Monday, May 27, 2013

Law School's a Great Deal If....

It's a couple of years old, but I just came across this one.... After advising law students about how they should get into the best law school they can and, if it's not one "sufficient brand equity to land the 'Big Law' position you want", to transfer after your first year to one that has sufficient brand equity ("work hard in your first year to earn top grades, and then transfer to a better school" - it's that easy, you know, which is why most law students have top grades and most top law schools are overflowing with transfer students after the first year - so you can get that BigLaw job.) The only type of legal job that makes sense to the author. Oh yes, and you should "have a passion for some aspect of law" because "there is never a guarantee of graduating with a high-paying job" and without passion the "tuition will never be worth it".

The author runs a company that coaches students on how to take the LSAT, so I think the biggest takeaway is that his advice "Do not take the LSAT until you are fully prepared.... Find a top class and experienced tutor, and take as many practice tests as you can" and the suggestion that even if you get into a crappy law school it's okay because you can study hard and transfer to a top school after your first year, were about protecting or promoting his business. The rest of the advice... sorry, there's no easy path to go from a school at which BigLaw does not recruit into a top law school, even if you're "committed to excelling during the admissions process". Around the same time the author was writing this piece, I received a letter from the dean of my law school (one where BigLaw recruits) suggesting that alums might might a special effort to hire graduates. You can be a great lawyer from a great law school, but if you start your career off the few tracks that lead to BigLaw jobs, odds are they're not going to let you back on.

But really, only about 13% of new law school graduates end up in permanent, BigLaw jobs upon graduating from law school. A small, additional number might join that track after completing judicial clerkships. If law school only makes economic sense if followed by a career in BigLaw, all that talk about transferring truly is about rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic - the lifeboats don't get any bigger. Worse, your reward is a career in BigLaw. (Oh, sure, some people love it. Others spend a career trying to figure out how to unshackle themselves from the golden handcuffs.)

The author's suggestion that passion can... I guess make up for the poor return on your investment if you don't get a job with a decent salary? For the most part, employers recognize student passion (real or feigned) for what it is - something that's not particularly related to the work they will be doing in their jobs. What if you have a passionate interest in, say, environmental law? Well, the best paying jobs are with the companies that are trying to avoid the application of environmental laws and regulations to their business activities. If you have the passion of a Dick Cheney, I say, "Go for it." If your passion is to "save the planet", you will find that there are lawyer jobs in public interest organizations. But for the most part they don't pay well. Oh yes, and they're full.

Where is passion likely to help? If you can develop true passion for, say, tax law, that can be an advantage if you can convey that passion to employers who are hiring entry level tax lawyers. That passion could matter if it's an area where few of your peers have strong interest and if you're actually capable of convincing an employer that your passion is real (because, as will shock you, a lot of job applicants will lie through their teeth about their passion and commitment to whatever it is the prospective employer wants). Good luck with that.

At the end, I'm left with the image of a pick-axe salesman in 1856, begging people to come to the California gold rush and assuring them how much better their odds are of finding the mother lode... if they buy enough supplies and the right pickaxe on their way to stake their claim.


  1. In about my 2nd year, another student told me that you don't pick the area of law you want to practice--it picks you. In other words, you can be as passionate as you want about a subject (and everyone in the mid 90s was all about the environment and women's rights) but chances are you will end up doing probate, divorce, civil lawsuits. I recently met a very nice person from Germany who told me that over there they spend a year or so in classes and then 2 or 3 years actually interning in real law firms and offices. Of course, if we did that a) the law professors couldn't make their huge salaries b/c there would be less tuition and b) most people would probably drop out once they realize how freaking boring it really is.

    1. The problem with systems that include an internship/'articling' requirement (let's call it "apprenticeship") to become a fully licensed lawyer is that there are often a shortage of apprenticeships, and some of the firms positioned to offer apprenticeships recognize that they are at a significant negotiating advantage - that is, they can pay virtually nothing for somebody whose career depends upon keeping that position and working like a slave for a couple of years. Although such systems have proved to be effective at keeping the pool of fully licensed lawyers relatively small (other law school graduates may go on to law-related jobs but cannot practice in court) and thus keeping compensation high, many people of limited means are deterred from even attempting to enter the profession - even assuming they would otherwise gamble upon scoring an apprenticeship, after completing their education they can't afford to work for next to nothing in order to complete their qualification to practice law.

      Granted, our system has evolved to be somewhat similar - with almost twice as many new lawyers each year as there are available, permanent job opportunities for lawyers, some law firms are offering terrible compensation terms (or offering the opportunity, in defiance of labor laws, for new lawyers to work as 'unpaid interns') and still getting a stack of applications. It may be a bit worse, actually, given that in those other nations there's a natural career path for somebody with legal training but no bar admission, whereas there's no similar career path in the U.S.


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