How to know if you should go to law school:
If a friend told you they were planning to spend four years studying medicine to become a doctor, but they had never been inside of a hospital or been to a doctor’s office, you would probably think they were crazy. But plenty of law school applicants have never visited a courtroom or a law firm and have little of idea of what lawyers actually do. This probably explains why so many young associates find themselves chained to their desks at midnight on a Saturday thinking I did not sign up for this.
Do you want to be a lawyer?
Most people who go to reputable law schools go on to practice law in one form or another. Before committing to law school, it makes sense to invest time into figuring out what the practice of law is actually like and if that type of work excites you. (No, watching Law & Order and How to Get Away with Murder do not count.)
Before you apply to law school, you should be able to answer yes to both of these questions:
- Can you identify at least one area of substantive law, such as free speech or intellectual property, which you feel passionately about?
- Can you identify a few aspects of the practice of law that appeal to you, such as making an oral argument in court or counseling clients?
Many applicants can answer the first question but struggle with the second. Figuring out what lawyers actually do can be challenging because there are so many different types of lawyers practicing different types of law. Working hours, compensation, intellectual engagement, and job satisfaction vary widely among lawyers in solo practice, those working for big multinational firms, government lawyers, and non-profit lawyers. Among lawyers working for the federal government, for example, you will find labor lawyers, human rights lawyers, contract lawyers, and criminal lawyers. The career possibilities for lawyers are vast, which is why so many people think they can go to law school first and figure out if they want to be a lawyer later. With all those options, there must be at least one that I’ll like, right?
Don’t fall into this trap!
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already well on your way to critically evaluating if law school is the right choice for you. The next step is to determine if being a lawyer is the right choice. If you have the opportunity to spend a summer or even a year working in a law firm as a paralegal, this is a great way to learn about the practice of law. Volunteering at a legal non-profit is another way to gain exposure to legal practice. Even if you are not interested in ultimately practicing these types of law, you will be exposed to client work and legal research, two key areas of legal work. Ask your supervisors to connect you with lawyers in your interested fields.
If you do not have time to work full-time in a legal field before applying to law school, there are several other ways to witness lawyers in action:
- Go watch court proceedings. These are generally free and open to the public. This will be especially useful if you plan to be a litigator or practice criminal law.
- Tap into your school’s alumni network or state bar association to reach out to lawyers who would be willing to talk about their jobs over lunch.
- Read legal briefs and court decisions. Many will be available for free from your jurisdiction’s website.
These steps should help clarify if legal work is right for you.
For the future politicians:
Some people see law school as a stepping-stone on the path to the Senate or State House. If this describes you, you may think it does not matter much if you enjoy the practice of law because you only plan to do it for a few years. Fair enough, but think carefully before agreeing to spend your entire 20s in a field you don’t enjoy.
Show me the money!
Some people become lawyers to make money. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a lucrative career. But there are many high-paying career paths out there. If this is the only reason you’re choosing law, stop now. Talk to law firm partners and see how much time they have to spend their money. Talk to associates who burned out before reaching partner. Ask them if they would go to law school if they could have a do-over.
There are plenty of other issues to consider before deciding to go to law school, particularly the financial commitment. But figuring out if you actually want to be a lawyer is definitely where you should start!