Should You Go to Law School? What’s Your Motivation?

ChoicesThinking about law school? Let’s talk about your motivations.

Which of the following statements resonate for you?
  1. If I go to a good law school, my parents will be happy
  2. If I go to a good law school, my friends will be impressed
  3. If I go to a good law school, I’ll make lots of money
  4. If I go to a good law school, I’ll get an impressive job
  5. If I go to a good law school, I’ll learn lots of interesting things
  6. If I go to a good law school, I’ll meet people who share my interests
  7. If I go to a good law school, I’ll be in a position to help other people
  8. If I go to a good law school, I’ll be able to advance causes I believe in
  9. If I go a good law school, I’ll be happy

Eh? What does this have to do with anything?

Motivation Matters

Studies consistently show that certain types of motivation are more likely to lead to happiness and contentment than other types of motivations.

Specifically:

  • “external” motivators (money, prestige, power, admiration) are inversely correlated with happiness
  • “intrinsic” motivators (personal growth, close relationships, helping others) are positively correlated with happiness

What does this have to do with deciding to go to law school (or choosing a school)?

It suggests that you’d be well served to be careful about choosing a school primarily because it’s highly ranked and impressive to other people. A better path might be to select a school that will support and encourage your personal goals, even if it’s not the most prestigious school you can get into.

Are Your Motivations Intrinsic or Extrinsic?

As for the statements above, if the first four sum up why you’re applying to law school, be wary. These are classic external motivations, which are unlikely to lead to happiness in the long run.

If you’re applying to law school because other people want you to, or because you want to make a lot of money or be “successful,” be careful. It’s unlikely you’re going to be happy with your life at the end of the process.

If the next four resonate for you, however, try and hold onto these as you move forward.

They’re intrinsic motivations, which are valuable for finding contentment, but are easy to lose track of once classes begin.

As for happiness? Who can say? There are lots of miserable lawyers in the world, but it remains a noble calling. If you play your cards right, you could end up being one of the lucky ones.

Read on:

Still undecided? Check out these additional strategies.

Or return to Applying to Law School 101.

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Comments

  1. Hi! Great site – just found you through twitter. I actually just wrote a book on this very topic called, “The Law School Decision Game: A Playbook for Prospective Lawyers.” If you contact me by email, I’d be happy to send you a review copy. Also, if I can ever be one of your “helpful people” I’d be happy to make myself available for an interview.

    • Angela Neil says:

      I am very interested in law school and now is the time to decide if I should study, pay for, take the LSAT and apply to schools. I desperately need help exploring these decisions and it would be great to receive some guided advice. Email me any time 🙂

  2. Oh, I’d love to see it! I’ll email you.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I love your site. I discovered it via the NPR story on law schools misleading prospective students about job prospects. I generally discourage people from attending law school, but have started, in recent years, asking why they want to go and what they hope to do. The only issue I have with your site is that, due to your personal experience, you write from a perspective that is not particularly representative of most law school grads. Most lawyers will never work in a big firm, or even have that opportunity. In fact, today, more and more grads are (gasp) hanging out their own shingles right out of school. This horrifies me, but I understand that they have no choice, as jobs are non-existant, and they have huge loans to repay. For an average student, from a law school not in the top 10-15 in the country, jobs are very scarce (they always have been, but are even more so now that there is a glut of lawyers in this country). I know quite a few lawyers with 25 years experience who have been unemployed for the last year or two. No fresh law school grad is going to get a job that senior person wants (and believe me–that senior attorney WILL take the 45k starting salary with minimal benefits). I also think it’s terrible advice to suggest that a person will get to practice in a particular area. Even when I graduated 25 years ago, you worked in whatever area you could get a job in. I don’t think I know 10 lawyers that chose the area in which they practice (and they were the few I know who were, like you, on Law Review or from top 10 schools).
    Keep up the good work–I will be sure to refer people (of both genders) to check it out.

    • Thanks for writing. You definitely make some good points.

      Certainly I don’t think it’s feasible to demand the perfect job right out of law school, and I hope that’s not what it seems like I’m suggesting! However, I do think it’s feasible for someone to have a vision of what they want to be doing, eventually, and work towards making that a reality (vs. just taking whatever job comes along, because it happens to show up when they’re looking).

      At the same time, however, you’ve got to be realistic. If your only goal is to be a partner at Wachtell, and the only school you can get into is a lower-ranked local place outside of NYC, well, it’s time for a reality check. If your goal is to eventually be a partner somewhere, and you’re fine with a small or mid-sized firm, you can probably make that happen. Wachtell, not so much. They wouldn’t even hire me!

      • I guess a lot depends upon how long you can afford to wait for a job. Like most of my Emory classmates, I had an idea or two about the area of law in which I would like to work. None of us ended up remotely close to those areas. We work in the areas in which someone wanted to hire us. Now, I think that most of us have made the best of it, but I always feel that I need to give a reality check to any law student (who is not Law Review or anywhere in the class of a top 1- school) when they say “I plan to be a xyz lawyer.” Yeah, good luck with that. On the other hand, I think it may still be possible to do what many of us did when I graduated in the mid-eighties, and that is to have one or two areas that you simply will not entertain. For me, it was torts–either side of the equation. And, in spite of the fact that 2/3 of the firms interviewing my graduating class were some form of insurance defense, I managed to avoid tort law (except for my clerkship, which I don’t think counts, since that included all areas of law). To this day, I detest tort law, and would work at Starbucks before I’d work in an insurance defense firm (or, horrors, as a personal injury lawyer)!

        • So much depends, too, on the economy you graduate into. With legal hiring the way it is now, I’d be very wary of starting law school without doing a ton of research about what I was getting into (particularly if paying for it involves loans). Forewarned is forearmed!

  4. So, so true, which is one of the reasons I like your site. I think your links and writing help potential law students get the reality check they need. Unfortunately, most who qualify for law school are used to being in the top of their classes, and have trouble believing they won’t be the exception to all they read about law school grads. I’d just point out to them that EVERYONE getting into good law schools was in the top of their class! It’s a whole new bell-curve, friends. Someone has to be in the middle and at the bottom of the class, and you can be sure it’s their first time there.

  5. Recently i watched a movie regarding a law student studying in harvard university .. well that movie motivated me to study law .. Before the movie I had shown no sign of interest in law . But after watching the movie , i had the feeling to stand on the court and speak for the others .. and due to the fact that i am a ‘dead thinker’ with no creativity at all . I prefer problem solving stuff using different application learnt just like solving the case according to the different law .. would i suit the job? And currently i had zero knowledge about law . And i would like to ask for some advice on how should i start .. what basic knowledge should i have in order to understand all the law..

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