Law School Myth #5: Getting a Law Degree Opens Lots of Doors

Closed door“A law degree is really flexible! It opens lots of doors.” Do not believe this statement. Hearing it makes me want to scream.

While it’s true that huge numbers of lawyers simply quit the profession entirely, it DOES NOT FOLLOW that the reason they’re no longer lawyers is because their law degree opened lots of other doors.

The reason they quit being lawyers is because working as a lawyer can be pretty miserable, and they decided to cut their losses and move on. Cause, meet effect.

Benefits of a Law Degree if You Stop Being a Lawyer

In the interest of fairness, however, let’s try to figure out what good a law degree does you, if you don’t end up practicing.

What benefits can a law degree offer you?

Credibility

First, it can give you credibility (personally, I think this is particularly true for women).

Having graduated from law school and passed the bar exam signals several things:

  • you’re reasonably intelligent
  • you have a decent work ethic
  • you’re capable of sticking with a task until it’s completed

These are generally traits that businesses are looking for when they hire new employees.

You Might Learn Something

Second, you might actually learn something.

There are many problems with the legal education process, but, at its best, it can encourage students to see all sides of an issue, make logical arguments, evaluate factual evidence, and parse large amounts of information to extract key principles. These are skills that can be applied outside of the legal profession.

You Might Meet Useful People

Third, you might meet some useful people.

If you’re going to raise funding for your dream business, it’s helpful to know people with money to burn (or people who know those people). Likewise, when you start looking for a new job, it’s useful to have some high-powered, driven friends to call. Some of those people might be your law school classmates.

The Downside of Having a Law Degree and Applying for Non-Law Jobs

There’s a flip side to all of these benefits, however.

You Wasted How Much Time and Money on This?

Maybe getting a law degree signals that you’re smart and hard working, but applying for a job that doesn’t require a law degree begs the question:

Why did you bother going to law school at all? Are you really so clueless about what you want to do with your life that you’d waste three years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars getting an education you’re not even planning to use?

This may sound harsh, but it’s what every interviewer will be thinking.

Why Would I Trust You Now?

Many will also question your commitment to your current course of action. What’s to say you won’t decide the job you’re interviewing for isn’t right either, and leave after a few months? You can overcome these objections, but they are valid. Why go to law school, if you don’t want to be a lawyer?

“Thinking Like a Lawyer” is a Real Downer

Similarly, there’s a downside to being trained to “think as a lawyer.”

Whereas business people tend to see the upside potential of an idea (yes, this will be the next big thing!), lawyers are trained to see the hole in the argument, the flaw in the logic. This can be paralyzing, and extremely annoying. Sure, there’s a 0.0001% chance that this new idea has the potential to destroy the world, but everyone else wants to be excited about it. When you’re the wet blanket, that’s no fun. And it means nothing gets done.

Consequently, people may be leery of hiring an ex-lawyer for their (hopefully) productive enterprise.

Your Classmates Probably Won’t Help You

Finally, if you find yourself in the ex-lawyer camp, there’s a decent chance you couldn’t stand most of your law school classmates to begin with, making it unlikely they’re going to help you out when you come calling (assuming you even have anyone’s number).

Furthermore, once you stand up and say “this just isn’t really for me, I’m getting out,” you have to expect some degree of ostracization. A lot of people would like to get out of the legal profession, but they feel trapped. When you decide to leave, there may be some resentment.

The Bottom Line

Are there benefits to having gotten a law degree if you don’t end up practicing? Yes, probably. Are those benefits so great that you should go to law school if you don’t think you want to be a lawyer? I don’t think so, particularly if you’re paying to go.

Weigh the pros and cons for yourself, but, please, I beg you, don’t say that a law degree “opens lots of doors” in my presence! Thanks.

Read On:

More myths about law school, coming right up!

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Image by Michal Zacharzewski, SXC via stock.xchng.

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Comments

  1. Your friends also won’t help you because they can’t. Your friend who’s a first year at BigLaw Firm might be able to get you BigLaw Gossip but he can’t get you a BigLaw Job.

    Same goes for MidLaw and SmallLaw. The FNG who’s just praying he gets to keep his own job isn’t in the position to make hiring recommendations.

    • I think that’s true, to an extent. But now, what, five years after graduation, I know a number of people that I could reach out to for work if I wanted to. Most of them aren’t in law firms, but they’ve moved on to other positions, where they do have some degree of hiring power. Or they’re solos looking for help, etc.

      But yeah, a first year isn’t going to be able to get you a job! Although, that being said, I did on occasion pull strings to get people hired even when I was pretty junior, so it’s not totally out of the question.

      • This gets at something I’ve written quite a bit about, the benefits of having a JD v. the benefits of having a JD + something else. In this case it’s the benefits of a JD + friends with years of experience and some degree of seniority. Not everyone with a law degree has a close relationship with friends who can help them out.

        All too often there are opportunities that arise due to a number of factors, such as your personal connections, and your on the job experience. The JD may help, and may even be crucial to certain opportunities, but it’s misleading when this is branded as an opportunity brought to you by your JD in the same way to say it’s wrong you filled up on chicken when really what you ate was a chicken caesar salad.

        • Nice analogy! I think we basically agree on this. Maybe you meet some useful people doing your JD (but, as I noted earlier, if you want to get out of the profession, odds are you didn’t like your classmates much anyway and the feeling was probably mutual), but you might also meet some useful people working a side job at Starbucks, or playing on a kickball team. Or at a bar. Who knows? Useful people are everywhere, and you probably don’t need to spend $200K on law school to meet some!

  2. Loyola Law 1992 grad says:

    Great website! I just took a quick look at myth #5, and have to say it is one of the most pernicious myths out there.

    When I was in law school in 1989-1992, the CA real estate market bubble popped and legal hiring took a nose dive when the entire economy went under. Sound familiar? I found a terrible law-related job in just a couple months after graduating, but then spent my nights and weekends looking for something else. And by this, I mean I spent YEARS looking for something else.

    I can confirm that law school doesn’t open any doors that aren’t already open for some other reason. Can you get a job writing screenplays with a JD? Yes. But really now – you could definitely get that same job without a JD. No one who really knows what a lawyer does would hire them for their creative writing skills. If you’re wondering why I mention screen plays, it is because I read about it in a book “101 things you can do with a law degree” or somesuch. The book was filled with exciting options that did not, in my humble opinion, really exist. Do people get hired to write screen plays? Yes, but having a JD is at best, a neutral, not something that jumps off the page and gets you hired. And good luck finding that screen play job in the first place when you are living life inside the legal industry and not the industry you want to enter.

    In hindsight, I should have done all the soul-searching about what I wanted to do with my life before I went to law school, but it was just too easy to choose law school and consider the matter settled. I didn’t know that I would still have to do all the hard work about choosing a life path, with the added detour of law school and the confusion it brings about who you really are.

    Thank God I was able to pay off my student loans; I really feel bad for all the 2008-2011 graduates that paid so much more for the same degree and found an even worse hiring market.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I think this is so important: “In hindsight, I should have done all the soul-searching about what I wanted to do with my life before I went to law school, but it was just too easy to choose law school and consider the matter settled.” So true! It’s not as if going to law school gets you out of doing the hard working of figuring out your personality and life goals, even if it seems like it’s a shortcut to becoming a grown up!

      • What you are saying is so true, and soul-searching pre-law school would have been great but hardly anyone does this! However, I do think that a law degree does help you in many ways. I have an amazing alternative legal career that I wouldn’t have gotten without my law degree. I also learned so much by getting through law school and practicing at a crazy firm in NYC. I started consulting for all of these reasons. Law Students and pre-law students should speak with someone who has been there to weigh all the pros/cons!!

        • Hey Lainee,

          I am struggling with the problem of going to law school or not. Do you think you can help me out by answering a few questions??

  3. TazzLaw01 says:

    This is a great, great, website. I graduated from law school 11 years ago. I have taken the bar 6 times and I have not given up yet. However, you are ABSOLUTELY correct, a JD opens NO doors. In the time since I have graduated law school there have been times that I could not even get a job as a paralegal or even a legal secretary. Most often, people look at you as a risk. “As soon as you pass the bar you will leave.” Or they simply don’t want to take the risk that you are actually intelligent. I went to law school knowing I wanted to practice law, but never in a million years did I think I would not be able to practice immediately after graduating law school.

    Thanks for this website; I will put it on my list of favorites.

    • Alison says:

      Thanks for the note! It does seem like you’re in a tough spot once you’ve graduated, but not passed the bar, because you don’t fit into any of the “slots” that employers have. And, in fairness, once you do pass the bar, there is a high likelihood you’d probably want to move into a more lawyerly role, given the opportunity.

      Best of luck on passing the bar (and on finding something suitable to do in the meantime)!

      If you haven’t seen this post, it might be worth checking out: http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com/11/i-failed-the-bar-exam-now-what/.

  4. Reginald says:

    I think a better (more accurate) refinement of this myth would be that practicing law may lead to other career possibilities. I have seen a lot of transitions from the legal to the business side of the equation that have occurred as a direct result of experience and connections (clients) in a particular practice area.

    Great blog!

    • I think that’s a great way of looking at it. Absolutely having a law degree (and experience as a lawyer) can lead to other opportunities, but it’s hard to predict in advance what these might be!

  5. Another great entry.

    FWIW, I think that a law degree might actually close doors. People hate lawyers. And generally they don’t want one around, even one that left the law.

    Or perhaps particularly one who left the law.

    And when you are a lawyer, that is your occupational identity. Friends, relatives, acquaintances, even the friends of your children identify you that way. Nothing you do can change it. People hire lawyers to be lawyers. If you are interviewing to do something else, they’ll tend to think that: 1) you shouldn’t be hired as you won’t stay; 2) the job is beneath you so they won’t hire you; 3) they shouldn’t hire you as you are as rich as Donald Trump; 3) they shouldn’t hire you as, if you really want the job, there’s some bizarre reason why.

  6. Although I agree that a law degree isn’t itself sufficient to open any doors for you outside of the legal profession, I would add that there are a variety of factors that will determine the extent to which you will be able to successfully leverage your legal education in order to transition into alternative professions including, but not limited to the following:

    The Overall strength of the University’s Alumni Network – I hate to sound like a snob here, but having graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and successfully transitioned directly out of law school into business, I can say that having graduated from UChicago Law has gotten my foot in many doors. After graduation, I started an inbound marketing & consulting business. The fact that I graduated from UChicago has helped me land several clients. One client had a daughter who went to UChicago for undergrad. Another client got her MBA from the business school. Another client is currently working on his MBA. Three of my first five clients had connections to the University, which almost certainly played a significant role in their decision to retain my services.

    pre-law work experience – I had several years of work experience prior to law school, which prepared me to continue a career path in business after graduating law school. There is no way that I would be in my current position if I had no relevant real-world experience and just went straight from undergrad into law school. However, if you do have other marketable experience AND you can tell a good story about why you decided to go to law school and why you’ve made the decision not to practice law, I think that you can easily spin your law school education into an asset. If you have experience in another field, you can almost certainly articulate a number of reasons why a high quality legal education will be helpful in your chosen career outside of law. Furthermore, if you figured out 1L year on that you didn’t want to practice law, but you stuck through the next few years anyway, it is easy to talk about how you’ve never given up at anything and how dropping out was never an option, which makes it much more difficult for people question your ability to finish through on your commitments as the article suggests.

  7. Jon SMith says:

    I am currently in graduate school and one of my classmates is a former lawyer. I asked him about the legal field and whether it was a good idea for me to go to law school. Want to know what he said? It’s a miserable field and I am better off finishing grad school and get my master’s degree. I am so happy that I did my research and asked a former lawyer how the realities on how the legal field is. He saved me from making a 6 figure mistake. I wish more people who are considering going to law school to do their research and ask lawyers about how the legal field is.

  8. Mark Carlisle says:

    Hey Joshua,

    Which Law School did you graduate from? just remind us another 5 times lol.

    No seriously well done. Anyway if graduating from this school opened so many doors as you infer, why did you need to open so many doors, if this Law School is so good? Surely one big door would be good. You would need this for your head, I am kidding my friend you are obviously very intelligent.

    Guys get in to IT Law, its new, its more challenging and you can help shape it. Some of the crimes are not even registered as crimes yet.(So are they Crimes YOU DECIDE) You can make a difference here.

    Buying selling property Yawn, its all been done, Divorce Yawn, Criminal Law Yawn, IT Law, Awesome, new, rule changing, get involved. Or for some Yawn.

    Good luck with all your careers especially if you went to UCHICAGO. I know Harvard and Columbia sorry UChicagy your not featuring globally yet.

    Mark Senior IT Law Partner

  9. I know this is an old thread, but I wanted to comment anyway…

    I have law degrees from the UK (LLB and LLM) and can’t get a job in my field (HR) even though my legal background would be a good asset (I also have knowledge and experience in employment law over here). I cannot even get a phone call for an employee relations job, which makes me think employers don’t know what to make of me and have all kinds of misconceptions about me. Sometimes, a law degree can be a curse – especially if you haven’t actually passed the bar and qualified as a lawyer.

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