Chaucer it Ain't
You Always Kill Yourself too Late

Don't Go to Law School

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)