Law School for Non-Lawyers

In a comment to my Brain Drain II posting, Neal asked the following question:

"I'm currently weighing options from different law schools and I have a choice between minimizing my debt at a good, but not 'famous' school or going broke for the brand-name. Talking to lawyers about this issue has just left me utterly confused, as about half say to avoid the debt and the other half say the branding is well worth the money.

I have a background in public policy and I was originally hoping to use the law degree to augment that career rather than replace it. But it's scary to read horror stories like these.

Under what conditions would you say getting a law degree is 'worth it', given the realities of practice you've sketched out?"

Excellent question, and a very difficult one to answer. I should start off by saying that there is no right answer, in part because the conditions under which pursuing a law degree is reasonable -- and worth it -- are different for everyone.

Generally I'm reluctant to advise people to obtain a law degree when they do not plan to make the practice of law their primary career. A lot of people talk about the "flexibility" of the degree, and they point to all the successful non-lawyers with law degrees. Most law school graduates practice law for at least a few years after graduation, but if you look 10 or 15 years out, you'll find many law school grads who have moved on to other careers -- some related to the law, others not at all. There are countless examples of Fortune 500 CEOs, policy makers, journalists, and even sports figures who have law degrees. (Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, earned a JD from Florida State before becoming a baseball coach -- he once said, "I decided I'd rather ride the buses in the minor leagues than practice law for a living.").

To me, though, that doesn't make the degree "flexible," or even reflect well on the degree. Rather, it suggests to me that lots of people go to law school, realize they don't want to practice, and then end up pursuing careers for which they didn't really need a law degree to begin with. (Do baseball coaches need law degrees to succeed as baseball coaches? Don't think so.) If we saw lots of top MDs leaving medicine and going off to try their hand at ice skating or accounting or social work, I don't think we'd be oohing and aahing about the flexibility of the degree; we'd wonder why they're all leaving medicine, and why the heck they invested all that blood, sweat, and tears in the degree if they didn't want to be doctors. Ask yourself how much value a law degree is going to add (especially once you net out the expense) in helping you get where you want to go. It's an investment like any other, and so you want to give a lot of thought to the expected return on that investment.

Can law school be fun? Sure. (Lord knows, not for everyone.) Can it be intellectually stimulating? Yes. Can it teach you "how to think"? Sometimes -- depends on the person, and depends on the school. Is all that worth six figures when you aren't going to join (or stay in) the profession? Far from clear.

However much the top law schools like to gussy themselves up as "policy oriented" and "interdisciplinary" and basically as a graduate degree in the humanities (take a look at the top schools' course bulletins sometime), law school is still in many ways a trade school. It's a "learned profession," but make no mistake -- it's still a profession. Nobody has ever come to me and said, "I desperately want to be an engineer. I have no background in engineering, don't know much about math or physics, have never even interned at an engineering firm, have no clue whether I want to be a civil engineer or a mechanical engineer or an industrial engineer or an electrical engineer or a nano engineer or a chemical engineer. I don't have the faintest idea what those different engineers actually do all day long, and I'm not even sure I want to practice engineering, but please, please, please help me get into a top graduate engineering program." And yet I hear the equivalent from law school applicants all the time.

Is it because they think that law is their best way to "help society" (that's usually as precise as most applicants can get about their motivations for applying)? Maybe, but does anybody really think this country needs more lawyers? I'd argue that society would be better served if the most talented twenty-somethings went off to discover vaccines or build lower-emissions engines or develop safe pesticides or build businesses or create beautiful things rather than hauling everyone into court. (Take a look at Overlawyered.com.)

The three years of law school are designed to teach both the fundamentals of the profession, and the skills necessary to practice it. Law school involves an enormous commitment of time, energy, and money. If you have no interest at all in the practice of law, you may want to reconsider your options. There are other ways to set yourself up for a career in public policy, many of which would not involve the same commitments (especially the financial ones).

With regard to your question about the "good" law schools v. the "name brand" ones, I would have to reiterate my earlier comment that conditions differ for everyone. Name brand schools traditionally have greater success at placing graduates at the top law firms and clerkships across the country, but going for broke at one of these schools may leave you broke -- especially if you decide to bypass the Big Firm payoff in the end. If public policy is your goal (and the practice of law is not a top priority), you might consider becoming a part-time law student so you don't have to borrow as much, or going to a "lesser" school that offers you money, rather than incurring the debt at a top school.

There are certainly good arguments to made on both sides, but ultimately, for me the question comes down to projected cash flow and whether that math works. The brand name isn't going to pay for itself very well if you don't hop onto a well paying firm track, at least for some period of time after law school. Either way, I would reflect on your desired career path before choosing a law school, or deciding to attend law school in the first place.

(By the way, I don't plan on morphing this blog into a law-school-only forum. I do find this topic worthy of exploring here in depth, however, because I know that so many people end up in law school because they're not sure what else to do with themselves, or because they have very fanciful notions about life as a lawyer, and that's highly relevant to my purpose in this forum.)