I have a confession to make. I’m a closet lawyer. I went to law school, passed the bar, and I can legally practice in the state of Kentucky. Sometimes it’s hard to admit. When I meet new people, I tend to wait until I know them pretty well before I tell them. You see, when you don’t actively practice, it just doesn’t come up. Then when it does, it’s usually met with a barrage of questions. “Why aren’t you practicing?” “Weren’t you able to pass the bar?” “Why in the world would you spend all that time in law school and then not practice?” It can be a bit difficult to explain. Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly), those that tend to understand the most are other lawyers.
I should also start this post with a warning. If you are reading this and you are in law school or are planning to attend, this is not an altogether upbeat post. It is my story and I will try to provide as much insight and advice as possible. I worked in a law firm while getting my bachelor’s degree and became friends with the people there. Some of them tried to tell me ahead of time not to go to law school and warned me of the pitfalls. I had the same experience as a law clerk during my second year of law school when my boss politely informed me that he would rather be digging ditches. I didn’t listen to this well intentioned advice and I secretly resented that they would say such things. I now find myself uttering that same advice to others knowing all the while that the recipient of said advice probably feels the same way I did. Law school was my plan and I had to stay on course. So their warnings went unheeded and I continued on my merry way. There are people who are called to the profession and love what they do. I hope this is you. It was not me. Anecdotally, I can tell you that many of my peers also wish that they had listened to that advice as well. Others are thriving in the field and feel a sense of satisfaction.
As for me, I graduated with a degree in Economics when I was only 21 and in my mind, there were only two choices from there. I could go ahead and get a PhD or I could get a law degree. I chose law. After all, it would only take three years instead of four and provided a very clear and direct career path. I applied to seven different law schools; a couple where I knew I would be accepted, a few back-ups where I would be content to go, the one I really wanted to attend, and a “reach” school where my chances of acceptance were slim. The day I got the acceptance letter from the University of Kentucky was the most exciting day of my life to that point. I was ecstatic. Because I had graduated from undergrad a semester early, I was able to work full time at the firm for the entire spring semester while waiting for law school to start in the fall. Looking back, it was one of the most carefree times of my life. I worked full time, lived with my best friend, and started preparing myself for a move to Lexington. Then law school started and my world suddenly wasn’t very rosy anymore.
I knew within the first two weeks of law school that I had made a mistake. I’m almost ashamed now to admit that graduating summa cum laude with my Econ degree was not very difficult. Sure, I let myself get stressed out from time to time and I studied hard before exams. But I rarely read the assignments, didn’t study at all in between exams, and often caught myself daydreaming during class. I was in no way prepared for the mental exertion of law school. It was a rude awakening. Most mornings, I arrived at the law school when the library opened at 7:00 am and would be there until close to midnight when the library closed, with few breaks in between. It was exhausting. I rarely saw my friends and family, I was always studying, and no matter how often I had to do it, I was just not comfortable being asked questions in front of a classroom full of people when I wasn’t really sure of the answers. During the first semester, I spiraled toward depression, wondering how in the world I was going to make it through three years. I cried. A lot. The only thing I knew to do was to put on a happy face and try to persevere.
At the end of that first semester, when the grades rolled in, I found I had made my first “C”. In fact, I made two. The lone “A” in my criminal law class did little to raise my spirits. Quitting was not an option. I would feel like a failure for the rest of my life if I didn’t finish. Fortunately, at the very end of that first semester, I met my husband. I knew something special was growing between us and that provided enough light in my life that I was able to look ahead to the second semester.
It took me a while to get the hang of law school. The thought processes were different; it was literally like learning how to think all over again. Like someone suddenly told me I had been doing it wrong all along. The case law often seemed designed to point out the worst in humanity and the hours were brutal. I never got to the point where I could speak aloud without a shaky voice, no matter how confident I was in my answer, but I did become more comfortable in my surroundings and with my peers. I ended up graduating from law school in the top third of my class with slightly better than a B average. That was good enough, even for my Type A personality. I had proven to myself that I could do it. So I took the bar exam, passed, entered the field of finance, and never looked back.
But aside from my story, the point of this post is both cautionary and reflective. There are absolutely some great reasons to become a lawyer. There are also some really bad ones. If you are thinking about attending law school, please know what you are getting into. Search within yourself and really think about who you are and what you want. Not knowing what else to do is not a good reason to go to law school. Neither is the prospect of making a ton of money. And if you envision yourself working 40 hour weeks, I would think twice. The legal profession is not what it is made out to be on TV. If, however, you find yourself really passionate about the law and with a desire to learn more, find a few lawyers and shadow them for a week. Really get in the trenches and see what their days are like. Just like in all professions, there will no doubt be rewarding days and also days that just aren’t worth it. But whatever you do, don’t go into it naively. Just the process of getting through law school is long, slow, and often painful. You need to make sure it’s worth it for you. A few notes on this are below.
Debt to Salary Ratio:
When it comes to the money part, be realistic. I started law school with no debt at all. No car payments, no credit card bills, and no student loans. I lived frugally, worked when I could, and even with my parents kicking in 3/4 of my rent every month, I still graduated $65,000 in debt. This was about average among my peers. Depending on where you attend, this could very well be more. It could be less if you are willing to work more, but I will tell you that I spent almost all of my free time studying. If you are bright enough to be in the very top of your class and gain employment in one of the big firms, or if you have a pre-law degree that really allows you to carve a niche for yourself (such as in patent or tax law), then you might come out of law school making six figures. In reality, the majority of students will graduate and begin working in small to mid size firms making somewhere around $60,000. The government jobs make even less. Think $45,000 to $50,000 a year. When the first year salary figures from the class of 2011 came in, for example, they showed that the average salary for first year attorneys was around $75,000. However, if you really look at the numbers, you will see that 52% of those first year attorneys fall within the $40,000-$65,000 range, while only 14% fell along the $160,000 range. (http://www.nalp.org/salarycurve_classof2011) I’m not saying that $40,000-$65,000 isn’t decent money, but it isn’t what you would expect out of such an expensive education. In fact, this is the type of money you can expect to make your first year out of undergrad if you go into the finance field. I know, because it is eventually what I chose to do and I ended up making the same amount of money as many of my friends who went on to pursue jobs in the legal field.
All thoughts of money aside, the hours are LONG. If the profession is something you are passionate about, then this probably isn’t going to be an issue. But be aware that even at $160,000 a year, 60 hour weeks get really old, really fast. At most firms, you can expect to be asked to bill a minimum of 1850 hours a year. If you are just looking at a straight 1850 hours, this doesn’t sound too bad. If you took three weeks of vacation, it would still only come out to a little less than 38 hours a week. Don’t let these numbers fool you. “Billable hours” do not include time you spend talking to your colleagues, making copies, attending firm meetings, lunches, attending CLE courses, etc. The list goes on and on. Added to that, if you are on a partnership track, you will spend even more time earning face time with the partners and attending social events that you can’t bill for. Then there are the unexpected issues that pop up. As a case in point, my husband had put in a lot of hours at his firm during his second year out of law school. He had already met his minimum billable requirements when Christmas rolled around and we were looking forward to getting to spend a whole week with family. Then some stuff came up at the office and he ended up only getting to take Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We rang in the New Year sitting in his office while he poured through documents. We were devastated. Again, if you really enjoy your job, this might not be an issue. But if you are just trying to earn a paycheck, it can get exhausting.
If you are finding yourself facing a career that you aren’t all that excited about, whether in the legal profession or not, know that you have options. During my second year in law school, with the support of my boyfriend (now husband), I sought the advice of a career coach. We met about once a month and the time I spent with her was invaluable. I took personality and aptitude tests, she set up interviews where I could talk to people in other professions, she gave me salary information, and she taught me how to network. When I graduated from law school, I still wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do, but I had narrowed down the possibilities and I had a direction. I was no longer afraid and I was prepared to walk away from law. I also knew a lot of things I didn’t want to do. She helped me settle into my role as a Financial Analyst for Chiquita and it eventually grew into a Financial Systems Analyst job. This was a path I never would have thought to take, but with her help, it turned into a career that was both challenging and rewarding. It was also a field where I could work 40-45 hours a week and go home to my family. For me, this was a priority. It was an added bonus that I started out with about the same salary as most of my friends from law school. If you’re on the fence and believe that your only option is to enter a career you aren’t too excited about, I urge you to reach out to a career coach or counselor. I found mine on Google and it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. There really are people out there whose job it is to help you find a more positive path. They are knowledgeable and very well connected. If you are in the Cincinnati area, I can even point you in the right direction.
I won’t say that I regret my time in law school. I met my husband there, I gained a lot of confidence, and I learned a lot about myself in the process. Having a JD also opened a few doors and gave me a huge leg up during interviews. Not to mention, it’s a great fall back plan should I ever need to use it. But I will say that I wish I had listened to the naysayers and been a little better informed before I made the decision to go. I went to law school for the wrong reasons; the guaranteed career, the three year degree, the prestige, and yes, even the perceived fame and fortune. My hope for you, dear reader, is that you will not make the same mistake.