Should You Get Work Experience Before Law School?
April 01, 2021
Torn between working or going straight to law school? Derek Meeker, Noodle Expert and former Dean of Admissions for U Penn's Law School, wrote this guide to help you make the right choice.
Thousands of students apply to law school each year. One way to make sure your application distinguishes itself from the many others is to have a robust resume featuring some real-world work experience. Here are some benefits — there are no downsides! — to working before applying to law school.
You’ll stand out in the admissions process.
Acquiring work and life experience after college will make you a more appealing applicant: You will have broader life experiences from which to draw when crafting your law school application essays (or when interviewing with admissions officers). Law schools want interesting students with diverse perspectives and varied experiences in their classes. In addition, having worked full-time illustrates that you’ll have developed and honed transferable skills, such as writing and editing; advocacy; interpersonal, analytical and critical thinking; close reading, reasoning, leadership, and networking. A variety of jobs would enable you to sharpen one or more of these skills; the job does not have to be law-related. Moreover, working full-time requires a heightened degree of maturity, dependability, commitment, discipline, and judgment, because you are responsible for showing up every day for eight or more hours to deliver some type of service or work product. Someone is counting on you, just as your future boss at a law office, co-counsel, and future clients will be too.
You’ll clarify your career goals.
You may discover a completely different passion that takes you in a new direction. Or, you may become even more certain that you want to be a lawyer — and that certainty will translate into a more confident, articulate law school application. (Remember what I was saying earlier about “standing out" in the admissions process? Admissions committees like confident, goal-oriented applicants who can clearly articulate why they’re interested in law, and why a particular school is a good fit for them!) Once you begin law school, you will be on a regimented track that moves very quickly. The first year of law school is demanding and intense. At the end of spring semester of your first year, you’ll go straight from final exams into the writing competition for journal membership, then begin work in your first summer job. Just a few weeks later, you will bid on the firms with which you want to interview later that summer for your 2L summer job. (Yes, these interviews take place a year in advance — just a few months after you complete your first year of law school.) There is very little time in law school to “figure things out." Do it before you get there. Being in the real world after college will help illuminate your career goals.
You’ll know you’re making the right choice.
Law school is an expensive endeavor. Allow yourself time to confirm that it is the right choice for you. We all hear stories about unhappy lawyers — in my experience, many unhappy lawyers didn’t fully understand what they were getting into because they didn’t take the time to research what lawyers do. As a result, they found themselves in jobs they didn’t really want but felt they needed to endure to pay off their student loan debt. Or worse, the only jobs they could get were ones that didn’t pay enough for them to live comfortably and make their monthly student loan payments. The median starting salary for recent law school graduates is just over $62,400, while the median debt is $141,000!
That said, there are, of course, lawyers who love what they do and make a comfortable living. You could be one of them. Do sufficient research on what law school entails, on what different types of lawyers do (and earn!), and on what the estimated cost of law school will be for you. Working after college could allow you additional time to explore the cost of law school as well as your job prospects. And you will likely be a happier lawyer should that be the path you choose.
You’ll be more likely to find a job after law school.
Having work experience will make you a more competitive candidate when you are applying for legal positions, especially if your work history is related to the practice area that you will be pursuing. But even if it is completely unrelated (or if you don’t yet know your practice area interest), there are still a plethora of jobs that will allow you to cultivate qualities and skills that will make you a better lawyer and, thus, a more competitive job candidate after law school. And being a more competitive job candidate, i.e., someone with a JD and highly developed skills that legal employers seek, means you will be better positioned to land one of the more coveted legal jobs.
You’ll reap additional benefits.
If all of the above isn’t enough, here are some additional benefits to delaying going to law school:
# Work experience can help compensate for a lower GPA.
The undergraduate GPA is a critical factor in the admissions process. You can offset a weak academic record by showing that you’ve held employment for a sustained period of time. Once your college career ends, your grades are set in stone, and a law school admissions committee will scrutinize them. While earning a high LSAT score can be an effective means of compensating for a lower GPA, it still doesn’t show that you are capable of delivering excellent work for a sustained period of time. Substantive, progressive work experience can do just that!
# Your employer can provide a letter of recommendation.
Law school admissions committee love letters of recommendation from your college professors, but they also value having letters from diverse sources that can provide different perspectives on your skills, work ethic, and character. Working full-time provides an opportunity to obtain additional letters of recommendation from colleagues in a non-academic setting.
# Save money; minimize debt.
Working after you graduate from college can allow you to save money for law school (or pay off some debt you may have incurred during college).
In summary, working before attending law school provides many short- and long-term benefits. While I have heard many people express remorse for going straight to law school from college, not a single person has ever said she regretted taking time in between to get work experience.