This blog is not intended to provide legal advice, legal services or legal anything else. Don't sue me. All I have is debt anyway.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Q and A with the Small Town Baby Lawyer from a Mediocre Law School

I get a fair amount of questions from folks out there who are either considering law school, or already in law school and trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Some of these questions come from strangers who've found this blog, some come from students at my alma mater, referred by friends in advising and admissions for undergrads and graduate students. Some even come from my friends. So, here's my take on it.

Question 1: Should I go to law school?

I will answer your question with a question: Do you want to be a lawyer? If not, then why the hell do you want to go to law school? Are you insane? Do you like paying a lot of money for endless suffering? Freak.

If you don't have a good idea what you want to be when you grow up, then you are taking a huge gamble going to law school. That doesn't mean you won't change your career goals when you get in. You might fall in love with the Federal Tax Code and decide you want to work for the IRS, instead of being that awesome criminal defense attorney you've dreamed of being since you saw Johnny Cochran in action with the Chewbacca defense when you were just an impressionable child. People change, dreams change. But if you're going to law school because you just graduated with a bachelor of arts in English literature, you have zero job prospects and a ton of student loan debt from a private undergraduate institution, well... you obviously make bad choices. Do you really want to make more bad choices? Wait tables, get hardship deferments for your loans, and figure out some idea what you want to do with yourself before making any other major life decisions that will put you into further debt with no chance of escape.

I would suggest, if you don't have a relative or family friend who's a lawyer and you're already intimately knowledgeable about the realities of the practice of law, work for a law firm first. Take a position as a secretary, file clerk, or just as an unpaid intern, shadowing someone for a few months. This is not a career path you want to take without finding out what it's really about. The legal profession is not always fun, exciting or rewarding like it is on TV, it can be very boring, very tedious, extremely frustrating and it does not pay very well. You will probably not be able to afford a Rolex watch or Christian Louboutin shoes any time in the next decade, and maybe not ever. Your boss is likely to be a pissy old white guy who expects you to work yourself to death for no compensation and no respect, blaming you for all of his screwups, while he takes all the money and all the credit for your work. Statistically speaking, you will need a significant dose of anti-anxiety medication during law school, with a higher dose during bar review, and even more during actual practice.

So, be realistic. Don't listen to the bullshit spewed by the law schools that desperately want your money and your rockin' LSAT score. The legal job market is flooded with a gazillion attorneys, and if job placement and job security are what's important to you, go to nursing school instead. You have to love practicing law to do this every day until those student loans are paid off 25 years from now. I remind myself of this every day. Particularly on days like today when I realized that I somehow "missed" that $10,000 of my student loans are still in deferment until spring, and once they come into repayment, I'll be paying an extra $100 a month. I obviously fail at life.

Question 2: I desperately want to be a lawyer. Where should I go to law school?

One of my top choices for law school was Temple. I believe tuition at the time was somewhere around $40,000 per year. That's insane. I'm sure it's a great school, and I would have had a much better experience there, but at the end of the three years, I would have finished law school with over $200,000 in student loan debt, and nothing more to show for it than I have now.

If your grades and your LSAT score aren't good enough to get you into Harvard, Yale, Chicago, etc., don't go to some Fourth Tier school that costs $50K per year. Unless that school is Regent and Sarah Palin gets elected in 2012, thus landing you a sweet gig with the federal government for which you are horrifically unqualified, based solely on ideology. (But then the world's going to end anyway, so who really cares.) Or you have a massive trust fund and you're just going to law school for shits and giggles and don't intend to practice law (again, refer back to #1).

Make your law school choice based on cost and value, not what looks good in the brochure and which city has the best beaches (although I honestly can't fault you for that one). You can pay $15K per year and get a job making $40K per year, or you can pay $50K per year and get a job making $40K per year. Which do you prefer?

If you are offered a sizeable scholarship to an otherwise unaffordable school, also consider that, even if you've been a straight A student all your life, you could lose that scholarship. Law school is not undergrad. It's not graduate school. It's not even medical school. You don't get the grade you should earn by knowing all of the black letter law and properly applying it to a fact pattern and coming up with the same conclusion as the courts have. Rather, you are competing against your fellow students. There is a difference between an excellent exam response, and a particular spark of brilliance in an excellent exam response. Depending on the curve, one is a B and one is an A. If you need a B+ average to keep your scholarship, and the school curves at a B-, think real hard before you take that gamble.

Again, if your diploma is not from a top school, don't pay outrageous prices for it. Go to a cheaper school. Otherwise, you end up having to sell your diploma on eBay and start a pr0n site to pay off your loans. Skip the law degree and just start the pr0n site. If you have any legal questions, hire a lawyer. There are plenty of lawyers out there who could use the work.

Question 3: Will I get a job after law school?

Yes. Will it be in law? Maybe not. Oh the laugh riot of going to school to be barristers, and becoming barristas instead. (Starbucks does offer excellent benefits, however; I'm not dissing them.)

Law school employment statistics are full of shit. That shit stinks when you walk in the door, it continues to stink for the next three years, and the smell doesn't wash out of your clothes when you leave. Again, unless you go to a top school, you will almost certainly not get a job through on campus interviews (OCI), you will almost certainly not have a job lined up when you graduate. You are likely to not have a job until after you pass the bar and are now a "sure thing." Plan accordingly.

This doesn't mean you won't find a job. It just means you probably won't find your dream job and make dolla dolla billz. Or if you do, it'll be in a small town two hours from where your family lives. If being employed is important to you, and you're determined to achieve that goal, you'll find a way to swing it. Just be diligent. If you aren't at the top of the class after your first semester, network your heart out, don't waste time trying to get your grades up when you're like 85th in a class of 100 or something. You won't get them up high enough to matter, and you'll have spent all your time studying and not enough time out there pounding the pavement. If you are top of your class after first semester, you're golden, so now the pressure's on to keep up those awesome grades for one more year until you get an offer. Some people can even get an offer after one year. Of course, in this economy, be wary of a job offer two years in the future.

Just don't think that the law school will help you find a job. Maybe some do. Mine won't. Mine publishes in the state bar association magazine the false statistics that our graduates are 100% employed within 9 months of graduation, so the message is, hey, our grads don't need jobs, go recruit at other schools. Awesome.

Question 4: Will I like being a lawyer?

I dunno, I personally really like being a lawyer. But I might not say that if I worked somewhere shitty, where I was treated like dirt, worked 80 hours a week and made no money. Even the sacrifice of being away from my kid two nights a week doesn't make me dislike being a lawyer. I guess I could sit here in regret and say, shit, I should have been a nurse, I would've had a job anywhere... but then as a new nurse, I would have likely worked nights and weekends and been away from my family.

Again, it's a tough economy, but there are jobs out there that allow you to be a lawyer and a human being with a life outside of the office. Sometimes it takes a few failed attempts to get there, but you eventually can. And if all else fails, hell, hang your own shingle and work for yourself. Move to an under-served area. There are options if you're willing to try them out, and see if you like it. If you get a job, and you hate it, evaluate what you hate about it. If you find you really hate the practice of law, well, try something else. There's always insurance adjusting.

Question 5: Are lawyers bad people?


Oh, okay, most probably aren't, just some are. I don't think I'm a bad person. My husband's grandfather accosted me on the subject of tort reform this past weekend. Essentially I'm the reason insurance rates are sky-rocketing. That's a whole other subject for discussion. But, as weird as it sounds, I'm not really in it for the money. Yes, I like money, and I would like to own lots of it, rather than owing lots of it. I just don't really care about it that much. I want enough to pay my bills and live comfortably. Buy the occasional pair of pretty shoes. But if I was really interested in making a ton of money, again, I wouldn't have gone into law. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would keep practicing law, and when I felt competent enough to practice without a baby-sitter, I would open my own nonprofit legal clinic. I really went into this profession wanting to help people. Working at a for-profit firm doesn't change that. I really like helping my clients, even if ultimately they won't help themselves.

That said, plenty of attorneys are assholes. If you choose to become an attorney, don't be an asshole. Attorneys are supposed to be advocates for their clients, which is difficult to do when you're an asshole and nobody wants to deal with you. It's counter-productive. I treat other people, particularly my office staff with respect and good manners. I don't take shit from people, but I still treat them with respect even when I'm digging in my heels and being firm. They don't teach that in law school, which is unfortunate.

So, there ya go. To recap, my advice is:

If you really want to be a lawyer, make an educated and informed decision, then follow your (flexible) dreams to attend either a distinguished or affordable institution of higher learning, where you will graduate with minimal debt and be diligent enough to find the job/career you enjoy. And don't be an asshole.


G Love said...

I like this.

I want to add, though, that most jobs that pay more than minimum wage are really boring and you work for assholes who deflect blame and steal credit, who want to fire you for having kids, make you fetch the coffee in meetings with your peers, and pay themselves huge bonuses while giving you a $25 grocery store gift card and calling that your bonus for a year of hard work. I've had a handful, and all are the same - mostly routine and boring office work, with the occasional variety thrown in. The variable with law school is you pay a lot of money before you get that boring job.

Rhiannon said...

Guess I missed this post, but I wanted to say that I completely agree with you. Also, I always find it interesting to ask people who are about to graduate if they would do it again. I would, but I'd be smarter about some things.

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