Looking at the title of this blog post, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Of course it’s a bad idea! A decision as big as spending many tens of thousands of dollars and three years of your life on a legal education shouldn’t be something that is made on the spur of the moment! It should be given careful thought and consideration!”
However, every year around this time I get a good number of students all telling me a variation of the same thing: I just decided that I want to go to law school next year. What do I need to do?
Some of them will add, slightly apologetically: It’s kind of a last-minute decision.
See, here’s the thing:
If you just now made the decision to go to law school, a few things are probably going on (and I’m basing this on the conversations I’ve had with students who come to me for admissions advice with this exact type of situation):
- You’re a little scared. You suddenly realized that this is your senior year of college, everyone else knows what they’re doing after graduation–whether it’s grad school, b-school, law school, med school, a job, internships, externships, traveling, whatever–but you have no idea what you’re doing after next May. So you start looking at what other people are doing, you look around the internet a little at law school websites, maybe check out some of the more popular law school applicant forums and think, “Hey, this law school thing sounds pretty cool!” or “I love to read and argue–law school makes sense!” or “Such-and-such-person-I-know is going to law school and can’t stop talking about how excited they are–maybe that’s the route for me?” or any other number of reasons/excuses for why this is the right move for you. And then, for no reason other than an uncertainty about what you’ll do post-graduation, you decide to take the leap.
- You haven’t thought this through. Going to law school is not just about going to law school. It’s about being a lawyer after you go to law school. It’s not about about mock trial, and writing papers, and learning about the Constitution–it’s about then taking that knowledge and actually earning a living as an attorney afterwards. The number of students I talk to who haven’t actually thought past their law school graduation is astounding–but it’s all they should be thinking about because, despite the fact that there are many out there who will say you can do just about any job with a JD (something which is proving to be less and less the case in this uncertain economic climate), the fact remains that what you should do with a JD is be a lawyer. And if being a lawyer isn’t attractive to you, then you’re in a bit of a pickle if you go to law school.
- Your parents are breathing down your neck about “making something of yourself.” The emails and calls from them invariably turn into a “what are you going to do with your life” discussion, and your answer of “I’m still considering my options” is wearing thin. Your parents want an answer to why they spent so much money on your college education if you’re not doing anything with it, and responding with “I’m going to law school” has both the weight and importance necessary to quell their fears (and get them off your back).
There are other reasons, but these seem to be a main ones I encounter. I’ll say this about all of them: They are all bad reasons. In fact, they are all terrible reasons. The only reason why you should go to law school is because you’ve thought long and hard about it (preferably over a period of months, if not years), have determined that this is not just the right academic path for you but also the right professional path for you, and know that you are 100% committed to not just law school but the idea of being an attorney. Preferably, you’ve had at least some legal experience, whether it be interning in a semi-legal capacity somewhere or sitting in some classes at your university’s law school, and have even a vague understanding of what an attorney does (spoiler: it’s a lot of reading, writing, and research–and very little of Law & Order and Franklin & Bash). That is the only reason why anyone should go to law school.
When students come to me with this sudden, last-minute realization that they want to go to law school, I ask them some very pointed questions (Tell me: exactly why do you want to go? What are you planning on doing with your law degree? Do you know what law school is like? Do you know what attorneys do?). I do this not to disuade them, but because they need to know these things. You would never buy a house without having a home inspection. You would never buy a car without a test-drive. Heck, you probably wouldn’t even buy a new ice cream flavor without first asking for a sample, so why would you make a life- and career-altering decision without first knowing with as much certainty as possible that that’s what you want to do? My questions are only the very tippy-top of a much larger iceberg of knowledge you need to have before embarking on this law school trek.
So what happens when students come to me with this sudden, last-minute realization that they want to go to law school and they can’t answer my questions at length? This is what I tell them:
- Do not apply this year. First of all, you’re already starting late in the game. You’re going to have to rush to study for the LSAT, take it, decide where you’re applying, complete the applications, and get all your paperwork figured out in just about two-and-a-half or three months. That’s craziness. It’s incredibly stressful. You’ll also probably end up doing a not-so-great job at either since, by application and LSAT standards, you’re rushing things.
- Wait and apply next year (if, after thinking about it long and hard, you still want to). Law school will still be there next year. There’s no rush. Spend the time between now and then educating yourself about law school and the legal profession, and seeing if it really makes sense for you.
- Tune out all the people and things that are telling that you that you need to make a decision about your future now-now-now. Yes, you need to have an idea of what your path is. That’s true. But your path is not necessarily the same as your friends’ path, and it shouldn’t be a path you take to appease your parents, your family, or your own guilty conscience. It needs to be a path that fits you. If you don’t know what you really want to do, what makes more sense: Rushing into something you don’t know enough about, or taking the time to really think about it and making an informed decision?
The legal job market right now is rough. More and more freshly-minted JDs are having a hard time finding any employment at all, let alone a job which requires a JD and will pay you enough to allow you to repay your law school loans. Competition for slots at the very top law schools (the graduates of which have the best chance of landing a legal job after getting their JD) is also rough. A legal degree will most likely cost you upwards of $100,000. It also takes three years to obtain, and will be all-consuming.
If you know that law school is absolutely the path for you, the things I’ve listed above are no surprise, and they don’t phase you. You’ve thought about it; you’re ready. If you’re not sure, these things should give you great pause and make you stop and think about what law school really means. Law school is not a trivial decision. It decides your path in life not just for three years, but for your entire professional career.
Is law school a step that makes sense for you? That’s something only you can decide. However, it shouldn’t be something that you decide hastily. If you made the decision overnight, it’s probably not smart for you to start the application process in the morning. Take some time, think things through, and then make a decision. It’s too important a call to trivialize.