Why you shouldn't go to law school.
[Note: this is part of a series, which also includes Some Loosely Connected Musings on Passion, Regret, Law School, and Class Privilege, with Advice to Prospective Law Students, and Making the Transition from the Law to Grad School, the latter of which lists other posts, possibly to be added in the future.)
In my very first post on this blog, I promised more detail about why the jobs that one might expect after law school aren't anything to look forward to. I'm fulfilling that promise here, and moreover offering some more reasons why you, yes you, dear undergraduate reader who is applying to law school, should decline to go there. Most of my examples come from litigation, because that's what I know, but I'll bet one could come up with an equally good set from transactional work too. My aim here is to come up with the definitive anti-practice-of-law essay, one to which I and others can point bright-eyed undergraduates to for some time to come.
What follows is a loosely divided list of things that you might not know about the practice of law, and which should give you pause before you invest three years of your life and countless thousands of dollars in tuition and opportunity costs to go to law school. Law school really has little value other than to prepare you for a legal career of some sort. If you want to go into business or consulting, an MBA is quicker and provides more useful skills ("Thinking like a lawyer" is a bug, not a feature.), and, while lawyers do enter other careers (prominently writing for some reason) there's no reason to believe anything they got in law school put them there. With no further ado:
The Jobs Suck
There are three basic types of job that one can get out of law school. (I exclude here legal academia, which is a great job, but one which is reportedly nearly impossible to get unless you've either law review + super clerkship at a top 3 school, or phd plus some combination of above, etc.) They are as follows:
1. Corporate Serf. You will work for a big firm. You will make a lot of money. But you will have no time to spend it. You'll work sixteen hour days, and in the beginning of your career, those sixteen hour days will be spent doing things like rooting through warehouses of documents looking for privileges to avoid disclosing things in discovery. Needless to say, this work is incredibly boring. Or you could be doing piles of research on minutiae of securities law in preparation for a bloody negotiation. You'll have neverending pressure to bill more and more hours, and much of your work will be morally dubious at best, actually wicked at worst. (Consider, for example, how many lawyers must have been involved in the efforts to bury all the incriminating tobacco company documents.)
This is the job that everyone wants. But you don't know what you're trying for. Don't believe me. Believe the data (Zaring & Henderson, "Young Lawyers in Trouble" (2007)):
In this review essay, we compare Kermit Roosevelt's and Nick Laird's bleak portrayals with findings from a unique dataset on law firm profitability, prestige, hours worked, and various measures of several associate satisfactions. We also mine the findings of several empirical studies that track the experience of lawyers over time. We observe that higher firm profitability is associated with higher salaries, bonuses, and prestige. Yet, higher profits also have a statistically significant relationship with longer hours, a less family-friendly workplace, less interesting work, less opportunity to work with partners, less associate training, less communication regarding partnership, and a higher reported likelihood of leaving the firm within the next two years. Nonetheless, graduates from the nation's most elite law schools tend to gravitate toward the most profitable and prestigious (and most grueling) law firms. The attraction of the most elite firms may be superior outplacement options. Or perhaps, as both novels intimate, it may stem from a reluctance to make hard life choices.
2. Underpaid Do-Gooder. You'll work for a public interest outfit. You'll make a pittance -- you might still have roommates (especially if you want to live in a major city). You'd better hope your law school has a good loan forgiveness program. For all that, the work is more interesting. You get to fight for causes in which you believe -- most of the time. But you'll have moral ambiguities here too. Even an ACLU lawyer is sometimes asked to take up causes and clients about which (s)he's not sure. And the work won't be that much more interesting. Because litigation is still litigation, and contains an outrageous amount of discovery. But now you're in an organization that can't afford paralegals. Who does the dirty work? Who reviews the 12 bankers' boxes of internal procedures from the government agency you're suing for sex discrimination? Yep. You. The low lawyer on the totem pole. At least you'll get to show up in court occasionally.
3. The Sucker. This is the club for those who don't go to a top ten law school. You get the boring work and the moral difficulty of the corporate serf, with the terrible salary of the do-gooder, because you're working in some small firm doing family law, or criminal law, or wills and trusts, or real estate. I can't put it any better than did Cameron Stracher in the Wall Street Journal:
The legal profession is really two professions: the elite lawyers and everyone else. Most of the former start out at big law firms. Many of the latter never find gainful legal employment. Instead, they work at jobs that might be characterized as "quasi-legal": paralegals, clerks, administrators, doing work for which they probably never needed a J.D.
Although hard data about the nature of these jobs are difficult to come by (and rely on self-reporting, which is inherently unreliable), the mean salary for graduates of top 10 law schools is $135,000 while it is $60,000 for "tier three" schools. It's certainly possible that tier-three graduates tend to gravitate toward lower-paying public-interest and government jobs, but this lower salary may also reflect the nonlegal nature of many of these jobs and the fact that these graduates are settling for anything that will pay the bills.
At $38,000 a year for law school, plus living expenses, law-school graduates certainly have a lot of debt ($60,000 on average, upon graduation). For this price, college students and their parents should be thinking harder about their choices. When I went to law school, nearly everyone tried to convince me that doing so would "keep my options open." All this really means is: "You can still be a lawyer."
* * *
It's time those of us inside the profession did a better job of telling others outside the profession that most of us don't earn $160,000 a year, that we can't afford expensive suits, flashy cars, sexy apartments. We don't lunch with rock stars or produce movies
The point being that these job options suck. There are boring, immoral jobs that pay better (investment banking). There are moral, low-paying jobs that are more interesting (investigative journalist). There are boring, low-paying (or high-paying!) jobs that are less immoral (foundation fundraiser). Why take the worst of all possible worlds?
Lawyers are Unhappy
Everyone knows some happy lawyers. I know a handful of lawyers who are genuinely happy with their work and their careers. But those are special cases, and special people in special situations. The data over the entire population of lawyers are much more grim. Notre Dame's magazine summarizes some of the studies:
Lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, hostility, paranoia, social alienation and isolation, obsessive-compulsiveness, and interpersonal sensitivity at alarming rates. For example, researchers affiliated with Johns Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder (AMDD@) in only three of 104 occupations: lawyers, pre-kindergarten and special education teachers, and secretaries. Lawyers topped the list, suffering from MDD at a rate 3.6 times higher than nonlawyers who shared their key socio-demographic traits.
Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and use illegal drugs at rates far higher than nonlawyers. One group of researchers found that the rate of alcoholism among lawyers is double the rate of alcoholism among adults generally, while another group of researchers estimated that 26 percent of lawyers had used cocaine at least once -- twice the rate of the general population. One out of three lawyers suffers from clinical depression, alcoholism or drug abuse. Not surprisingly, a preliminary study indicates that lawyers commit suicide and think about committing suicide more often than nonlawyers.
The divorce rate among lawyers appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Felicia Baker LeClere of Notre Dame's Center for the Study of Contemporary Society compared the incidence of divorce among lawyers to the incidence of divorce among doctors, using data from the 1990 census. LeClere found that the percentage of lawyers who are divorced is higher than the percentage of doctors who are divorced and that the difference is particularly pronounced among women.
Why do you think you can defy the data? You probably can't.
You'll be Surrounded by Jerks
The lawyers-as-jerks stereotype is one that has more than a grain of truth to it, in my experience. In about four and a half years of actively practicing law, I came across numerous examples of utterly atrocious behavior, often in litigation. It's not always big things -- though big things are the ones that hit the news -- but patterns of obstreperous behavior and downright stupidity that can wear you down over a day-to-day basis. Bickering over stupid document production requests, delays, phantom schedule conflicts... all these things add up. Contemporary lawyering is often an expensive form of childish game-playing with the rules of civil procedure. It's psychological warfare for minute tactical advantage.
Then there are the lawyers in your own firm, who have been embittered by years of this crap and by long hours. And then there are the clients, who are paying an outrageous amount of money (if you're at a firm), or have been badly screwed and are consequently distrustful and hostile toward the entire world (if you're at a public interest group). Not surprisingly, both groups of people act like jerks too.
And it's not just a matter of the pressures of the law turning people into jerks. I think we can easily believe that jerks select themselves into the practice of law. Autoadmit. 'nuff said. (Also, consider the sheer number of college debaters and similar hyper-aggressive sorts that end up in law school.)
Have I mentioned the debt?
And not just the debt. But also the massive opportunity cost of three years of your life. Compare this to grad school, where top phd programs tend to be funded. Or to an MBA program which is a year shorter (and sometimes two years shorter). Or to working at something that you might find interesting, where you can learn, build human capital, and get paid, all at once.
Stracher again: "Rather than keeping options open, the crushing debt of law school often slams doors shut, pushing law students to find the highest-paying job they can and forever deferring dreams of anything else."
The law will make you into the worst kind of person.
If you believe that one's personality is shaped by one's life experiences, then you should be very worried about what the practice of law will do to you. I suggest that you should fear the inculcation of the following highly negative personality traits:
Unintellectualism. Contrary to popular belief, the law is not a particularly "intellectual" profession. Most of the reasoning in legal argument is patently casuistic. Legal arguments are often made in a "kitchen sink" fashion, throwing every conceivably plausible argument into a brief, regardless of the relative strength of the arguments or coherence of the submission as a whole. The practice of law is the development of a habit of extreme intellectual dishonesty where the routine is to state one's opponent's arguments as uncharitably as possible in aid of weakening their impact and conceal every possible fact or principle that is against one's interest which one isn't explicitly required to disclose.
Arrogance. A lawyer is surrounded largely by non-lawyers who come to him/her for expert advice. That alone can encourage some arrogance, but even more is necessary for the psychological warfare between lawyers. Lawyers often try to use extreme false confidence (a.k.a. arrogance) to intimidate one another into tactical concessions, e.g. by making the other lawyer think that they've screwed up, that "things are always done this way," etc. That is a tactic especially used by older lawyers against younger ones. The younger ones need to develop their own armor of arrogance to resist it.
Pettiness. As I've been emphasizing, much of the nastiness in the practice of law is in small-minded disputes about nothing points of procedure and other maneuvering for tactical advantage. Do you really want to practice being the kind of prick who demands that pleadings be thrown out for being one day late?
Uninterestingness. The practice of law takes so much of one's time that one can engage in few activities with the rest of one's life. It is also so stressful that one tends to obsess about it. The result is that lawyers can become very boring people, with nothing to talk about except their ugly jobs.
Impatience. See above with respect to stress. Also, the law is a very deadline-driven occupation, especially in litigation. There's always more work to do than there is time to do it in, and there's always a court and opposing counsel breathing down your throat with respect to strict deadlines. If you miss a deadline, the consequences can be terrible: a lost case, a malpractice claim against you, etc. Don't be surprised when this spills over and you find yourself swearing at people who walk too slowly while crossing the street.
Aggressiveness. Again, the psychological warfare between lawyers rewards this.
What to do instead?
Something you love. Something that makes you happy. Something that you value for more than money or status or perceived glamour. I wholeheartedly endorse Paul Graham's brilliant essay, How to Do What You Love. Read it. I also recommend my previous post on this topic.
As I said, there are some people who are happy with the practice of law. But the data are not in your favor. Make this decision very carefully. Don't just drift into it because you're not sure what else to do with a humanities degree.
On the Six-Minute Billing Increment
Commenter DGM reminded me of another really unpleasant aspect of the practice of law: one's life becomes divided into six-minute intervals. Lawyers traditionally bill clients in 1/10 hr increments, so one actually has to keep track of every six minute period in one's working day. Anyone who works at a human rhythm rather than a machine rhythm will find this difficult and somewhat distressing. What do you if you zone out for a few minutes/start a distracted game of solitaire in the middle of some powerful boring research? "Hmm, well, I think I spent maybe 4 minutes on that, and I worked for sixteen minutes before and 74 minutes after, but I was interupted by that nine minute phone call, so, ok, call that 1.3 hours. I think. I'm really not sure how many minutes any of those activities were, and was I really paying attention the whole time?" This applies to public interest lawyers too (though not government lawyers), because public interest lawyers often get to claim statutory attorney's fees from the other party after winning a lawsuit (whether or not the client was actually charged anything), so they often have to keep track of six minute intervals too. I feel like the six minute thing is a source of a lot of small ethical compromises and a miasma of bad feelings about oneself. If you're like me, you start to feel a constant sense of low-level guilt about not being quite sure about how much time you spent, about sometimes rounding up (cheating the client) and sometimes rounding down (cheating the firm, making yourself look bad). It's not pleasant at all.
Public Interest Law Revisited
I also wanted to say an extra word or two about public interest law. In my experience, public interest lawyers are indeed the happiest among practicing lawyers. But many public interest careers are practically inaccessible to people with large law school loans and no loan forgiveness program. And over the years I have known many, many law students to go to law school planning to do public interest work and then fall off the rails by third year. It usually goes something like the following: work for a public interest organization the first summer of law school; decide to "try out a firm" the second summer; get a permanent job offer from that firm; decide to go there "temporarily," for "a couple years," to "pay off loans" or "buy a house;" never leave. The money gets addictive.
Also, the early years of being a public interest lawyer will be particularly hard for you if you actually care about what you're doing. There is a fairly steep learning curve in the practice of law, and for the first two years, you are just not competent. At the same time, many clients of many public interest outfits (especially legal aid, etc.) have suffered very badly, and you're the last person to whom they can turn. Moreover, many public interest outfits can't afford a lot of training, and are sufficiently understaffed that young lawyers get thrown right into important tasks and often running their own caseload mostly on their own. These facts add up to a reality where you feel really incompetent, but you have people who you care about, who have suffered injustice, relying on your competence to get them through major life problems. It's terrifying to think that Sally and Tom could get evicted by their slumlord because you don't have enough experience. One of the reasons that I left the legal aid job was because I had started to dream about my clients. Burnout is a big problem in this business.
And as DGM points out, many public interest jobs are very hard to find. I'd edit that remark a little. It's not that hard (relative to big firms and elite public interest jobs) to find jobs in legal aid, prosecution, or public defense. It's not super-easy, because law schools are still spitting out far more lawyers than the market can absorb, but it's not harder than the legal market generally. But the best public interest jobs -- the ones that people stay in for years and are happy and have to be carried out on their backs -- are the elite advocacy organization jobs. By that I mean the ACLU, NAACP-LDF, Earthjustice, IJ for libertarians, certain divisions of the Department of Justice, so on and so forth. Those jobs are really, really hard to get. The organizations don't have nearly enough money to hire lawyers, and people do tend to really like those jobs, so few openings come up. Even graduates of top law schools have trouble getting these jobs. So while those are in my opinion the best law jobs (you get to work on issues you care about, you're surrounded by really smart people doing really high-level work in things like constitutional law, you don't have to worry too much about clients directly suffering because of your incompetence), the chances are that you will not get one, and especially not early in your career. Do not rest your hopes for a happy career on that low-probability outcome.
This post is getting some really valuable comments; those who want other perspectives on the practice of law should read them.
Addendum 2, 11-21-07: some additional thoughts on public interest and government work.
This morning, I received an e-mail from someone who I greatly admire, taking me to task for my comments about public interest jobs, and particularly about direct legal services. I think she was right about a few things, and I'd like to take a few things back and clarify some others.
First, I know many happy public interest lawyers, including those who provide direct legal services (legal aid, etc.). I also know some unhappy ones, and I myself had a pretty bad experience in that area. But all generalizations are somewhat inaccurate.
Second, I should not have said simply that issue-advocacy-type organizations like the ACLU are just better than direct services jobs. There are many people who are in the direct services jobs who wouldn't take an ACLU job for twice the salary. There are many who find a lot of personal fulfillment in those jobs. I apologize to people in that category who I inadvertently insulted (at least one of whom, a commenter, used to be my boss's boss's boss's at legal aid). While I personally was much happier in my second law job (which involved much less direct service work), and while I think the relative turnover rates at the various types of public interest organizations matches my experience, generalizations are just that -- generalizations.
However, I think there are a lot of people for whom the intense emotional involvement that you get in direct legal services leads to a lot of burnout. And that burnout leads to poorer service for the very people who we care about. This is why I think what I have to say is important not just for the young would-be lawyers, but for the clients who are being served. Because poor matches between person and job leads to unhappy lawyers who burnout and leave after a year or two. It's much better to get good matches who will stick around and become experienced and skilled and get to know the community and can be real forces for good.
Let's separate out two audiences for this post, for whom I have two different pieces of advice.
Audience 1: People who are already in law school, or done with it. I think the best chance for happiness within the law is to do one of the aforementioned do-gooder jobs. I certainly wouldn't recommend any other kind, unless there's nothing -- and I mean absolutely nothing -- more important to you than money. But it's not a panacea for the problems with the practice of law.
Audience 2: People who are considering going to law school. The point of my post is that you should not go to law school planning any kind of career without all the information, and many people only get one side. The original post was deliberately one-sided in order to, as it were, balance the scales somewhat. There is some merit to going to law school to plan a public interest career, but you need to know that there will be a lot of obstacles in the way, and that if you make it, the career will not be all roses and advancement of social justice.
I think the following quote from my correspondent (whose name I am deliberately leaving off, as I haven't asked her permission to post this) is particularly important: "Let's say you are right that there are unhappy public interst lawyers. Is the solution for no one to go to law school and for there to be no one to do gay rights, civil rights, or especially to represent poor people? Or is the solution for people to be better educated about what they are facing and perhaps to push for change (such as better funding for legal services or the new national loan repayment program)?"
Mea culpa on that. If you're really committed to public interest work, I encourage it, but I also encourage you to organize to make the working conditions better. For that matter, it's a nationwide scandal that the working conditions of many who try to contribute to the public interest -- not just lawyers -- are so poor. Lawyers don't have it as bad as some -- these guys, for example, have it much worse.
In a related vein, some people (see Michael Froomkin's post) have suggested that government work is a route that offers better quality of life and still allows one to do good work. There's some truth there, although many of my comments do still apply, particularly the bits about intellectual dishonesty and moral ambiguity (imagine working under an administration whose policies with respect to the subject area of your office are, in your lights, unbelievably wicked -- like being a liberal working in EPA under Bush!). And many of the government lawyers I've met have been all-around jerks (inside joke to one potential reader: "whinging"), though many have also been stand-up people.