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the best advice you've already heard

September 1, 2006

I have refrained from giving out lots of law school advice this summer because others have been doing a better job of it than I, and I hate being duplicative.

But one piece of advice comes to mind today and, while it’s all over the internets, I think it bears repeating.


As I slog through the OCI process, talking to numerous lawyers, I realize one key thing: they are all attorneys. Funny, that. If you don’t want to be an attorney, law school is a really stupid path to choose. Yeah, yeah, people will tell you that you can “do anything” with a JD, and perhaps they are right–if the “anything” you are doing happens to involve being an attorney.

Because, yes, you can do any number of things as an attorney–you can draft contracts, negotiate deals, shepherd clients through regulatory mazes, defend them when they get sued, or sue others on their behalf. And within those options are even more options, depending on the industry your clients are in, the fact situations involved, and the type of service you are providing.

But it’s all still being an attorney.

And, OK, maybe it’s also true that eventually you can do anything with a JD–things like become General Counsel of a company (practicing as an attorney), sit on the board of a company (benefiting from being an attorney), or consult with general counsels and board members of big companies (also benefitting from that legal education).

If you ask yourself, “What do I want to be doing in thirty years?” and the answer is “Not dealing with the law,” you should not go to law school. Because while you may not actually be practicing law, as in billing clients for work only attorneys are allowed to do, chances are you will be doing SOMETHING that you would not be able to do without some kind of legal education.

I know for many of you 1Ls, your semester has already started. You may think it’s too late if you now realize you don’t want to be an attorney. It’s not. You can probably still get a chunk of your money back if you drop out now. And you’ll save yourself oodles of money over the next three years while you are at it.

So, yeah, this post is a bit depressing, and you probably think it’s all bogus, because, hey! if you have a law degree you can also be a prosecutor, or a public defender, or that guy from A Civil Action, righting the world’s wrongs. But remember–even those people are attorneys, even if the work they do sounds sexier. If you want to do those things, good–you want to be an attorney! But if you don’t, and you also don’t want to be an attorney for The Man, rethink it all.

*NB: I actually do want to be an attorney. But even I feel, in myself, a boatload of misgivings about the kind of work that’s out there for me. So be careful that you understand what you are getting into when you get into law school, ‘K?

Categories: just me
  1. September 1, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    I’m going to respectfully disagree with you… I have three good friends who went to law school–knowing they were not going to practice law–and who enjoyed it and found in beneficial. One is a professor in another discipline, another is a producer, and the other a business owner.

    Again, they knew when they went they weren’t going to be attoneys (in fact, none of them even bothered to take the bar). But they all knew legal training would benefit their careers. And it has.

    I will agree with you about getting out if you don’t want to be there, though. I’ve seen many classmates who just weren’t happy and felt like they couldn’t leave. You can always leave.

  2. September 1, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    OK, Dave, you are right–you CAN do other things with a JD. I would contend, though, that your three friends who have JDs could have done the things they are doing WITHOUT a JD. Yes, they enjoyed it, they find it beneficial to their careers, but I would venture to guess none of them NEEDED the JD.

    I guess my point was that anyone considering law school as a stepping stone to some other career, besides law, really should think twice. There’s value in getting a JD “just because,” I suppose, particularly if one wants to enter a career where it will give one a leg up (see, your friend the business owner, who probably benefits a great deal from his law degree). But most people think the JD will GET them a job in some other career, and that’s just not true. YOU can get a job in some other career, on the basis of your experience, education, interests, etc. But if you have no other experience, and you only have a BA, going to law school isn’t going to suddenly make you a viable candidate for non-law jobs, just because you have the JD.

  3. September 1, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    I totally agree with you. What other professional program has people enrolled because they think it “might be useful”? I’m sure going to dental school is vaguely useful even if you don’t want to be a dentist, but no one does that. Why do people think of a JD differently than an MD or a DDS? It boggles.

  4. nye
    September 1, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    This is something that drives me nuts. I have more than a couple of classmates who are in law school because they think it will make them better businessmen. IF YOU WANT TO BE A BUSINESSMAN, GO TO BUSINESS SCHOOL. Anything else makes about as much sense as going to medical school because you want to be a writer.

  5. Jean
    September 2, 2006 at 8:27 am

    I think this advice is great. If you don’t want to be an attorney, take that $120,000 you’ll spend on tuition alone at a private school and do something else with the 3 years. I think the students loans alone force some people to actually practice law and take the highest paying job they can get.

  6. September 2, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    I think this all depends. I wasn’t 100% that I wanted to practice law when I came to law school, but I chose my school accordingly.

    I ended up at my school based largely on location. Houston has many large corporations which hire both JD’s and MBA’s for non-law jobs, a larger number of mid-size firms than most cities, and a relatively low cost of living. Additionally, my school’s tuition is around $15K a year which will provide me with more financial flexibility when the time comes to choose a job. The school is not as well known nationally, but I’m hoping that being here will ultimately provide more diversity of opportunity. (That being said, if you really want to work in BigLaw, I wouldn’t suggest going to a school like mine. Pick one with a name.)

    You can go to law school w/o the intent to be a lawyer. You just need to do your homework and strategize on how you plan to do that before you go.

  7. September 3, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Yes, I do think people shouldn’t choose law school because they think it will get them a job in some other career. It’s an indirect route, at best, and usually not a better route than a degree in one’s chosen field.

    I guess I just had a visceral reaction to the notion that you go to law school, you must want to be an attorney. That should be true for most people. But if you *know* the reason you are going to law school, and you are informed about your future career, law school *can* be beneficial for other occupations. The law touches *so* many areas of our lives and business to say that a JD isn’t valuable to anyone but attorneys is wrong.

    But you are right to point out that for most it is *not* the best path to an alternate career. And if you are going to law school and _don’t_ want to be an attorney, you’d better have done your homework about your chosen career path before plunking down some serious tuition cash.

  8. September 4, 2006 at 10:25 am

    amen, amen, a million times amen. i’d resent law school so much if it weren’t for the fact that i’m dying to be an attorney. if i wanted to go into anything else, i wouldn’t spend all the money, time, and heartache for three years of this stuff.

    but, as it stands, going 100 grand into debt is really the only way i can indulge my inner trial geek.

  9. N
    September 7, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    I wish I had taken your advice. I did it because I wanted to prove to myself (and others) that I could. Well, guess what? I graduated, took the bar in July, and I’m 100% miserable. I worked in a big firm for five years before making my decision and I should’ve known better. Stupid is as stupid does.

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