Sunday, September 07, 2008

Help Paul counsel a 1L

Who wants to chip in with advice for this person? (Cross-posted to Uncommon Priors.)

Just read your essay from last year, "Why you shouldn't go to law school." You've probably gotten lots of emails like this...

I'm 35 and a published (but obscure) writer of fiction, essays, book reviews, etc. I have recently started my first year in [SCHOOL BETWEEN 25-30 IN THE USNEWS RANKINGS] Law's evening division. I did this because I began despairing at the difficulty of ever making more than 50k as an English major. And I like to argue analyze, etc. Writers don't make much money unless they write for famous magazines, or their books have an "O" on the cover. I work for a non-profit arts organization in [BIG CITY], and write in the evenings and weekends. Or rather, I did. I still have my day job but my free hours are filled with law homework. I do not want to work for a huge firm and get rich. Yet I cannot survive working in the public interest. I would never have embarked upon this had I not been admitted to a fairly reputable school - that and the fact that a lawyer/writer acquaintance of mine has told me that "the key" is to get a job at a smaller firm that still pays a reasonable salary and which lets you work normal hours (which is what he did). I have been told that my [SCHOOL] degree is versatile enough to suit my purposes.

However, I have also, in a few short weeks, noticed the following of the Law School Experience;

[BAD THINGS, omitted at correspondent's request]

I'm already wondering what the hell I'm doing here. I would love to go into academia or work for a think tank as a public policy analyst, or get a job in law journalism, if such a creature exists. But a lot what I've been getting from my family and friends about "all the opportunities" provided by law school sounds like so much ill-informed nonsense a the moment. I'm thinking if I do well in my first year at [SCHOOL] I can transfer into a top 10. But even then my chances of a job I'd like are slim, no?

My (edited) thoughts:

Here, I think, is the key question for you: are you going into debt for law school?

If not -- if you have a scholarship or some other thing paying your way -- then it's probably worth it to complete the degree, for the simple reason that the opportunity cost of spending three earning years is, honestly, fairly low relative to even the minimal enlightenment you'll get from law school, and it'll buy you the time to explore your real interests (e.g., take classes in other departments, talk to people, etc.).

If, on the other hand, you are incurring debt, well, then you have a difficult problem.

On the one hand, if you're reasonably well-ranked coming out of [SCHOOL] (and ideally, do law review -- which, note, will be miserable), or manage to transfer into a top 10 school, your financial prospects dramatically improve, such that you'll be able to handle the debt.


On the other hand, if you do poorly (and that's possible, even for intelligent people -- there's a large random element in law school grading, and another distortion in that it takes focused work to get into the law school exam-writing mode), you might find yourself doing a shit job for not enough money.

I think you need to decide whether you'll be happy with doing a firm job. Small firm, big firm, whatever. If you're looking for intellectual challenge, you won't find it in the law, except at the very highest levels of super-elite public interest or (even less likely) firm work -- I'm talking DOJ OLC turf. But if you're looking for reasonably secure middle-class income, you could do worse, and you can probably get it.

If (as I suspect is the case from the general gist of your e-mail) you wouldn't be happy at a firm, then you should consider cutting your losses. (Remember that it's generally irrational to consider sunk costs, unless they'll have to be reinvested in alternative options.) How to do that? Well, these other options exist -- legal journalism, think tank work, etc. (not academia, realistically, unless you go to a top 5 law school or do a PhD afterward) -- but you should take the time to explore them before totally burning your bridges on this law school thing.

Hence, my advice for what it's worth can be summed up as follows:
- if you're not paying, go ahead and put up with law school, it can't really hurt.
- if you are paying, stick with it if you can seriously see yourself working at a for-profit law firm (or if [SCHOOL] has a really good loan forgiveness program for public interest lawyer alumni and you're willing to take the income hit).
- If you are paying and you can't see yourself working at a law firm, probably your best bet is to work REALLY HARD during the first year to make other options available. One plan might start with bending heaven and earth to secure a summer internship or similar experience+networking opportunity in one of these alternatives (think tank, legal journalism, etc., or whatever). Then you can finish 1L year and gain enough of a taste of an alternative to have a real sense as to whether you want to go back for 2L year (but go back with some kind of contacts established in this alternative area where, hopefully, you can land after law school), take a leave of absence and continue pursuing, quit law school on the spot and enter the workforce, etc.

My correspondent's reply:

Your input was helpful. Debt is an issue, but not in the usual way. I'm borrowing from family plus my own savings. They won't send the creditors after me at least.

The things that really stands out for me, from what you wrote, is that the options which make it most worth the expense require total commitment at the cost of all else. Which would seem to imply no more writing on the side (not an option for me - I'm a creative-type). Whereas achieving a reasonable middle-class income through law practice, which allows the writing on the side (like a small firm, govt job, etc.) might not be worth the effort and expense, since it's not a drastic improvement over where I'm at now. I had hoped to find some special law-writing gig but this might be a product of pure fantasy.

Peanut Gallery: What do you suggest?