How does one become a lawyer? Guides? Blogs? Checklists?
July 22, 2019 2:05 PM   Subscribe

After 10-15 years in Silicon Valley, I'm interested in switching from technology to law. Is there a checklist to take me, a professional, from zero to legal hero?

I'm interested in what it takes to get into law school as a professional. And to learn about others who have done it. Can you help?

To add some context, three times in the past year, I have dug through reams of legal code, injunctions, and contracts to help friends understand options to solve their problems. Once this has led to a settlement that we felt good about. I'm wondering if I have a knack for this, and would like to explore what it takes to pursue. I don't have any fantasies about arguing in television courtrooms, but I love the idea of finding out how to advocate for people in difficult situations.
posted by jander03 to Law & Government (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a practical matter? Same as it takes anyone else: good LSATs and a high undergrad (esp.) GPA. The kinds of schools that would take substantially into account anything other than extraordinary professional experience in another profession are not the kind you want to go to in the present environment unless you really enjoy taking six-figure risks. Take a practice LSAT, see how you do.
posted by praemunire at 2:20 PM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


The sad truth is that if you have 10-15 years in Silicon Valley, the chances that you can switch from technology to law without spending a lot of time and money to cut your earning power in half or worse are very low.

Here's the bimodal salary chart:

Bimodal Starting Salary Distribution for the Class of 2016

What this means is that your salary will only be on the high side if you become part of what is lovingly referred to as "Biglaw" and give up your life to law. If you don't do that, you're pretty much guaranteed to make less than you make now by a substantial margin.

If you for some reason want to do that, here are the steps:

1. Take the LSAT and score 170+.
2a. Go to a school that is in the top 20 here: US News and World Report Law School Rankings and be ranked in the top 20% of your class; or
2b. Go to a school that is in 30-100 from that list and be top 5 of your class or better.
3. Get a summer associateship with your Biglaw firm of choice. Note that this means you're giving up on working any more with your Silicon Valley gig.
4. Don't fuck up in that summer.
5. Accept your offer.

If you can't score 170+, you won't get into a good enough school or you won't do well enough in law school to get a Biglaw offer.

If you can't do well enough in the first semester of law school, cut your losses and quit then.

Acquiring some combination of depression, alcoholism, a divorce, and a substance abuse problem is optional but common. Quitting the practice of law after a few years is as well.

To recap: Don't Be a Lawyer
posted by ulmont at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2019 [25 favorites]


In California, you can read law and pass the bar. Kim Kardashian’s doing just that.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:45 PM on July 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Don't become a lawyer unless one or more of the following are true:

1. You can follow ulmont's suggestions above (i.e. do extremely well on the LSAT, have an excellent undergraduate GPA, and work very hard for 3 years).
2. You are independently wealthy and can sign a check for $150k without breaking a sweat.
3. You are guaranteed a decent job regardless of what law school you attend or how well you do because of family connections or the like.
4. You absolutely cannot imagine doing anything else but being a lawyer and will not be happy unless that's the profession you pursue, regardless of the financial or personal cost. And by financial cost I mean "paying 15% of your income towards student loans for 20 years or more."

If you do all that you will have the pleasure of working in a field that has three major subfields:

1. Working for a government in a role that has limited financial reward and in which your caseload and policies are largely determined by politically appointed superiors that you cannot push back against.
2. Helping rich people and the corporations they own become richer. And if you want to become successful at this then I hope you enjoy being a salesperson trying to sell expensive legal services to rich people that, as a rule, don't want to part with their money.
3. Trying to help less-rich people who by and large cannot afford to pay you a fair rate.
posted by jedicus at 2:47 PM on July 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


OP didn't ask how she can maintain her rate of income. She asked about "advocating for people in difficult situations." That's almost never what anyone in biglaw does, anyway, except for such pro bono work as they can squeeze in. [Edit: this sort of law won't make you much money, either, probably a lot less than what you make now, as others have pointed out.]

That said, if you want to become a lawyer you have to go to law school and pass the bar exam for your state. If you want to keep working in Silicon Valley while you're in school rather than give up your job, Santa Clara University's law school has a part time program that should get you ready in 4 years. Might want to check their bar passage rates to see how good a job they do getting folks ready for that test, though.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:47 PM on July 22, 2019 [9 favorites]


I'd suggest looking into legal technology. Some of the most interesting advances in this area are specifically aimed at improving access to justice, such as DoNotPay.
posted by jedicus at 2:53 PM on July 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


I would urge you to find local lawyers who do what you want to do, contact them, explain your situation, and ask if you can take them out for coffee or pick their brain on a call.

Generally what ulmont and jedicus said is true.

It is very unlikely that "reading law" is going to get you anywhere helpful - getting your foot in the door for any jobs you would want in the legal field requires prestige and/or connections and that will get you neither. Good non-profit jobs are just as competitive, if not more, as BigLaw jobs, so you'll need the prestige/connections for them too. (I should note that that's what I've been told, I'm a BigLaw person myself).

Legal tech is definitely an ever-expanding field, if that holds any interest for you.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 3:35 PM on July 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Very seriously, if you can be happy without going to law school, do not go to law school. It's a huge amount of money and stress to fight a large number of people for a limited number of jobs.
posted by bile and syntax at 3:50 PM on July 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


(I am not a lawyer but I do work at one of the biggest Big Law firms in the world.)

It depends on your goals. You can do what I guess would be four or so paths, depending on your goal.

Money?
Take some LSAT classes. Do extremely well on the LSAT. Hope your undergrad grades are sparkling. Apply to the best law schools and go to the best one you get admitted to, no matter the cost. (If you are not admitted to one of the top 10-20, move along to one of the other goals.) Graduate in the top 10% of your class. Intern at a Big Law firm, do really well, and get hired as an associate.

Decent life if constrained?
Take some LSAT classes. Do pretty well, and again hope your undergrad grades are at least really good. Go to one of the best regional/state law schools that have great reputations in their state (I can't speak to California, but). Be aware that California is one of the hardest bars to be admitted to, so do as well as you can in school. Try interning at a good firm in the state (these often only show up in state rankings). Get hired, but if you don't, you can either try a start or join a private practice or a tiny firm. This isn't a bad goal, but is way harder on the post-law-school than pre-law school timeline.

In-house counsel?
This is a better life than most would admit (especially with work-life balance). Do basically the constrained path, but look at firms that are focused on the field you want to be in. Some firms are really strong with health-care law; others energy law, etc. Then try and intern at either a company's legal office or a trade association, etc. P.S. This is also a decent way to get a state government job (but do your internship at the government job).

Non-profit?
I'd say don't even bother unless you get into a top-10 school that has tuition reimbursement. Like Yale. Otherwise, go to the cheapest law school you can get into, and take poverty wages working a bullshirt non-profit job and continue taking your bar CLEs and loan deferrals until you get 20 years of experience that one non-profit and get a real lawyer job there.

NOW: You work in Silicon Valley. Does your job offer tuition reimbursement? In that case, honestly, I'd just try getting into a part-time program and getting a not-terribly-shiny degree, passing the bar, and seeing if your company would hire you as a lawyer. Or asking the legal department at your company to see if that's even possible. I had a job years ago where the head of counsel told me that if I went to law school they're offer me a job right out of school, but I had no desire whatsoever to go to law school. Because law school is not a great idea unless you really want to be a working attorney.
posted by General Malaise at 3:59 PM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I know a number of tech people who went to law school. They all came back to working in tech, not as lawyers, as engineers. But I don't think they had altruistic goals as you appear to. It's very, very hard to make the money work out. Other than that, ace your LSATs.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:18 PM on July 22, 2019


My recommendation: apply for a technology position in a law firm. That will give you some exposure and familiarity with what they do and how they do it. Then consider paralegal classes to get your certificate rather than a law degree.

Another tack is to work for a legal technology consulting company where your tech background is more important than legal knowledge.
posted by megatherium at 7:04 PM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


I went back to law school in my late 40's after a being mostly a stay at home mom and working in non-profits.
LSAT scores are very important. Take a course, especially if you're not a natural at the games section.
In my experience, once you've been out of undergrad for 10 years or so, nobody cares too much about your grades from back then.
posted by mmf at 7:07 PM on July 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


More on reading as a way to skip law school.

The United Farm Workers have an organized program to read the law
posted by slidell at 7:22 PM on July 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


You won’t get good advice for this unless you take a practice LSAT and tell us the score, tell if your undergrad GPA, and tell us what you want to do and what salary you need to make.

It is trivial easy for someone with a reasonable amount of intelligence and an undergraduate degree with a 3.5 gpa or higher to become a lawyer. I mean it takes time and effort but it’s not especially challenging. The issue is mostly that it’s expensive and that there are already a lot of lawyers around.

With your GPA and a practice LSAT we can tell you where you’ll be admitted and whether you need an LSAT class. At your age it’s probably more important for you to get going than to delay with a class—depending what your practice score is.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:49 PM on July 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Also, I went to a top 6 school, and you don’t have to be in the top 20% of your class to get a job. That’s not true at any of the top 20 schools, even for big law jobs. My school placement rate is something like 98% with virtually everyone either going into PI by choice, going into biglaw, or going to a federal clerkship (they’re prestigious). The higher ranked the school the easier it is to do what you want.

Depending what your experience is you might have a good shot at working in industry instead of a firm but the above proclamations about how hard it is to get a job from a top 20 school are overblown. Also, depending on GPA, you want more like a 166+ LSAT. Higher is better.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:55 PM on July 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Take some LSAT classes. Do extremely well on the LSAT. Hope your undergrad grades are sparkling. Apply to the best law schools and go to the best one you get admitted to, no matter the cost. (If you are not admitted to one of the top 10-20, move along to one of the other goals.) Graduate in the top 10% of your class. Intern at a Big Law firm, do really well, and get hired as an associate.

Sorry but this is bad advice. You should balance scholarship aid with the job placement of the school in order to get a good deal at a school where you don’t need to be top 10%. You should not pay full tuition or for the highest ranked schools. For comparison, Harvard, Columbia, Penn, and Michigan all have different rankings but if you got a lot of scholarship assistance at Michigan you would go there over paying full price at Harvard. This calculus might change if you want a weird specific job, but if you’re aiming for cash, you have a lot of reasonable options.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:02 PM on July 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Also if you want a law job just go to law school. Lawyers are weird and status obsessed and love predictable behavior. Reading the law is bizarre and lawyers will mostly despise it. Not a normative judgment, just a description.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:09 PM on July 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


OK, Silicon Valley tech lawyer here. While I generally am on the "don't go to law school" bandwagon, especially when you have the credentials and skills to be doing something even more lucrative and fulfilling like working in tech, the posters above are missing one obvious alternative. You could go to an entirely decent school at night while keeping your job. Then you'll have your JD as a credential to go into upper management if you decide to stay in tech. For example, Intel pays (or at least used to pay) for their employees to go to Santa Clara's law school night school, and it became well regarded as a tech / IP school for that reason (plus they used to have the guy who literally wrote the book on patent law). If you plan to stay in the area nobody would bat an eye if you went there instead of, like, Berkeley.

Now, this is all assuming you do want to downshift and "advocate for people in difficult situations." That will certainly be less lucrative than your career in tech, which you should know going in, and which is why I recommend a night school option that is potentially comped by your employer. If you do it this way you are going to miss out on the prestige points, big time, and you likely won't get many offers from super-high-paying big firms (although as a former tech industry worker, who knows. EECS lawyers are in really short supply right now). If you do want to go the biglaw route, you should do as the posters above suggest and do your damnedest to get into a top 20 school. Acing the LSAT certainly wouldn't hurt regardless of what you choose.

Good luck!

* and yes, I described Silicon Valley tech companies as "more lucrative and fulfilling" than being a lawyer. I know that industry can beat you down, but... being a lawyer is a tough game. If you're in tech you probably don't know how good you have it.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 8:29 PM on July 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


It is trivial easy for someone with a reasonable amount of intelligence and an undergraduate degree with a 3.5 gpa or higher to become a lawyer. I mean it takes time and effort but it’s not especially challenging. The issue is mostly that it’s expensive and that there are already a lot of lawyers around.

Yeah, I was trying to think of a way to say this that didn't sound snobby. If you already have a strong undergrad degree, you can almost certainly work your way through practice up to a decent LSAT score, thereby go to a good school, work hard enough to do well there, and get a job to pay the bills. Doing this from a standing start is really hard. Doing it from "already well-educated professional" is tedious and expensive and time-consuming but not crazy intellectually difficult.

Now, this is all assuming you do want to downshift and "advocate for people in difficult situations." That will certainly be less lucrative than your career in tech, which you should know going in, and which is why I recommend a night school option that is potentially comped by your employer.

Good PI or government jobs, the kind where you might earn half a living and spend your time doing something other than struggling minute-to-minute to keep your clients from drowning with no lifeboat, have only ever gotten more competitive. (Let's just politely glance away from the crazed hellscape that is current federal legal hiring.) These days, they hire from much the same pool as the big firms do. So unless you are very committed to a particular and less competitive region, going for a geared-down night law school is fairly risky and unlikely to lead straight into the career you want.

I basically assumed OP understood that public service advocacy isn't going to pay like working in industry.
posted by praemunire at 9:35 PM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


Thank you all for these very honest and real assessments of my situation. I think I'll go ahead and take a practice LSAT, but it looks like a fool's errand.

I very much appreciated reading some of the alternative ideas: "apply for a technology position in a law firm. That will give you some exposure and familiarity with what they do and how they do it. Then consider paralegal classes to get your certificate rather than a law degree."
posted by jander03 at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2019


You may want to keep an eye on active efforts in CA to open up parts of the practice of law to nonlawyers (see e.g. Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, CalBar public comment page). Not endorsing the idea or anything, but if some of these proposals pass (legal technicians, lawbots, etc.), they may create other opportunities for you specifically.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 12:16 AM on July 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


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