I went to law school. I loved all three years of it. Since then, I've had an interesting and fulfilling career: I practiced both human rights law and commercial law, clerked in federal court, taught law courses as an adjunct, and now spend my days writing about fascinating policy issues, many of which are law-related.
Perhaps that is why people expect me to reply with an enthusiastic "Yes, definitely!" when they ask me if they should go to law school.
And why they are surprised when, instead, my response is "Probably not — unless you're really sure you want to be a lawyer."
That's because over the years, I have realized that the people asking me that question aren't really asking for my advice about their careers in the law. Rather, their real question is almost always something else: will law school be a solution to my fears about the future?
And the answer is that it won't. Law school is a very good way to solve the problem of being ineligible for a license to practice law. It is not a very good way to solve the "I don't know what to do with my life" problem, or the "I am afraid that if I follow my true passion I will fail" problem, or the "I am desperate for other people's approval" problem.
1) Law school isn't a solution to your fear of the career abyss
You know the terror of the undefined future: the fear that comes of seeing so many possibilities and pitfalls open up to you that they swirl into one vast, terrifying abyss. And what's that faint noise you hear from its shadowy depths? Could it be the plaintive cries of your mom's friend's son who had so much promise but never made anything of himself? Or the laments of your second cousin who's stuck in a dead-end job?
These fears are understandable. The world is a scary place for people just starting out in their careers. It can feel especially scary for the kinds of people who find themselves pondering whether to go to law school.
Their real question is almost always: will law school be a solution to my fears about the future?
They tend to have done reasonably well in school their whole lives, and then pursued liberal arts degrees in college. That means college graduation brings a double-whammy shock of chaos: not only are they losing the structure of the academic system in which they excelled, but they're also setting out in that new, seemingly unstructured world without the kind of clear career path that comes from a more technical degree. Of course that can make the post-college world seem like a terrifying abyss.
Law school offers a tantalizing solution. It extends the familiar embrace of academia by three years. Instead of a liberal arts degree and a shrug, it provides a professional qualification and a clear career path. And — bonus — the path is a relatively prestigious and lucrative one! (Or at least it seems that way — more on that below.)
But law school isn't actually an easy solution to that problem. It's a solution, sure — but an expensive and difficult one. There are others available, and for someone motivated by fear rather than true legal ambition, the others are better. It's worth having the courage — and the faith in yourself — to give them a try.
2) There are other paths across the abyss
For one thing, other careers actually do have their own structured paths, albeit less obvious ones — and they probably don't require you to give up three years of your career or incur mountains of debt. If you take a little time to figure things out, you'll find that almost all careers do have paths one can follow to achieve reasonable success.
Take, for instance, becoming a comedy writer. I choose an extreme example on purpose: if you're struggling with the kinds of fears I described above, the idea of pursuing that kind of career probably seems like a joke in and of itself.
But it isn't. If comedy writing is what you want to do, then there's a path you can follow to achieve it: move to New York or LA. Take classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. After you've taken some classes, apply to join an improv or sketch team. After you've been on a team for a while, you'll have a reputation within the community for being funny, and that will get you paid work: as a comedy teacher, on ad campaigns, for comedy sites like Funny or Die and College Humor. You'll piece things together, and eventually it will turn into a full-time gig, maybe even on a TV show like Saturday Night Live, or a sitcom.
Presto: a path. One that many people I know have taken.
Yes, it will take years. Yes, it requires talent. (Though not as much as you'd think — you would be amazed at how practice and persistence can be transformed into talent over time.) Yes, you will be broke for most of those years, and probably working part-time or dead-end jobs to make ends meet while you pursue your real goal.
But that's not actually very different from law. Law school also takes years. You will be broke for most of those years (or worse than broke: living off of student loans to cover your living expenses). Being a lawyer also requires a combination of talent and hard work and persistence. And law school, unlike $400-a-term evening classes at UCB, will leave you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
The point here is not that you should become a comedy writer. It's that the career abyss isn't as dark and chaotic as it seems. There are similar paths for becoming a startup founder, a journalist, a movie producer, or just about anything else that doesn't require a graduate degree. Starting at the bottom doesn't mean getting stuck there.
3) Don't go to law school just because it seems prestigious
Of course, law school offers one obvious benefit over starting at the bottom and working your way up: it sounds much, much fancier from the very beginning. Most career paths require at least some degree of wallowing in entry-level hell: internships, temping, receptionist jobs, part-time waitressing to cover the gaps in contract work that never leads to a permanent gig, entry-level jobs with "assistant" in the title, etc.
Those jobs are learning experiences that help you build skills and relationships. And they pay — or at least don't cost you thousands of dollars. But they don't sound very fancy. And that can be really, really hard to take.
Sometimes it will feel like you're going nowhere, like you're going to be a temp or a receptionist or a waitress or an assistant forever. It's hard for anyone to feel stuck, but if you're bright and have been academically successful, that can also seem like a precipitous fall in status. "You went to Harvard," a little voice in your head will tell you. "What the hell are you doing picking up someone else's laundry?"
You should pursue the job you want to do, not the job you want to say you do
In other words, "Why aren't you doing something more prestigious?"
But you should ignore that voice, because prestige is just a generalized average of other people's priorities. It's gratifying to get validation of your choices, of course. But those other people aren't going to do your job for you. Why should you let them choose it?
As Max Fisher once remarked to me, you should pursue the job you want to do, not the job you want to say you do. You will spend 40 hours (or more!) a week on your job until you retire. Make decisions to maximize your happiness during that time, not the much smaller amount of time you will spend impressing people with your career at cocktail parties.
I can't tell you what job that is. But if you follow the prestigious path of least resistance, you risk never having a chance to figure it out for yourself.
4) Don't go to law school to please your parents
Your parents would probably like you to stop reading this article right now. They would strongly suggest that you stop taking the advice of this random overeducated woman on the internet and start listening to them instead. After all, they care about you!
But remember what we just learned? Don't let someone else choose your career for you. Even if that someone else is a loving parent. Because your parents' priorities for you are not necessarily the same as your priorities for you.
For one thing, your parents probably care much more about your financial stability than your happiness. That's not to say they don't care at all. They love you, and of course they want you to be happy. But they won't share in your satisfaction directly. Your financial stability, on the other hand, does affect them directly — it affects whether they will have to support you during adulthood, and whether you can support them if they need you to.
As startup investor and mentor Paul Graham put it in a great essay a few years ago, "All parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would for themselves, simply because, as parents, they share risks more than rewards. If your eight-year-old son decides to climb a tall tree, or your teenage daughter decides to date the local bad boy, you won't get a share in the excitement, but if your son falls, or your daughter gets pregnant, you'll have to deal with the consequences."
And more than that, all of your career worries worry your parents, too. They have their own fears of your career abyss. Your parents care about prestige, and also want validation at cocktail parties. They want to see the impressed looks on their friends' faces when they tell them you are in law school and everyone expects big things from you. They don't want to have to explain that you're using your expensive undergraduate education to be a waitress or a someone's assistant, but it's only temporary.
That doesn't make them bad people. But it also doesn't mean you should listen to their advice.
5) But what about the money?
These breezy assurances might not seem fair. After all, law school isn't just a way to create career order out of seeming career chaos — it's also a path to a lucrative job as a lawyer.
Only sort of. It is true that many lawyer jobs are very well-paid. But many aren't, and even those that are are prone to burnout and instability.
I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with wanting to earn money. Money can be a way to ensure that you aren't a burden on your family, or to give your children important opportunities, or to help out the less fortunate. Perhaps your parents are immigrants who sacrificed to give you opportunities with the expectation that your success would bring stability to the whole family in a new country. Or perhaps you are the first person in your family to go to college, and feel the burden of proving the value of the education they worked so hard to give you.
Money is a lot. But it isn't everything. And even if it's important to you, law school isn't necessarily the best way to get it.
Let's start with the most basic point: graduating from law school doesn't necessarily mean you even get a job as a lawyer. According to the American Bar Association, only 71 percent of 2014 law school graduates were able to obtain long-term, full-time employment as lawyers (defined as jobs that either required them to pass the bar, or preferred to hire candidates with JDs). That means that one in four law school graduates were either unemployed or were doing jobs they could have gotten without ever going to law school.
And even if you're within that 71 percent, a lot of lawyer jobs aren't particularly well-paid. Public interest lawyers, public defenders, and city-level prosecutors tend to start out with salaries around $45,000 to $50,000 per year, and salaries for senior attorneys with more than a decade of experience are still usually only around $80,000 per year. There's nothing horrifying about those numbers, but they won't make anyone rich — especially if they come with a large law school debt burden. And they're nothing that can't be achieved in a host of other industries.
Even if money is important to you, law school isn't necessarily the best way to get it
Private firms, at least the large ones, do tend to pay more. First-year associate salaries can be as high as $160,000 a year, and partners at top firms can make millions. But those jobs are difficult to get, especially for students who don't attend top-tier law schools. And even for students lucky enough to obtain one, it can be a risky path.
Most large firms have a pyramid structure, with large incoming classes of junior associates that get winnowed down over the years until just a few individuals remain. The rest have to leave. That means life as a "biglaw" attorney isn't the safe, stable professional career path that many people think it is.
Rather, for the majority of attorneys, it's a temporary career stop on the road to a different — and usually less lucrative — job. Often they go to government agencies, or work as in-house counsel for corporations. While those jobs pay six-figure salaries to experienced attorneys, the first figure of the six is usually a "1."
Again, there's nothing wrong with those salaries. It would be absurd to suggest that they're some kind of financial hardship. But they're not vast riches, either: those are salaries you can find in a broad range of careers, many of which do not require expensive professional degrees.
And even if you do manage to defy all the odds and make partner, that's still not any guarantee of stability. Partners are under tremendous pressure to bring in clients and high-billing projects. Those who don't can be cut out of their firms' equity proceeds — or pushed out entirely.
And if you are the sort of person who can get into a good law school, do well enough there to land a prestigious law firm job, and then work your way up to partner, then congratulations: you are someone with the skills and tenacity to succeed at all manner of careers! Law school is not your only option.
6) Don't underestimate the financial costs of hating your job
When I worked at a big New York City law firm, there was a woman down the hall from me who was very well-respected. She was more senior than I was, and was known for doing good work. Partners sought her out for big cases. Her career seemed to be going very well.
Until, that is, she walked in one morning and quit. Not just the job, but the law entirely. Last I heard, she was planning to move to Louisiana and open a cupcake bakery.
And she's not the only one. While I do have friends who enjoy their legal careers, I have many more who don't. And that's not that surprising, because it's hard to be happy when you're spending the majority of your waking hours doing work that you picked because it seemed like a safe option, rather than because it was actually what you wanted to do. And it's hard to do good work when you're unhappy. And law is full of people who chose their jobs that way, and who now find themselves consumed with frustration or mired in depression. Even if you aren't one of them, you work with them — and eventually their problems become yours.
That raises the likelihood that you'll do what my former colleague did: burn out and quit. That is its own form of financial instability, but it's one people tend to discount when they're considering pursuing a career they don't feel genuine interest in.
7) Don't go to law school because you think it's a "great all-purpose degree"
It is at this point in the conversation that the people asking me for advice often smile reassuringly and tell me it's okay: they just want to work at a firm for a few years to pay off their law school loans, and then they will go do something more interesting. "Law is such a great all-purpose degree!" they exclaim. "I will have so many options."
A law degree is not a "great all-purpose degree." That’s a lie put about by parents who are trying to lure their children into middle-class professions and by law schools who want their money. A JD is not an all-purpose degree. It is a law degree. It does not qualify you to become a diplomat, a "senior policy adviser" to anything, a politician, a banker, an aid worker, a political operative, or any of those other jobs that seem like they might be a fun way to satisfy your West Wing fantasies. It qualifies you to be a lawyer. (And it doesn’t really even do that — there’s still the pesky matter of the bar exam.)
That tapping sound you hear is the noise of thousands of indignant readers opening a Gmail tab to send me the names of diplomats, politicians, bankers, and senior policy advisers who do so have JD degrees, so ha!
But correlation is not causation. The fact that all of those people have JDs doesn't mean the JDs got them those jobs. Rather, it's often evidence of the legal profession's dirty little secret: that JDs are thick on the ground in other industries because so many people get law degrees, discover they hate the profession, and then flee it. (That count now includes me, of course: I didn't hate being a lawyer, but I'm much happier now that I'm a blogger instead.)
And even if law school was a "great all-purpose degree," why on Earth would you want one of those? What would be the point of spending years of your life studying law and then years more at a firm trying to pay for your law degree, all so that you can go and do something else? Just go do the something else.
Law school isn't a shortcut to those other careers — it's a longcut. If there is something else you want to do, go do it.
Amanda Taub is a staff writer at Vox.