The primary purpose of this blog isn’t evangelization; nevertheless I suppose it was inevitable that both current and prospective law students would end up asking me for advice about what, given my take on the situation, I think they should do now.
Giving advice is always tricky, especially when you’re dealing with something as potentially complex as the decision to go to, or to stay in, law school. For one thing such a decision always involves personal factors that someone who doesn’t know the person well can’t take into account properly. So I don’t try to tell people who ask for this kind of advice what to do, but I do try to give them the straight story as I see it (from my unavoidably limited perspective etc etc etc).
Still, these exchanges make me want to emphasize a couple of general points. First, people who have no real idea what lawyers do and what various forms of the practice of law are actually like have no business going to law school at present (As always none of this applies to the small but significant percentage of law students who are engaging in consumption rather than investment, and who aren’t really worried about whether law school makes sense in ROI terms).
Of course a huge percentage – perhaps the large majority – of law students have traditionally belonged to this category, but the risk-return calculus has changed dramatically enough over the course of the last 10-15 years that what was once a moderately imprudent decision has become a wildly reckless one. It was one thing to go to law school on something of a lark when, as was the case for most public law school students until about 15 years ago, the cost of law school was mostly opportunity cost. Under those circumstances, if you found yourself stuck in a job that you hated, or couldn’t get a legal job at all, you could bail out without doing major damage to the rest of your life.
What’s happened in the interim is that bailing out of the law game has changed from the equivalent of breaking up with the person you dated all through college and moved in with for a year afterwards into more like getting divorced to someone with whom you’ve had three kids who are all under eight years old. It’s not that the former experience isn’t painful and expensive; it’s that the latter event is going to be qualitatively more disastrous, in both economic and emotional terms.
Second, a more remarkable subgroup of people are those who do have some decent idea of what the practice of law tends to be like, and who as a consequence don’t want to practice law, but who end up in law school anyway. That there are such people – and my anecdotal experience suggests they’re far from rare – suggests how a combination of factors pull people who ought to know better into the law school orbit. Those factors include the remarkably tenacious “you can do lots of things other than practice law with a law degree” myth, the cultural cachet that’s still attached to calling yourself a lawyer, and the psychological tendency to ignore relatively solid evidence when it conflicts with relatively vague but compelling desires.
(1) Don’t go to law school if you don’t know much of anything about what the actual practice of law is actually like.
(2) Don’t go to law school if you do know what the actual practice of law is actually like, and think that on the whole you would prefer to do something else.
Of course this advice gets trickier to follow when you’re already in law school. Still, there can be no real doubt that, under present circumstances, a lot of people currently in law school ought to drop out. If you finish your first semester, or your first year, and you have no strong sense of why you’re in law school, or of how you’re going to pay off the debt you’re acquiring without going into IBR, quit while you’re (relatively) ahead. If you’re in your second year and have become fairly sure you don’t want to practice law – same conclusion.
Don’t throw good money after bad. Those chips in the pot no longer belong to you: don’t try to draw to an inside straight, in either law school or life.