Law School?
February 22, 2005 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Should I apply to law school?

I'm 34 years old, and graduated from Social Work School with a Master's about three years ago. With internship time, I've been practicing (psychotherapy) for about five years. I find myself less than thrilled. There are a couple of options for building on my degree (PhDs in SW or Public Health), but I'm not thrilled with either option.

On the other hand, law seems interesting. I love to read, treasure analytical thinking, and like a good and well-reasoned argument. I'd be interested in some kind of do-gooder job once finished. I know no one can make the decision for me, but what kinds of things should I be thinking about? Is it fun? Jobs? Etc? I assume that I could not apply at this point until next year. Oh, and I do well on tests, so the LSAT is no kind of issue.
posted by OmieWise to Education (44 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are plenty of do-gooder jobs but they don't pay very well comparatively. Be prepared to be stuck with beaucoup student loans for-fucking-ever. But since you've already got a degree in Social Work, you know how that sort of thing works, I'm sure.

I say go for it, you sound like the kind of person who'd succeed there (based on very limited info, of course).
posted by u.n. owen at 8:59 AM on February 22, 2005

I was thinking about doing law myself at one point. I asked a lawyer what he thought about his career, and he told me to go and look up Lawyer in the yellow pages. I live in a fairly small city, but there were like 15 pages of lawyers in there.
The point was that it is a really competitive career, and in order to be "on top" you have to work really hard to get there.

If you have the drive, I would say go for it.
posted by Quartermass at 8:59 AM on February 22, 2005

if you go into public interest law (at least of the criminal law nature) you will not, under any definition of the term, be dealing with "good and well-reasoned argument"--i love my job (i'm a public appellate defender) but the last good and well-reasoned argument i saw was in my philosphical aspects of jurisprudence elective my third year of law school. it's more about fitting square facts into the round holes of the law.

this was also true of my stint in corporate law. but we had better staplers.

do-gooder legal jobs are really satisfying, but you will be paid about one-third the going rate for the field. this is very frustrating. particularly if you do criminal defense work of any kind, you'll get a noteable disrespect from other attorneys and members of the general public. you'll also find people who think you're a saint, but in my life--and particularly when i'm in the WashMetro area (we're a dual-city family at the moment)--i more often run into people who think i'm a) wasting my talents; b) defending people who are guilty anyway. again, i say, the work is really satisfying, but the working conditions are very draining.

also, law school was one of the major reasons the SO and I split (we actually reconciled, but that's another story) and i can point to at least four close friends whose relationships did not survive law school. personally i hated every other second of law school--it's a big rat race; it's not about intellectual development; and it's more stressful than trial work.

that's the bad. the good is, well, the work i do is vital, necessary work. some people love to hear me talk about my cases and my cases often lead me to have really interesting ethical and philosophical conversations with my friends. the good is that the law does always change, so it is a challenge to keep up.

you can shoot me an email (crush at onastick dot net) if you want to hear more about what i like and don't like about my job.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:59 AM on February 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm pondering this question as well. I haven't made up my mind yet. I have a number of friends (in my direct peer group) with law degrees.

I think maybe two of them actually practice law. Most of them found themselves unhappy with the actual practice of law, and ended going into academia or law administration, or doing law-related business things. I'm not thinking of practicing law, but if you are, you might want to consider that it will be more boring than what you're doing now.

Also, don't discount the difficulty of the LSAT - the questions, while not staggeringly hard if you're intelligent, are sometimes tricky. More than hard to do, they're hard to do in the time you have allotted.
posted by Caviar at 9:00 AM on February 22, 2005

The line of public interest lawyers in my family have always put it this way: There are too many lawyers, plenty of bad ones, but there is always room for a good one.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:01 AM on February 22, 2005

Take a look at schools that help with loan forgiveness in exchange for do-gooder work after graduation. Look at employment possibilities in these do-gooder organizations. I think this will give you a better perspective on what your opportunities will be after graduation.
posted by Coffeemate at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2005

I am a second year law student right now, and I can tell you that it's not the easiest job market at the moment... The economy got bad a few years ago, and when that happens, there are always a ton of people who decide to go to grad school. Then, in the case of law school, a few years later there are a bunch of new lawyers and not a lot of need for them if the economy still isn't booming. However, if you get excellent grades and or attend a Top 10 law school, you'll probably have no problem finding a job no matter what the economic climate. And a note about loans and public interest law: look into loan forgiveness programs... I don't really know anything about them, not even if they are done through your school or what. But it's a way to be a do-gooder lawyer and not drown in debt...
posted by amro at 9:32 AM on February 22, 2005

You might as well start the application process. Sit for the LSAT and start researching law schools. That process alone may help you decide whether you want to change professions. I would highly recommend making student loans a serious consideration, as it would really suck to make $50k a year while re-paying $100k in loans. (Loan repayment plans sound interesting, but there are also good (Top 25) schools that cost less than $15,000 a year.)

FWIW, I went through a similar period a year ago. I'm a lawyer, and I applied to Political Science Ph.D programs. I was this close to going back to school, but decided I couldn't afford to start a new career at the brink of 40.
posted by subgenius at 9:33 AM on February 22, 2005

For most people, I wouldn't recommend going to law school unless they get accepted to a fairly prestigious school, as pedigree controls a lot of what your options after graduation will be. Even for public-interest positions. I'd also make sure whatever school you go to has a generous loan forgiveness program for graduates who pursue public-interest positions. Otherwise, whether you like it or not, you'll have to work at a big law firm to pay off your loans. Speaking of loans, you'll likely incur a significant amount of debt (probably in excess of six figures), so don't go to law school unless you're pretty sure you want to be a lawyer, unless you have the money to pay for school up front. Finally, being a lawyer is rarely about arguing. The thing you'll probably do most is write (although that's not necessarily true for a public-interest lawyer) so make sure you enjoy writing.

As for law school itself, be prepared to fail to meet your expectations when it comes to performance. Given the nature of the evaluation system, it's rare that your grades will match up with your abilities, except at the grossest level. And did you like high school, because that's what law school is like? Most law schools even have law school prom!

Now, having said all that, going to law school can be a very enriching experience, and being a lawyer can be very rewarding (in a non-monetary sense). Just make sure you know what you're going into. Talk to lawyers who do the type of work you're interested. Even if you don't know them personally, I'm sure most of them would be happy to spend a little time letting you know. And explore what your other options are; whether you can do the work you're interested in without a law degree. However it goes, good luck. If you want more personal advice, let me know in this thread and I can e-mail you my address.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 9:36 AM on February 22, 2005

Definitely look into loan repayment programs. Most top-tier schools have one that will, after a certain amount of time working either in the public interest or at any job that doesn't pay well (depending on the program), completely forgive your debts.
posted by kenko at 9:39 AM on February 22, 2005

Oh, one more thing. My friend has worked for a variety of public-interest groups. She also has an MSW, and she says that, with the exception of PI groups focused on policy or test-case litigation (e.g., the ACLU or EFF), the work you'll do is much like what a social worker would do. I don't know if that's a plus or minus for you.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 9:40 AM on February 22, 2005

Take a look at schools that help with loan forgiveness in exchange for do-gooder work after graduation.

I second this. I know that Vermont Law School and Yale both have some loan forgiveness programs. I am a law school widow with my boyfriend in his second year of law school and all I can say is I'm glad we met long before he went to school because it's sort of sucky having your one-and-only be that busy for that long. We still have time to do things and law school doesn't have to be the all-encompassing work nightmare that some people make it out to be, but it has imposed a very rigid structure on our lives that I don't always like.

Also, there is a lot of reading and a lot of writing and a lot of "wearing a suit" for most, though not all, kinds of law. If you do good on tests that's a really good start. How do you do with managing debt, handling very little free time, and entering a fairly competitive field [both interpersonal and in the larger job-finding world]?

The upshot is that the law students I hang out with are some of the smarter, more interesting people I know out here, and the do-gooders are involved with the political sphere in a way that makes them interesting coversationalists and fun people to hang out with. If you've got any interest in knowing what life is like at a rural US law school, drop me a line and I can forward your note on to my 2L boyfriend.
posted by jessamyn at 9:51 AM on February 22, 2005

One thing I can say is that where I go to law school (University of Connecticut), older students by and large do extremely well. Most of this is attributable to the symbiosis between the "real-world experience" and the theoretical underpinning of most law school courses. For you, the advantage is your expertise in dealing with vulnerable and sometimes difficult clients; this translates perfectly to the practice of human rights, immigration, and civil liberties law.

Make an honest assessment of your finances, and if things square out, make the leap - you won't regret it. While we are all slaves to US News and World Report, and there is some truth to the stereotype that a law degree from a top 10 school is a golden ticket to the cushy life, an excellent performance (top 10% and journal membership) at any tier 1 or 2 school opens a lot of doors, particularly in the region in which your school is located. I pay $14,000 a year to go to UConn, as opposed to the $30k-plus I would have had to pay at a private school in Boston. Although I am ultimately pursing a big-firm job, I felt from the beginning that I could expand my horizons and at least explore public interest and government careers without worrying that I was going to starve.

Is anyone interested in starting a Mefi lawyers/law students/law wannabes mailing list? shoot me an email.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 10:16 AM on February 22, 2005

My emphases:

Funding is not a factor to consider, it is an absolute pre-requisite if you are committed to public interest. Do not go to law school without either a very big public scholarhsip or a takes-all-comers public interest loan forgiveness program. You would not believe how many public interest people end up working in firms because they can't make their loans otherwise.

It's not just even public interest which is credentials-obsessed, it's especially public interest. Going to a top school is critical.

As the average age of law students increases, the high-school-ness of it diminishes, but it could still be a harsh adjustment for someone in his mid-30s. If 3 years of wall-to-wall AP English with a lot of 23 year olds doesn't thrill you, you might want to prefer schools with bigger enrollments and located in big cities.
posted by MattD at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2005

loan forgiveness isn't all that, either. i'm top-tier law school, in the loan forgiveness program. it's around 30% of my loan burden and requires reapplication every six months and will decrease as my (very small) salary increases. i am still in a considerably better position than most of my colleagues in the office who have no loan repayment assistance.

i disagree with MattD about the credentials and public interest. (but he's dead on about the wall to wall AP english with 23 year olds) the famous, glitzy, cool PI places (e.g., the ACLU or EFF) will want you to be famous, glizty, cool and second in your class at Harvard or to have interned with the ICJ. the rest of the public interest places will be more concerned with what practical experience you have in their field. did you try cases in the juvenile justice clinic at your law school? have you worked with the local legal aid clinic?

it's impossible to keep good lawyers in legal aid because the pay sucks. because you can't do pro bono work on the clock (you have to use your vacation days). because you don't have full access to lexis or westlaw (the organizations can't afford it). because you're a couple years behind in technology. and on and on. for these reasons, most public interest organization do not toss out applicants based on class rank and school rank. they will toss you if you don't have some demonstrated ability to stick with the horrors of public interest.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:38 AM on February 22, 2005

My friend is in law school, and she says:

"In first year they scare you to death,
in second year they work you to death,
in third year they bore you to death."

Jessamyn, hopefully your bf will have more time for togetherness next year.
posted by matildaben at 10:53 AM on February 22, 2005

I agree with the loan forgiveness aspect.

I went to Michigan, and it's program is
described here.

I also disagree with the need to go to a prestigious law school, depending on what you want to do, and where you want to do it. I went to Michigan and incurred a lot of debt. That was fine, because I had many reasons to stay there, and I knew I wanted to work at a big firm. Now I work at a big firm. I started with a class of 8 - me, a woman who went to Georgetown, and 6 people who went to regional schools and incurred little or no debt. We make the same amount of money. We work for the same firm - although we do work in different departments.

If you know that you want to stay in the geographic location you're in, don't underestimate the local schools. They have several advantages: you're more likely to get scholarships; they're cheaper; they're well known in the area; you're more likely to be at the top of your class there; you're more likely to meet people that will be networking in your area in the future; the education tends to be much more practical - my friends who went to smaller schools were much better prepared for the bar exam, and better prepared to actually, you know, practice law.

There are, of course, advantages to the top tier schools. You can get more prestigious opportunities - clerkships, or the "big" do-gooder jobs. You'll study with some of the most incredible minds - in your professors and in your fellow students. You can take your degree anywhere. You'll have a widespread alumni network. You'll work hard, you'll learn a lot, and if you want to, you'll have a lot of fun.

I loved law school. I love talking about it. E-mail's in the profile.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:55 AM on February 22, 2005

Just to clarify some of my comments from earlier. I agree with many of the people here that you don't need to go to a prestigious law school to get the job you want, but it definitely helps. And if you don't go to such a school and end up doing poorly (or even just not excelling), you might find a reduction in your options. And while doing very well at a not-quite-so-prestigious school might be just as good as doing average at a prestigious one, if you can't get into a prestigious school, it's less likely you'll be at the top of whatever school you go to. I think most of the people who do well at a lower-ranked school usually either got into a top-ranked school but decided not to go or were precluded because of their test scores, a problem you say you won't have. Having said that, there are plenty of opportunities available to anyone who is willing to put the time and effort into looking for something once they graduate, regardless of the school they come from. And in some cases, a regional school may be as good as or even better than a national top school, if you don't mind staying in the area.

Oh, and I echo crush-onastick's suggestion of getting practical experience while in law school, both for better opportunities once you graduate, but also to see whether you'd enjoy it. So picking a law school with good clinical programs is also important, especially for public-interest. Keep in mind that the non-prestigious public-interest groups are going to be the ones whether you end up doing social work-type things, for the most part.

And apologizes to anyone whose feathers I've ruffled with my emphasis on prestigious schools, but law is one area where where you went to school matters to an extraordinary degree, and people who are considering the field should be aware of that.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2005

Correction to the last sentence in my penultimate paragraph in my previous comment: Keep in mind that the non-prestigious public-interest groups are going to be the ones where you end up doing social work-type things, for the most part.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 11:12 AM on February 22, 2005

I'm 32 and started law school last August. It's a bitch sometimes but for the most part I really like it. As far as the rat race aspect of it, I think it's largely what you make of it. I have zero interest in corporate law so I'm not fighting a bunch of type A frat boys/girls for big firm interviews.

If you want to do public interest law, go to a school that has a rep for supporting public interest lawyers. I go to a school that's got good name recognition but doesn't rank very high (I think it's third tier, but I forget) in the national rankings. Also, because of the public interest focus, the mean salary is a lot less than in other schools in the city.

Email me if you want to know more. I've got class now...
posted by jennyb at 11:21 AM on February 22, 2005

Thanks everyone! I'm still reading, so please keep posting.
posted by OmieWise at 11:23 AM on February 22, 2005

I'm a 2L in NYC.

Law students love to talk to anyone who is interested about their time in school. A harvard undergrad made the mistake of expressing her interest to a group of law student interns where she worked this summer, myself included, and we fairly mauled her with advice and information about our schools. Email folks here, contact people in your area. You are not imposing to ask for information and advice. People will be literally delighted to have someone "on the outside" who is genuinely interested in their experience.

I'll second everyone here: finances are of the utmost importance if you're going into public interest work. At NYU the loan forgiveness program is called "LRAP" and is fairly good, but has reporting requirements (sending in check stubs from what I gather) and you'll still have loans for 10 years. Details: If for that period you make 60k-ish or less, they'll pay off all your loans at the end, and it pro-rates down the more you make. The way this works is that NYU pays your loans for those 10 years while making their own loan out to you. At the end, either you pay NYU back or NYU forgives their loan to you, which they will if you're still in public interest. This is an example of how the LRAP programs can work - I'm sure there are variations at different schools.

Law school can be like high school. It's generally small in scale, you know everyone and everyone knows you, and it's consuming in a way that undergraduate school and work is usually not. You probably have well-established interests by now, so you'll likely keep a healthy distance, which is a very good thing in my opinion.

It is intellectually stimulating, but can also be terrifying if you aren't prepared to be surrounded by a ton of very smart people who think up answers to questions you never considered before. Becoming accustomed to this helped me to grow in new and satisfying ways beyond the (very interesting) academic material itself.

Be prepared for the socratic method. Depending on the school, this is used more or less frequently, but my experience is it's used heavily in 1L year and not heavily thereafter. Professors will ask questions about what you read, so that you need to have either a very good memory or notes in front of you to answer those questions. This is very different from my all-volunteer undergrad experience, and I was not prepared for the pressure and preparation time involved.

With a law degree a whole new world of experiences will open up to you, and you will be able to help people in an entirely new way. If you have a degree from a highly-ranked school, you'll retain the prestige that might otherwise go away when you, say, go into representing kids in foster care. If prestige and mobility are factors, go to a higher ranked school. Pin the schools down on their loan repayment programs before you accept, and if they have poor ones compared to other schools, you may be able to leverage this into scholarships (though those come few and far between).

I could go on and on. If you want more info, laurapg at nyu dot edu.
posted by lorrer at 11:35 AM on February 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

You and I have somewhat similar backgrounds. I was a psychiatric nurse for 10 years before going off to law school a the age of 31. I have been a practicing lawyer for 15 years. A couple of comments (though none that address the question you actually asked because I did not go the public interest path; I instead went into a large firm):

Going to law school as an adult isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I absolutely loved it. Having real life, i.e., work, experience changes your perspective in ways you may not have yet realized. I found having three years in which I had no responsibilities to anyone but myself, and to have that responsibility aimed at learning a new system to be absolutely liberating.

I was also lucky to find a peer group that was made up of older people. Partly, that was a function of going to a very large school. It was a very interesting group of people in that they we people that did not decide to follow the typical career paths.

The typical law school reinforces the personal responsibility concept in a somewhat disconcerting way. Most law school classes provide no feedback, i.e., grades, other than a several hour final exam. And most people I know felt that on a personal level the grading was somewhat arbitrary and/or random. I never had any idea after an exam how I did. My grades did not seem to be a function of my own feelings of how well I knew a subject nor of how well I though I did on the exam. However, the range of grades that a person received seemed fairly stable throughout the three years: an B+ student always seemed, on the average, to end up with a B+. I knew no one that dramatically changed their gradepoint after the first year. For some people, this was unnerving. If you can just accept it, it does seem to make law school much easier.

You did not say whether you wanted a top school, but if you do, be aware that a great LSAT is an absolute pre-requisite. There are an obscene number of people going to law school and many of them are getting top grades and are killing the LSAT. I don’t know the current grading scale on the LSAT but the top five schools are going to expect one or two points down from the top. One the plus side for you, they also love diversity in the admitted class. Being a practicing psychotherapist will help.

They also seem to want geographic diversity. Baltimore is probably in the middle of the scale somewhere: its not a bad as New York or California, but not as good as North Dakota or Alaska (I’m from Wisconsin and I’m sure that helped me).

One final point to a long-winded reply. Please be sure that you want to get into law. Law school seems to be the default for people that want to go back to school and it should not be. The practice of law is very hard and is very draining, as much, though differently than psychiatric work. If you do not love it, it is not worth it: you will pile up inordinate debt to work at another non-thrilling job.
posted by rtimmel at 12:05 PM on February 22, 2005

I'm a 0L, (will be starting as a 1L in the Fall). You might want to take a look at some of the pre-law/law student discussion boards such as xoxohth, Law School Discussion, or Greedy Law Students to get a handle on all of the ongoing discussions of prestige, as well as to get an idea of some of the types of people you'll be dealing with in school and beyond. (I'll warn you, some of the postings on those boards can be racist and juvenile. ) I also like, which seems to be a bit nicer with useful information geared more toward older students like us not straight out of undergrad.
The conventional wisdom on these boards seems to advise to go to the most highly ranked school to which you can gain admission. The prestige of these boards comes to play in the strength of their OCI (on campus interview) offices...the more prestigious the school, the more attractive they are to prospective interviewers.
At any rate, go to LSAC get an account started, and register to take the June LSAT. This will give you enough time to prepare and the scores will be valid through the next application cycle, while giving you enough time to retake in the event you're not happy with your score. So much hinges on your LSAT score for admissions/scholarships, that you can't afford to be overconfident about it. In hindsight, I wish I'd done a Powerscore course (which makes one of the best books for the logic games section) or Testmasters instead of relying upon my own preparations, which involved reading the books and taking actual LSAT tests. My score was fine for what I needed to get accepted to the school I wanted, but a higher score would have given me more scholarship opportunities and would have gotten me a free ride.

On preview: Saucy Intruder, I think organizing such a group is a great idea and I'd love to participate.
posted by Dr. Zira at 12:29 PM on February 22, 2005

Can't second Dr. Zira's advice enough. I kinda just sat for the LSAT the first time I took it, using the same logic the OP displayed. Standardized tests always seemed easy when prepping for college, and with 10 years of life-experience and a college degree under my belt, I thought I had nothing to worry about. Wrong. 75% score on the LSAT. Had to retake (and prepare) to get the score I felt capable of. unfortunately, most schools average multiple LSAT scores, so my 98% earned the second time around didn't have the force it would have had otherwise.

BTW 98% on the LSAT won't get you into a top 5 law school anymore. regardless of your target school, don't underestimate the importance of the LSAT in your application. Study study study.
posted by herc at 1:07 PM on February 22, 2005

There's some great advice here.

I'm a third-year student at Georgetown Law, and I'd like to share an experience I had my first year here. I had been out of school for three years and felt like I had a pretty good sense of who I was and what I wanted to do after law school. A professor here--someone who's done a significant amount of work to help the poor himself--told me to check all of my values and personality at the door.

He said that going to law school is like being forced through an hourglass: you start out broad, believing in your own knowledge and insight, and law school squeezes all of that out of you, until you feel empty and narrow and small....and then they fill you back up again with what they want you to think and value. And he was advocating for this system, mind you! He told me that if I didn't put aside everything I cared about, I was wasting everyone's time and money.

A few years later, I don't think I've wasted anyone's money or time. I do think that professor is a misguided powermonger. The problem is that his view is a common one, and law school is frightfully good at pushing you through that hourglass. Obviously, you're an adult with some pretty strong ideas about right and wrong, which I think is great, but it's a double-edged sword....on the one hand, you may have well developed defense mechanisms that protect you from the ego grinder. On the other hand, it will be a fight. I was not nearly as good at protecting my sense of myself from law school as I thought I would be, and I had done a lot of research and knew exactly what to expect.

Also, I want to echo what others said about the job market. I didn't have any trouble finding public interest jobs, but paying jobs are tough to get, even coming from a pretty good school. First-year grades are incredibly important yet completely arbitrary--none of mine were correlated to how hard I worked in a class or how well I thought I knew the material.

Good luck! My e-mail's in my profile if you want to talk it over more.
posted by equipoise at 1:38 PM on February 22, 2005

I don't have much to add, plus I'm really tired as I just turned in my 24-page appellate brief for legal writing today (don't worry, I only wrote half of it).

One frustration I have right now is that it seems rediculously hard to get a public interest summer internship. You'd think giving your legal services away for free would have people banging down your door. Nope. It seems like if you don't have some connection or pre-law school interest related to the public interest organization, your resume gets sent to the circular file. My point being, start planning now if you really want to switch tracks, so you'll have something to put on your legal resume.
posted by falconred at 1:40 PM on February 22, 2005

I'll go against the grain here and suggest that you think about the losing cost:benefit ratio, since on the other end of this degree, you won't be too likely to be spending your days crafting well-reasoned arguments. Even if you're a public defender, you'll be doing TONS of mindless paperwork, lots of tedious stuff, and experiencing very little courtroom excitement.

If you're really interested in analytical thinking and theory, don't get a J.D., it's an applied degree, whether the other lawyers here admit it or not.

I went to a top law school and was stunned at how little people actually cared about what they were learning, not to mention WHY they were learning it. If there's any chance at all that your future work will resemble your current work, don't waste the time and money. Investigate a political theory graduate program instead.
posted by LGCNo6 at 1:43 PM on February 22, 2005

One thing you can do right now is call your local law school and tell them you'd like to sit in on a class or two. Sit in the back of a torts or civil procedure class and try to decide whether that's something you'd like to do for the next three years. Some people love it (I did!) but others just can't tolerate the socratic method and all the other weird traditions of legal education.

I'll also echo what LGCNo6 said, at least in that 90% of my classmates looked at law school as a necessary evil before going on to work at law firms. Law school is a professional school, after all, and it attracts a lot of people who see it as nothing more than a means to an end. That said, there are some intellectually active groups at any school -- I really enjoyed Law Review for that very reason, and I'd highly recommend it if you decide to go to school.

A few more thoughts, for whatever they're worth, on applying to law school:

- You can't change your undergraduate record, but you can (and should) explain it. If you have any withdrawals or aberrant grades, explain what happened. By the same token, if you were in a program that graded low or on a curve, be sure to let the committee know.

- You can buy (and study) your way to a high LSAT score, and the experience will probably teach you something about law school. Take Kaplan or Princeton Review, and get to know your potential law-school classmates. Think of it as a law school class -- you'll be studying with people you will probably see again in school, and you really only have one shot at a good grade. If LSAT prep seems pointless and your classmates drive you crazy, you might want to cut your losses....

- Your personal statement can be a significant factor if your grades and LSAT score put you in the mushy middle. You want to tell the committee why you will make their school a better place -- for example, you can share your social work and business experience, you are interested in participating in a dual-degree program, you will add diversity to the class, etc. You can make yourself a more attractive candidate by doing interesting things now and/or by applying to a completely different part of the country. My law school took great pride in attracting students from across the country, and those out-of-state candidates were probably much easier to differentiate than the in-state candidates.
posted by subgenius at 2:04 PM on February 22, 2005

I'd say go to law school, but ONLY if you don't have to pay for it. If you can do really well on the LSAT, you should be able to get a decent regional school to give you a full scholarship without any trouble. Go there. Then, enjoy law school. If it turns out you like the law, then well and good. If you don't like it, or you can't find a job as a lawyer, then just go back to doing what you were doing before you went to law school. You'll be out zero dollars, and you'll have a JD behind your name (which always helps when doing social work, I was once told, because people figure that if you're turning down a lawyer's salary to try and do good, you must be really committed). Either way, though, you'll gain some fun pseudo-intellectual training, good practice in reasoning and argumentation, and a reasonably valuable credential on somebody else's nickle.

If you can't find a school to pay your way, then don't go. The crushing debt forces you to suffer through jobs you don't like. Remember: virtually everyone at my (top tier) law school came in thinking they wanted to do public interest work. Almost everyone. Less than 4%, IIRC, feel the same way when they leave, mostly because of their debt/earning potential as corporate lawyers.
posted by gd779 at 2:08 PM on February 22, 2005

There's also a range of jobs between straight up public interest and huge corporate law. You can work at a smaller plaintiff's civil firm, make money, and still hang on to your values.

I found it pretty easy to find summer work. I got active in the Public Interest Law Association and they put on a ton of networking gigs, panel discussions, and support meetings (as well as providing funding for unpaid summer positions) so that helps. Another reason to look for a school that supports public interest law, if that's what you want to do.

lorrer is right. Law students love to talk about this. At length. So if you do go, don't be afraid to wander up and introduce yourself to 2 and 3Ls who have done work that sounds interesting to you. I got one of my summer jobs by approaching a student who had worked at the same place in the past (and I knew her through PILA stuff, so that helped). Two days later, she rode the train with me right to the center to introduce me to the director and that was that.

The one thing my school doesn't have, appallingly enough, is a loan forgiveness program. They have some funding and some policies in place to create one, so it's a matter of time, but who knows if they'll get it running by the time I graduate. I hope so, but the amount of money I'm already in debt is so staggering it's almost meaningless so I'm not too worried about it. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

But you might as well at least apply. Couldn't hurt.
posted by jennyb at 2:43 PM on February 22, 2005

I too am thinking about applying to law school.

My situation: I'm 30 years old. I just finished Ph.D. in a science field at Stanford. The Ph.D. process has all but killed my prior love and enthusiasm for science, as well as my self-confidence, so I'm considering other options.

I thought about applying for law school out of my undergraduate college. I like philosophy and working on hard problems, like the problem of Justice. I'm attracted to the idea of law school as "Applied Philosophy."

So I wonder: What sorts of jobs would I be eligible for with a Ph.D.+JD? How hard will it be to get the kind of LSAT scores that would allow me to stay at Stanford?

I have a wife and a 10-month old son.

Any advice?
posted by u2604ab at 3:12 PM on February 22, 2005

I'd say go to law school, but ONLY if you don't have to pay for it.

Holy crap, I couldn't disagree more.

Zero-cost law schools still aren't "free." You're giving up a hell of a lot of income at a non-lawyer job to become a lawyer. "Figuring out if you like it" is worth days or weeks of research into the specifics of the profession, but not three years of your life.

It's also not a given that you can slide back into your old job with no adverse effect.

There's somewhat of a tradeoff between minimizing cost and going to the best school you can get into. Rankings aren't very useful nationally (nobody cares if UConn or Tulane is ranked "higher" in a given year) but they are useful regionally (i.e. don't go to Northeastern when you can get into BC, and don't go to BC when you can get into Harvard.)
posted by Saucy Intruder at 3:19 PM on February 22, 2005

falconred brings up a good point. Public interest people tend to be pretty selective when it comes to giving people a chance. That is to say, if you don't have strong evidence in your background that you'll be committed to doing public interest, they won't waste their time with you because they prefer to focus on someone who will be committed. I don't think that'll be a problem with your background, but it's another thing you should be aware of. Also, in addition to loan forgiveness programs, some schools also support some or all of their students for summer public interest work. NYU is one school that I believe fully funds all their students, though lorrer probably knows more about that. As jennyb stated earlier, you want a school that provides you with the best opportunities and support for a career in public interest you can find.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 3:24 PM on February 22, 2005

Are you interested in Intellectual Property law? Because Stanford is considered very strong in IP law, if you can get in (it's currently ranked #3 in USNWR).

Law schools publish their median, 25% and 75% LSAT scores. If you go to LSAC's guide to ABA approved law schools here and look up Stanford's info (available in .pdf format here), you can see their 25/75 percentile range is 166-171. So you'd probably need to score in the 90th-95th percentile to get into Stanford.

Take a couple of REAL LSAT practice tests under timed conditions to get a sense of how much work you'll need to do to prepare.

There's also a calculator here that will calculate a percentage chance of admission based upon LSAT and GPA that you enter. Also bear in mind, that while nontrads generally have work experience and advanced degrees that help in the admissions process, unfortunately admissions officers generally only take your undergrad GPA into account for figuring your numbers.
posted by Dr. Zira at 3:32 PM on February 22, 2005

To u2604ab: If you are interested in being an intellectual property lawyer, almost any law firm in the country would love to have you. In fact, since lawyers with science/technology backgrounds are so scarce, law school pedigree becomes much less of a factor (though it is still there). If you don't want to do IP, you'll still be in at least as good a position as anyone else. I repeat: most law firms love people with tech/science backgrounds.

I would take the LSAT and see how you do. If you managed to get a Ph.D. from Stanford, you'll probably do well. Stanford, being one of the top schools in the country, has very high standards and there's no guarantee you'll get in, but you'll likely have a shot.

Most of the advice concerning finances will be pertinent to you as well, though unless you want to pursue public interest (probably the one area where your background will be a minus), you won't have to worry about loan forgiveness programs, since you'd presumably get a high-paying law firm job.

Raising a kid during law school is possible, but you need a very patient wife, as law school, especially the first year, is very time consuming.

Finally, law school can be a place of "applied philosophy" but only if you try to make it so. You'll likely get this attitude at the higher-ranked schools, since they are less concerned with teaching to the bar and focus more on the law's underpinnings. But keep in mind law school is ultimately a professional school.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 3:36 PM on February 22, 2005

u2604ab: reply in this thread if you want me to e-mail you with more specific info.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 3:38 PM on February 22, 2005

I worked for 5 years between college and law school, meaning that I finished law school just before I turned 30. In general, I really loved law school, though there were times where I felt like the work was crushing. I left law school with $30K of debt and a big firm job in DC. I now make a ridiculous amount of money, but recently almost the only free time I seem to have is over the weekends, and sometimes not even then.

I agree with rtimmel that law school is where a bunch of smart people wind up because it seems interesting and there seems to be alot that you can do with it. Legal work is not always actually interesting, though. I have done a fair share of "document review" in my career, which is basically reading boxes upon boxes of documents and coding them for the relevant issues in your case, for later rereading. Imagine going down to your local doctor's office or manufacturing company and reading cabinets full of their business records, looking for various legal issues. That's basically what document review is.

I don't think law school will necessarily give you a true indication of whether you will enjoy being a lawyer. Law school is theory with some practice. Law practice is mostly all practice.

Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's stressful. Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's fulfilling. If you were younger, I would strongly advise that you work for a year as a legal assistant at the kind of place you'd ultimately like to work, to get a feel for what the lives of the attorneys are like there, and to see firsthand what their work is like before you invest 3+ years. Since you've already established a career, I'm not sure you'd want to take that kind of step down.

I went into law school because I was an English major who loved to write and I was tired of being stuck in my low paying dead end desktop publishing job. It's worked for me so far and I would do it again, but of the other 20 associates who came to the firm with me 5 years ago, 11 have left the firm, and 5 of those people have stopped practicing law altogether. Buyers beware.
posted by onlyconnect at 4:15 PM on February 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

The mailing list is set up for those who are interested.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 6:10 PM on February 22, 2005

Zero-cost law schools still aren't "free." You're giving up a hell of a lot of income at a non-lawyer job to become a lawyer.

Not if you want to be a public interest attorney. Public interest attorneys don't make much, comparatively speaking, and committment to the job will (according crush-onastick points out) outweigh credentials. Plus, if you go to a lower ranked school than the highest you got into, you'll likely have a higher class rank, and being in the top of your class trumps what school you went to almost every time.

Most fundamentally, however, it is virtually impossible to be a public interest attorney with a $100,000 debt load. Maybe, if you're lucky, you can work in a large commercial law firm for three to five years and pay off that debt, but most people find that a) this is a miserable three to five years, if you don't want to be there and b) living that life changes you and changes your values. Underestimate these pressures at your peril - there's a reason why everybody starts out wanting to work in the public interest but nobody actually does it after graduation.
posted by gd779 at 6:47 PM on February 22, 2005


Please do e-mail me with more specific info. Especially if you have first or second hand knowledge of intellectual property law, going to law school with small children at home, or finishing law school at around age 35.

I expect I'd enjoy Intellectual Property Law. It's true that the LSAT would be the place to start, for now, and if I do well enough, then I'd put together applications.
posted by u2604ab at 7:02 PM on February 22, 2005

Don't do law school just because it sounds interesting. If you do law school, don't let it kill you. You can have a life and raise a family while you're in law school, you just have to be organized. My friend had a disabled husband, a nine year old boy, and a two year old boy, and still was in our Women and the Law group and worked part-time. It's cool. Be cool.
posted by livii at 8:25 PM on February 22, 2005

u2604ab, I e-mailed you. Sorry about the length.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 9:08 PM on February 22, 2005

Law school is just a fancy trade school where good grades matter a lot, but figuring out how to achieve them is more important than merely studying a lot. When you graduate you will have massive debt (unless someone paid as happens for so many) and will feel almost compelled to take the firm job that pays ungodly salary and bonus, but consumes your life. Do this for several years and you get a good apprenticeship, invaluable. Why would anyone want this abuse? I don't know, but while the education is formulaic, the practice of law is fairly intellectual and interesting, if not somewhat brutal in its demands.
posted by caddis at 9:39 PM on February 22, 2005

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