The above writeup is a mixture of a little bit of fact with a lot of fiction. But that's not why I'm writing. If you want to know the whole story, you can read about it on snopes.com at: http://www.snopes.com/legal/legalaid.asp (Short answer, the administrator wasn't in a position to change the rules, so he told the students to write to those who could. They did, and allowances were indeed made. The quote about priorities is pure fiction.) Nevermind. There used to be a writeup above this one. It's gone now.

No, I'm writing today to those people, as the title implies, who might want to be lawyers, and are thinking of making the plunge. Finishing my third year of law school, I understand the pros and cons much better than I ever did before I applied. Looking back, I still think it was the right decision for me, but for many it's not. So here's a list of what to consider, what not to consider, and anything else I think is worth saying. (Note that the following is for people in the U.S. I don't know much at all about other countries.)

Bad reasons to go to law school:

  1. Because I can't figure out what I want to do, and it'll give me three years, and open some doors in the process.
  2. This is the most common of bad reasons. If this is you, I strongly urge you to reconsider. In three years, you'll be just as clueless about what you want to do, and you'll be $90K-$120K in debt. At that point, if you ever want to pay those loans off, it looks like you're going to have to be a lawyer, even if that's not why you went in the first place.

    And law school opens up exactly one door: The door to being a lawyer. Don't believe me? Try to think of someone you know, anyone, who is using their law degree for something other than being a lawyer. Yes, there are a few screenwriters out there, but they didn't need a law degree for that. In fact, three years of intense screenwriting probably would've done them better, and they wouldn't have had to pay $30K+ a year for the privilege.

  3. Because mom says I'm really good at arguing.
  4. I'm sure mommy thinks you're very special, and you probably are. But "good at arguing" does not equal "good at law." Arguing is only one part of what makes a good lawyer, and for some kinds of lawyers (usually half in big firms!), isn't involved at all.

    I'm not trying to denigrate the back and forth of arguing law, it's important if you want to be a litigator. But even then, it's very different from what you do around the dinner table. For one thing, you're arguing something you believe in. A good lawyer can see the arguments on both sides, and switch if asked. Now, if you enjoy arguing, that does stay the same. But again, that's only if you're a litigator.

  5. Because what I'm doing now is really hard, and law seems like a good way to make some easy money.
  6. My friend, a science major, was thinking of going to law school because as a patent lawyer he could, "Still learn a bunch of science all day, but not deal with the math."

    Sorry people, law is hard too. There is no secret path to easy money. Unless it's something you affirmatively like, it won't be for you. And the hours are very long. Doing something you don't like for a long time every day is not a path to easy money. If you like the science, stay with the science. The math may be hard, but so's writing a legal brief.

The only good reason to go to law school:

Because you want to be a lawyer. If that's not why you're applying, you're applying for the wrong reason.

Other things to keep in mind:

It's not all like Law & Order.

Only 2.9% of cases actually go to trial and result in a judgment. The rest are either settled or tossed out on summary judgment. That means that the substantial majority of your work (or all of your work in your first few years) will be behind a desk doing research or writing. There will be no juries. If you're lucky, sometimes you may argue in front of a judge (but again, probably not your first few years). These can have their own rewards, but may not be what you expect going in.

If you decide to become a prosecutor or a defense attorney, the numbers go up a little, but not a lot. You'll be arguing in front of judges more, but still, trials are very rare. And, once you've gone massively into debt (see above), it might be a hard decision to make. Prosecutors don't get paid very much. Defense attorneys even less. That being said, many schools offer some form of loan forgiveness if you go into a low paying public interest job like these. If that's what you want to do, make sure the school you attend has one of these plans, and make sure it's a good one.

Litigators aren't the only types of lawyers.

There's corporate counsel too. These lawyers don't argue, they give advice to corporations about how to comply with the law. The same skills often come into play, in that they have to understand possible arguments that can be made, cases that might arise, but they're not there to handle lawsuits. They're there to make sure lawsuits don't happen.

And there's in-house counsel, who work at a large corporation, and handle a little of everything. And public interest lawyers, who may be litigators, but don't have to be. (And others, I'm sure, but I just don't know about them yet.)

Big Firm Hours

If you're thinking of going to law school to make the big bucks, you're going to have to work at a big firm. And if you work at a big firm, you should keep in mind that you'll be billing around 2000-2300 hours per year. That's billable hours, not actual hours worked. Especially at the beginning (but still true later), you're going to be working long days every day, and often weekends too. Yes, you'll get paid 125K/year plus bonus, but most associates leave their firm within the first two years. They don't give up that money for nothing.

Conclusion

Like I said, if you want to be a lawyer, go to law school. You learn a truly valuable mode of thinking, and the work can be very interesting if you enjoy writing (or talking, for corporate counsel), reading stories (because that's what cases essentially are), and don't necessarily mind the choice between lower pay and long hours.

But if you don't want to be a lawyer, if this is just a punt because you can't think of anything better, think again. Job dissatisfaction among lawyers is very high. My own guess is it's from people who didn't know what they were getting into, who just kind of wound up here.

There's a good profession here, if you want it. Do you?

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