Before You Put Your Law School Deposit Down

There's been a lot of press about the poor prospects of many law students and recent law school graduates. As you're deciding where to put down your law school deposit, I thought this might be a good time to merge two older blog posts that still hold true today.

In particular, I was inspired by an email I received from a former client and one-time law school applicant, updating me about the interesting things he was up to. He concluded the message by saying:

Anyways, thanks for being the law school advisor that told me that law school didn't sound like it was for me :) . After killing myself for another 7 months and finally getting up to a 174 on the LSAT, I said screw law school and haven't looked back... I still recommend your services and have gifted at least 15 of your books.

I had had a preliminary diagnostic conversation with this applicant, as I always did before starting any counseling on the applications themselves, because I wanted to make sure we'd had a conversation about whether it made sense to apply at all. His update helped me distill the central message:

It's OK to walk away from law school, even after you've gotten a great LSAT score, and even after you've gotten in. Before you sign on any dotted lines and send in your deposit to go to law school, remind yourself that you DO NOT HAVE TO GO. You're looking at the offers in front of you, and you're feeling really good. As you should. And now is the time to reassess those options and decide whether they still make sense for you. Keep your head screwed on straight. 

DO go to law school if you want to be a lawyer (based on what knowledge?), and you are going to a school — and at a price point — that sets you up to reach your goals. Do you know what your goals are? Do you know why you're going? Are you going to hit the ground running from Day 1? If not, don't go.

DON'T go just because you can.

DON'T go because your parents want you to.

DON'T go because you think a law school diploma will somehow validate you as a smart person.

DON'T go because you think law school — even a top law school — is a safe bet. It's not.

DON'T go because the government is enabling you to borrow heaps of money for this purpose.

DON'T go because some law school out there is happy to part you from your student loan dollars.

You may still have good reasons to go to law school, but it's on you to figure out what those good and rational reasons are. Law school is a fine choice for some people, and a terrible one for others, depending on the circumstances and various options on the table.

I still believe that most ABA-approved law schools do not add enough value to justify the tuition they are charging, or the debt that many people incur in order to attend. There's no shame in applying but then deciding, "Wait, this might not be the best option for me." Sometimes you have to start down a particular road before you have a moment of clarity, or before you are open to hearing something you didn't think you needed or wanted to hear. Imagine how hard it is to walk away from a 174 LSAT, after all that blood, sweat, and tears, when you know that others would give their right arms for that score. Still, this once-aspiring-applicant thinks he made the right call.

And it's also a good reminder that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth on behalf of applicants in the NYT, WSJ, WaPo, Bloomberg, etc. (and here on my blog), ultimately nobody is holding a gun to your head and making you go. It's your choice, and if there's value to all that press coverage, it's in serving as a caution to exercise that choice with great care. 

We live in a time when you have to be the CEO of your career. As Thomas Friedman once wrote in an op-ed called "The Start-Up of You," in which he interviewed entrepreneur and LinkedIn founder Reid Garrett Hoffman, you'll need to be

using your network to pull in information and intelligence about where the growth opportunities are — and then investing in yourself to build skills that will allow you to take advantage of those opportunities. Hoffman adds: “You can’t just say, ‘I have a college degree, I have a right to a job, now someone else should figure out how to hire and train me.’” You have to know which industries are working and what is happening inside them and then “find a way to add value in a way no one else can. For entrepreneurs it’s differentiate or die — that now goes for all of us.”

Substitute "law school" for "college" in the quotation above, and the message still holds true. Educate yourself about the legal profession as it is today, warts and all. Educate yourself about what graduates from School X typically earn and what their typical career paths are. Go sit in on law school classes to see if they are your idea of heaven or hell. Educate yourself about borrowing costs. Go find lawyers who do the kinds of things professionally that you think you want to do, and look under the hood. Go get the LSAT score you need to get into the school that will open the doors you want opened, and the score that will enable you to go there without a real risk of financial ruin. And if you're not in the running for the kind of school you need to get from Point A to B to C, have a back-up plan and go do something else. Don't have a back-up plan? That might be the worst reason to go to whatever law school will take you.

Once you've done that homework and gotten advice and formulated a plan — do not outsource or skip this part, because ultimately it's you who bears the consequences — you'll have a much better sense of whether law school in general is the right move for you, and whether particular law schools are good investments for you. If so, that's great news. And if not, that's great information to have too.

Why do I keep banging this drum? Because so many of the forces and voices you come into contact with will push you toward law school — supposedly easy money, prestige, your proud parents, magical thinking, glossy law school brochures and dodgy statistics, sexy TV shows, historical levels of affluence among lawyers, you name it. The list is long.

Those are the wrong influences to be listening to, for a bunch of reasons: the present is not like the past, some of those schools are lying to you, you have to pay the money back (and it's a lot), the practice of law is rarely sexy, and your mom will still love you even if you don't go.


From the archives: