There's been a lot of press lately about the poor prospects of many law students and recent law school graduates. Prominent examples include
- Law School Economics: Ka-Ching! (NYT)
- Consumers Finally Figure Out That Law School Is Overrated (Time)
- Served: How Law Schools Completely Misrepresent Their Job Numbers (New Republic) and
- Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win (NYT).
I've also written on that subject, including
- "We Should Be Ashamed Of Ourselves"
- Feast or Famine For Law School Grads and
- Advice to Law School Applicants on Sunk Costs, Merit Scholarship, and Transfer Plans
The timing of the most recent NYT piece coincided with a message I received the other day from a former client and one-time law school applicant, updating me about the interesting things he's been 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."
Several years ago, I had had a preliminary diagnostic conversation with him, as I typically do before I start counseling people on the applications themselves. In those diagnostics, among other things I have a "coming to Jesus" conversation about whether it makes for sense for them to be applying, and whether their admissions goals and expectations for law school are realistic. In my discussion with this particular applicant, I had told him straight up that law school might not be the right match or the right investment for him. His recent update got me thinking about this some more, and it helped me distill the central message I want to share in today's post:
It's OK to walk away from law school, even after you've taken the LSAT, and even after you've gotten in. Do not go just because you can. Do not go just because someone else thinks it's a fine idea. Do not go just because someone (often well-intended) is pushing you into it. Do not go just because the government is enabling you to borrow heaps of money for this purpose. Do not go just because some law school out there is happy to part you from your student loan dollars.
You may still have good reason to go to law school, but it's up to you to figure out affirmatively good and rational reasons to go. 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, and depending on what you're looking to get out of the experience and the investment.
I still believe, as I've written before, 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. (See the counter-argument to my position here.) 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, and knowing that others would kill for that score. That decision took courage, and this once-aspiring-applicant thinks he made the right call.
It's also a good reminder that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth on behalf of applicants in the NYT, WSJ, and elsewhere, nobody is holding a gun to your head and making you go. It's your choice, and if there's value to those articles, it's in serving as a caution to exercise that choice with care. Would daily reminders help? Then follow Elie Mystal's beat on Above the Law. (ATL is also a great resource for people who do belong in law school.)
As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in an op-ed called The Start-Up of You, in which he interviewed entrepreneur, author, 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 be attractive to those schools that will offer you the most suitable combination of price, prestige, and opportunity to meet your goals.
Once you have done that homework and gotten advice and made 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 Law Schools A, B, and C 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 on this drum? Because so many of the forces and voices you come into contact with will push you toward law school -- the supposedly easy money, the prestige, your proud mom, the glossy law school brochures and dodgy statistics, sexy TV shows, the historical levels of affluence among lawyers, etc.
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.
Readers, what do you think? Did you walk away? Do you wish you had? How about those of you who are glad you stayed the course? What sources did you find helpful when making your decision?
[From the archives: advice from readers, with interesting discussions in the comments, here, here, here, and here.]
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).