I defaulted into law school.
In the early 1970s, stuck in a dead-end job, I wanted more money and a meatier career. But with no particular skills or talents and a bachelor's degree in American history, I was rudderless. Coincidentally, the Watergate break-in was consuming every moment of media coverage, and virtually all the principal players were lawyers. So I applied to law school.
If something better came along, I thought, I'd drop out and pursue that opportunity. And if not, I'd at least get the training to understand what all those suits on TV were talking about.
Thirty-seven years later, I have litigated hundreds of cases and dealt with thousands of lawyers and judges. Do I regret going to law school? Usually not. For the most part, the law has been an interesting, challenging, and lucrative career. But that isn’t everyone’s experience.
Is law school for you? Here are six questions you should ask yourself before you begin the application process.
1. Are you interested in critical and analytical thinking?
Many undergrads enter law school with the mistaken belief that they'll spend the bulk of their time memorizing codes and statutes and other “black-letter law” (firmly-established rules and regulations), just as medical students memorize anatomy.
This assumption reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the prime objective of law school — to train students to think like lawyers, not to memorize texts by rote. Almost every law school follows the centuries-old, casebook model of instruction, requiring students to analyze a seemingly endless number of appellate decisions — some dating from Victorian-era Britain.
While this exercise introduces the uninitiated to legal concepts and provides historical context for American common law, its more important function is to teach law students the analytical and reasoning processes that lawyers and judges utilize on a daily basis.
2. Are you interested in applying those analytical skills to the law?
One practical and simple (but not necessarily easy) way to gauge your aptitude and appetite for legal study is to read a Supreme Court decision in which there are dissenting opinions. Choose a topic that interests you (perhaps gun control, or campaign finance, or flag-burning) and just sit down and read through both the majority and dissenting opinions.
Try to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the justices' reasoning. If you understand the nuances of their positions and are captivated by the approach each justice takes, law school may be for you. If you struggle to get through just one opinion, maybe you should consider another path.
3. Are you sufficiently self-disciplined?
While undergrads may spend Saturday evenings at the stadium rooting for the home team, you'll most likely spend weekend nights wading through long and often dense judicial opinions in those areas that fall within the standard first-year curriculum: contracts, torts, civil procedure, property, criminal law, and constitutional law. If reading isn't your thing, law school may not be either.
While a few lawyers are truly brilliant, on the whole most have no more intellectual heft than any other college graduates. Generally speaking, if you were able to earn a bachelor’s degree (or are currently on your way to one), no topic you’ll encounter in law school will be beyond your cognitive grasp. Instead, your success will depend upon your willingness to put in the time necessary to learn to think like a lawyer in different factual and legal scenarios.
4. Are you a good and agile communicator?
Assuming a certain level of intelligence, your odds of success are greatly enhanced if you’re able to write and speak clearly. Verbal skills are vitally important to law students and lawyers.
In your first year, you’ll have to take a legal research and writing course. While you’ll have very few graded written assignments (compared with undergrad), the bulk of your grade in a given course will be based upon a writing-intensive final exam, plus possibly a written midterm and perhaps class participation. In all of these circumstances, the premium will be placed on your ability, in a timed setting, to identify issues, analyze them succinctly, and apply relevant legal concepts. (And ditto for success on the bar exam.)
Clarity of presentation is as important as clarity of thought. Without both, your chances of law school success diminish substantially.
Placing matters of composition aside for a moment, many law professors teach by the Socratic method, in which the instructor probes a student's understanding and analysis of a case through a series of oral questions and hypothetical situations.
Fortune smiles on the student with the ability to articulate the issues and the rules that apply to each circumstance, and the verbal dexterity to respond quickly and clearly to an instructor's inquiries.
5. Can you reasonably integrate law school into your life?
Are you married? Raising kids? Working? Whether you attend full-time or part-time, law school will consume huge chunks of your waking hours and add an enormous amount of stress to your life. Your most fearsome enemies will become too little time and too much work.
You may be a quick and attentive reader and a multitasking goddess, but don't underestimate the physical and mental burden of adding 15 to 30 hours a week (or more, if you’re a full-time student) to the life you're already living.
An intrinsic and unavoidable characteristic of law school exacerbates these problems. Every day, your professors are training you to be a more effective advocate. Indeed, if they're doing their jobs, you're perfecting your ability to support your position and to dismantle any opponent’s reasoning methodically (i.e., you’re learning to win every argument you’re in). While this may be fruitful in a law office, it may prove less fun in a family or social setting.
6. Can you afford it?
In addition to being difficult in all the aforementioned ways, law school is expensive, and may mean skipping out on three years of full-time salary. Tuition at Columbia University School of Law, for example, is more than $55,000. Even a less selective program will cost you around $29,000 per year.
It's worth noting, however, that this Washington Post article claims that the income bump that a law degree will help to provide — even for the 25th percentile of earners — can easily cover these costs. (Those in this percentile will earn roughly $350,000 more than those with a bachelor’s over their lifetimes, before accounting for law school costs.) As of 2012, an individual holding a bachelor’s degree could expect to make about $65,000 at age 40, whereas someone with a J.D. might expect to make nearly twice that amount at the same age (around $110,000).
Student loans are quite common, but the same Washington Post article explains that law school grads default about one-sixth as frequently as those who earn a bachelor’s or below. One problem with these figures — which the author acknowledges — is that loan repayment and employment data for students who graduated during the recession are still not available.
The perfect law student would have a comedian's ability to improvise and speak publicly, a mathematician's powers of logic, and a poet's facility with language. While it’s obviously not required that you fit this impossible ideal, it helps if you love to read and dissect texts, if you’re a quick thinker and a hard worker, if you’re interested in the law itself, if you can afford to pay tuition and maybe skip out on full-time earnings for a few years, and if you have room on your plate to make a huge (but ultimately rewarding) time commitment.