Chaucer it Ain't
You Always Kill Yourself too Late

Don't Go to Law School

Hare1
Paul Campos, the relentless critic of the shady racket that is American legal education, has written a book for hapless young people who think they want to become lawyers. The National Law Journal provides a summary of some of the key points:

For example, under no circumstances should you go to law school without a firm desire to become a lawyer; without exploring what working as a lawyer really is like (watching Law & Order doesn't count); and without investigating whether your career goals are realistic (you can probably forget about practicing international sports law), the book argues.

Going to law school because you don't know what else to do with a liberal arts undergraduate degree was never a good idea, Campos writes, but it's a particularly poor choice when the average law student graduates with $150,000 in loan debt and a well-paying job is hardly guaranteed.

The book's critique of law school will sound familiar to regular readers of Inside the Law School Scam, although the tone is somewhat softer. "With the book, I tried not to be polemical," said Campos, whose sharp-elbowed blogging has turned off more than a few of his colleagues in legal academia. "My goal was to analyze the information in the most disinterested way I could, so people could make up their own minds."

Still, as the title suggests, the book offers potential law students more discouragement than enthusiasm. Campos cites the latest statistics about the declining legal job market for new law graduates and growing debt loads, plus deep skepticism about the value of law school curricula and the versatility of a J.D.

For would-be students who clear Campos' initial hurdle, in that they have a real interest in practicing law, the book suggests an extensive examination of whether a law degree makes economic sense. Prospective students should take into account the debt they will assume, their odds of landing the job they want and the salary they will likely earn. All while avoiding what Campos calls the "Special Snowflake Syndrome" — the tendency to be overly optimistic about one's prospects.

"Almost everyone who goes to law school plans to work exceptionally hard and finish in the top 10 percent of the class," the book says. "Ninety percent of these people are going to see their plan fail."

During my introductory classes here in Germany, I usually include a 30-40 minute presentation that makes similar points. The main difference in Germany is that university students aren't forced into 18th-century-style debt servitude the way they are in the United States. Doing poorly in law school in Germany is unfortunate, but it doesn't condemn you to economic humiliation and bankruptcy the way it often does in the United States.

But the other points are just as valid in Germany. Plenty of people go to law school in Germany with vague ambitions of achieving bourgeois respectability and/or making millions with a glamorous big-firm career. What these 19-year-olds don't know is that lawyers:

  • Spend 90% of their work time sitting behind computer screens (of various sizes) reading and typing
  • Routinely work 55-70 hours a week
  • May well be 'on-call' to people in many different time zones (beware the firm Blackberry)
  • Will routinely have to work for -- and with -- complete assholes (and, if those assholes are superior to them in the extremely hierarchical world of law, will have to simply grin and bear it)
  • Will be regularly asked to cut ethical corners or advocate positions they disagree with
  • Must pay very close attention to details
  • Often end up doing jobs they never imagined they would have to take because their grades were disappointing

Naturally, your mileage may vary, but I've never met a practicing lawyer in any country who didn't fit into at least 4 of those categories. I'm proud to say that my little lecture has so far managed to convince dozens of young university students to stop studying law and do something closer to their heart.

(Picture by Chauncey Hare)

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jens

Fully second Till here. What Andrew describes may be the reality in the big international law firms. However most lawyers don't end up in big international law firms. Either because they did not want to or because they didn't have good enough exam grades.

Tens of thousands of German lawyers work in small law practices of one to five lawyers, either as "generalists" or in all kinds of niches. The reality is that even with disappointing grades you can still set up your own law practice, have no superiors and be "your own boss", and with skills and a bit of luck, make a decent living. Of course many of those small practices are not successful, but that is a risk that any small entrepreneur is taking.


Till

I sort of disagree. While some of the bullets you list do describe my work experience in a German office of a magic circle firm, they are in no way true for 80 per cent of the lawyers in Germany. Your average German lawyer works alone or together with five or less other lawyers. Furthermore, while most graduates become attorneys, there are other career choices which definitely avoid the issues you list (such as having a safe, relaxing and boooooooring career in the administration).
You will notice that law school changes your way of thinking to a very analytical, somewhat schematic mindset, though, which can be an uncomfortable experience.
Oh yeah, and anyway - thanks to the no-minimum-wage-in-Germany Fleischfachverkäuferin for financing my law school, it was lovely to start out with a debt free six-figure-income :-)

Michael Cornelia

I have always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, however I think I wanted to become one because it sounded like a good idea. I think a lot of people today go to law school because they don't know what else to do with their life. My personal attorney, Francis S. Hallinan Esquire, informed me that going to law school is only a good idea if you have enough knowledge and understanding of what I am getting myself into. He is an amazing lawyer and I strive to be as good as him. To make a long story short, I chose to hold off on law school and do some research before I jump into it. It was some of the best advice I ever received in my entire life and I owe it all to my attorney.

The comments to this entry are closed.