Today, I’ll talk about law school and life as an attorney. As you may have heard, law school can be an intense and competitive environment, especially for those who fail to secure a job early on. Unless you are a genius or already have a job lined up before you start, you will experience at least one year of pain as you endure the Socratic method while competing with your fellow classmates for the grades that employers value.
You see, law happens to be an industry where grades matter, especially if you’re shooting for a hefty $160,000 starting salary at a big law firm. If you’re not, you may want to ask yourself why you’re going to law school. Not only is law school expensive, you could spend years catching up financially after graduation, even if you take on no debt at all.
Bad Reasons to Go to Law School
Below are a few not so good reasons to go to law school:
- You want a higher salary.
Unless you can guarantee that you’ll get that six figure job at a law firm, you could be staring at jobs that pay as low as $40,000 when you graduate. These jobs will not justify paying for law school and even if they do (i.e. you landed some scholarships), they will not justify taking a three year break from a job that’s already paying you a decent salary.
For example, let’s say you make $30,000 at you current job. You go to law school and pay $40,000 a year (after receiving a $10,000 annual scholarship) for three years without taking on any debt. You come out of law school making $60,000 a year – not the worst scenario. You work for two years.
If you hadn’t gone to law school, you would’ve made $150,000 by now assuming you haven’t received any raises ($30,000 salary for five years). By going to law school, you’ve instead made $0 ($60,000 salary for two years minus $40,000 tuition for three years). That’s a difference of $150,000. Even without debt, it will take you another five years at the new salary of $60,000 to catch up to where you would have been if you had never gone.
- You want the prestige of being a lawyer.
There is nothing prestigious about working long hours and weekends at a big law firm when most of the work you do is formatting documents, proofreading for typos and reviewing thousands of emails or contracts in preparation for a litigation or transaction. This is the bulk of what a junior lawyer does for the first two years at a big law firm. Of course, not every firm is the same. Some firms (like mine) will offer great opportunities to take on high profile pro bono matters that deal with anything from civil rights to small business startups.
And if you don’t work for a big law firm, you may find that the lower income cancels out any added prestige.
- You are tired of your current job and want a change.
This is not a great reason because you can look for a new job or get a degree that does not cost up to $50,000 a year in tuition alone.
Good Reasons to Go to Law School
So what are some good reasons to go to law school? I can think of a few:
- You are genuinely curious and passionate about the law.
This is a good reason, assuming that you’re willing to put up with the potential financial hardships. To ease some of those hardships, I would highly recommend working for a law firm during the summers while you’re in law school. Many of these summer associate jobs pay a full-time associate’s salary (pro-rata for two or three months) and offer full-time employment after graduation. To get these jobs though, you’ll need to have top grades from at least your first year of law school since most firms conduct interviews right after that first year.
If you’re not interested in working for law firms after graduation, you can still work as a summer associate, reject the full-time offers and use the income to help pay for law school.
- Your current job will offer educational assistance and a higher salary for your degree.
If you like your current job and are ambitious to move up the ladder, this is a great reason to go to law school. I would recommend reviewing your employer’s educational assistance policy for any payback requirements that are triggered if you leave your job.
Getting a Job at a Law Firm
The hiring process for a big law firm can be unique. For one, many law firms conduct on campus interviews (OCI) and hire almost exclusively at the beginning of a student’s second year in law school. If you miss that window, your odds of getting a law firm job decreases significantly.* This is why first year grades are so important.
If you get an offer during OCI, you’re accepted into the firm’s summer associate program where you will be wined and dined for two or three months. The firm will give you very minimal substantive work. The purpose of the program is to entice you to come back after graduation. So unless you really screw up or offend someone, you’re almost guaranteed a full-time offer by the end of the summer.**
In addition to grades, your school name is important. Many top law firms will only conduct OCI at certain schools based on ranking or region. This is why I recommend going to either a top 14 or a top regional law school. In some cases, you may even want to transfer law schools after your first year so that you can take advantage of a different school’s OCI opportunities.
Life as an Attorney
As a second year corporate associate at a big law firm in New York, my work schedule can range anywhere from a quiet 40 hour week to an intense 80 hour week. Just this past weekend, I received an email on Saturday asking if I could come in to work for up to 12 hours on the following Sunday. Fortunately, I left after 8 hours when there was nothing left to do.
Type of work ranges from tedious contract review to the more substantive drafting of a complaint, which I only get to do on my pro bono matters. It’s not rare that I’ll get a task that does not require more than a high school degree, such as proofreading for inconsistent spacing.
Personally, I don’t mind being an attorney right now. The high income helps boost my net worth so that I can reach my financial goals faster. But I don’t plan on doing this forever. Ideally, I would like to do something less intense after I have my first kid so that I can spend quality time with my family.
If you are truly passionate about the law or your employer offers advancement opportunities for a law degree, you should go to law school and find ways to cushion the financial blow. Landing a summer associate job at a law firm is a great way to counter the high tuition and opportunity costs of not working full-time for three years. And if you want to work for a law firm full-time after graduation, you will need to start as a summer associate. This means getting good grades during your first year ahead of OCI.
You should not go to law school if you’re looking for a higher salary or prestige. It’s probably not worth the sacrifice.
*You may have better luck than most law students if you have a science background as law firms tend to have a higher demand for intellectual property lawyers.
**For reasons unclear to me, a less than 100% offer rate for summer associates hurts the reputation of the firm. As a result, firms try to avoid this as much as possible by rigorously screening applicants during OCI and giving offers to almost everyone that join their summer programs.