Should You Go To Law School?

From search records I’ve noticed a lot of people reading this stuff get here by googling “should you go to law school”? So why don’t I just answer it for all you people who seem to be on the fence. Keep in mind this is the perspective of a guy who plans on retiring at 35 and can’t even fathom the mindset of a person who goes into debt to buy a car or whose dream is a McMansion. That said, here we go:

If you know you absolutely want to be a lawyer and can’t imagine doing anything else, then go, whatever the cost. Can’t live your whole life wondering ‘what if’. If it’s not for you then drop out after the first semester and think of the tuition bill as the price tag of living a life free of regrets.

There are ways to become a lawyer without going $100k into debt. I’d recommend first off working a little bit and paying off any lurking undergrad loans before you consider piling more on by taking on law school debt as well. Consider being a part-time, evening student. That makes it so you can work full-time while going to school at night. It’s not the easiest thing, but if you love the law, it won’t be that hard. That way you can cover your cost of living and pay a chunk of the tuition so you graduate with just a tiny debt load.

Also, be price conscious when it comes to law school (I know, this from a guy who’s going to a $40k/year school, but I had a unique scholarship situation). If I were paying for all my schooling I’d consider a state school in a more rural state. It could be worth moving and delaying school for one year to establish in-state status. There are many reputable schools under $14k/year in state, which, after financial aid and contributing money from working, could make for a debt-free graduation. Though they say, unless you’re going to a top 10 school, you ought to consider going to school in the area where you intend to practice just so you will be clued into the social/professional network in the area and run into a lot of alums during job interviews. I don’t know how crucial that is. If it’s a choice between $50k of debt and having the interviewer say, “Oh, I went there too!” or $0 debt and having to tell the interviewer, “It’s in North Carolina. ” Followed by the inane, “Yes, the winters are mild there.” I think I’d take my chances with the zero debt.

If you want to go to law school so you can be a big firm/corporate lawyer raking in six figures and playing lots of golf, think again. There are plenty of people in my class who fit this mold and I can tell you a few things about them: 1. They’re miserable, they hate class, writing, reading cases, they can’t wait for class to end, they count-down to the end of each semester, it’s just sad. 2. Most of them think they are going to be raking it in later and so live it up, maxing out their loans and spending the money going out drinking after class with all their miserable cohorts, and so are over $100k in debt and a few have over $200k of debt. That’s a deep hole to dig yourself out of. 3. Those cushy corporate/big firm jobs are few and far between and tough to get simply because they pay so well. 4. They make you earn your pay, it’s high-pressure, long hours, and it will be a decade before you’re spending weekday afternoons on the golf course.

When I was deciding to go to law school I only considered it because I thought I might like to do some criminal work, or maybe help advocate for civil rights. I went back and forth on the idea of attending for years. Mostly what deterred me was the $100k+ price tag and the warnings of the ‘glut of lawyers’ in the market looking for jobs. Then, opportunity knocked, a 100% scholarship, so I couldn’t pass that up. Within a month I knew it was for me. Classes fly by, they’re engaging, I fly through the reading because it’s so interesting and there’s a general feel of camaraderie on campus that makes it easy to make friends. I know getting a job won’t be easy but since I’m single and willing to move anywhere, don’t expect a high salary, probably won’t have any debt, and am already having great success with internships and pro bono work,  I figure I’ll find something.

There are a lot of books and people who will tell you not to go to law school unless you get into a top 10, 15 or 20 school. And I’d say to that, if you’re life goal is to make a killing, then yeah, don’t bother with law school if you aren’t in the most exclusive 15 or so. And also don’t go if you’re not confident that within that elite group you will be in the top 10% of the class come graduation. There are easier, less risky ways to make money. Especially if you’re willing to go $200k into debt. Think of it this way, if you go $200k into debt to go into business and fail, well, worst case you probably had a pretty thrilling time and you go bankrupt and start from scratch. If you go $200k into debt to go to school and fail, well, most likely you were miserable the whole 7 years and to top it off, if you fail, you’re stuck. Student loans can’t be canceled in a bankruptcy and you will have to force yourself into a job that (a) you aren’t good at and (b) you hate, just to try to dig yourself out of the hole you dug, which will probably take you your entire life. Bottom line, don’t go to law school for the money, some will get lucky, but it’s too big a risk. It seems to me most accounts I read from people who regret going to law school went, not because they had an interest in the law, but rather because they thought it meant a guaranteed cushy, high-paying job. Or, they had a genuine interest in the law, but simply took on too big a debt load.

On the other hand, if you 1. want to advocate for people or have an idea of some legal field that interests you 2. will be happy to earn a typical middle-class salary and 3. can figure out a way to graduate from law school without a soul-crushing student loan debt, then you’d probably do well to go to any reputable law school.

Anyway, that’s this atypical 1L’s advice. I’ll check back after graduation, when I’m looking for a job, to see if I still agree with myself.

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