Law & Legal Studies

The 5 Worst Reasons to Go to Law School

The 5 Worst Reasons to Go to Law School
According to a 2016 survey from the American Bar Association, 28 percent of lawyers experience mild or higher levels of depression, 19 percent experience anxiety, and 23 percent deal with chronic levels of stress. Objection! Image from Unsplash
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Mairead Kelly October 22, 2019

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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Everyone knows that law school is an enormous undertaking in terms of time, money, and mental focus. From cramming for the LSAT to passing the bar exam, and digesting a near ludicrous amount of reading, the experience is full of challenges—which makes your reason for choosing law school matter significantly not only as you pursue a degree, but consider the longevity of your career in law.

Of course, not everyone chooses law school for the right reasons. Take my brother, for example, best known for constantly arguing with my parents while we were growing up. By high school, he made it a routine of it, debating everything from curfews and haircuts to the bagginess of his jeans and the music playing from his bedroom stereo. My dad found his cleverness frustrating. My mom joked that he should go to law school.

After graduating from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in political science, my brother felt unsure of exactly where he fit and what he wanted to do with his career. Soon, my mom’s wisecracks started to ring in his ears like real words of wisdom, and he decided to go for it. Because, at the very least, he was good at arguing, and at most, he didn’t know what else to do.

In the ten years since hashing out his shoddy career plans, he graduated from New England Law, passed the bar exam, and moved from working as an assistant district attorney to a criminal defender. Last year, he opened his own law office and expanded his practice to include civil litigation, tenant law, and licensing. Am I that surprised he pulled it off? Not really—but he did toe the line of making a $145,000 mistake.

If you’re thinking about law school, it’s likely either because you’ve dreamt of becoming a lawyer your entire life, or you’re like my brother and on the lookout for your next move. Before you start envisioning yourself dropping words like, “constitutes” and “hearsay” in mahogany-paneled rooms, consider the wrong reasons for choosing a law program, so you can be sure that this six-figure investment is the right one for you.

1. You have lawyers in your family.

If dusty textbooks, yellow legal pads, and lively debate are all artifacts of your childhood home, there’s a good chance your family members’ careers in the courtroom rubbed off on you. At the same time, the law has changed in so many ways over the years, with more changes sure to come. This year alone, hundreds of new laws were introduced, affecting countless aspects of everyday life and business across the United States, many of which directly impact the legal profession and courts.

Today’s lawyers also have to keep up technological change like the use of artificial intelligence and legal process outsourcers, which are reshaping and driving the profession. In which case, you’ll need to be realistic. Did you fall in love with today’s legal industry—or the one a family member introduced you to in the past?


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2. You’re in it for money.

A 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that lawyers can expect a median pay of $120,910 per year. However, that pay can be misleading, especially when considering recent graduates’ earnings. Approximately 20 percent of law school graduates end up in “BigLaw,” an industry nickname for the nation’s largest law firms, where they pull in starting salaries of close to $200,000 for 2-3 years before moving on.

The average salary for the other 80 percent of lawyers entering the field varies by specialization, but is typically much lower. For example, PayScale indicates that the starting salary for criminal defense lawyers averages $61,027, while real estate attorneys pull in an average starting salary of $57,456. And while the average starting salary of $60,830 for lawyers as a whole is significantly ahead of the average U.S. yearly income of approximately $46,800, it’s not as big of a difference as you might have otherwise have thought. Especially if you’re like the average law school graduate and facing down roughly $145,000 in debt.

3. You want a glamorous career.

There are enough TV shows and movies about lawyers in existence to make up a law-themed streaming service complete with a “Jag” reboot and every title ever created by David E. Kelley. The thing is, very few on-screen adaptations of life as a lawyer accurately represent the field for what it is, which is a grind.

As intellectually stimulating law practice can be, much work in the field can be the slightest bit mind-numbing. Daily responsibilities like reviewing documents, filling out forms, and researching obscure points of law may be why legal professionals are more bored at work than any other profession, according to a 2016 Emolument survey. Couple the monotony with unhappy clients and high stakes in court, and it’s not surprising that, as a whole, lawyers are a miserable bunch. According to a 2016 survey from the American Bar Association, 28 percent of lawyers experience mild or higher levels of depression, 19 percent experience anxiety, and 23 percent deal with chronic levels of stress. Objection!

4. You think a law degree is versatile.

A common reason among prospective law students for enrolling in law school is the belief that obtaining a law degree can never hurt your professional standings. After all, law school is medical or business school with a different type of jargon, right? In particular, people who attend law school to forestall making a career decision may believe that (worst-case scenario) completing a program will show prospective employers how well-rounded and capable they are. However, in many cases, going to law school gives you a specific set of credentials that may not be very useful outside of the legal field. You may be overqualified in terms of your education, but you may also come up against candidates who have three years of work experience on you.

5. You’re good at arguing.

Any person who’s ever shouted over, interrupted, or repeated “I know I’m right, end of discussion!” or some other gibberish to an opponent during an argument is not a person who should go to law school. But, in some cases, they are—and do, after somehow developing the impression that arguing is one of their strong suits. While reading, writing, and analyzing information are much more what being an attorney is about than rapid-fire, logic-bending debate, those who are best cut out for law school can get their points across concisely and with credible evidence. These people are likely to do well in the legal field because, win or lose, they’ll be respected by their peers—and not try to win their cases on snark alone.

If a sloppy penchant for arguing is what’s sending you law school, consider saving your money and starting a podcast instead. Who knows? Your “outside of the box” logic may be the next big thing in digital media. Whoever’s in the jury box will appreciate it, too.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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