Is Law School for You?

By Ken DeLeon, founder of Top-Law-Schools, Berkeley Law Class of 1998, published October 2006, last updated May 2010

[Editor's Note: Ken wrote this article several years ago, before the Great Recession levied a serious blow to the American legal market. The author's points resonate just as powerfully as ever before, but readers should keep in mind that the challenges of pursuing a legal career have been even further embellished by the new shortages in the legal job market.]

The prestige of law school and the high salaries lawyers command make law school an attractive option for many prospective students. Because there is no required undergraduate major for law school and it can be an option for any successful college graduate, law school has often served as a landing spot for students uncertain of their post-college plans. Consequently, there can be a great deal of dissatisfaction for those who eventually grow disenchanted with law school, or even more likely, the practice of law. Thus, before undergoing the arduous law school application process and three very expensive years of law school, you should seriously consider if attending law school is truly the right path for you.

In no way do I want to dissuade those set upon law as a career, for law can be a very intellectually challenging and financially rewarding profession. However, be certain that your choice is based upon knowing the realities of legal practice and not a few episodes of "Law and Order." It is important to understand that most attorneys spend the vast majority of their day either researching case law and writing briefs or working with clients. Considering how much time is spent in the office, attorneys rarely argue cases directly before judges and juries.

You should also know that even graduating from one of the "Top Law Schools" does not guarantee happiness with a legal career -- or even a legal career, for that matter. For example, of my classmates who graduated from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, the majority do not love their jobs, but merely toil away at work for 60 hours a week because of the great financial benefits. Additionally, several of my classmates have left the field of law to become entrepreneurs, businessmen, real estate brokers, or simply to work in other fields. Yet those who have left the law are thankful for the great education they received in law school, because to know the law is to know the workings of society.

These are some useful quotes by different colleges regarding whether law school is the right option for you and also discussing what lawyers do with their time.

Johns Hopkins University states that:

"Before choosing law as a career, it is important to decide why you are choosing to be a lawyer as well as to know what a lawyer actually does. If you have had a legal internship, you probably have considered both of these issues."

"You may realize that the practice of law involves a great deal of research and detail. Many lawyers think of it as fitting pieces into a gigantic puzzle. A legal practice today is a business as well as profession. It involves billing in tenths of an hour, getting clients, working successfully with support staff, associates and partners, marketing yourself and your firm, and continually keeping abreast of the changes in the field."

"You may not realize that the profession usually demands long hours. If you want to have ample time for leisure and family, law may not be the best choice for you. You do not, of course, have to work 70 hour weeks, but if you do not, you may not climb the partnership ladder. Know what is important to you. Being a lawyer involves much more than a large paycheck."

Pre-Law Advising at Harvard provides an answer to the question, "What do people with law degrees do?":

"The up side of having a law degree is that most people, institutions, and/or organizations at one time or another need a lawyer. Recently, demand for new lawyers has been strong, and the typical graduating law student may choose from an array of jobs, including private practice at a law firm; federal, state, or local government jobs; or jobs with nonprofit organizations, such as foundations or advocacy groups. Newspapers, corporations, consulting firms, universities, and countless other institutions also hire lawyers. The law impacts most areas of our lives and law degrees open a wide array of doors."

"In private practice, the nature of the work tends to vary by geographic region. For example, lawyers practicing in New York law firms tend to concentrate on corporate transactional law, litigation (i.e., law suits), tax law, real estate law, and other finance-related matters. Lawyers in D.C. firms may focus on more regulatory, government-related affairs involving government contracts, trade, health, and environmental issues, and communications. Many D.C. firms also have a legislative practice, through which well-connected attorneys regularly lobby Congress and the Administration on behalf of their clients. Many firms in large cities also have substantial international law practices. Private criminal defense work is also widely available."

"Government legal work also varies depending on the agency or department and the level of government. For example, attorneys in the Department of Justice are involved in a variety of civil and criminal matters, ranging from antitrust to civil rights work. Lawyers at city law departments litigate on behalf of their city, which includes defending the actions of government agencies and local government officials. Public defenders' offices, district attorneys and state attorney general's offices also offer exciting legal opportunities."

"Lawyers practicing in the nonprofit sector may engage in a wide array of activities. Many of these lawyers represent low-income families and seek to address issues associated with housing, immigration, access to government benefits and health care, fair employment practices, domestic violence, and other family matters. This work may focus on direct representation of families or may integrate this work with efforts to achieve large-scale change through policy and/or legislation. Additionally, lawyers play an important role in advancing human rights and other international policy issues through a wide array of international organizations."

"Finally, lawyers often become judges, legal academics, politicians, policymakers, business people, entrepreneurs, and diplomats."

Harvard University Careers in Law correctly points out that a "law degree is not for everyone. It should not simply be a default path for a smart, liberal arts student who can't think of anything else to do. For law school to be a good career decision, you should really think through why you want to be a lawyer or at least why getting a law degree will advance other career goals in some tangible way."

The University of Santa Clara notes that "The decision to attend law school should not be entered into lightly. Earning a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree involves a minimum of three years of unrelenting academic effort and intense dedication. Law School is also very expensive, and the current job market is extremely competitive. This discouraging news is given to ''ensure that your decision to pursue a career in law is an informed one.''

Rice University Pre-law Advising says that "Some people claim that they knew they wanted to be a lawyer since they were quite young, but most struggled with this decision up until the time they applied to law school. In fact, many law students and even recent graduates are still unsure of the answer to this question."

The Director of Career Services at University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law tells us to that ''Those students who come to law school with a clear understanding about why they want to be a lawyer ... ultimately have a better chance of staying in the profession and being happy with the choice they made. Going to law school because you don't know what else to do when you graduate from college is never a good idea. Go out into the working world and find out what you might want to do, then decide whether law school is the right choice.''

Some comments from the Oberlin Pre-Law Guide: "Only you can decide whether law school is right for you, but you should make an informed decision, which means acquiring as much information as possible about law school and legal practice." You should not "be pressured to choose law school by well-meaning family members, friends or advisors." "If you want to be a lawyer, can you articulate reasons? It is not enough to say you have always wanted to be a lawyer. Law practice isn't always fascinating and intellectually stimulating. In fact, it can be boring, stressful and even unfulfilling at times. You need to know what you are getting into."

The University of Richmond Pre-Law Handbook states that "generally, the most accurate information about the legal profession can be gathered from interaction with practicing attorneys. At the very least, [someone considering becoming an attorney] should talk to several attorneys (because there are numerous types of law and legal practice) about their profession: the nature of daily work, job satisfaction, opportunities for advancement, lifestyle issues (such as flexibility of schedule and amount of spare time), and other matters" of concern.

Pre-Law advising at Kansas University provides the following response to the question of "How to learn more about law school and the legal profession?"

"A variety of resources can help illuminate the study and practice of law. Because the profession is so broad and multifaceted, the best way to learn about it is to speak with a number of attorneys about their own unique experiences. Seek out input and advice from many different perspectives. In addition, there is a wealth of written materials from which valuable information can be drawn. Work or volunteer experience in a law-related field can also be a valuable way to gain first hand insights into the profession."

To summarize, attending law school will provide you with an excellent education that will give you many opportunities in and out of the law. However, due to the great time and financial commitment required to graduate law school, I recommend researching the legal profession to determine what it is like and what role you could foresee playing in it.You should consider informational interviews with family friends or alumni, who are attorneys. While I am against your working in college (the focus should be upon your studies and growing as a person), an internship at a law firm would also give you a glimpse into the legal realm beyond the glamorous view portrayed on television.

Know that you will never fully know how you will like law school and a legal career, but through researching you will get a relatively accurate picture of what to expect. If you feel confident that law school is for you, I recommend that you proceed even if you do not get into the school of your dreams. If you have hesitations, I would still consider going, especially if you get into one of the top law schools because that diploma will open up other options: the skills learned in law school are readily transferable to a wide number of other fields. However, if you have hesitations and do not get into the school of your choice, I would recommend that at a minimum, you wait a year and reapply and perhaps consider other careers besides law.

Next Section: The Application Process: How To Start Planning