10 Reasons Not to Go To Law School

Blogs seem to attract more than their fair share of lawyers, law students and people who want to be lawyers.  As a 27 year veteran of the bar, pro bono publico, I am giving my top ten reasons why people should consider not going to law school.

1.    There are too many of us.  1, 143, 358 active attorneys in the US according to the American Bar Association in 2007.

2.    While all careers have their tedious moments, the law consists mostly of tedium.  The first year of law school amply demonstrates that as you stay up till the wee hours studying hundreds of pages of usually intensely boring cases.  A high tolerance for boredom is a plus for any aspiring member of the bar.

3.   Most attorneys are fairly modestly compensated, believe it or not, until well into their careers.  My first year out I was called in by the IRS because the local office couldn’t believe that an attorney was earning so little.

4.    Lawyers often see people at their very worst.  Nothing like a criminal prosecution, a divorce, an eviction suit, etc to bring out the milk of human kindness in all involved!

5.    Public respect for lawyers usually hovers somewhere slightly above plague rats.  That is tolerable.  What is intolerable is that too often the lack of esteem is well deserved due to the antics of too many attorneys.

6.    The fun stuff, to me that has always involved trial work, is only a small portion of an attorney’s life, which more often involves unending tons of paper work.  At the conclusion of any successful win in court is a desk clogged with waiting paper work and phone messages to return.

7.    The cost of a legal education has become frighteningly high.  Being a newly minted attorney, earning $40,000.00 a year and having 100k of debt, is not a good situation.  I graduated with $7,000.00 of debt by comparison in 82, and I thought that was frighteningly high at the time.

8.  The practice of law has a fairly high jerk quotient.  Most attorneys and judges are not jerks, but the portion who are cause endless problems for those who are not.

9.   Most law schools do a rather poor job of preparing attorneys to actually practice law.  The break-in period is usually three to five years and is often fairly stressful.

10. More than a few lawyers hate the profession.  This survey in England indicating a quarter of attorneys would like to be doing something else jibes nicely with my own experience.  I’d say at least 10% have a visceral hatred for what they do.

Now I have enjoyed my career at the bar, but it is not for everyone.  I think too many attorneys go into the profession without a clear idea of the downside.  If you are thinking of going to law school investigate the profession carefully before you decide to invest three years of your life and a great deal of money.  If you do become an attorney, also heed this piece of advice:  incarcerated clients can be touchy.

16 Responses to 10 Reasons Not to Go To Law School

  1. Jonathan says:

    Well-said! May I also add that if one has philosophical ideas about learning the ins and outs of legal thought through the ages (jurisprudence), do not go into law. Your philosophical urges will be crushed – it’s really a business in many ways. Make the cleanest argument one can for one’s client, throw in equity if you must (though judges will usually ignore it), but don’t gum up the works with such arguments.

    Go into philosophy, political history, or somesuch.

  2. Jay Anderson says:

    Excellent list, Don, highlighting many of the reasons I left the practice of law early on in my career (I still do “law-related” work for a legal publishing company).

    When people ask, I recommend against going to law school.

  3. paul zummo says:

    I think number 7 says it all. I’ve considered law school many a time – even as I was winding down my Ph. D, but then basically sobered up. Many if not most of my friends are lawyers, and I’ve seen the consequences of said profession. You have to go to some miserable law firm for five years of hell if you want to be able to pay off your debt. If you get a job that you actually enjoy, your compensation will make it difficult to pay off that debt in a timely fashion.

    Law school just seems like a big fat racket. I know that the laws have multiplied many times over since the time of Lincoln, but he managed just fine without once setting step inside of a law school. Learn what you need to know, get some real experience, and then practice law. That seems like a reasonable way of doing things to me.

  4. paul zummo says:

    Speaking of the Simpsons and law school, who can forget:

    Jimbo Jones: You let me down, man. Now I don’t believe in nothing no more. I’m going to law school.

    Homer: Noooo!

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    A classic Paul! I would have posted that if I could have found a video clip of it.

  6. Blackadder says:

    As a fellow shyster, and in the spirit of Proverbs 18:17, let me offer this rebuttal:

    1. I know it’s going to sound like I’m saying molten lava makes a great skin cream, but if anything there are too few lawyers in this country (if you are inclined to doubt this, consider how expensive hiring even a lousy lawyer can be, and what that suggests about the relative supply of and demand for legal services).

    2. It’s true that much of legal work is, well, work. My understanding is that this is true outside the law as well.

    3. Lots of lawyers aren’t rich. However, I’ve found that attorneys tend to have an exaggerated view of what it means to be “modestly compensated.” When I was in law school I interviewed for a position at a county prosecutor’s office. The guy doing the interview emphasized how poorly paid the position was, and how other students had turned down offers when they found out how much it paid because “you can’t live on that.” He then quoted me a figure that was above the median salary for Americans.

    4. If you go into certain areas of the law, you will see people at their worst (the same would be true, I suppose, if you become a cop, or social worker). On the other hand, most legal jobs involve either transactional work or civil litigation that doesn’t involve dealing with heroin addicts on a regular basis.

    5. People dislike lawyers in the abstract, but I’ve never had anyone be rude to me or treat me with contempt or disdain when I tell them I’m a lawyer. The truth is that being an attorney is actually a fairly high status profession in these United States. And it’s a good way to learn some funny jokes.

    6. See supra at 2.

    7. College tuition is reaching frightening levels in general, though it is probably worse with the law. On the other hand, student loans tend to be low interest, and as one of my law professors said “if you die before you’ve paid off your student loans, it’s like you’ve pulled one over on them). Most schools also have a loan forgiveness program if you do a couple years of “public interest” law after you graduate.

    8. I can’t argue with this. A lot of lawyers are jerks, particularly among litigators. If you can’t cope with this, the law may not be for you.

    9. It’s true that a lot of what you need to know about the practice of law you don’t learn in law school. So what? Maybe it would be better if you could skip straight to legal practice. But that ain’t the way it is, and all things considered school ain’t that bad.

    10. Lots of people hate their jobs, and attorneys have better exit options than most. If attorneys say they hate their job but keep going, this strikes me as being cheap talk.

  7. Dale Price says:

    I feel what you’re saying, Donald, but I like what Blackadder says a lot.

    And I’ll toss in another good point about the profession: Every now and then, you participate in something that looks–to even the most disinterested and objective observers–a whole lot like justice.

    [And, yes, I borrowed the essence of that last line from “Philadelphia.” It’s no less true for that.]

  8. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Every now and then, you participate in something that looks–to even the most disinterested and objective observers–a whole lot like justice.”

    Oh I have had those moments too Dale. What I have seen more often however is the application of the law, which, depending upon the circumstances, may or may not be justice. One of the courtrooms I haunt has the motto “Fiat Justicia” on one of the walls. I have often translated it to clients, frequently to their intense amusement.

  9. Gabriel Austin says:

    Then there is Our Lord:

    “46 But he said: Woe to you lawyers also, because you load men with burdens which they cannot bear, and you yourselves touch not the packs with one of your fingers”. Luke 11.

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  11. restrainedradical says:

    Blackadder said:
    I know it’s going to sound like I’m saying molten lava makes a great skin cream, but if anything there are too few lawyers in this country (if you are inclined to doubt this, consider how expensive hiring even a lousy lawyer can be, and what that suggests about the relative supply of and demand for legal services).

    More lawyers won’t make their services any cheaper. There are lots of unemployed lawyers.

    I don’t regret law school but it’s definitely oversold.

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