I’m a lawyer. I earned a law degree from an accredited institution, and I passed the bar exam in my home state. My license to practice law is hanging in a frame on the wall of my office where I work as in-house counsel for a financial institution. That license is a symbol of one of my life’s greatest achievements and a source of significant pride for me. But if I’m totally honest, if Warren Buffett walked into my office and said, “give me that frame and I will pay off your student loans,” I would leap over my desk like a rabid snow monkey to rip that thing off the wall and hand it to him.
I can’t say I regret going to law school. It has given me an ability to understand and analyze the inter-workings of our society in a way that typically only trained attorneys can or bother to do. It was three years of my life in which I grew up, fell in love with the law (as well as my future husband), and worked harder academically than I ever had to before. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I am fairly certain I would make a different choice if I had it to do all over again.
If you are considering going to law school, here’s my advice to you.
Do NOT go to law school if:
1. You want to help people for a living.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way insinuating that lawyers don’t help people. They do. Every. Single. Day. But if what moves you is using your own two hands to make a difference in people’s lives, I would warn against a law career. For me, the ‘helping people’ part ended up feeling too tenuous and, by design, driving change within the law is slow and difficult.
2. You have to take out student loans.
This is the one that really makes me want to go back in time and slap my younger self in the face. Student loans are not free money! They have to be paid back, and the payment amounts often offset any increase in salary a law degree might get you. Get scholarships, convince your rich relative to pay, save up before you go. Just think long and hard and put pencil to paper before you put on the golden handcuffs of student loans.
3. You are trying to prove you are smart.
Yep, it’s magical. Once you get into law school (and even more so after you pass the bar exam), people automatically think you’re a different degree of smart. Some refer to it as “the presumption of brilliance.” Okay, I just made that up, but I promise it is a real thing. This is not a reason to go to law school! There are so many (much cheaper) ways for the world to know you’re smart.
4. You don’t know what else to do.
Ah, the old credo, “you can do anything with a law degree.” I fell for that one. I had a B.A in English and didn’t want to teach. People said “lawyers do a lot of writing” and “a law degree is never a bad thing to have.” They weren’t wrong, but the kind of writing lawyers do is a style all its own, and while a law degree isn’t bad, see #2 above.
5. You thrive on creativity.
Of course, there are ways to use creativity in a legal career. However, if you’re like me and feel called to create, studying law may stifle that calling, at least temporarily. Personally, I think I shut down the right part of my brain during law school and a few years beyond. A big part of that was just not having the time or energy to tap into “the muse.” It wasn’t until I took deliberate steps to get it back that I realized how much I missed it.
One the flip side, DO go to law school if:
6. Someone else is paying for it.
If this is the case, just do it and disregard everything I just said. Seriously.
7. You have shadowed or interned for various types of attorneys.
If you have seen the day to day life of an attorney up close and personal and you can see yourself being fulfilled by that work, then you are making an informed, eyes wide open decision. I support that.
8. You are taking over the family practice.
My husband and I are both the first attorneys in our families, so I have no idea what this would be like. I can imagine, though, if law is a family tradition, and you have the opportunity to walk into a successful business with a plethora of family support, it might be a no-brainer.
9. You want to run for political office.
Being a lawyer is not a prerequisite for running, but I think it would be extremely helpful if your goal is to hold political office.
10. It’s your dream.
I am fully supportive of people following their dreams. I feel incredibly lucky that my dream, being a writer, is completely within my control. All I have to do is write. Check! If your dream is to be a lawyer, or if you have always just wanted to go to law school, chasing your dream gets way more complicated. If it truly is your dream, then do it! Just don’t do it blind. Understand that your dream may not align with reality.
As for me, I will continue to be as proud of my law license as I am frustrated by my student loan payments.