Monday, August 24, 2009

So you want to go to Law School?

On occasion, relatives and friends inform me they are contemplating law school, and inquire as to my thoughts. My first question is always this: “Why do you want to go to law school?”

If you want to become a lawyer, (and you live in the United States), you won’t have much choice. As far as I know every state requires a Juris Doctorate to take the Bar entrance. Long, long ago, you could clerk and intern enough to qualify; but I don’t believe that is still possible.

If you want to bang on tables, F. Lee Bailey style, or become the next Johnnie Cochran, it is off to law school. I found, though, that many law students didn’t necessarily know what type of lawyer they wanted to be. Some were there because their fathers were lawyers, and it was what was expected. Some were there because they thought of dollar signs, and medical school takes too long. (More on this in a minute.) Some were there because they were not ready to leave off college, and it seemed an amicable post-graduate step.

And even those who were certain they wanted to practice law, (such as myself) did not know where they would fall. One could become a transactional lawyer, bogged down in painstaking minutiae, turning a one-paragraph contract into a 14-page document with paragraph titles, contents page and an index. (It must have been a transactional attorney who coined the phrase “party of the first part.”)

Transactional lawyers never, EVER see the inside of the courtroom. Many transactional lawyers hire other lawyers to handle even traffic tickets.

Or one can become a litigator. The person who appears in court, shouting at witnesses and being yelled at by judges. Again, this does not narrow the field. One could go into criminal work (either federal or state), or civil work (personal injury, contract, general litigation). And there are the fields of bankruptcy, taxation and immigration that (being a bit simplistic on my part) are a combination of transactional and litigator. Mostly preparing forms, with a hearing, and a possible trial.

One can go into family law (divorce, post-divorce concerns over parenting time, support and alimony) or into probate work (will and trust preparation, petitions for guardianship or conservatorship). And within each field, one often specializes further. Only Medical Malpractice, for example. Or only Drunk Driving cases.

People generally fell into three (3) areas of practice:

1) An area they were particularly passionate about;
2) What the family did;
3) Where they got their first job.

If a person went into law school, intent on becoming a litigator, they would concentrate their course study towards that ends, look for jobs with litigation as a primary opportunity, and focus attention there. A number of my classmates had parents who were lawyers, and it was expected they would “follow in the family’s footsteps.” If the family work was personal injury—so was the child’s.

And finally, many went out looking for jobs, and where they started gave them the experience enabling them to obtain their first job. If, while in law school, you clerked for two years in a medical malpractice firm, when you start looking for a job your greatest advantage was the two-year experience already under your belt. You tend to naturally end up there.

There are other reasons to attend law school. If you want a political career, a law degree is very helpful. It may help you in a business setting. If you want to teach; you get a doctorate and a chance to wear fancy robes and the longer hood at graduations.

I am not much help in any of those directions. I decided to become a lawyer after my freshman year at college. I wanted to be a litigator. The guy in the courtroom. To me, law school was a necessary drudgery to attend in order to reach that goal. A necessary step in the progression.

It was not a hard decision, nor one I debated over, trying to decide what direction my life would go, or what I would do. Sorry I cannot be any more help in other endeavors.

As I attended exactly one (1) law school, I have no knowledge as to other law schools’ experience. I can only relate from my own.

I can tell you, law school is not some higher institute for the crème de la crème; you get the same personalities you did in high school and college. Remember the girl that panicked and studied 100’s of hours for a simple quiz? She is there. The guy who was always late to class? There too. You find the class clown, the jocks, the partiers, the stress-studiers, the “the professor said we HAD to do it this way!” Even the guy using his pencils like drumsticks; yep—he made it to law school!

A rumor persisted the first year was hard to weed out the lesser students, but I don’t recall the first year being any harder or easier than any other.

Secondly, I attended law school from 1988 – 1992. (Law degrees are typically three year programs, but I attended night school, as I worked during the day to pay for classes at night.) A lot has changed since then. We didn’t have electrical plugs at every desk; we used books. Our “Powerpoint” was the professor writing on a blackboard. In fact, our research class was one of the first to use this thing called “Lexis”—allowing legal research on a computer. And the monitors we had could only loosely be called “color” since the text was in green and the screen was black.

To give you an idea of how times have changed, when I graduated, I contacted a company about legal forms on Word(c). They laughed, “Since 98% of law firms use WordPerfect(c), we don’t bother offering forms in Word(c).”

After you graduate—what are you going to do? The employment is really, REALLY thin in Michigan. (Again, I can’t speak for elsewhere.) Last year our firm advertised for a part-time legal secretary. We are talking maybe 20 hours a week for $10-$12 per hour.

And we had lawyers apply.

We were stunned. They informed us the jobs are so scarce, they would take anything. One particular candidate stated it best. “I thought I would get my law license and I would finally have made it. That the rest would be downhill. It is not happening. There are no jobs out there for lawyers whose only experience is law school.”

Her husband (also a lawyer) had just got a job entering data in a bankruptcy firm, and was happy to have found that work.

Those thinking of huge salaries a la Tom Cruise in a John Grisham novel, best think again. Yes, some of the top students in the United States can make good money right away. But the cold reality is that they are the exception, not the rule.

Worse, the best salaries are in the big firms. Which means you won’t be practicing law as much as practicing office politics. Firms require billable hours. Meaning lots and lots of long hours. And associate attorneys have to please the junior partners who please the senior partners. Your first year you write a lot and maybe…MAYbe attend court with someone. Your second year you get to argue a motion or two. Eventually you get a small hearing.

But if, at any step, you mis-step—your job is in jeopardy. Two (2) anecdotes as to why I never wanted to work for a large firm.

One acquaintance of mine obtained a job with a very prestigious law firm. And did quite well. He pulled a few tricks out of his sleeve, and seemed to be on the fast track to rapid promotion. Then, one day, a partner asked him to handle a matter of more personal nature. A hearing for the partner’s family member. Unfortunately, the facts were not good, the judge was not predisposed, and the other side had the day.

My acquaintance was out of a job. “You are only as good as your last trick” was what he said.

On another occasion I had a motion against an associate in another prestigious law firm. It happened my partner is very good friends with a partner in this firm. The associate’s boss’s boss’s boss. And this was a troubling case. If I won the motion, I would have won the entire case. Immediate judgment for my client. If I lost, the case would simply proceed forward. No harm; no foul.

This associate feared losing the motion; it didn’t make a huge difference to me. He was informed (I was told) that if he lost the motion, don’t bother coming back to the office. I don’t know whether they really would have fired him, but throughout that motion I watched as huge drops of sweat poured off his face. He felt his entire career going down the drain on one motion. (As it was, that day the judge WAS predisposed, and I lost the motion. His job was saved.)

I wouldn’t want so much riding on so little.

And-- with our current recession--partners are reluctant to take a pay cut; the first people on the chopping block, after support staff, are the newest lawyers.

As for me… I am a lawyer who loves his work. We see complaints of other lawyers wanting out of the practice, or looking for alternative work. I do not understand it. I love what I do.

I am not sure I am much help as to whether to go to law school. It was like driver’s education class. A necessary chore that gives you esoteric principles of rules of the road, and where the pedals are, but it isn’t until you are behind the wheel before you understand how to drive.

Law school doesn’t teach you how to practice law, really. Your first job does that.


  1. My dad's a lawyer. He specializes in capital defense cases for the indigent. He has a passion for it and has NEVER had a client executed (though many have been as guilty as sin!) In many cases, a "win" is considered a life sentence.

    Daddy makes a good living, but not half as much as an attorney in private practice in a large city -- I think his contract with the State of Oregon is for a meager $125/hr.

    My dad was really hoping his eldest son -- moi -- would follow in his footsteps. Alas, I became a poorly paid social worker. On the positive side, my brother became a poorly paid paralegal.

  2. Law school doesn’t teach you how to practice law, really. Your first job does that.

    I'd say that applies to lot more than law. It certainly applies to software.

  3. I certainly appreciate the post, giving that I'm seriously thinking about it. But maybe something in the criminology area would be more appealing. I don't know.

    All I can say is that your post is timely. Hmm.... maybe the Holy Spirit is in this :)

  4. I believe it's still possible to take the bar in California without a JD, after a 7 year apprenticeship.

    -- Larry, aka The Barefoot Bum