Written with editing and contributions from Bruce Godfrey.
If you are reading this article, you probably shouldn’t go to law school. We know this because most people either don’t need what law school provides or could get what they need in a more efficient way than getting a law degree. Reversing this situation, to shift to a system where everyone should apply to law school is the aim of this article. Neither of the authors are law professors or law school administrators, just long-time lawyers sharing our perspective on ways to improve the profession, an ethical obligation on every member of the bar.
Expensive Tools That Can Do Anything Are Not For Everyone
There was a time in this country when parents told their children who were about to graduate from undergraduate college that they should go to law school if they didn’t know what they wanted to do with their life; after all, “a law degree will help you in whatever you do.” That is true in a very narrow and misleading sense and it has resulted in many unhappy lawyers and law students. Being able to do anything at a very great cost is not a wise investment for most people.
A lathe is known as the only machine that can literally make itself. With the right preparation and tools, an experienced machinist can make nearly any conceivable object with a lathe. Even so, there are very few lathes sold and they are incredibly expensive. It’s just more than most people need. If you just want to produce a simple product, there are simpler and cheaper methods than hand-crafting things on the lathe to make what you want at a greater profit and with lower cost. Earning a JD is like buying a lathe; make sure that you know what you’re trying to do, how you want to do it, and that there’s not an easier way to do it before you move forward.
When it comes to buying expensive and powerful tools, there are some good general rules of thumb that also apply to legal education. The best indicator that you should buy an expensive tool is that you’ve outgrown your existing tool or just don’t have any other way to do the job. Make sure that the benefits of the tool outweigh the costs of buying and adopting it. Don’t buy more tools than you need unless getting the better tool will pay off more than it costs.
What Do You Want to Accomplish?
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
Knowing where you are trying to go is key to getting there. Most people who consider law school see it as a path to success in life, but many times they haven’t looked into whether there are better paths for their goals. Unless you like a sense of accomplishment, there’s no reason to do something in a more difficult way when an easier way is available.
If you want to change the world, there may be many better paths to accomplish your goals than law school. Volunteering for an activist organization, working to manage a non-profit, or just making a lot of money to underwrite your cause could all make more of an impact than taking on six-figure debt to use “Esq” after your name and do work you don’t enjoy.
There are often better paths to achieve money, fame, status, or prestige than being a lawyer. Other than politicians, lawyers are underrepresented in most areas of status and fame. Doing good work in your community will earn you more prestige than a law degree would, though if you want to get a law degree to do that work, make sure you keep your debt level down so you have the flexibility to do noble work for less than market rates if necessary. Begin with the end in mind.
It is very common for people in other careers to find they make less money after earning a JD than they would have if they had just continued to advance in their career. Starting salaries as a public defender are significantly lower than mid-career salaries in computer science. Unless you have a very specific career like doing patent litigation or malpractice defense for a technical field, adding a JD to a technical degree is not going to add to earning potential and may make one “overqualified” for many jobs.
If there is a better path than law school to accomplish your goals, take the better path. The world has more than enough lawyers and you will be much more likely to succeed without the time and money investment in an expensive credential you didn’t need.
What Matters Most to You?
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.Friedrich Nietzche
Before applying to law school, you should ask yourself what motivates you in life. Do you prefer security? Autonomy? Interesting work? Money? Status? Changing the world?
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What motivates you will show you which paths are easier and which would be harder, so you can make informed decisions about the direction of your career. If you are motivated by money and status that comes with being at a high-powered firm, you would apply to law schools that increase your chances of getting hired at one of those firms, knowing the salary would pay off the high debt required. If you want to have autonomy and interesting work, solo or non-profit work may be the best career path, so you should apply to inexpensive local schools, look for full scholarships, and try to minimize debt coming out of school.
Understand that most attorneys don’t make much more than the median salary in the community, those who make eye-popping salaries are a minority of those who are already a minority who made it into law school. If only the top 5% of the class gets those salaries, the other 95% is going to be disappointed and in debt. Be realistic.
Sometimes you’ll want to fulfill many motivations, which can make for a balanced career. But to succeed in balancing, make sure you know how you value the trade offs between the different goals and set boundaries to make sure you stay true to your own priorities and avoid some stress that is so endemic to the profession.
Set Yourself Up for Success Before You Start
If the work you want to accomplish requires a law degree and you understand what values and motivations are most important to you, you should go to law school. Make sure you begin with your goal in mind and make choices that will make it most likely to achieve that goal.
If your goals don’t involve making a lot of money, take as little student loan debt as possible and look for grants and scholarships to finance your education. There were many times as a public defender that I saw my student loan balance increase every month when the income based repayment amount wasn’t even enough to cover the interest on my student loans. And that was after minimizing my debt by working during law school to cover my living expenses and some tuition reimbursement from my employer.
If you are working toward a big firm career, do the things necessary to get into the pipeline for those firms to hire you. Go to the best school you can, transfer into a better school if you can, take all your shots for law reviews, and button up your social media. Avoid controversial public views that don’t advance your career prospects. Be ready to go in earlier and leave later, because that is what’s required to advance in that culture.
Make Law School Client Centered
There has been a shift in the legal profession to client centered practice, where the first step in the representation is to determine what the client’s goals are and to tailor the representation to those goals as much as possible. Different goals will require different strategies, even with the same parties and facts. While that shift has taken hold in practice, law schools still operate more for the benefit of the institution than the students. Shifting legal education to a student success focus could make law school an option everyone should explore instead of a millstone around the neck that most people should avoid. Students that accomplish the goals that brought them to law school in the first place are more likely to support their alma mater and raise the profile of the school.
Provide Career Counseling as Part of the Admissions Process
Law school is like buying a high-priced timeshare; a good fit for some people, but a bad deal for most.Bruce Godfrey
Every accredited law school has a career services office to help students and alumni advance their careers within the legal profession. Having them talk to students before they are students could build goodwill in the community and ensure a more engaged and committed student body. If each applicant to a law school had a one-on-one interview with a career services officer about what their goals and motivations are to make sure law school is the best path and encourage prospective students who could accomplish their goals in better ways to do so and avoid the cost of law school.
We believe that encouraging applicants who have better options to avoid law school will go a long way to changing public perception of the legal profession and even elevate it in the minds of the public. Having individual in-depth interviews would also allow ideological or specialty schools to choose admission based on alignment with the law school’s philosophy. There are significant extra burdens taken on by law students and lawyers and law schools should make sure that their applicants make informed choices about what would best help them accomplish their goals. If a student accepts admission, that initial interview about success goals can be the basis for a tailored educational plan that provides the best opportunity for the student achieving the goals that caused them to choose law school in the first place.
Like Progressive Insurance made a name for itself by suggesting that potential customers who could get a cheaper deal from a competitor go to a competitor, a law school that encouraged prospective students who could get a better deal on their success to do so will gain goodwill and give more confidence to those students who do attend that they are on the right path. There are many easier paths to success than the law.
Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.Kevin Kelly
Education is a tool. Most of its value comes from what it will enable you to do. If you can do what you need to do with a simpler or less expensive tool, you should. There are a few things that lawyers can do that other people can’t; unless you need to do one of those things, make sure you want to take on the added burden of time, money, the restrictions of being a member of the bar, and every other cost of being able to have your Mom write “Esquire” after your name on your birthday cards.
There is nothing quite like the law as a profession and a field of study. The way you learn to look at the world in law school is something hard to duplicate, but make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs and go in with your eyes open. And if you’re a law school administrator who wants to create a client-centered law school admissions process, drop us a line.
Nicholas Sarwark is Executive Director of the Libertarian Policy Institute. He served as Chair of the Libertarian National Committee from 2014 to 2020, a period of unprecedented growth. Over the last two decades, he has worked as a systems developer for a major non-profit, tried over 30 cases to a jury as a deputy public defender in Colorado, and managed the oldest independent car dealership and loan company in Phoenix. He founded Wedge Squared Strategies in 2019, a strategy, communications, and campaign consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations maximize their impact on the world. Licensed to practice law in Colorado and New Hampshire, he lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with his wife Valerie and their four children where they volunteer to build a better local community.