Wednesday, July 11, 2012

To Go or Not to Go

What do you call a busload of lawyers who fall off a cliff?  A good start.

A law degree means you have passed the bar exam and now will have to tolerate every lawyer joke from every wannabe comedian in the world.  Okay, so why would anyone want to go to law school?  The common perception is that attorneys are a lower form of life, waiting to drain unsuspecting clients of their resources.  No one calls an attorney until something terrible happens to them.  Something life changing.

But that's what a lot of us love.  We meet people at their lowest point.  Whether they've been arrested, are getting divorced, a loved one died, or the IRS is calling in a tax bill.  People come to us and we get to use our education and talents to help someone who is truly in need.  Someone who doesn't know where to turn.  Someone without hope.  We get to show them the path to hope.  How to protect an estate for their children.  How to handle an arrest with dignity.  How to settle a divorce and help their children.  We become the intermediary for what is bad in someone's life.

It is a truly noble calling.  Everyone deserves an educated and hard-working attorney. 

At risk of upsetting law school admissions across the country, let's get one thing straight.  Not everyone should go to law school.  Heck, not everyone needs to go to college (but that's more of a student loan issue I'll discuss later this week).  I know we are a nation of "we can achieve anything we set our mind to", but that doesn't mean we should always do it.

There are many things a law degree can do.  It will give you an advanced degree.  It will change your way of thinking through problems.  It will allow access to jobs otherwise unavailable. 

There are many things a law degree does not do.  Provide you a job.  Guarantee you will pass the bar exam.  Pay your student loans.  Show you how to live your life. 

We spend three years in law school reading, studying, highlighting unimportant details in textbooks, and then it's time for the real world.  Time to get a job.  What's the plan?  What's the strategy?  Do we treat job hunting like hunting with a shotgun?  Fire  and spray shots everywhere, hoping something will hit a target.  Or a rifle?  Fire and aim at a very specific target, but risk losing out on other jobs if your one goal doesn't work out?

The legal profession is different now than even ten years ago.  Law schools churn out newly minted lawyers every year.  Where do they go? 

As this New York Times Blog points out, only Nebraska and Wisconsin don't have enough lawyers.  Every other state is running at a tremendous surplus.  That means lower jobs and lower salaries because there are more people fighting for those jobs.  In New York State, we are averaging over 7,000 unneeded attorneys a year!  In ten years, that's 70,000 more attorneys than is truly needed.

Need more statistics?  There are 728,000 lawyers in the U.S. right now.  Divide this by 300 million population.  That means there is a lawyer for every 413 people.  Compare this to biochemists, 25,000 jobs, physical therapists, 198,000 jobs, or even chiropractors, 52,000 jobs.  There are plenty of lawyers.

Combine this with the advent of legal advertising and many legal markets are struggling.  What does advertising have to do with it?  It's the reason people drink Pepsi and Coke, not RC Cola.  It's what they see.  Personal injury cases generally bring in the most money for a firm.  When all of those cases are funnelled to one or two factory firms who spend millions on advertising, the cases for other lawyers dry up.  Many law firms who can't afford billboards and commercials have folded their tents.  I know many lawyers who scrape by on only assigned cases, or who spend twelve hours running through courtrooms across the county. 

What about the high paying legal jobs?  They're out there.  But a person's first year in law school is usually determinative of whether it's attainable.  After the first year, you can apply for summer internships.  The high-paying firms only hire the best credentialed for the summer.  Then, new associates are picked from the summer interns.  These jobs are difficult to get. 

If you are lucky enough to get one, please don't fall into the golden handcuff trap.  New attorneys spend years without making money.  When that first big paycheck comes in, a spending spree is in order, right?  New car?  House?  Eat out every night?  Be careful.  A big spending lifestyle leads to a reliance on a big earning job.  Big firms are not immune from economic downturns.  Big firms also require big billable hour requirements, requiring six or seven days a week in the office at some places.  This leads to high burn-out.  When the associate decides he's had enough in two years, they still have large debt hanging over their head and an addiction to a big money life. 

Public service jobs?  You want to help the world?  Please do it, we need you.  But now we get into the debt problem.  That $200,000 degree from the private law school is an expensive piece of paper, especially on a $45,000 per year salary.  The debt limits a person's job options.  There are debt forgiveness programs for certain jobs, but they usually don't kick in until after ten years of payments.  And should we rely on the government?  Programs like these might be the first to go in difficult economic times.

My advice is to be smart about your career selection.  It is difficult to ask a seventeen or eighteen year old kid to decide what to do with the rest of their life when they enter college.  I didn't know and I'm sure I'm in the majority.  But don't just waft through core classes and the easy electives.  Go out and experience what different careers have to offer.  Find out what a person with an MBA really does.  Find out what a lawyer really does.  What about a doctor?

Lead a life towards a purpose.  Once you have done the research on careers, you will be able to choose one.  Many lawyers I know regret the decision to go to law school.  Many don't regret it, but regret the amount of debt they piled up.  There are more still who are happy.

It is your life.  Lead it towards somewhere, before it starts leading you towards nowhere. 

Then, you must decide if it is worth the cost.  Check back for the student loan analysis this week. 


  1. Great post. It is really astounding how many lawyers there are!

  2. If you're between 18 and 69 and want to improve your skills or retrain, a government scheme that helps pay off the interest may be viable. But it's not easy way