(Why) Is Law School Really For You?

Before proceeding with your plans to pursue a career in the legal profession, it is important to ask yourself whether you really should be, and why you are, leaning toward law school.

In his book entitled “Looking at Law School: A Student Guide from the Society of American Law Teachers,” New York University Law Professor Stephen Gillers sums up the research on legal education and legal careers in the U.S.:

“… many law students and law school aspirants partly misconceive what it means to be a lawyer… Still others may lack a firm concept of the work”.

law scales

Students tend to learn about what lawyers do from popular culture (especially movies, television, and fiction) and from pre-law courses in college; these depictions “emphasize the glamour and ignore the routine”. “Ignored are the uneventful, daily labors of uncelebrated lawyers pursuing the mundane goals of anonymous clients with the intellectually unchallenging, often perfunctory skills with which nearly all lawyers earn a living most of the time”.

The pre-law courses tend to emphasize critical thinking about hot button issues such as abortion, affirmative action, search and seizure, euthanasia, etc. However, “the image of lawyer as critical thinker… is likewise not representative of what most lawyers do most of the time”.

While lawyers generally earn a comfortable living, it is “an unlikely route to great wealth”.

Much of “what lawyers are trained to do for people is help them protect or acquire property”. Those law students who wish to practice public interest law quickly find out that “the chance is small that he or she will be able to get a governmentally or privately funded job that will make it possible to work for the needy or to confront large issues of social injustice”. Government does not generously fund public defenders of other public interest law jobs. The clients in public interest cases are generally impoverished, so they are unable to pay the living of public interest attorneys. As a result, it is all too common for law students to enter law school intending to practice public interest law and leave law school as corporate lawyers.

Corporate law can be exciting, and it can be high-paying, but it is often neither of the above. See Cameron Stracher’s Double Billing for a well-written portrait of life inside a corporate law firm. The ethics of strengthening community, health, safety, environment, and living conditions often take second place to the ethics of achieving “the client’s legal goals to the best of your ability”, even if these goals are defending your client from polluting San Diego’s water source, producing cars that are unsafe at any speed, or causing severe burns to nursing home residents because of faulty faucets in bathrooms. Stracher writes, “As a lawyer, your ultimate obligation is not necessarily to do justice, bring out the truth, or ensure fairness”.

As Gillers concludes, career choices are very personal. Law is an excellent profession for a wide variety of college graduates. Whether you’re attracted to the stability and prestige, to the social change opportunities, to the opportunities to prosecute or defend, to the enjoyment of settling and plea-bargaining, or for any number of other reasons, the law might very well be for you. But hordes of 22-year old college-graduates flock to law schools every year, and substantial percentages of them find out in hindsight that the legal profession doesn’t provide them with occupational happiness. Surveys of lawyer satisfaction paint a depressing picture to say the least. The moral of the story: do your research and learn about what law school is like and what legal careers are about. Take advantage of legal internships and externships. Speak with your pre-law advisor. Ask yourself the tough questions sooner rather than later.

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