So, You're Gonna Be a Lawyer

Have you heard the one about why record numbers of people are applying to law school? Here's why


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The conversation had just subsided and I excused myself from my parents’ dinner table. I stepped outside, and lit a cigarette, trying hard to assimilate a daunting set of facts: I was living at home in Tarrytown, a refugee from a withering industry, and was at last obliged to admit that I could not see a viable future for myself within it. And my 29th birthday was less than a week away.

 

As the cigarette waned, one thought reverberated, louder and louder:

 

“You know what you have to do. You have to go to law school.”

 

I should explain myself a bit. I have no head for business. When I was a kid collecting baseball cards, I’d buy retail, and (because I didn’t have the stomach for negotiation) I’d sell wholesale. I’m terrified of needles and, that alone, I would think, pretty well precludes me from becoming a doctor. I don’t have the patience to be a teacher. I don’t have the empathy to be a social worker. I don’t have the looks to be an actor—and I’m a dreadful waiter. So how do I make my way in the world?

 

An alumnus of Mamaroneck High School, I graduated in 2001 from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in English. An English degree isn’t exactly a skeleton key; more often than not it’s a punch line. But, luckily, I landed in the one industry that takes such a degree seriously: publishing. For three years I worked at Simon & Schuster, specializing in sports books. I worked long hours for a laughably meager salary, but I adored it.

 

And then, in November of 2002, my boss was let go. The writing was on the wall, only I couldn’t read it. I was laid off barely eight months later, in July 2003. For 18 months I tried to impress, cajole, and wheedle my way back into publishing; I went to legions of interviews, and, invariably, I was too qualified, or not qualified enough, or “I’d love to hire you, but I just don’t have the space.” After bashing my head against a bitterly depressed job market, it finally dawned on me that publishing, with its paltry salaries, instability, and shrinking market share, just wasn’t worth banking on. I had to explore other options.

 

Like so many twentysomethings, my attention eventually turned to one alternative: law school. These days, with an undergraduate degree of any stripe frequently insufficient for advancement beyond an entry-level position, applying to law school has become practically de rigueur for ambitious graduates. 

 

For reasons ranging from the high minded (“I want to help change the world”) to the desperately practical (“I don’t know what else to do for the next three years”), contemplating law schools and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) has become a new rite of passage for young adults uneasily navigating the fresh territory after college commencement. For those still struggling with “What do I want to be when I grow up,” law school has become a socially popular, yet professionally unassailable way of answering that question—or, putting off answering the question. 

 

“I was out at a bar last weekend when one of my friends from high school asked me point-blank, ‘So, when are you going to law school?’” says Bennett Gordon, a 25-year old 2003 graduate of George Washington University. “That seems to happen every few weeks. I feel like there are three options for college graduates night now: public relations, marketing, or law school.” Indeed, so many college graduates are contemplating law school that one Harvard grad, class of ’02, advises, “When you go to a party and meet someone, ask them, ‘Are you in law school, applying to law school, or studying for the LSATs?’”

 

Young grads who choose not to go to law school sometimes feel like the odd man out. “Five out of seven of my close high school friends are in law school,” reports Erica Strochlic, a 2003 Vassar College graduate, who has a Master’s degree and is currently teaching elementary school. Strochlic hopes to pursue more graduate study but not, she vows, in law.    

 

But why law, specifically? Is it just that—post-Internet-hysteria—nobody’s got a better idea? Is it just that people think that a big salary necessarily follows from a JD? Is it peer-pressure, our parents, our media? Is it lack of imagination, or are we dreaming too big?

When I was a senior in college, I shared an apartment with two close friends, both of whom were ticketed for law school and boning up for the LSAT. I, on the other hand, hadn’t the foggiest notion of what I would do come graduation. Not long before we graduated, they cornered me and earnestly informed me that they had been doing some thinking about my future, and believed that I ought to take the test as well. I adamantly refused. For years I would tease my parents by pretending to stare wistfully at nothing in particular before announcing, “Maybe I should take the LSAT.”

 

“Really?” they’d ask, expectantly.

 

“Just kidding,” I’d snicker back.

 

But over time, as my friends paraded, one after another, to law school, my resolve softened. What seemed repellent at 22 made too much sense to ignore at 29. And so it took me all of one week of serious deliberation to come to the conclusion that with my attributes (and deficiencies), law school, with its promise of a degree that may not be a panacea but surely attracts attention, was my best chance to carve for myself a place in the world.

 

I mean, everyone else is doing it, right? So, how hard can it be? According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT, 145,258 people took the LSAT in the 2004-2005 admissions year, a 26 percent jump over 10 years ago. Over the last decade, more than 1.1 million students have shelled out the not-inconsiderable fee to take the test (currently the cost is $115 per test session, and many take the exam more than once), to say nothing of the amount that people commonly drop on prep courses, such as those offered by Kaplan and Princeton Review. (A 12-session Kaplan course costs $1,249, while a comparable Princeton Review course runs to $1,349, and private tutors offered by both firms charge more than $100 an hour.) Of those who sweat through the LSAT, about 100,000 actually applied to some of the 190 American Bar Association, approved U.S. laws schools, versus 76,700 a decade ago.

 

Of course, law school has always been a safe way of buying three more years before facing The Real World. “It has always been a popular option for a lot of young people who don’t know what they want to do when they grow up,” says Nell Newton, dean of the University of Connecticut Law School in Hartford.

 

And objectively, there are plenty of good, sound reasons to go the law school route, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what you’ll eventually do with your degree. Unlike devoting three years to surfing, or working at Starbucks, a legal education provides you with all sorts of lifelong analytical tools you can employ across a wide range of situations. “Law school is very good at teaching us how to look at complex problems and solve them, which is helpful for a lot of careers,” says Newton.

 

“Thomas Jefferson went to law school, but he never practiced law,” notes Steven H. Goldberg, a professor at Pace University School of Law in White Plains. “Personally, I’ve seen really good students who had no intention of practicing law.”

 

The generally soft labor market has provided yet another incentive for some new grads to return to school. While the job market has picked up somewhat during the last year or so, hitting the law books for a few years still seems preferable to some grads than beating the pavement for a decent job. According to the National Association of College and Employers based in Bethlehem, PA, among 2003 college graduates (the last year for which statistics are available), only 45 percent had jobs lined up on their Commencement Day, and nearly a quarter were still hunting for their first position seven months later.

 

“Over the last couple of years after the job market tanked, students saw that it can be very volatile and that grad school would put off entry into a job market that’s not very inviting,” says Jody Queen-Hubert, the director of Cooperative Education and Career Services at Pace University’s Westchester campus. “It’s a natural reaction to a bad job market.” Adding to the allure are new lawyers’ relatively fat starting salaries—the median salary for all first-year associates last year was $100,000, according to the National Association of Legal Professionals in Washington, DC. (Attorneys at big New York City firms do even better, typically starting at around $125,000). That seems pretty flush compared to the starting salary for the average liberal arts-degree wielding college graduate, which was $32,725 annually, according to Jobweb.com.

 

And the peer pressure to choose the law, by some accounts, is overwhelming now. “So many people take the LSAT because they can’t think of anything better to do,” Gordon explains. And the pressure to follow suit is unrelenting. “People keep telling me to just take the LSATs, but I can’t decide what I want for breakfast, much less what I want for a career.” 

 

Scratch the surface of many would-be barristers, and you might begin to wonder if some know what they’re really getting themselves into. This current crop of law school applicants is probably the first one to hold the notion that the law is not merely a respectable profession that will provide them with a nice standard of living, but sexy to boot. We grew up, after all, watching leggy mini-skirted actresses like Calista Flockhart sashay their way through TV courtrooms as Alley McBeal, and buff legal eagles like Harry Hamlin on LA Law strut through the corridors of the equally fictitious McKenzie, Brackman (his character, Michael Kuzak, appeared to have prepped for his bar exam at Barneys), not to mention shows like Law & Order, The Practice, and Boston Legal, to name only a few. And when we weren’t watching lawyers on TV, we devoured John Grisham’s popcorn page-turners of heroic crime-fighting lawyers by the trunkload.

Cathy M. Alexander, the director of admissions for Pace’s law school, believes such glitzy depictions have “influenced” law school application rates. “The media always influences young people’s decision whether or not to choose this profession,” she notes.

 

Mimi Huang, a 24-year-old Rutgers University graduate from Bridgewater, NJ, who took the LSAT in October, believes that “becoming a lawyer is, in a way, glamorous”—even, she says, “romantic.”

 

Oh, yeah? Listen to Fred (He asked that I not disclose his identity, firm, or alma mater for reasons that will become clear). Fred has it made: he graduated with honors from a top-20 ranked law school and works as a litigator at a major New York law firm. He has a plum job and earns a low six-figure salary, all before his 30th birthday. Many aspiring lawyers would certainly envy him.

 

Except for one thing: he doesn’t sound happy.

 

Fred decided on law school because, he says, “I enjoyed advocating for certain positions, especially for environmental causes. He also “loved giving teachers a hard time; I carried the ‘Students’ Rights and Responsibilities Handbook,’ and would skim it to find some inconsistency any time the teachers took some punitive measure against me or the class.” (Fred also cites The People’s Court and that great jurist Judge Wapner as another significant influence on his decision to become a lawyer.)

 

Fred enrolled in law school intending to focus on environmental law. “But,” he explains, “I realized during the first year that I wasn’t going to be able to make the living I wanted.”  So,  he decided to find another legal area to specialize in. “I realized I wanted to go to a large law firm after law school, and that if I went to a large firm and dealt with environmental law, I’d find myself working for a large corporation on the wrong side of the issue,” he says. So he turned to litigation and joined a large New York firm.

 

Now Fred finds himself a small cog in a large legal machine, and he doesn’t like it very much. It’s not just the grinding hours, the pressure, or the fact that he now finds himself serving the cause of Big Business rather than Mother Nature. (The office dress code, he says, is “beads of sweat on every forehead.”) “There are benefits to coming out of law school and putting a big-name firm on your resumé, but you’re not going to get a lot of practical experience because anything of substance is going to be done by someone who’s been there a lot longer than you.” In short, for all our high-minded talk of law’s intellectual challenge, there’s a surfeit of tedious work to be done, even for the most accomplished young lawyer.

 

So, at the end of the day, has it all been worth it? “Right now, I don’t think so,” Fred responds. “I don’t think the money is worth the way that I’m often treated, and it’s not worth having a lack of purpose every day. I don’t believe I’m advancing a noble cause.”

He estimates there’s a 30 percent chance he’ll leave the law as a career in the future.

 

Listening as Fred pulled back the curtain on what it’s like to work at the pinnacle of the profession was deflating. After all, how can you compete like hell to achieve his stratospheric success when you have reason to believe that the prize is akin to punishment? (Though a well-paid punishment, I grant you.)  If nothing else, Fred confirms that this isn’t a choice made lightly: this is three glacially slow years of rigorous study, and at gargantuan cost.  And so I ask myself: why am I doing this?

 

Of course, I may never serve a selfless goal as an attorney. Conversely, I may never make the kind of cash that the huge cost of law school requires to make good on the investment. While I’m at it, the daunting realities of the legal profession itself may cause me to wish, five years from now, that I’d never smoked that fateful cigarette. It may be a sucker’s bet.

 

Still, it’s a bet I’m willing to take. Law school is my last resort—and new beginning. I’m confident that given my talents and what I’m interested in, the law, with its reach and influence, its scope and breadth, its security (and, yeah, potentially lucrative salary) is the right choice.

 

God, I hope I’m right.

 

Jon Malki is an editor at www.J3tlag.com, a travel website. He plans to attend law school next September. 

 

 

 

 

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