes big bucks, environmental protection, Native American rights advocate, insurance defense attorney, etc) then it's easy. But law school is a poor place for making the decision about why you're there and what you want from it. There is a substantial pressure for students to deviate from their plotted course. Of course, this is different at different schools ... CUNY will push a public interest career path, Stanford will push a corporate defense path, and so on.

Can I recommend law school? Depends - you really need to know why you're going and what you want from it. I tried to talk my little brother out of attending for some time so he could become more focused on his goals. He'll be successful in school, but it is a challenge to maintain your focus which in the end is what will make your experience and career rewarding. Though I'm happy, I know many who are not, many who are drudging through exceedingly long hours and working for people or institutions they are at best ambivalent about, or at worst which they despise.

In terms of economic rewards, my Legal Writing and Research instructor had a good line: "You're all smart enough to get into [this excellent school], so you should be smart enough to know that if you're looking to make money it's easier to do so with a degree from the business school and you'll make more of it." Lawyers can make plenty of money, but those who make a lot also work very hard (generally). You may get a job with a firm paying $170,000 and a bonus, but you'll also be working 12-14 hour days, 7 days/week. Public sector legal work was a good middle ground in terms of time and financial rewards ... for me. You may be quite a different creature.

The LSAT does demonstrate some skills you may use in law school or even as a lawyer. But the majority of your work is nothing like it. Only that it may use some similar skills. Legal research, document summary, staying awake during depositions and catching small problems, thinking constantly about what can go wrong, etc. Some love it and some jobs allow you to use very different skills. I'm using different skills in criminal law relative to my friends in civil firms involved with discrimination cases. Very different.


Many folks with JDs find being a lawyer is not their preference - many of those end up as law school professors.

Are lawyers who go to top-tier schools more likely to like their jobs? :
Well, they're more likely to get the jobs they seek out. But they're also more likely to select positions based on pay or perceived prestige. That can lead to unhappy lawyers or cause others to burn out. It certainly puts "success" ahead of former goals, dreams, and plans for happiness. Yet for some these are one and the same. The "happiness" of individual attorneys likely has very little to do with their school ranking and more to do with their choices in jobs, profession, and personality. Essentially, no: people at top tier schools are not any happier than their colleagues (nor do they make better lawyers generally).

I will only go to law school if I'm accepted to a top 10-ish school:
Surely if you're committed to a legal career the ranking of your school will have little to do with your decision to attend. However, if you're only willing to attend and so become a lawyer based on rankings, you may be already setting yourself up for some serious disappointments.

Oh, and do lawyers ever have holidays or sabbaticals?:
This entirely depends on which field you work in. But I can tell you that law school represented a relaxed and pleasant time compared with the demands of work today. Law school is fun, more work than undergrad, but still there's beer and friends and afternoons spent in thought rather than traffic. Law school is the light, you're walking away from freedom and weekends and days off as you leave it behind. That is the reason you must be focused and determined to enter a practice area you will love and enjoy: it will become the biggest part of your life quickly and for decades to come. If you love your work then your need for vacations and time off will be much less important. If you love prestige and seek more money to prove your success then that will be your reward at the cost of time with family, vacations, time to enjoy life beyond your job. I'd think on this for a moment as you consider vacations three years before you might be taking them.

All that being said, law school is a powerful experience and stepping stone. Just be sure you know where your foot will fall next and that you're excited that you'll be walking down that path.
posted by unclezeb at 9:15 AM on December 9, 2008 [8 favorites]


I like my job. I am a corporate lawyer in New York.

Here are some reasons NOT to go to law school:
(1) to prove to yourself that you are smart
(2) to get rich [try business instead]
(3) you don't know what to do with your life
(4) you like arguing
(5) you did well on the LSAT

All of these reasons are a disaster waiting to happen unless you get lucky and just HAPPEN to enjoy the law.

Going to a lower-ranked law school (not top-25), you will have a very difficult time getting a job at a big firm which pays well unless you are in the top 10% of your class. This is fine, if you really want to be an attorney, but just keep in mind that you may spend a good portion of your life paying down your loans.

A law degree opens many doors, but almost ALL of them involve being a lawyer. Don't listen to people who say you can do anything you want with a law degree -- why not just skip the three years and massive debt and do what you want?

Here are some reasons to go to law school:
(1) you want to serve the interests of justice (government, the poor, private citizens) by participating in the legal process
(2) you enjoy the legal side of business
(3) you want to pursue a higher level government job
(4) you want to be a law professor

Above all else, remember that law school is meant to teach you how to be a lawyer, and that's why you go.
posted by gagglezoomer at 9:18 AM on December 9, 2008 [6 favorites]


unclezeb has some good advice. A few counterpoints.

1. Good salary? This is evolving as we speak. But as to the comparison with business school, I think the relative advantage of the business school is most profound with respect to the high-end upside. Law school has in the past afforded a slightly better prospect of a guaranteed good salary. But it all depends on the business field, quality of school, etc.

2. Does it depend on the quality of school? On average, I think this does matter. Less so if you have a passion for justice, maybe. But it makes school a lot more relaxed and enjoyable if there isn't anxiety that you will have slim pickings if you don't finish in the top third, etc. And much of your education and enjoyment will depend on the quality of your peers.

3. Many folks with JDs find being a lawyer is not their preference - many of those end up as law school professors. Many professors don't mind being lawyers either. But the important caveat here is that these jobs are the hardest to get, and depend to an incredible degree on the tier of school you attend and whether you really distinguish yourself.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2008


I don't have time to prepare a full response, but I wanted to point out that I strongly disagree with the advice that someone should go to law school with the expectation of being a law school professor. Professorships are extraordinarily competitive, and even those teaching at relatively low-ranked schools, say the lower 100 of the 200 or so in the US, are extremely well-qualified, got great grades, are extensively published, etc. My buddy who went to Yale and got a bunch of Hs, who wanted to teach law his entire life has only recently, after 4 years of publishing, manage to get an associate professorship at a 3rd tier law school.

It is completely inaccurate to say that "many [folks with JDs who find out that being a lawyer is not their preference} end up as law school professors. It's just not true - very few professorships are available every year, and you have little chance to get those positions unless you went to a top ten school, did very, very well and are finding that many of your articles are being published in good law reviews.

You are much more likely to be able to work at a big firm and make a bunch of money than you are to be able to be a law professor - all the professors could have done so but they chose something they consider more attractive. Those positions are extremely competitive.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 9:32 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm now a federal public defender and I love my job. Before that, I worked at a big law firm in NYC and a big law firm in Houston, and I loved the work and the people, but not the hours. If you work in the large-firm, for-profit law world, that light at the end of the tunnel is likely an oncoming train. The pressure to bill only increases as you develop the skill set to run cases or deals and attract clients. Your first few years may be boring slavery reviewing documents. Your years after that are interesting and demanding slavery. Law school and clerking for a judge is the fun and relatively easy part of your career. If you are competitive enough (doing really well at a top-tier law school followed by a prestigious clerkship) to get a teaching job, you can expect the sabaticals and holidays. My friends at non-profit or small law shops work more regular hours than biglaw lawyers, but they don't take long holidays either. The big money has a big trade off in terms of lifestyle, for the most part.

I don't think that fancy law school translates into job satisfaction. I know happy and miserable lawyers from all schools.

Agreed that the LSAT is no proxy for how you will like the practice of law. Getting some real world experience through an internship or job is a good one.
posted by *s at 9:37 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


A lot of good advice here. The things I would emphasize most would be 1) get good grades 2) pay attention to gagglezoomer's list 3) don't go straight out of college.

The quality of the law school is important, but there are definitely some variations for schools recognized by local employers as good.

I loved law school. I love my job, but I have the best job ever (regulatory compliance for a consulting firm). I also loved my (relatively) low paying government job that gave me the experience to do this one. About half of my friends hated their Big Law Firm jobs.
posted by Pax at 9:44 AM on December 9, 2008


As iknowizbirfmark and Clyde Mnestra point out there are VERY few positions for those who want to be law school professors and these few positions are highly competitive.

I should have been more clear: many law professors choose not to practice as lawyers; however, few who choose not to practice as lawyers can or do become professors (because these are rare and coveted positions).

Thanks for the corrections!
posted by unclezeb at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2008


I'm an IP attorney. I agree with the above posts (except the one that implied that you can just fall into a law professorship, which is a bizarre belief) so I won't repeat them.

My take on this is that if you are interested in and enjoy your practice field, and/or your clients, then you'll enjoy your legal work in that field. More concretely, my degree was in engineering, and then I went to law school (who knows what I was thinking at the time). Then I found out about patent law, which is a natural fit and I enjoy it, as well as I could enjoy anything that's mandatory and time-consuming. The ancillary TM and Cprt practice is interesting as well.

I wouldn't enjoy corporate work so much (perhaps that's the work the so-called "slaves" you've posited are doing) since it's not aligned with my interests and values.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2008


Acknowledging unclezeb's clarification of his earlier post.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:54 AM on December 9, 2008


I'm a lawyer who mostly loves my job, but like many of the other responders here, I'm in a public interest position. The money's not as good as the big firms, but the job itself is more humane (fewer hours worked) and very interesting.

gagglezoomer has a great list and I strongly agree with unclezeb that you should know why you're going to law school before you go, or you get caught up in the tide to do what everyone else at your school is doing. If you're thinking of going straight out of college, my strongest piece of advice for you would be to wait a few years, get an internship or some other job at a law firm or two, and see if you actually like it. You should not be in any rush to take on $100K+ in debt.

As for the importance of the school's ranking, it can make a difference in being able to relax during school because the job market will be better. But some lower-ranked schools will have highly regarded programs in particular areas that you should consider if you have an interest in said area.

Finally, if you have any interest in public interest work, look into your potential schools' loan repayment programs (LRAP) and read the fine print. A lower ranked school that will pay more of your loans would be vastly preferable than a higher ranked school with a poor LRAP. You could find yourself trapped into taking a $150K job if your school has a crap LRAP. That might not sound like such a terrible position to be in, but if you're not cut out for big law, I think it would be pretty damn awful.
posted by Mavri at 10:08 AM on December 9, 2008


Just want to note that for those aspire for public service law as it's traditionally understood, going to a top school is more, not less, important.

The prestigious government and non-profit employers are for the most part ruthlessly elitist in their hiring, and, unlike private practice where you can eventually transcend your transcript with quantifiable business generation, the lack of profit incentive in the public service world enables the elitism to persist deep into careers. Check out the backgrounds of the lawyers who are taking part in Obama's transition if you want to see this process taken to its logical extension.

Also, the top law schools have far more generous up-front tuition grants and back-end loan forgiveness programs than at other schools. You may think you can live on a $60,000 salary with a $120,000 in loan balances, but once you have a family to support you'll think again.
posted by MattD at 10:13 AM on December 9, 2008


I've a sister-in-law who likes her job working for the ACLU. I think people who like law like being lawyers. A politically driven person, like my sister-in-law, will gain added enjoyment. A PhD, MD, or JD should mean you know exactly what you want to do, not just that you're after the money.

All professorships are extremely competitive. Indeed the "easier" the subject the more competitive the professorships. So literature, history, etc. are all just viscously competitive for *any* job, while all good scientists are basically expected to get *some* professorship eventually.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:15 AM on December 9, 2008


I'll add another data point; I'm not an attorney yet, but I'm a third year student at a top 25 school. I went straight through out of college, but that was after working at a few different firms during college, and also due to some other personal life issues (engagement, etc.). I'm pretty happy with the decision, though if not for the other life things I may have waited for another year or two, which is pretty common. I clerked for a judge for a summer, and worked as a summer intern (summer associate, in the law school parlance). I liked working for the judge, but didn't like the big firm at all. At the end of the day, I didn't really care about what I was doing. I wanted to do good work, but it didn't matter to me what company got the money we were fighting over. Wasn't the fit for me.

After graduation I'll be clerking for a judge for a year, and then hopefully landing a job at the attorney general's office or district attorney's office. I like public service, and hope to eventually find a seat as a U.S. Attorney. I'm happy with my path, but it's one that I've been eying for a long time. It continues to be interesting, and it also plays to my strengths (writing, speaking). Not sure about how it might fit you.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:27 AM on December 9, 2008


Really need more info from you about what you want to do with your JD degree to give you good answers, but I'll give you some thoughts while I eat my lunch.

Are you a lawyer who loves your job?

Yes, most of the time. Some days I want to quit and do something else. I suspect most feel the same.

What do you do

Civil litigation. Becoming mostly appellate work these days. I work in a civil litigation boutique of about 20 attorneys.

and why do you love it?


For one, I knew from an early age that there is nothing else in the world that I could be outside of the legal field. It speaks to me. I think in its terms. I get to be creative. I get to help people, which is incredibly rewarding. I get to win things, which is incredibly self-satisfying.

I did not make a decision to be a lawyer. For me, there was no other option that would fit. I met a lot of people at law school who went for basically 3 more years of college. They had no passion to be a lawyer. It might as well been an MBA program for them. It wasn't for me. It was the only career for me since I was about 14-15.

but everyone I've told so far comes back with numerous anecdotes of friends who went to law school/are lawyers and hate it.

It's a peculiar affect of attorneys that I notice too. We frequently bemoan our career. I think partly because it is can be an incredibly stressful profession, especially in litigation, family law, and criminal law. There are losses that have to be swallowed. It is highly competitive. You spend your life fighting things; that can do a real number on your personality and make you disagreeable by nature.

It's not a life of sweetness and light. And I think a lot of attorneys advise against it for that reason. I am also certain there is a percentage of lawyers who made a bad career choice for themselves and are the round peg in the square hole. Those kind of people don't last long, though.

A good salary is admittedly one part of the attraction


Yes, you can make good money if you enter various fields; you can even make phenomenal money. But it isn't easy money. You earn it. You will work long hours. You will be stressed. You will be disliked by the public at large. You will have to work hard to compete against capable people for limited jobs.

There are easier and more pleasant ways to earn money. But if you are doing what you like, then, yeah, the money can be great.

I'm a hard-working, analytical, and competitive type who thrives on stress to some extent.

All good qualities to have. Being able to thrive under stress is essential, in my opinion.

am I naive to think that if I enjoyed studying for the LSAT, law school and an eventual legal career might also be something I'll happily tolerate and continue to find stimulating and engaging?

Yes. There is no correlation, in my opinion, beyond indicating a capacity for analytical thinking.

'I'm specifically interested in hearing what kind of law is practiced, or what kind of positions are held, by lawyers who don't hate their jobs.

As I said, I do civil litigation. I represent primarily hospitals, physicians, and healthcare entities. Hospitals have every issue that every other corporation has (commercial, employment, IP, federal compliance, etc) while also having the enormous liability aspect as well as health care decision-making. So I pretty much do a little of everything within civil litigation. I used to do primarily trial work. But now I do more appellate work. I'm lucky in that I have excelled at my job and been recognized with awards which has allowed me the freedom to choose what I want to do and pick what I find interesting. Thus I have a higher job satisfaction than someone who is rigidly stuck into a position at larger firms.

Additionally, I write papers, present at CLEs, and attend a lot of professional and political meetings. That is non-paying, but it is something that I like to do which adds another dimension to my career.

Another thought: are lawyers who go to top-tier schools more likely to like their jobs?

Liking your job is a function of being able to do what you want and making money you are happy with. So, more likely at the outset? In some areas, of course. Applicant A from Yale, Applicant B from Thurgood Marshall law school. Which do you think will get the job they want?

But I would draw a distinction between the beginning of a career and long term. Long term success if not tied to law school. The most successful attorneys in the country do not necessarily have top 10 pedigrees. Different areas of law tend to draw from different types of schools, and I think the more likely indicator of success and happiness is whether the attorney is doing what that attorney wants to do. If they are, they will be happy.

I will only go to law school if I'm accepted to a top 10-ish school


That's a silly, silly comment. Yes, it will be helpful to you in opening doors if you go to a top law school and excel. But you will do better finishing in the top 15% of a top tier school than you would in finishing in the bottom quarter of a top 10 school. Also, there are large regional differences. If, for instance, you wanted to practice in Oregon, you would be better off going to a school in Oregon and excelling than in going to UVA and struggling. There should be a lot of considerations in choosing a law school, and whether it is top 10 or not is a minor one. In fact, many of the most successful practicing attorneys did not go to top 10 schools.

Oh, and do lawyers ever have holidays or sabbaticals?


One thing you need to learn is that being an attorney is a profession. It is not a job. As a profession, you are always on the clock. Of course attorneys take vacations and time off when they can. But our professional obligations continue. My vacations are always subject to having to fly back because an issue springs up.

Different types of law and different firm environments provide various levels of flexibility. But I would never work anywhere that treated me like a 9-5 employee with X days of vacations a year. I'm a professional. I do the job to the best of my ability consistent with my ethical obligations. Some days I might leave early. Most days I stay late. If I want a day off, and do not have an obligation preventing it, I choose to take it. I answer to my obligations, not a schedule.

I understand that law school graduates are destined to a few initiatory years of slavery, but there is a light at the end of that tunnel, isn't there?

It doesn't have to be that way. I get the impression from this comment and your top 10 comment that you are interested in the big firm lifestyle. If that is what you want, bully for you and ignore everything I just said. If those are the kind of people you are talking to and that's what you want to do, this quality of life discussion is off-base. Go chase the money. You can make as more doing other things, but it may not have the sexiness or whatever you are after by going that route.

But that lifestyle is only a fraction of the options at there and one I would not take for anything.
posted by dios at 10:46 AM on December 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


My ex is an appellate public defender in Illinois, and he loves his job. (Or at least he likes it a whole lot.) He's not on Metafilter, so I'll drop him a line and see if he might be willing to email you.
posted by scody at 10:48 AM on December 9, 2008


I am a defense-side civil litigator and I love my job most of the time. I do not have time to give a full response (such is the nature of the job). But I concur with dios' opinion.

If you are in it for the money, get out while you still can.
posted by The World Famous at 12:42 PM on December 9, 2008


I would be very careful about paying full or even half price at a non-T14 school. Yes, if you finish in the top 10% at a lower-ranked school, you'll still have great opportunities. But everyone's plan at these schools is to work really hard and make the top 10%. The 90% who don't are stuck with $150k in non-dischargeable student loan debt and terrible job prospects (at least in the current market).

See here and here for some sobering numbers.
posted by ewiar at 8:15 PM on December 9, 2008


Response by poster: Good answers all around. I guess I'll be posting next week to seek clarity on what practice area/focus in law school I should choose.

I'm not only in it for the money; I genuinely do want to be a lawyer and think I would enjoy it, provided I could get a sense of professional satisfaction along with preserving my quality of life. I'm not sure about Big Law but it's nice to hear from so many people in this thread about the alternatives to it.
posted by xanthippe at 9:03 PM on December 9, 2008


You've read this thread? And this one?

Nutshell - I love my job as a prosecutor, which pays adequately well, gives me great benefits (including a pension) and the ability to go on sabbatical if I wish. I have colleagues from a variety of law schools, and no one pays any attention to where a lawyer graduated from in practice.
posted by birdsquared at 9:47 PM on December 9, 2008


Or rather "And this one?"
posted by birdsquared at 9:49 PM on December 9, 2008


Another bit of unsolicited advice: consider the trade-off between a lower-ranked school and scholarships. I took a spot at a top-25 school instead of a top-10, since the top-10 slot would have meant an additional $70k of debt.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:04 AM on December 10, 2008


This top 25 or top 10 stuff is BS on stilts. Don't listen to it. It's driven by people who are obsessed with big law or have a very narrow view of what the goal of being an attorney is.

Sure, all things being equal, going to a higher rated school will be an advantage. But it is BEYOND asinine to act like you will be pissing away $100k if you go to anything but a top 10 school and finish at the top of the class. It is so far divorced from reality that the advice can only be coming from law students who haven't actually been involved in the practice.

If anyone tells you that you are wasting your time not going to a top 14 school, then they do not have a clue what they are talking about.

Again, the type of law you want to practice factors in to the decision. Some schools tend to have stronger programs in different areas.

Moreover, where you want to practice in the country is also a major factor. For instance, if you know you want to live in New Orleans, you have better job prospects there going to #44 ranked Tulane than to #22 ranked Emory. If you want to practice in Dallas, #46 ranked SMU would get you better job prospects than #27 ranked Fordham.

If you want to land the highest paying corporate job in NYC at the largest big law firm, then yeah, you better damn well have some rocking credentials. But that career path is about 1% of profession.

Going to 4th tier St. Mary's Law School did not hurt John Cornyn much. With that "wasted" law degree from a non-top-14 law school, he was only able to become the Attorney General of the State of Texas, a Justice on the Texas Supreme Court, and a United States Senator. Not bad, irrespective of what you think of his politics.

Look: assuming you do not want to go into public service or pro bono law, and you decide to go into private practice, you will make money. You will not be bankrupt by your student loan debt. And while your initial job may be effected by the reputation of your law school, 5 years out it does not matter. Your ultimate success--whether you measure it by victories or how much you earn--will be dictated by your ability to succeed and do good work and has NOTHING to do with your law school's ranking.

stuck with $150k in non-dischargeable student loan debt and terrible job prospects
posted by ewiar at 10:15 PM on December 9


What law student has $150k in student loan debt? You realize that law school is only a 3 year program right? And you can work during those years and make good money.
posted by dios at 8:32 AM on December 10, 2008


Dios, a lot of law students have six-figure student loan debt, since they all went to undergrad, and many of them got their bachelor's degrees at private institutions. It's not ridiculous in the least.

Regarding rankings, I don't mean to say that the law school rankings are the most important thing in the world, but to say that they don't matter for anything but the highest paying corporate jobs in NYC is a colossal overgeneralization. Regional differences do matter, but so do national reputations. If you know where you want to practice, the math gets a little easier, but if you're not sure where you want to land, you're better of going to a school with a national reputation, or at least an alumni association that has a national reach. It will be tough goings if you attend the University of Denver and realize in your second year that you want to practice in D.C.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:20 AM on December 10, 2008


Dios, respectfully, I think that your advice is very poor. Your anecdotal advice about John Cornyn is, well, anecdotal. You could just as easily say "Dropping out of college did not hurt Bill Gates much. He dropped out of college, and started a software company. Not bad, irrespective of what you think of his company's products." Your other straw men aren't worth arguing against, but your general point seems to be that people generally over-estimate how important it is to go to a well-ranked law school. I disagree strongly.

This statement: And while your initial job may be effected by the reputation of your law school, 5 years out it does not matter. Your ultimate success--whether you measure it by victories or how much you earn--will be dictated by your ability to succeed and do good work and has NOTHING to do with your law school's ranking. is wrong, in my opinion.

Whether or not things should be that way, where you went to school does matter. Of course, it's true that a person's ultimate success as an attorney, however defined, is at least significantly a result of that person's abilities. But opportunities certainly plan a factor. Schools and grades matter for when you get your first job, and that matters for the rest of your career. Whether it's right or not, the fact that it can be very hard to get a job out of school for a lot of students (even students at good schools) does affect their careers.

That's not just the case for "Biglaw." It's the case for medium law and small law. It's the case for government jobs, and it's the case for public interest jobs. Unless you are going to succeed as a lawyer on your own, without training or being employed by others, and without seeking clients who care about where you went to school, where you go to law school matters.

Look: assuming you do not want to go into public service or pro bono law, and you decide to go into private practice, you will make money. You will not be bankrupt by your student loan debt.

Sorry, but you're wrong. No one is just going to get a job. No one is just going to "make money." No one is out there handing them out to anyone with a JD. Many people who go to law school, especially low-ranked ones, never practice law, or they never feel like they make enough money doing it to justify the expense. That's because law school is very expensive, legal jobs are always very competitive and your initial steps on the career path dictate your later path.

You're right that you won't be bankrupt by your student loan debt, but that's because it is bankruptcy-proof. You can be otherwise bankrupt, but you can never get away from student loan debt. Many people wish that they could be bankrupt by it.

Do you know what it costs to attend lots of low-ranked schools with poor bar passage rates where it's difficult to find gainful employment? About the same as it costs to attend Harvard or Yale, and probably more than it cost to attend Illinois or Indiana, because a lot of low-ranked schools are private. It's high corporate law salaries and lower state funding (for public schools) that have driven up tuition costs, but many law students will never make those salaries. You don't need to go to Harvard, Yale, Illinois or Indiana to pay back your loans for those places, but you do need to make decent money.

I've been practicing for seven years. While my school may not matter much at this point, what I have been doing for the past seven years surely matters a lot. And what I have been doing for the past seven years is a direct result of where I went to school.

Going to law school has significant direct and opportunity costs - even for a state school it's around $100k at a minimum, and if you have good alternative opportunities or go a private school or a school in an expensive city, it could easily be $200-$300k. Sure, you can get scholarships, grants and loans, but those costs add up. Sure, you can work during that time, but then you risk having less time to study to get good grades, but maybe you think that those don't matter either, because someone famous flunked torts?

Going to law school is very expensive. Any student may have trouble finding a job. Strategies to maximize the likelihood of finding a job are important. A good strategy to maximize the likelihood of finding a job is to go to a top-ranked school. That's maybe not the way that it should be, but it's the way that it is.

If anyone tells you that you are wasting your time not going to a top 14 school, then they do not have a clue what they are talking about.

If anyone tells you that it doesn't matter where you go to law school, that person does not have a clue what he or she is talking about.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 10:36 AM on December 10, 2008


To answer the initial question, a lot of lawyers are miserable because law is generally a profession where you reap what you sow. It is not a profession for those who can't or won't stand up for themselves. Plenty of lawyers are assholes, because their forebearers were, because they like the way it makes them feel, because they are themselves miserable, because being aggressive and rude can be helpful, etc. You always have to be scratching for more, looking higher, trying to get more clients, cases, do a better job, etc. Generally, you aren't going to have things handed to you. If you expect that, you might end up unhappy. If you're realistic about what makes you happy, then you can go out and find that as a lawyer. You just have to do so.

This works for some people, but it doesn't work for others. Many of the people I know who are miserable are miserable because they haven't made decisions that benefit them. They feel they need to work at a certain kind of place, or practice a certain kind of law, or put up with a certain amount of abuse, because that's what they should do, or that's what is "expected" of people who do well in college and law school. They followed a path, and they don't like that path and they blame others for "making" them follow that path.

That's bullshit - people should take the paths that make them happy. I'm happy right now because of the choice I have made. To an extent, money and job security make me happy, and I have that right now. But I have it in a place where I have a lot of autonomy, like the work that I do and like the people that I work with. I'm lucky that I'm here now, because the economy sucks and, while I could quickly find something else, it probably would involve some trade-offs. If I weren't happy and would have trouble moving to something that would make me happy, then I would have to bide my time for a while, but I would be planning and scratching and grinding out something better.

A lot of people aren't cut out for grinding out happiness and a career that works for them. They shouldn't be lawyers. Too many lawyers are sycophants and that's why they're unhappy. They've put themselves in a bad position and construct reasons that they can't remove themselves from it. That's why lawyers are unhappy. It's not the law's fault; it's the lawyer's fault.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 10:46 AM on December 10, 2008


To respond, briefly, to Dios -- essentially, I disagree with most everything s/he says. A couple of particulars:

This top 25 or top 10 stuff is BS on stilts. Don't listen to it. It's driven by people who are obsessed with big law or have a very narrow view of what the goal of being an attorney is.


Partly agree. That is what drives the popularization of these notions, but it nevertheless remains useful to bear in mind.

Sure, all things being equal, going to a higher rated school will be an advantage. But it is BEYOND asinine to act like you will be pissing away $100k if you go to anything but a top 10 school and finish at the top of the class. It is so far divorced from reality that the advice can only be coming from law students who haven't actually been involved in the practice.


I don't think anyone was saying that you are pissing away 100K. But to adopt your language, it is at least equal to asinine to suggest that going to a higher rated school is only a marginal consideration. Search for "Loyola 3L," or read "Above the Law," to get a sense about how Tier 2-4 are faring in the market.

If anyone tells you that you are wasting your time not going to a top 14 school, then they do not have a clue what they are talking about. Again, the type of law you want to practice factors in to the decision. Some schools tend to have stronger programs in different areas.

The type of law does matter, and should affect the choice of school. But the truth is that relatively few law students know enough to decide in advance their field of practice. And to link the points: if you don't know beforehand, and wind up at a so-so school, you will find yourself more limited in your ability to achieve your subsequently discovered calling, and may wind up having to take a job in an area in which you have little interest.

Moreover, where you want to practice in the country is also a major factor. For instance, if you know you want to live in New Orleans, you have better job prospects there going to #44 ranked Tulane than to #22 ranked Emory. If you want to practice in Dallas, #46 ranked SMU would get you better job prospects than #27 ranked Fordham.

This is true. It's a matter of which aspect you emphasize, though. Bear in mind that if you go to, say, Tulane, and do well, you can fare well in the NO job market. Your credentials will also travel, but less well, and if you finish in the bottom half of the class it's not as though you can write your own ticket in NO either.

If you want to land the highest paying corporate job in NYC at the largest big law firm, then yeah, you better damn well have some rocking credentials. But that career path is about 1% of profession.

Actually, getting a Biglaw job (where the pay is much the same everywhere in a given market, at least starting out) is often among the easier things to do, and thousands of students find out annually. If that's what you want, going to a top 25-50 school and doing well should get you there, depending on the market and the school. The problem becomes when you don't want that.

Going to 4th tier St. Mary's Law School did not hurt John Cornyn much. With that "wasted" law degree from a non-top-14 law school, he was only able to become the Attorney General of the State of Texas, a Justice on the Texas Supreme Court, and a United States Senator. Not bad, irrespective of what you think of his politics.

All true. Some people succeed no matter what their credentials; talent, or connections, or luck will out. But it would be stupid to say that going to a 4th tier school, as opposed to a 1st tier, doesn't matter profoundly to the vast majority of the students who attend it. So I will assume that's not the point here, and that this is a distraction.

Look: assuming you do not want to go into public service or pro bono law, and you decide to go into private practice, you will make money. You will not be bankrupt by your student loan debt. And while your initial job may be effected by the reputation of your law school, 5 years out it does not matter. Your ultimate success--whether you measure it by victories or how much you earn--will be dictated by your ability to succeed and do good work and has NOTHING to do with your law school's ranking.

I respectfully disagree. I know dozens of students who have troubles getting jobs from top 25 schools. I know dozens more who say that they chose a particular job solely because of the salary. And while success is determined by lots of things, a very large amount of the initial opportunity you get has LOTS to do with the law school you are at.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:49 AM on December 10, 2008


What law student has $150k in student loan debt? You realize that law school is only a 3 year program right? And you can work during those years and make good money.

A whole hell of a lot of them, actually. Including me. I've gotten the impression that you are a pretty experienced attorney, so you might not be aware that law school tuitions have been on a steep rise in the past few years. Don't believe me? Check out this study. And I couldn't make money in law school because I was working for free to build my resume for a public interest career.

As for the importance of ranking, I can only speak to my own experience, direct legal services in NYC. (And to the OP: if you figure out what you want to do before law school, you can speak to people in your prospective field about this.) In public interest, my understanding is that rankings matter if you're going for one of the "glamorous" change-the-world jobs at a nationally known place like the ACLU, or if you want a job in one of the more prestigious criminal defenders/prosecutors. For in-the-trenches legal services work, it varies. My agency has people from CUNY and Yale, and we will always take someone from a lower-ranked school with experience gained through internships and clinics over someone from a higher-ranked school who will need more training and hand-holding. But, I know there is another legal services place in town with a rep for only hiring grads from top schools, and they do the exact same work my agency does.

The importance of ranking varies, and I think dios is understating it, but others tend to overstate it.
posted by Mavri at 10:52 AM on December 10, 2008


And you can work during those years and make good money.

Also, we signed a promise that we would not work during 1L year.
posted by Pax at 11:06 AM on December 10, 2008


I admitted that it is generally preferable to go to a higher ranked school. Of course that is the case. If an individual does not have any preference on what they want to do, where they want to go, or what they can afford, then go to the best school you can get into. A better law school will make your career path easier at the outset. It's a head start.

However, the original poster made the comment that he will only go to a top 10 law school. What I was responding to is that comment and the subsequently expressed idea that it is imperative to go to a top 15 law school or finish in the top 10% or else your economic outlook is poor. That is hogwash. Of course there will be certain people who were never cut out for the law and will struggle and change careers---that is of course true with EVERY career path. But the majority of people do just fine. (Maybe it is just the market I am in. I am familiar with the Dallas Bar and the Houston Bar and the version I am disputing does not resemble reality in the least here).

I resoundly reject the notion that an individual should be steered away from the practice of law because the potential candidate will not get into a top 15 school. It's utter bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. If someone wants to practice law and has a passion for it, they can do just fine for themselves going to law school. Yeah, it will not be as easy as someone who goes to Yale; yeah you'll have to work harder; yeah the odds are the Yale individual will likely be more successful. But none of those facts suggest that the career path should be avoided.

If your goal is to clerk for the Supreme Court; if you want to be a lead litigator for the ACLU; if you want to score coveted big law clerkships, etc. then ranking will be a huge role for obvious reasons.

But assuming you want to just be a run of the mill attorney with a lot of flexibility about where you want to practice and what you want to do, rankings are less important. And you can make a fine living writing insurance coverage opinions or handling custody disputes or doing title work or any other hundreds of types of law, and you can do it without being from a top tier school.

If you don't believe me and want to believe the "top 15 or your screwed" crowd, do this: look at the number of attorneys in this country. Look at the annual numbers of newly licensed attorneys. Then go look at the number of graduates from the top 15 law school. What you will find is that the overwhelming majority of attorneys practicing in this country did not go to a top 15 school. But they seem to be doing fine for themselves.

"I will only go to law school if I can go to a top 10 law school" represents a view of the profession that is at once foreign and depressing for me to consider.
posted by dios at 11:57 AM on December 10, 2008


I resoundly reject the notion that an individual should be steered away from the practice of law because the potential candidate will not get into a top 15 school. It's utter bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

I concur.

But the this next part is the all-important key:

If someone wants to practice law and has a passion for it, they can do just fine for themselves going to law school.


That "if" is unbelievably huge.

But assuming you want to just be a run of the mill attorney with a lot of flexibility about where you want to practice and what you want to do
and you don't care if, after loan payments, you take home any more money than a typical non-legal career, rankings are less important.

I think my edit makes that much more accurate.

What you will find is that the overwhelming majority of attorneys practicing in this country did not go to a top 15 school. But they seem to be doing fine for themselves.

This is also very important to understand: "doing just fine for themselves" does not mean "making lots of money."

"I will only go to law school if I can go to a top 10 law school" represents a view of the profession that is at once foreign and depressing for me to consider.

I did not go to a top 10 law school. But, through very hard work, no vacations for the first 6 years, very long hours, and lots of stress, I have been able to build a successful and very rewarding legal career. But my law school is considered to be a very good one, has a great reputation, and is ranked quite well (though not in the top 10).

A lawyer I worked with before law school gave the following advice: Go to the best law school that accepts you.

After following that advice and living with the results of that decision, I would modify it a bit: Go to the best law school that accepts you and that you can afford. To determine whether you can afford it, do the math on your finances and ultimate debt before you ever start, so that you know exactly how much you'll be paying monthly and for how long, and what salary will be necessary from the get-go.

Start thinking about how much your salary will have to be as a lawyer in order to pay your student loans and then take home enough money for your legal career to be just as lucrative as what you could have done without a law degree. When you do that math, you will be shocked.
posted by The World Famous at 12:43 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the advice from The World Famous is spot-on. It's why I turned down an offer from a T-10 and accepted at a T-25; $0 debt v. $70k+ debt. The school I accepted at still has a national reputation, which is important to me, since I wasn't sure where I wanted to practice when I started law school.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:30 PM on December 10, 2008


OK, to summarize:

- Below the top 20 (or so), geography trumps rank. Go to school where you want to practice law. Do some searches on martindale.com to get an idea of how many alumni from a particular school practice in your target city.
- Work your ass off for the LSAT; it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of lawyer you will be but it will open doors to what law school you get into.
- All else being equal, incur less debt.
- Doing exceptionally well at a lower-ranked school is better for your career than merely graduating from a high-ranking school.
- "Top 10 or bust" is silly, but the combination of going to a very high ranked school and doing well at said school will give you access to: (i) clerkships at federal courts of appeals and high-demand federal district courts (i.e. those in the Acela corridor); (ii) law professorships (seriously, forget about doing this unless you get into Yale, it's just not worth it otherwise); (iii) snobby nonprofits (sorry Obama transition team, I kid because I love) and (iv) some, but most certainly not all, prestigious white-shoe big-law firms and boutiques in high-demand cities.
- You can find firms that treat you humanely. If you do good work, nobody's going to fire you for not making your billable hour requirement. In fact, nobody's ever going to fire you. You'll find another job at another firm and keep intact the contacts and professional relationships you had at your old job. Then you'll go in-house so you can see your kids.

We're professionals. We do good work, we go home when we're done for the day. It's a good job. I like it. I save the love for my wife and cats.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 5:18 PM on December 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


Saucy Intruder is right about everything except the color of my shoes.
posted by The World Famous at 6:00 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you don't believe me and want to believe the "top 15 or your screwed" crowd, do this: look at the number of attorneys in this country. Look at the annual numbers of newly licensed attorneys. Then go look at the number of graduates from the top 15 law school. What you will find is that the overwhelming majority of attorneys practicing in this country did not go to a top 15 school. But they seem to be doing fine for themselves.

I would disagree, and direct the OP to this chart.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:47 AM on December 24, 2008


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