Should You Go to Law School? A Slightly Weird Technique to Help You Decide

Deep endIf you’re thinking about applying to law school, you’ve probably done some research into the profession, carefully considered the pros and cons of becoming a lawyer, and, hopefully, talked to a few attorneys about how they like the profession.

That’s all useful and good, and I encourage you to continue those modes of analysis.

Here’s a different approach:

Scenario One: The Imaginary Dinner Party

Imagine you’re at a dinner party several years from now, and the person next to you asks: “What do you do?” You reply, “I’m a lawyer.”

Your dinner companion seems interested, and asks you what type of work you do specifically, and how you like it.

What do you tell him?

As you imagine having this conversation, how do you feel? Are you excited to talk about your career, or do you try to extract yourself as soon as possible from this line of questioning?

Scenario Two: There Goes the Weekend

Imagine now that you’re working as a lawyer, and you’ve just left the office to meet friends for drinks after work. It’s been a long week, and you’re looking forward to the weekend, when you can catch up on sleep and spend some quality time with your new puppy.

Your BlackBerry buzzes. It’s your boss, telling you that you’ve been selected to attend a special deposition training workshop next week. It’s a big honor, but it means you have to work on your cases for several hours this weekend.

What’s your reaction?

Are you annoyed at the imposition on your time, or are you excited to learn something that’s going to advance your career?

Scenario Three: You Own This

Finally, imagine that you’re working as a lawyer, and your boss brings you along to a client meeting.

You’re not sure why you’re there exactly, because everyone was too busy to discuss it beforehand, but you do your best to follow along and take notes about whatever’s going on. It becomes apparent that there’s an M&A deal being contemplated, but the details are a little fuzzy.

As you’re walking out of the meeting, your boss turns to you and says, “You seem competent enough to handle this, you own this deal.” In other words, your boss wants you to run the entire thing, working directly with the client.

What’s your reaction?

What is the Point of This Exercise?!?

Your immediate, gut-level reaction to the scenarios above can shed some light on whether the legal profession is your calling.

Scenario One
If you envision yourself happily describing your work as a lawyer in a social setting, that’s a good sign that you’ll ultimately be able to get yourself to that position. If, instead, you see yourself mumbling, “I work for a corporate law firm. It’s fine,” and immediately changing the subject to something more interesting, things may not end so well.

Scenario Two
Similarly, if you feel like you’d be enthusiastic about working all weekend for a chance to improve your deposition skills, law might be a good fit for you. If your reaction was more, “Ugh, really? I have to do extra work?,” proceed with caution. It’s hard to avoid working a lot as a lawyer, particularly when you’re just starting out in the profession. The reality is that your job is likely to intrude on your personal life quite frequently. If this isn’t a trade off you’re willing to make, it’s better to realize this now, rather than after you’ve invested the time and money required to become a lawyer.

Scenario Three
The final scenario is going to happen to you at some point early in your legal career, in one guise or another. It might be “You’re going to take this deposition tomorrow” rather than “You’re going to be in charge of this deal,” but the reality is that you will be thrown into the deep end on a moment’s notice, and it will be sink-or-swim time. If the thought of being in this position fills you with abject terror, and you’re not sure you’d be able to overcome the feeling to take charge of the situation, a different career path might be more suitable for you.

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that you’d prefer a job where you’re not routinely thrown to the wolves. You’re going to feel like you’re way over your head a lot as a lawyer, and for many people, that’s not a pleasant feeling. Certain people thrive on it, and, if you’re one of those people, you may enjoy being a lawyer.

For everyone else, this aspect of being a lawyer is unpleasant, stressful, and ultimately demoralizing.

The Bottom Line

Being a lawyer isn’t for everyone. It requires a certain type of personality, and a willingness to make some pretty serious work/life tradeoffs.

Before you decide to apply to law school, consult your gut. If it’s telling you that law’s not right for you, LISTEN.

Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

How to Craft a Law School Application That Gets You In

If you decide to apply, you may as well make your application great. Find out how to make every component of your law school application the best it can be:

Return to Applying to Law School 101.

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Comments

  1. Seems like you are totally down on law school. Why have a site that tries to help people get in and succeed at lawschool if you did not like it and have abandoned your career as a lawyer? I think your site has lots of good information, just wondering about your motivation.

    • Thanks for the question. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly “down on law school.” (If you want to read someone who’s really down on law school, check out Will’s blog: http://thepeoplestherapist.com/.)

      For certain people, the law is a great fit, and they’re happy doing it. For many, arguably most, people that’s not the case.

      There’s a lot of research on unhappiness in the legal profession, which I encourage people to seek out and read. My goal is to help people figure out if the law really is a good fit for them, and, if so, to make it through law school with their dreams intact, so they can do what they went there to do. (Suffice it to say, this isn’t working in a large firm, in many cases.)

      Personally, I found law school intellectually interesting and liked many aspects of it. I also currently do a decent amount of pro bono work, and have considered starting my own practice, so it’s hardly accurate to say I’ve “abandoned my career as a lawyer.”

      In the end, everyone’s got to make their own decision about whether law school’s right for them. My goal is to help people make informed decisions, and to really weigh the downsides of the legal profession, of which there are many. It’s definitely not for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

  2. A lot of people talk about law as if it’s an especially bad or awful career. I don’t think that’s the case. What I do think is the case is that law has a special knack for attracting people (like me) to it who shouldn’t be in it. Law looks deceptively accessible from the outside. For people who have been getting As in school, have been told they write well, and have mostly seen lawyers on tv, it looks like it should be an easy, perfect fit. But in reality, it’s a technical trade, and in any given technical trade, only a fairly small subsection of the population will enjoy it and be good at it. The legal profession is most rewarding to detail-oriented, hard-driving workaholics, and most liberal arts graduates don’t really fit that bill.

    What’s more, unlike other professions, it doesn’t weed people out on the front end. Pharmacy, for instance, will very quickly intimidate away those who don’t belong in it. You will be weeded out in your first year of undergrad. It’s very easy for the illusion that law will be something you’ll like to persist until you’ve been in the profession several years and have finally admitted to yourself that you hate it. If it were hard to get into the law school the same way it’s hard to get into medical school, law would probably look a lot less unhappy because a larger proportion of the people in the profession would be those who actually belong there.

    • That’s a good point. I was supposed to go to med school (and was actually already admitted as part of a special program where they admit you to undergrad and med school at the same point), but by the second semester of Organic Chemistry, I hit the wall. I hated the class, I hated everyone in it, and I was pretty clear that med school was a bad plan! So I stopped studying and got the worst grade of my life. But at least I didn’t waste another 10+ years on the wrong path…

  3. One technique I think is helpful if you’re trying to decide specifically whether you want to be a transactional attorney at a large law firm:

    Step 1:

    Next time you install any software on a computer, actually sit down and read that license agreement everyone always clicks through. Seriously, try to read it and try as best you can to understand it. Even if you don’t go into the business of drafting software licensing agreements, you can expect anything your big law firm to be doing will be comparably complex.

    Step 2:

    Now, imagine having to make a large number slight, subtle, but important changes to it. Understand that these changes must be done perfectly. Best case scenario, a mistake makes you look bad for your boss. Worst case scenario, a mistake results in your being sued for malpractice and/or gets you fired. Also, be aware a mistake you made six months ago on a contract you thought was finished could come back to bite you if the parties get into a dispute as a result. And given that your law firm will probably have a means of tracking changes to the document, they’ll know it’s you who is responsible. So you’re under a lot of pressure.

    Step 3:

    Also, realize that a change you make in one part of the document will cause a chain reaction that will affect other parts of that document, so you need to be paying very careful attention to every part of the document every time you change anything. For instance, if you change a definition in one part of the contract, you’ll need to make sure that it doesn’t affect the meaning of the word in every other part of the contract in a way you didn’t intend.

    Step 4:

    Now imagine doing this over and over again, all day with really short deadlines (these contracts are for business people who are in a hurry to get their deal done). Then, try this thought experiment again after an especially long tiring day of class, if you’re a student, or work, if you’re employed – that’s what it will feel like to get an assignment like this late in the afternoon that is due the next day when you are very tired. Also, understand that you will need to learn how to do more and more of these, faster and faster as you progress in your career.

    If this sounds like a fascinating intellectual challenge to you, and you find the possibility of winning plaudits for pulling off these difficult feats of legal engineering near-perfectly over and over again just in the nick of time to close that big deal, you may make a great transactional attorney. But if I lost you at Step 1, you probably should think long and hard about whether transactional practice is for you.

    • Alison says:

      This needs to be shared far and wide! The mere thought makes me break out in hives, which probably explains why I had to be a litigator (despite the lousy exit options).

      Thanks for sharing this. Love it!

  4. Under “Step 2″, your sentence “Now, imagine having to make a large number slight…” should read “Now, imagine having to make a large number of slight….” Note the addition of “of” before “slight”.

    You know, when I was thinking about writing this comment, I thought: “This will be really funny! It’ll be situational and light-hearted, and a sort of performance piece of lawyer meta humor!” But now that I’ve actually typed it, I just feel kind of dirty.

    • Thanks, Tyler. I feel both amused and horrified by this, simultaneously.

      • No worries! I shared the heck out of the original comment. Great stuff, EJ.

        • Thanks! I’m surprised at how few people actually tell prospective transactional attorneys what their jobs will actually have them doing all day. A lot of people seem to “double-sleepwalk” into transactional practice. They go to law school because they don’t know what else to do, and then they go into corporate practice because they still don’t know what to do, but know they don’t like the idea of litigating. Needless to say, the results of this are not great.

          One other thing I would say about transactional practice – it’s not a great choice for someone who went to law school because they enjoy “writing”. As a transactional attorney, you don’t do much “writing”, you do “drafting”. The two skills bear a superficial resemblance to each other, but in reality, drafting is much more like engineering with words than it is like writing. A writer tries to express ideas elegantly and intelligently. A drafter is trying to put words together in such a way so that they will unambiguously lead to a certain outcome – there’s really less of an emphasis on informing, entertaining or persuading. English classes from school and college don’t really prepare you to be a drafter.

          Litigators, who have to write briefs to persuade judges, seem to use skills that closely resemble what most people consider “writing” more.

          I also don’t want to give the impression that a transactional career doesn’t have an upside. Having tried it myself, I can see why transactional attorneys crack open the champagne after completing a huge deal. It’s a well-deserved reward for hard work.

  5. all of those scenarios have happen to me in my professional work life over 10 years, so I don’t think it is exclusive to lawyers, its just what happens when you want/have a career, also sometimes your reaction to those scenarios just depends on what kinda of week/month you’ve been having, sometimes I can’t stop telling people about my work, other times I want to change the subject…anyway i just discovered your site and I am considering law school so I’ll be reading, thanks!

    • That’s a fair point, although I definitely found there was a different expectation regarding 24/7 availability for lawyers versus other jobs I’d had. Or as a doctor friend put it, “At least they leave me alone when I’m not on call or at the hospital.” Very different expectations as a lawyer!

  6. Finishing 3L says:

    Is there any chance that you might do an article or commentary on parents that force their kids to go to professional schools, in particular law school? I wish there was a writing out there, other than my own personal thinking, that I could point to, that would inform my parents of how misguided they are. I feel like I have wasted so much of my time in this study, while oddly learning “helpful” things.

    Parents should know that a career in law is more than bragging rights and glamour. They should know the potential hardship they could be imposing on their kids.

    • This is a great point. I feel like I wrote something on this topic, but I’ll have to look for it! I see many students who are basically living the dream for their parents, not for them. And it turns into a bit of a nightmare!

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