Today we have a very special guest, Bruce MacEwen, president of JD Match and Adam Smith, Esq. He’s at the leading edge of innovation in the legal profession, and routinely writes and speaks about the serious issues lawyers face in the current economy.
To say he’s got opinions about the value of law school is an understatement! Without further ado, here’s Bruce.
I’m an undergrad who’s trying to decide whether to go to law school. I hear a lot about how the profession is in trouble (including from articles like this one). What should I consider before deciding to apply to law school?
Do you really want to be a lawyer?
- Which requires you to know: Do you really know what it means to be a lawyer?
- Which requires you to know: Do you really know what lawyers do all day?
True story: Here’s what lawyers do.
You start out in an utterly typical firm and get to do the least challenging, most mindnumbing tasks — all of which have to be done right this minute — and inevitably find yourself in the office on a Saturday morning, in the specific case of our hero lugging back to his office stacks of books and files up to his chin. Senior partner, also there, takes one look and asks, “Busy?” Our dumbfounded hero doesn’t respond immediately, so senior partner follows up with, “Well, get used to it, because you’ll be doing this for the next 40 years.”
Do not go to law school because:
- (a) you don’t have any better ideas
- (b) your mother/girlfriend/boyfriend is urging you to “do something with your life”
- (c) you’ve heard you can do a lot of things with a JD that don’t involve practicing law
Recognize that the vast majority of JD’s who aren’t practicing law aren’t practicing because they tried it and failed abominably or couldn’t stand it another minute, or a combination of those two.
But they devoted three prime years of their lives and something like a third of a million dollars in tuition and opportunity costs on a worthless detour.
One last thing about the “versatility of a JD,” a notion promoted most heavily by deans of third tier law schools desperately trying to pump up applications in the face of a market turning its back on them: As far as many people, certainly the majority of senior businesspeople, are concerned, they do not like lawyers.
Consider taking that “versatile” JD off your resume and explain the gap by saying you were pursuing cold fusion but it didn’t work out.
If you’re a representative 0L, you’ve drunk the Special Snowflake hallucinogen and you just know that none of this applies to you. You will:
- Get into a Tier 1 school, and
- Graduate in the top (say) 20% of your class
Now, the combined enrollment of the Tier 1 schools (the top 14) is about 4,500/class, and there are 44,000 law students in that class nationwide. So you’ll have to be in the top 10% to begin with. For 90% of you, it’s not happening.
Suppose you forge ahead and get an admission offer from a Tier 1 school.
Now 80% of you are still screwed.
This is not being judgmental, it’s doing first-grade math. So roughly 98% of all law students are not, in fact, Special Snowflakes.
I’m a 2L who struck out at OCI. My grades are pretty good, as is my school, but they weren’t good enough to get a summer associate offer. What are the three most important things to do now, to try to find a good summer position?
First, you seriously need to consider cutting your losses.
The market just told you something. Don’t try to outvote the market.
If you obstinately refuse to hear the message firms are delivering, you may be a victim of the fallacy of sunk costs. This is the deeply mistaken belief the majority of people hold that past losses should be taken into account in determining what you do in the future.
B-S-. Past losses are just that: Past. You cannot recover them. Period, full stop. Even worse, you cannot improve your situation by “doubling down” on what you did that incurred the losses to begin with. If you don’t believe me, ask Bernie Madoff how he dug as deep a hole as he did. And ask how that turned out for him.
If you absolutely positively cannot accept that, (a) see Special Snowflake Syndrome, above; (b) be prepared to be obsequious with anyone and everyone you know including your third cousin twice removed who might just possibly know someone who’s actually a practicing lawyer making a living at it.
We won’t insult you with the obvious ones you know about (don’t you know about these?) including: Research the hell out of firms you’re meeting; tailor your resume; and rehearse until you’re purple in the face your elevator pitch answers to the predictable questions. Rule of thumb: Rehearse one hour for each minute you’ll be in the interview. No kidding. The future you stand to lose is your own.
So here are the three things:
Could you talk a bit about what you do in an average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?
I wish there were such a thing as an average day. Actually, I take that back: I’m glad there is no such thing.
Here are some of the things I often find myself doing:
- Adding to, deleting from, and reprioritizing my to-do list. This better take less than five minutes per day but it can change everything else.
- Deciding what’s urgent and what’s important and trying to strike the right balance (see above)
- Going back at day’s end to see what’s next
- Talking to clients and prospective clients
- Emailing clients and prospective clients
- Meeting clients and prospective clients
- Actually working for clients, which usually involves talking with people, doing exhaustive research, and writing
- Note: Writing in Word and writing in PowerPoint — and both are indispensable — are two utterly different skills. Do not under pain of gobbledygook confuse one with the other.
- Reading absolutely everything I need to and should
- Traveling (over 50,000 United Skymiles in one peak year)
- Rebooting the network
- Fixing printer jams
- Questioning the fundamental premises of my two companies’ business models at an existential level
- Wrestling with the dark gods of pricing
- Keeping the internal virtual team aligned with the right priorities, at a high energy level, and at peace (the team is arrayed from New York to Chicago to Berkeley, St. Louis, Seattle, Dayton, Long Island, and India)
- Trying to figure out what mutually advantageous arrangements we can strike with potential business partners, and how to extend and deepen them from there
- Dreaming up ideas for columns on Adam Smith, Esq. (not hard)
- Figuring out what I think about those ideas (hard)
- Writing the column (not hard until you realize you actually have no idea what you really think because you can’t express it coherently)
- Return to prior step
Here are some of the things I never do during an average day:
- Think it makes any difference whatsoever what time of day it is or whether it’s the week or the weekend
- Do any of the following to escape the keyboard and screen:
- Wonder about what’s for dinner
- Play solitaire, cruise eBay, ESPN.com, or anything not strictly related to business
- Regret starting Adam Smith, Esq. or JD Match
Which brings me to whether this remotely resembles what I thought I’d be doing when I started law school.
Now, you have to understand that I always believed — make that stronger, assumed — I would end up in business, if not running one. The enormous difference between being in business and owning one (in my case two) is that when you own one nobody’s paying you a salary — or anything else. This focuses the mind.
But I’m definitely an outlier for someone with a JD. I’m optimistic, insatiably curious, and anything but risk-averse. Good traits for a business person, probably not so hot, or certainly not so typical, for a lawyer.
Does that mean my legal education failed at the sine qua non of what law school is supposed to instill in you, “thinking like a lawyer”?
I don’t think it failed. I think I was incorrigible.
We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
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Thanks, Bruce! I couldn’t agree more with your frustration over the “versatile JD.” It’s not!
Bruce MacEwen is president of JD Match and president of Adam Smith, Esq. He’s a Princeton grad (magna in econ) and earned his JD at Stanford. He practiced at two NY white shoe law firms and in-house at Morgan Stanley, before he decided he’d had enough.
Think this is spot on or totally off base? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Still thinking about applying to law school? Here’s some required reading:
- Law School Myth #1: Lawyers Make a Lot of Money
- Law School Myth #2: Student Loan Debt is “Good Debt”
- Law School Myth #3: Law School Gives You Three More Years to Decide What to Do With Your Life
- Law School Myth #4: Life as a Lawyer is Exciting and Intellectually Challenging
- Law School Myth #5: Getting a Law Degree Opens Lots of Doors
- Law School Myth #6: You Can Trust a Law School’s Employment Numbers
Seriously, read these before you apply.
And if you think you’re getting a BigLaw job, also read the Growth is Dead series from Adam Smith, Esq. For serious.