Lawyer v. Teacher
December 12, 2005 12:47 AM   Subscribe

What to be? A teacher or a lawyer?

I'm hitting the point in my undergraduate career at which I have to decide what I'm doing. I know I'm majoring in theatre. I'm torn between double majoring in PoliSci/PreLaw (graduate May 2008) or just majoring in theatre and minoring in history and teaching high school when I graduate (May 2007). I'm already twenty-four and the idea of graduating a year earlier is really appealing.

Am I totally cutting myself off from law school with the theatre major? Is being a lawyer worth the extra education/80 hour work weeks? Is there job satisfaction to be had as a history/theatre teacher? Making a difference in the world is a big deal to you actually get a sense of doing that as a teacher? Help!
posted by youcancallmeal to Education (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If I were you, I'd get a law degree, be a lawyer for a while, and then go be a teacher somewhere. No reason you can't do all of these things--you might find you really like law, and if you don't, you can always drop out and shoot for teaching right away. Do the double major, if it won't kill you. I'm planning on doing something similar, only with an engineering degree of some sort, not a J.D.

I think teachers do make differences (some anyway, particularly depending on where they're at), but I've never asked one flat out what they thought.

That's a fuzzy answer for you, since I can't comment on the hard details. I have no idea how teachers are certified, either, but there's always Teach for America...
posted by hototogisu at 12:54 AM on December 12, 2005

I think you could pretty much major in whatever you wanted and still get into law school. I'm sure there are classes that would help (writing, critical thinking, etc.), but I think you could get the degree you want and still apply to law school later if you decided that's what you wanted to do.

My brother got a BS in Chemistry, worked for several years as a research tech (in a biology lab), then went to law school. He ended up doing patent law (though he could have done whatever he wanted), burned out after a few years from the hours, and now teaches high school chemistry and physics.

He seems pretty happy with his decisions.

On preview, I guess that's a pretty common plan.
posted by sevenless at 12:59 AM on December 12, 2005

I think you'll find that "pre-law" is a myth perpetuated by status junkies and that the above posters are right.
posted by kcm at 1:00 AM on December 12, 2005

I would argue, however, that your time in law school may be more difficult w/o a social science/political science background. Reading cases isn't easy. Certainly take BAR/BRI before you go.

Admissions people may not be as impressed with a theatre background.
posted by k8t at 1:06 AM on December 12, 2005

Maybe I read the post incorrectly, but I was under the impression that PoliSci/Pre-law was the second part of the double major--so, theatre *and* PoliSci/Pre-law. She wouldn't be shooting for law school with just the theatre background...
posted by hototogisu at 1:09 AM on December 12, 2005

Is there job satisfaction to be had as a history/theatre teacher?


But there is no money in it.

Making a difference in the world is a big deal to me...

My advice is to be a lawyer, then a teacher. Many have gone this route before, though be warned: you may find it's simple not worth it to suffer through hours of overtime each week for the sheer wonderfulness of "making a difference" when you aren't getting paid nearly as much as you were before. A lot of very influential people were lawyers once, you know. At least one or two presidents, for example.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:13 AM on December 12, 2005

Funny thing is, you're actually (probably) not facing any easier/quicker path to teaching than lawyering.

Law schools -- from everything I've ever heard -- don't much care about your major, unless it's maybe overly-technical (how to be a ____), and maybe not even then. Your liberal arts degree, I would think, would be fine (though I've heard a double could make you more attractive to a top school).

As far as teaching: in many places, it requires an education degree, whether that's BSEd or MEd or whatever. That is, unless you're in some program like Teach for America (which is short-term I think), or, in some places, an alternative post-college teacher education "boot camp" (as my dad, a member of said program, jokingly called it).

I know a number of people who have become teachers with the aim of later returning to law school. I know a similar number who were lawyers but chose to be teachers later on -- sort of who the TAPP program I linked to is designed for.

Honestly, only you know what you want. Have you taken the LSAT? If that's good, you (supposedly) have the skills needed in law school and legal work. If it's not... you may be better off teaching. But I don't know much about that.

I do know some people love being lawyers and some people hate it. Ditto for teachers. (Duh to the last two sentences, I know, but it merits saying -- different strokes.)

FWIW, my mom is a counselor and a former teacher with bachelor's and master's to back that up. She hasn't always loved it, and much prefers having a counseling office to having a class -- but that's just her. She does feel like she's made a difference though... even if sometimes students and their parents can be maddening. My dad, as I said, is a later-in-life convert to teaching, with totally unrelated bachelor's and master's degrees. He's still not sold on the profession though he's trying. And as for me? I'm an undergrad (also to grad. in 2008) who's looking to go to law school.

funny story: My friend Justin wants to teach. I said my parents were teachers and said never to follow their footsteps, so I wanted to be a lawyer. Justin said his dad was a lawyer, gave him the same advice, and now he wants to teach. So, yeah, good question, but not easily solvable.
posted by SuperNova at 1:16 AM on December 12, 2005

Response by poster: FWIW, I haven't taken the LSAT, but my practice test last month was at 156 and that's without any preparation. I figure I can hit about 170 when it's all said and done. Also, if I decide to go the teaching route, I will almost definitely do the alternative certification thing. I also think I'd be more likely to teach and then go to law school rather than the other way around.

Thanks for all the answers so far!
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:26 AM on December 12, 2005

I'm a former teacher, and I'll give you the best advice I received when I was trying to decide whether to teach or not.

Find out as much as you can about what teaching would be like for you -- in the kind of schools you'd likely work. Talk with teachers, observe in some classrooms -- do whatever research you can.

If there's a teaching program nearby that has a student-teaching component, see if you can meet with some of the "master teachers" who mentor the student teachers. Typically, these people have a lot of experience and they believe in what they do. When they tell you the downside of being a teacher, you'll know their advice isn't tainted.

Also, find out about the non-teaching aspects of the job. The official paperwork, the typical politics, the salary, the lunchroom duty, and so on. Those things ended up being a lot more important than I'd first expected.
posted by wryly at 1:42 AM on December 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Indeed, majoring in theater in absolutely no way hurts your chances of going to law school, and may even help, since admissions committees have seen so many Political Science and Pre-Law applicants that they're a dime a dozen.

My suspicion is that the stuff you learn in your polisci and prelaw classes will not be particularly helpful once you're actually in law school, either, and almost certainly will be less helpful than any extra bits of polish and presentation you learn via drama.
posted by willbaude at 3:28 AM on December 12, 2005

The May 2007 graduation path does not exclude you from law school at all. In fact, history is considered one of the traditional disciplines for prelaws majors (minoring in your case). Just earn high grades and an awesome LSAT score; law school admission boards are notorious number whores.

So no suggestion here on what career path to take, just suggesting that for either one try and get out of undergrad earlier. Not only for the age concern, but because it's hella costly. Whatever you do, you'll be happier with less debt worries.
posted by neda at 3:41 AM on December 12, 2005

One of my law profs. said that PoliSci is actually the WORST pre-law major, because it teaches you to make wordy policy arguments, which won't win you points on your law school finals.
posted by falconred at 4:09 AM on December 12, 2005

FWIW, I haven't taken the LSAT, but my practice test last month was at 156 and that's without any preparation. I figure I can hit about 170 when it's all said and done.

That's a pretty large jump. Take the Kaplan course, then study really intensely for a few months.

- an LSAT tutor/instructor
posted by k8t at 4:36 AM on December 12, 2005

I'm going to say the opposite of what was said above: if you think you might like to teach, teach first. If/When you get burned out/tired of it, then go to law school.

I say this becuase I work with a ton of lawyers who were going to lawyers "for a while." It's harder to quit a job that pays you six figures to teach than it the other way around, for some people.

Also, the world needs good teachers. And as stressful and difficult as teaching can be -- I have a big family of teachers - there is something to be said for Christmas break and summer vacation!**

** I do not advocate teaching for these purposes. It's way to important and difficult of a job for that. Just like I don't advocate being a lawyer for the money. I'm just saying.
posted by dpx.mfx at 4:59 AM on December 12, 2005

Don't go to law school if you don't want to be a lawyer!

If you want to teach, teach. And if you decide the money's not enough, get on committees at your school and start to work on strategic planning and finance, and use the experience as a basis for MBA applications. You'll borrow less (2 years vs. 3) and make more money once you're out as a top school MBA than as a top school lawyer.
posted by MattD at 5:15 AM on December 12, 2005

I think you should be a teacher first, then be a lawyer. That's what my father did- he taught for a few years after college, then went on to 20 years as a lawyer in the Marine Corps. When he retired, and tried corporate law, he hated it. But he still had his teaching certification, which only had to be updated a little, and now he's a teacher again- and he loves it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:15 AM on December 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Everyone's advice with regard to law school is what I've heard, so I'll give you the cynical advice on teaching:

Don't major in theatre and minor and history if you want to teach at a public high school (or most high schools inc. Christian schools). Theatre teachers there's just not a demand for, period, and the social sciences are where they stick the coaches, so unless you have some experience coaching football and are sure THAT'S what you want to do, it's pretty worthless.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:49 AM on December 12, 2005

I have heard those in teaching talk about "the wall," where it becomes less fun after 10 years. So teaching might be a good second wave job, you'll be old enough to get a kick out those fresh faces.

Trial lawyers are very theatrical.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:09 AM on December 12, 2005

I did software engineering->teaching->software engineering

Here's my experience - since I was going in without credentials, I thought it was going to be a pain, but the district I was going to was so strapped for hands that all I had to do was pass the state exams (language proficiency and subject) and both were easy.

My first year, I had basically no time. My classes were not exactly standard, so there were no textbooks for the subject and not time or budget to research/buy any and any previous curricula went out the door with the previous teacher (as they should). I had 3 different classes and had to manage/maintain the computer systems in the district. For the classes, I did my best to stay ahead, but made some mistakes in ignorance (didn't come up with a reasonable rubric at the same time as the assignment). My students were generally good, although one class was pretty poor in terms of their willingness to buy in to the material. This meant that I spent all my weekends and many night making lesson plans and grading.

My second year, I revised my curricula and had one class shed for more administration time. I spent a pile of time trying to get buy in from another class. There were three kids in one section who were pretty lousy and made things rough. However, two section of kids were fabulous, even though the class headcounts were at the limit of classroom resources. I spent every other weekend grading or revising lesson plans.

My third year, I had a hell section that caused me no end of grief. It was like someone poisoned the drinking water while they were all in utero to make them dim. I had to work easily twice as hard for them outside the class and 3x in class to try to keep them from killing themselves or each other on any given day. The resentment still runs strong in me. I had an independent study that was kind of fun except for one kid that was assigned to me who didn't deserve it and couldn't keep up. He was expelled later for the bomb threat. I spent every other weekend grading or revising lesson plans.

My fourth year, I had one class removed and two added due to budget issues (they eliminated a couple teachers and the slack had to go somewhere). One class was brand new, so again I had to sweat to make the curriculum, fortunately I could get a textbook that applied to some of the class. Unfortunately, instead of one section of 16 (which is what I was told in the summer), I had 1 section of 8 that met every day and 1 section of 16 that met at the same time every other day. Fortunately, I had a lot of buy-in from the kids and I made it work. The other class had a fairly well-defined curriculum and I enjoyed it a great deal. I spent about every other weekend grading and developing curriculum. I quit halfway through the year.

Every year, I had extra work to do in order to maintain my credentials. It's called professional development and it's a good idea in theory, but still more work and typically how I'd have to spend my summer. In my copious spare time, I had to prepare to get a Master's degree.

So in short, my hours were filled more than I'd prefer and if I hadn't been an expensive administrator, my pockets would've been emptying. The rewards were pretty good. There are a couple kids I've had who I'm now seeing mature into good people and that's sweet. That's what keeps some of the teachers who have been in for the long haul going ang going. I have tremendous respect for their skill and perserverance.

If you're not a good disciplinarian or a good leader, there's potential for you to get eaten alive by the kids. Let's just say that there was a group of kids I had and I observed them in the class of another new teacher who had no presence and no teeth and frankly, you wouldn't have recognized the kids. The were pulling crap on him that would never fly in my room because they could and it was all his fault.

I can't speak to a career in law.
posted by plinth at 6:18 AM on December 12, 2005

I second the statement to not go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer.

JDs used to be more flexible degrees. But with the cost of graduate/professional school, why spend so much if you aren't going to use it?
posted by k8t at 6:30 AM on December 12, 2005

If I were you, I'd get a law degree, be a lawyer for a while, and then go be a teacher somewhere. No reason you can't do all of these things--.

Just don't forget how much law school can cost. Mine cost $170,000. That is a tremendous impediment to changing careers if you find you don't enjoy life as a lawyer. If you go to a school like mine, you'll find you have a few choices (assuming you can't just pay the cost outright): (1) work for a big firm - hellish hours, and you won't feel like you're doing anything good in the world at all, (2) work for government - mediocre pay, you may feel that you're doing something rewarding, or not; probably hard to pay off those thousands of dollars per month of student loans; (3) do a public interest job and earn about $30,000/yr & hope to get the law school's loan repayment program to pay off the loans. [Hours vary - might be 80 hours too. Rewarding feeling varies too.] My school, fortunately, has a generous loan repayment program, so it is possible to have your loans paid in 10 years, as long as you don't earn much more than $40,000, get married, own a house, etc. If you do have assets, even if you only earn $15,000 in your public interest law job (yes, quite possible), you still won't get loan repayment assistance.

Options: (1) investigate schools with good loan repayment programs, and talk to them about whether those programs are likely to be in place when you graduate - mine changed dramatically while I was there; (2) check out special programs for people committed to public interest work - my school gave 30 people a $10,000/yr break per year; (3) check out state schools with lower tuition, and otherwise cheaper schools (but remember the risks of lower ranked schools - harder to find that job you'll love); (4) if you're serious, apply to a range of schools - you may get offered large scholarships to go to some of the lower ranked schools; (5) consider taking on big loans and writing off 5 years of your life at a law firm - (but make sure you get excellent grades your first year in law school); (6) don't go to law school at all, unless you're passionate about being a lawyer.

Can you tell I'm a lawyer? I like lists.

I second the comment that 156 to 170 is a huge increase on the LSAT. You'll need a quality review class, possibly some private tutoring, several months of work, as many practice tests as possible, a good night's sleep, etc. It's doable, but not without some help.
posted by Amizu at 7:02 AM on December 12, 2005

As a former teacher married to a practicing lawyer, I must agree with many of the posters before me.

Go for the law degree. Stay in the theater program but double major in Poli-Sci or some other major that will challenge you intellectually and give you a base for law school.

Go to Law School, pass the bar, pay off your debts, then teach. It is an amazingly rewarding career, but you will soon find that administrators and curriculum experts will get between you and educating your minions. For me, I had to leave when they complained that I wasn't having the studentc color enough maps to hang in the hallway. Organized study binders and the highest test scores in the school in both history AND reading weren't enough. Their response? "Imagine how high their scores could have been if you had only done the coloring!"

But then I live in Texass, where we exist to make the rest of the country look smart.

In short, the more options you have, the better. No school will turn down a former lawyer as a history teacher (Except in Texas, where most schools prefer their history teachers to focus mainly on coaching). But if you have problems, you can always return to the law, where there are many, many chances to do right by the world.
posted by Seamus at 7:17 AM on December 12, 2005

Let me follow up Amizu with the tales of two of my friends. One is currently in massive debt from law school and hates his corporate law position, but is stuck there since he needs the money to pay off his debt.

My other friend wanted to go into public interest law back in the 90s. He got his law degree and then he couldn't find anything. He up spending over ten years doing computer tech support for a living instead. Finally he found a public interest position at a non-profit, but don't assume that such jobs are thick on the ground.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:27 AM on December 12, 2005

Thirding 156 to 170 being pretty... ambitious. But, if you are scoring a 156 now, you are already in the range to get into a top 100 school, depending on your GPA.

Think about whether you could really stomach working for a few years, earning money, and then going back to law school and earning no money for three years while getting deep into debt. It is really, really hard for the older students I know. That's why I chose to go right out of undergrad.

You should also consider that if you wait to go to law school, that just means you are in an even worse position as far as HAVING to take the super high-paying/life-wasting job. Yes, some older students get scholarships or go to state schools, but many of them go into $150K+ of debt at 27, and then they are 30 when they get out. Unless you save hoards before you go to law school or are married, it is going to make buying a house, etc. extremely difficult if not impossible. IMO it is easier to go ASAP when you have fewer commitments and can focus on repaying loans rather than providing for children, spouses, etc.

Oh, and as far as theatre goes, I know a handful of people who were dance or theatre majors, and they do just as well as any of the PoliSci majors.
posted by gatorae at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2005

When I was a first or second year student at law school (1L or 2L) I would have echoed MattD - don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer. That there might be enough for you to make your decision.

However, I'm a 3L now and am starting to wise up to the fact that, even though as a 1L and 2L you get the impression you have to be a lawyer for the rest of your life, that is really hype, you can do anything you want after you graduate - the only one who will pigeon-hole you is yourself.

That's my current perspective. I've enjoyed law school... in my third year. 1L was very, very hard, mostly because of the stress I put on myself and being surrounded by a bunch of people who are as neurotic about certain things as I am. It is not, repeat, not, another college program. It's a professional school and people are more... professional about it. That can be good, but I didn't like the experience nearly as much as college. Also, the people are cool... once you and they are seperated from this feeling of needing to prove yourselves.

But I digress. I'm at NYU. I'm loving it (now). If you want more "inside scoop"-ish stuff on law school and in particular the top schools, feel free to email me. It's finals and I'm procrastinating with the best of them, so I'll probably answer within a day or so.
posted by lorrer at 10:43 AM on December 12, 2005

as a school teacher i think i want to feel surprised by all the "go to law school" recommendations above... but i guess, it's not all that surprising; i'm sure it's pretty cool being a lawyer.

but, i just gotta tell ya, as someone who once upon a time really considered this very same question (teach or practice law): i like being a school teacher; i'm really glad i'm not a lawyer.

i think you should go and spend some time in a theater class in a middle school or a high school somewhere... my background is much like yours. it's a long story, but when i was in the process of making similar decisions, it took just one day subbing in a jr. high theater classroom to convince me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, about what i really, really wanted to do with my day, everyday, for the next howevermany years.

i strongly encourage you to follow your heart; go see what teaching is like. it takes a phone call; any teacher will be happy to let you visit.

if teaching is not in your heart, become a lawyer.
posted by RockyChrysler at 11:55 AM on December 12, 2005

I faced the same dilemma 27 years ago. I had always wanted to teach (at the college level), and my friends and family though I should be a lawyer. I did not know any lawyers, and did not know what kind of career that would be. I did not know anyone who had been to law school, so I did not know what that would be like either. All I knew was that I did not want to be a trial lawyer. So, as a senior in college with a history major, I decided to defer the decision a little longer -- i fashioned a joint degree program to get an MA in history and a law degree over 4 years (lucky for me I was at a state school with low tuition). I continued to enjoy the history and my history profs more than i enjoyed law school. A wise old history prof took me aside and said, listen: "there are maybe 5-10 decent tenture track history professorships open nationally each year for newly minted Ph.Ds, and you will make very little money. However, you will get to read, study and motivate future students, who are already just like you, to be professors just like me, and then they will face the same dilemma you did. On the other hand, there is no shortage of jobs for lawyers; law firms are overpaying for fresh faced law students like you, and you can make a good living, raise a family, and still make a difference." I got both degrees, but took his advice and went into law as a career. There is some regret in having chosen this path, but I can still read and enjoy history, and now I teach it to my kids. It does not matter what your undergrad major is however. Anyone with an undergrad degree from a decent college or university can do equally well in law school. It's the broad liberal arts education that you are getting that matters most, not the major.
posted by Carsey at 11:58 AM on December 12, 2005

I'm a lawyer but have never practiced in the traditional sense (I do regulatory compliance work for a corporation so it is related). Law school changes the way you analyze things. The best teachers I've had have been lawyers. I can't be sure that their legal education led to their teaching ability but I think there is a connection.

Completely anecdotal - it seems like my classmates with history and religion degrees tended to do best.

It's been 12 or so years since I took the LSAT but Kaplan helped me bump my score from 157 to 168. It was a little pricey ($900 ?) but worth it for me.
posted by Carbolic at 11:59 AM on December 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm a 1L and have a BFA and and MFA in Theatre. I love law school and feel like going back to school was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I don't feel as though my theatre studies left me at any great disadvantage when compared to other more traditional law pre-law degrees (although sometimes I do wish I had taken a couple more elective hours in history and economics). In fact, theatre skills give you an edge up in the communication skills you'll need both in and out of the courtroom. Generally, I feel like the trade-off of law school debt compared to my misery in being stuck in a dead-end teaching position was a good choice for me at this time in my life. YMMV.

I'll second what Carbolic says about the analytical skills; don't underestimate the power of the analytical thinking law school can teach you.

I do regret not investing more money at the outset into a good LSAT prep course; that investment could have paid off double in scholarship money.

Now, back to studying for two more exams....
posted by Dr. Zira at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2005

I think there's job satisfaction to be had as a teacher...if that's what you want to do. I recommend what other people say..get in the classroom. Start working with kids. You'll start to figure out if it's rewarding to you...

I don't know much about law school, but I would suggest doing that second if you do decide to teach. I think the money I make as a teacher is great, but this is my first real job. If I came from a well-paying job I'd probably be resentful.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 3:20 PM on December 12, 2005

i'm sure it's pretty cool being a lawyer.

No. No one's saying it's cool to be a lawyer. Stop watching LA Law re-runs. What people are saying is that it pays significantly more for what amounts to about as many hours/week. And that doesn't include getting your MA, which you'll need in most states if you plan on teaching for more than a couple of years.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:41 PM on December 12, 2005

C_D you're just trying to be a snark. why pick out that comment from my post except to be intentionally confrontational? why can't i conclude that it's probably cool to be a lawyer. if it isn't are you really implying that it's all about money for those who choose it as a profession. that's kinda sad.

fwiw, i think it's kinda cool being a teacher, most days.

but your position regarding higher ed is really a little exaggerated; i have taught for 13 years with a BA and the credits i garnered as a post-bac student and, more recently, as an occasional grad student. i have no masters and no set date for achieving such recognition for my studies since undergrad.

additionally, as far as hours go, i would like to point to my 9 month, 180-day contract for 7.5 hours per day. admittedly, i and most of my cohorts put in waaaay more than the minimum hours per day. but nevertheless, that's far different from the 2000-3000 billable hours most of my lawyer friends seem to be required to produce annually. certainly, if you're motivated my money, this is a small sacrifice. but if you like time, your own time, teaching's not half-bad.

and just for the record: i've never seen an episode of LA law.
posted by RockyChrysler at 6:28 PM on December 12, 2005

No snark, Rocky. The way you phrased your previous statement was that you were surprised so many people were suggesting becoming a lawyer, then followed that statement with the idea that it must be because it's a "cool" profession. No one here except yourself has listed "cool profession" as a reason to become a lawyer, but many have made mention of the additional salaries involved.

And I made no implication that it was solely about the money; there are plenty of other reasons to become a lawyer that may or may not jive with the OPs priorities.

Finally, my position regarding higher education is completely accurate, with the caveat that each state has its own list of requirements for teachers. In MA and NY, IIRC, you must have a Masters degree (or be working toward it) within 5 years of your certification.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:28 PM on December 12, 2005

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