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Academics, Life, Spotlight

Should you go to law school? Read this before you decide.

harvard law

This is an unusual article for this blog, and addresses a particular audience. If you found this page through an Internet search, chances are pretty good that you’re somewhere in your 20s, you’re a recent college graduate (or soon to be), and you’ve had some success in your academic career thus far. Now you’re thinking about law school, but most likely at least one of the search terms that brought you here is some word that expresses doubt or questioning. That’s good. This article is for you.

If you have no doubt at all–if you’ve dreamed about being a lawyer for much of your life, and if you’re certain it’s your calling–this article probably won’t help you much. You should definitely go to law school. God be with you. You’ll probably make a terrific lawyer.

Now, for everybody else. First, my own background. At age 23, with a bachelor’s degree in history and a pretty high GPA, I decided to go to law school. I got into a very highly-ranked (and very expensive) school. Three years later I took the bar and went to work at a large business law firm. I practiced law for 12 years, then got out and decided to be a historian, teacher and writer, which is what I’m doing now. Although I never want to go back to practicing law–which clearly was not for me–I don’t regret going to law school, and in many ways it made possible what I’m doing with my life now, which has made me much happier.

But do understand this: I was misled as to what law school really was, where it led and why I should (or should not) have gone. It’s those misconceptions that no one tells you about–not the glossy brochures you probably ordered, not the glib introduction to the LSAT prep book you bought, and not the lawyer friend of  your dad who might have suggested you go.

The number one thing to remember is this: law school is not the next step of a liberal arts education. It’s vocational training for lawyers.

learned hand in law school

Harvard Law School, class of 1893.

Reasons why you should think twice about going to law school.

1. You can’t think of anything else to do. This was why I went. My real love was history, but I didn’t feel like going to graduate school for it, and at that point in my life (age 23) I didn’t want to teach. I have no aptitude for science or medicine or anything like that. I was your standard issue liberal arts guy. I thought, law school would be a good “gateway” to many other careers, and it would be a great way to expand my mind and my education.

The problem is that this hasn’t been true since the 19th century. Yes, upwardly mobile families sent their sons–they were almost always men–to law schools even if they had no intention of being lawyers, but that was because institutional education was in its infancy, really until the mid-20th century. It’s simply not true now. Law school is a “gateway” almost exclusively to one career: being a lawyer. It doesn’t really help you launch into some other, different career. It doesn’t hurt you–that’s a different issue–but it doesn’t help you.

2. You want a career with guaranteed financial security. This sounds like a reason to go, not a reason not to go. But I’ve learned through my life that doing anything solely for money, without any other personal reward at stake, is often more trouble than it’s worth. This is especially true of a career as a lawyer, which will always–always–demand more from you than you feel comfortable giving it.

The up side is that most practicing lawyers will have financial security–eventually. Working at a law firm, which is what the vast majority of law school graduates will do, provides good pay, in most cases, and it will probably be enough to shoulder the burden of staggering debt that you’ll get out of law school with. If you’re doing it just for money, the first five years will be tolerable. Years six to ten you’ll start having doubts. Years ten to fifteen you’ll be looking for a way out. Years fifteen to twenty will be trying desperately to execute the “out” that you thought of ten years ago. If you’re lucky, resourceful and courageous, you’ll get out. If not, you’ll be stuck. Think about it.

3. You want to right wrongs or fight injustice. This is among the most tragic misconceptions of people who go to law school. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but lawyers don’t do this anymore. They represent oil companies and real estate trusts. They litigate boring tax cases and file patents for pharmaceuticals. They churn corporate purchase agreements and draft statements in stock portfolios. I know one lawyer who does nothing but draft bylaws for condominium homeowners’ associations. If it’s justice you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.

The lawyers who represent poor people at legal aid clinics almost always have day jobs in the non-fighting-injustice business and volunteer pro bono. Very few do it for a living. Yes, there are lawyers who become public defenders. But fighting injustice is not what they do most of the time either–99% of criminal defendants are guilty as sin, and although standing up for the rights of the accused is a bedrock of our system, it comes at a tremendous personal and moral cost. Criminal defense attorneys and family lawyers are among the most unhappy people in the legal profession. They see a heartbreaking, tragic story every day, often several a day. I don’t doubt that these people, who are good people, can tell you that negotiating a plea bargain for a confessed child molester in a 30-second phone call to the D.A. counts as “fighting injustice,” but you’d better be absolutely sure you are one of these people before you sign up for this. Please–again, think about it.

4. You want to please your parents. Dad was editor of the Law Review back in 1983; Mom plays tennis with the dean of the law school. Congratulations. Your family is wealthy and well-connected. Go do something with your life that you want to do. Your parents will forgive you. Trust me. They will. What choice have they got? The momentary relief you’ll get from your parents’ satisfaction at hearing you tell them you’re going to law school will be just that–momentary. You’re signing up for three years of expensive school, and who knows how many years of practicing law after that. Is it worth it? You decide.

What law school is really like.

1. It’s totally different than college. This will surprise you. It’s not even close. The reading is voluminous, dense and cryptic. And you must do all of it. Every day. No slacking. Not even a little. Law school professors have it in their heads that humiliating, brutalizing and terrifying you will make you a better lawyer. They’re probably right, but understand that this is what they do. This clip from the old movie The Paper Chase is 100% accurate. This is what it’s really like. It’s not a thing of the past.

2. It’s petty, childish and infantile. Your classmates in law school are good people. They’re smart, like you; they’re decent; they want to do the right thing. But once in law school they will go completely berserk, and so will you. They’ll backstab and betray you. They’ll gossip and hold petty grudges. They’ll constantly be passive-aggressive. The worst ones may try to actively sabotage you in order to get a better grade than you. And if you start dating another law student, forget it. Your life will be a soap opera whether you like it or not. Socially, law school is about on the level of middle school, 6th or 7th grade. You think I’m joking. I’m not. It’s like that.

kids clowning

Meet the Law Review senior staff. No, really.

3. You’ll sacrifice most of your life for it. It’s not correct to say that you’ll have no social life, but what life you do have will be pretty pathetic, and will consist mostly of going to bars with other law students and drinking heavily. That’s all you’ll have time for. In order to do well, a 12- to 14-hour day of class and studying is pretty mandatory. Add sleep (which you won’t get much of) and there’s not much left over. If you’re already married before starting law school, and especially if you have kids, take this into consideration. You’re asking your family to make a tremendous sacrifice. Make sure they understand and support you. There’s just no way around it.

4. You will suffer from anxiety–especially job-related anxiety. In law schools a sort of mass hysteria takes hold: the fear of not getting a job, or of getting a bad job, when you graduate. Urban legends will circulate in your class about X% of last year’s graduating class who “didn’t get a job,” and examples will be trotted out of this graduate or that graduate who is now working at McDonald’s. The good news is that these stories are almost always completely false; the bad news is that that won’t make any difference, because every single one of them will terrify you to the deepest core of your being anyway. Nothing you can imagine in your life will prepare you for the depth and totality of this anxiety. Law students love to terrify each other, and themselves, with tales of “how tough the job market is,” and there’s no way around it; this fear will gnaw away at you every single day you’re in law school. This fear has the unfortunate effect of driving you, as you approach graduation, toward jobs you don’t really want–like those big corporate law firm jobs that have nothing to do with “fighting injustice.”

The up side.

This article may seem relentlessly negative. It isn’t meant to be, but as I said, these are truths few others will ever tell you, and you need to know what you’re getting into.

I must tell you, though, that if you wind up in law school for the wrong reasons, or you do it and hate it, it is not a life-destroyer. In fact it could be, and often is, a life-enhancer, but the benefits often are evident only if you take the long view. I do know some happy, well-adjusted lawyers who are successful and content with their lives. It does happen. I also know some ex-lawyers who got out of the business for one reason or another, and are now in another career where they’re fabulously happy. They tend to be running their own businesses, working for non-profits, teaching, that sort of thing, and in most cases their legal careers helped them get where they are now. So that does happen too–a lot.

The key thing is, though, that no one ever plans this sort of result. Life has a way of changing your situation, and your plans, very suddenly and completely. Life hands you certain cards and you must play poker with them to the best of your ability. Law school can be one of those cards that gives you a winning hand–there is absolutely no doubt about that–but you can never plan what your winning hand is going to be. This is especially true if you’re 22 or 23. You simply have no idea how your life is going to turn out. I can guarantee you that whatever you think, right now, that it’s going to be, it will not be that; life is notoriously averse to being planned ahead.

One last bit of advice: take some time to think.

This goes especially for the 22- or 23-year-olds who are just coming out of college. Don’t go “straight through”–starting law school in the fall after graduating from college in the spring. You’ll burn out very fast. Instead, take a year off, or better yet, two years. Work. Travel. Join the Peace Corps (they’ll take you now that you have a college degree) or Americorps. Get some life experience. If law school is still for you, it will still be there at the end of this period. Especially if you’re young, time is on your side.

I hope this article helped you. Whatever decision you make, go into it with your eyes open. Good luck.

The image of Harvard Law School is by Flickr user rp72, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (attribution).


  1. Awesome I always wanted to know your perspective on lawyers and law school, though you committed a writing sin against yourself as you said to avoid writing what you know, I have to say you hit this one out of the ball park. I could be wrong but I get the feeling you could write a book about this if you really wanted to and I kind of wish you would but I’m getting the feeling the book would be a downer for you to write.

  2. I’ve got a friend who went to UCLA law school (after getting a BA in history, magna cum laude, from Hendrix College, and a master’s in East Asian History from U. of Bristol). He told me once about how, during Property Law class, the professor explained about how our property law is descended from English Common Law, which came about after 1066.

    As they were leaving the classroom once the lesson was over, my friend overheard two classmates talking. One of them said something like, “Come on! Nothing that happened in 1066 matters today!” And the other said, “England, remember? The Norman invasion of England?” And the first person was like, “Are you sure? I thought that happened in Russia.”

    John told me he was seriously alarmed that his fellow-students at this top tier law school, who were presumably SO smart, could also be SO stupid.

  3. Wanted to add that I can kind of relate with this to some respect. Not to get to personal and it might be hard to believe for some but I had got accepted to a prestigious military college. I was already attending college at the time and had to decide if I wanted do it. Not to be to vague but I was kind of already on my way out as far as my current career path and just wanted to finish off college get out of the current career path but I decided to do a internship there at that particular college just to see if I was sure.

    It turns out I was done. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I know the current path I was on was a path I didn’t want to do anymore, this path wasn’t a unknown or a mystery and as I have done something like this before. At that time I didn’t know what to do but this is something I had enough of. My view on life and jobs is that in life you gotta pick your poison and see how much you can tolerate it, if you can’t tolerate it then you need to get out of it but in a responsible manner.

    “You simply have no idea how your life is going to turn out. I can guarantee you that whatever you think, right now, that it’s going to be, it will not be that; life is notoriously averse to being planned ahead.”

    This is true. I’m currently own my own business at which the business I own does not reflect the degree I have earned. In some ways going through all this it kind of changed my perspectives and views on how useful college degrees are as well me wanting the current market to be more of a free market and less government involvement within this market.

  4. Sara Wood

    What a great quote and post. Thank you.

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