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Should I go to law school?

BUtower.jpgSo recently an old friend said that he was thinking about going to law school, and he was wondering what my take on the decision was, particularly in light of the fact that I’ve done the firm thing and the non-firm thing. And so I says to myself, I says, “self - why opine to one when you can opine to the masses?” So here’s some rambling on the subject.

I loved the hell out of my time at law school. But I think I’m the exception to the rule. I found a really great group of friends, and we partied the whole time and, as much as possible, tried to treat it as Undergrad, Part II. Coming right out of college and unsure of what one wants to do (as was my situation, since I had just decided to bail on my science career path and was therefore scared of entering the real world), law school is a perfectly fine option. But what about when you’re 30 (or older), with a family and a stable job?

Well obviously it’s a very different matter. To my mind, the question here is simply this - what do you want to get out of it? What do you want to ultimately want to be doing, and will a law degree help you do it? While I don’t personally think law school is as hard as many make it sound, it’s still no cake walk. For example, if you’re talking about doing it while still holding down a job (i.e., going to one of the few schools that offer night classes), you’ve got to be willing to come home from a long day of work only to turn right around and listen to lectures and read a generally immense amount of legal hoo-ha. All at the expense of spending time with your family of course. And if you’re going to drop out of working and do law school full-time, obviously you have more time, but you’re also taking more courses. During your first year, you’re still probably going to see yourself losing a fair amount of family time.

All of which is to say you best talk with the significant other about all of this and make sure this time commitment is understood, and that they’re supporting. I can’t tell you the number of long-term relationships (including marriages) which died during the first year of law school. Inordinately high.

Now, my friend also asked about whether one has to go the Big Firm route following law school. This again turns back to the question of what you ultimately want out of all this. There’s certainly no requirement that one go to a Big Firm out of school. In fact, more and more, it seems like folks in our generation (and the younger peeps as well), don’t want to be career firm lawyers (which is a change from our parents’ generation, where it was all about getting into a firm and making partner, and schtupping your secretary, etc.). Instead, many go to firms after school simply because most schools are wicked expensive, and those massive law firm salaries can help one get their debt under control (that’s certainly what drove me to a Big Firm after school). But does one need to work at a Big Firm to have credibility in the field?

Not really. If you wanted to be a professor, for example, law firm practice matters very little - instead, it’s all about how great the school is that you went to and what esteemed judge(s) you clerked for following school. It may not hurt you to have a law firm on your resume, but it won’t necessarily help you. Similarly, if you wanted to go the government route (and if you can afford it, which is often a big “if”), you don’t necessarily need to go the Big Firm route first. However, depending on what government work you actually want, you may find that you need some experience first. And often the easiest, though grueling, way to get this experience is through a Big Firm. You can also do any number of things on your own, obviously, without taking on the Big Firm first. For instance, I know folks who started practicing on their own right out of school. Personally, I would’ve been scared shitless doing this without some experience, but they’ve all managed very well.

In fact, one of the only places where you really need a firm job is if you want to become in-house counsel for a company. In-house attorneys are pretty much all hired from firms or relevant government jobs. But again, it’s not about credibility, but experience. Most places won’t even think about hiring someone to come into their in-house office without at least 4 or 5 years of minimum experience (although, as always, this depends on individualized factors like what the experience is actually in and what sort of needs the company has).

The last comment, which many folks thinking about law school may not know is that, at least within the legal field, folks don’t generally care about the quality of any given field of study at a school. In other words, with college, you go somewhere because they have a great program in what you want to study. With law, you go to the best law school you can, period. It’s all about rankings. Of course, if you just want the “esq.,” a fourth-tiered law school will work just as well as a first-tier (and probably be at least a little bit cheaper). So yet again, what one actually wants to do with their law degree comes into play, as it could help you decide what school you go to.

So what’s the answer to the question of “should I go to law school?” I dunno. I loved it, and I have no regrets about going. But there are plenty of people who were miserable throughout law school and who are still miserable. So again, if you’re thinking about law school, I think you just need to really think about why you’re thinking about it and what you want/hope to get out of it.

And if you have more questions, just go to any bar near a law firm or law school and you’ll find plenty of attorneys or budding attorneys who can fill in the blanks.