Law school can open doors and start you on the path to the career of your dreams. But it can also lead to a disappointing job in a competitive legal market, and burden you with immense debt. So how do you know if law school is for you? And how do you pick a law school and navigate the system to get the career you want?
Through self-reflection, research, and planning.
The following seven questions are designed to help you ask the right questions in this process:
1. Why do you want to go to law school or become a lawyer?
Be brutally honest with yourself in examining your true motivation. Write the answer down today, and revisit it often. There are many personal and practical reasons to go to law school or become a lawyer. Maybe it is a childhood dream that is shaped by an experience, movie, or novel. Perhaps it is based on a family member’s expectation, or your desire to become like a role model. Could it be because you do not like your job options after receiving your college degree? Maybe, you are inspired by the stories of the many lawyers who have touched history or made the world a better place? Perhaps you feel a legal career will provide you with prosperity and the ability to provide for your family? Or you might be particularly skilled at writing or oral advocacy and believe a legal career provides you with the opportunity to develop and use those skills.
There are no right or wrong reasons. Whatever the answer may be, however, it is extremely important to do some intense self-reflection to assess your true reason for pursuing a legal career. Only once you have determined your true motivation, can you then effectively research and assess whether your expectations align with reality.
2. What kind of lawyers are there, and what kind do you think you want to become?
Highlighting one of the habits of highly effective people, Steven Covey explained that “[t]o begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”1 Giving some thought to the available career paths within the legal profession, as well as what is personally and professionally important to YOU in finding fulfillment in your life and career, will help you maintain control and take the right steps to plan and prepare for the career you want.
A law degree offers many career paths and opportunities. You can work as a transactional or litigation attorney at one of the many large international firms, at a small or mid-size firm, or even start your own practice. You can become a public interest lawyer at a non-profit or civil rights organization. You can work in the government sector, including for the district attorney or public defender offices. You can work on public policies, enter politics, or become a consultant. Typically a few years after graduation, you may also become “in-house counsel” by joining the legal department of a company or take an administrative position at a law firm such as a recruiter, professional development staff, or diversity director. You can also go the academic route and become a law school professor. Thinking about the available career paths within the legal profession does not mean that you have to commit to one before going to law school. In fact, it is wise to use law school and summer positions to try different things and refine your career goals. And your goals may change several times throughout law school and beyond. But the information you will gain from proactively thinking about your potential destination(s) in the legal profession will be useful in choosing between law schools, taking student loans, navigating law school, and going through the job search process.
3. Have you talked to any lawyers, and what have you learned about their journey in the legal profession?
Yes, this question is not merely self-reflection, but requires you to research and seek out conversations with lawyers. While it is important for you to seek advice from current law students, advisors, and law school administrators to strengthen your law school application, it is equally important to speak to as many lawyers as possible. Ask them where they went to law school, how much their legal education cost them, and if they have any advice for you. More importantly, get a good understanding of what they do on a daily basis, how many hours a week they work, how much they make, how much control they have over their work schedule, what they enjoy most about their career, and what (if anything) makes them unhappy.
This exercise of searching out and talking to lawyers will help you in several ways. First, it will highlight the substantive and life style differences among the different career paths in the legal profession. Second, you will start learning how to network and nurture professional relationships. Most, if not all, lawyers love to mentor aspiring lawyers and law students. Like many aspiring law students, you may not know any lawyers first hand, and even if you do, you should not limit your options to the lawyers you already know. Take this opportunity to reach far and broad. Use all your resources—whether college career services, alumni groups, student organizations, LinkedIn, or anything else. And ask everyone you know to put you in touch with the lawyers they know. You will be surprised how many lawyers would be happy to have a brief conversation with you about their job. And for every person who may not respond to your email or voicemail, there will be another person who will not only respond but will also take an interest in seeing you succeed.
Third, you may notice that even two lawyers with very similar experiences (e.g. two lawyers in the same practice group of the same firm working for the same supervising attorney) may have varying levels of satisfaction with their career. No two people are alike and something that makes one person fulfilled may not be sufficient or even necessary for the other individual. And you will start to get a feel for what type of people like what types of legal jobs, and where you might fit in.
4. What is important to you in finding fulfillment in your career?
Try to determine what makes YOU thrive. Even though we may all be able to agree on the very basic qualities of a good work environment, like safety and the absence of discrimination or abuse, we are each quite unique in what ultimately makes us personally and professionally happy. Sometimes we may find a certain path appealing, or even be very good at the required skills, but it is also important to give some thought to whether the lifestyle will be a good match for you.
To help you brainstorm, below are some attributes of a fulfilling legal career identified by lawyers and law students. Review and think about these attributes for a few minutes. Identify your top three must-haves, and write down any others that are essential to your fulfillment. Also, be as specific as possible. To the extent you can add details, do so. For example, “cutting edge privacy cases” or “schedule that allows me to play tennis on the weekends and have dinner with my family.”
cutting edge cases/deals
interesting practice area
making a difference
control over schedule
flexible work schedule
autonomy on cases/deals
This self-reflection will allow you to put the research you have done and the conversations you have had with lawyers (Question 3) in the context of your goals and values. Whether you are still in college, have just graduated, or have worked for a few years after graduation, it is perfectly fine if at the end of this exercise you are still not sure what matters most to you. Discovering yourself and your passions in life is a journey, not a task.
The purpose of this exercise, however, is to highlight the importance of keeping YOU and your individual needs in mind as you go through the legal profession, including law school, interviews, summer positions, and the early years of practice. After all, true fulfillment and success cannot be measured in a vacuum without considering the particular individual—you.
5. What is your plan for putting together a great application for law school and for preparing for each year of law school?
There are a wide variety of resources at your fingertips to research how to maximize your chances of getting into your law school of choice, what each year of law school entails, and how to succeed in law school.
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) website2 should be the first place you start. In addition to administering the standardized Law School Admission Test (LSAT), they have a wealth of articles about applying to law school. There are also a variety of books and companies that aim to help students prepare for and demystify the law school experience, including companies like Law Preview and Law School Toolbox to name a couple.
You can also search the Internet for articles published by law school professors, law students, and others on applying to law school, navigating law school, and the legal profession in general.3 Not only are these resources free, but they also provide you with a variety of perspectives. Read as many articles as you can, and reach out to any of the authors you liked. Many might not respond, but some may write back and offer useful advice. Some may even become mentors.
6. How will you pay for law school?
Many people decide to go to law school, a very costly endeavor, without first doing a realistic financial checkup or planning how they will pay back their student loans. With the rising cost of legal education, thinking (or not thinking) about finances as you start your pursuit of a legal career will definitely have an impact on your quality of life as a lawyer and an individual down the road. Depending on your particular situation, taking extra loans to go to a better law school or have a comfortable life style while studying hard at law school might make sense, but it is not a decision you should make in haste or without full consideration.
Starting with the end in mind (Question 2) and doing your research to understand the different career paths in the legal profession (Question 3) should also help as you analyze, and decide between your law school options and the financial packages they offer. If you are only going to law school because you want to work for a big law firm, it might make sense to choose increased debt and a top-20 law school with excellent placement at big law firms, instead of a full ride at a school whose statistics show a small percentage of graduates going to big law firms. (You can typically find the employment statistics of a law school on the career services portions of the law school’s website.) The analysis may be different if you plan to open your own business, pursue public interest options, or become a government lawyer. In any case, you should be fully versed in your financial position and the loan and scholarship options available to you. This includes not only the amount of potential loans and assistance, but the terms for repayment and whether they will work with the path you wish to pursue.
7. What steps are you taking to address any concerns you may have about law school or becoming a lawyer?
The legal profession, like any other profession, has intellectual and lifestyle challenges. But with adequate preparation and perspective, it is possible to have the satisfying and successful legal career that you want.
A personal trainer once said that he was often amazed when clients who would not think twice about putting premium gas in their cars got excited about 99-cent fast food to put in their bodies. In other words, it is important to first invest in yourself. Similarly, even though not as immediately satisfying as spending money on entertainment and goods, any investment of time or money you make in yourself or your career is often likely to have a lasting result.
From your pick of books on preparing for and navigating law school, to dozens of companies offering prep courses or coaching sessions, there are a variety of ways you can invest in your career from the outset and proactively plan and prepare to succeed. Even though some of these options may seem cost prohibitive at first, many companies offer formal scholarship programs.
Not every product is right for everyone, so as always, think about what works for you (and not necessarily what everyone else is doing). But whether you decide to take a prep course, hire a coach, or create your own informal network of resources, the only must is that you learn early on to invest time and thought in developing yourself and your career. Your future law school and employer will help you along the way, but in the end, your own planning, proactive career management, and perspective are what will define the fulfillment and success you find in your career.
1 Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (2004, New York: Free Press), p. 98.
3 See, e.g., Bryan K. Fair, Preparing for a Career in Law in the 21st Century (last revised 2012), http://www.law.ua.edu/facultypage/files/2014/01/PREPARING-FOR-A-CAREER-IN-LAW.pdf.