Should I Go To Law School?

Jackie the Lawyer from Seinfeld

Should I Go To Law School? I spent myundergraduate days studying philosophy, linguistics, and psychology and, as I’ve told many close friends (and anyone else who wants to listen), Philosophy provides an excellent academic and pragmatic (yes I mean practical) foundation for countless careers and professions. One profession that is closely associated with studying philosophy as an undergrad is Law. Philosophy provides excellent training for prospective attorneys given rigorous course work in logic, notoriously difficult text, and training in constructing and presenting cohesive arguments.  However, the necessary training in order to practice law (viz., law school) is not for everyone.

Earning a law degree is certainly not for the student who can’t think of anything else to do with his or her life and figures becoming a lawyer sounds like a good idea.

What follows below is the best advice I’ve read on whether one should go to law school. Specifically, the advice comes from Professor Nick Smith at the University of New Hampshire.  Nick holds a J.D. and before becoming a full time Philosophy Professor he worked as an attorney at a prestigious Manhattan law firm.  Nick’s advice is brutally honest and a must read for any Junior or Senior undergrad considering law school.

By Nick Smith, J.D. and Ph.D.

Deciding to apply to law school can fundamentally alter the trajectory of one’s life. The application process can consume much of your energy as an undergraduate, the years you spend in law school will require intense dedication to your studies, you may take on well over $200,000 in law school debt, and you can be transformed in three years from a rather unmarketable college graduate to earning a $160,000 starting salary at a major law firm. As clichéd as it may sound, you can use your law degree as a powerful tool to help people. The stakes are high, both financially and existentially. Like enlisting in the military, law school changes your life. It should not be taken lightly. Just as many students attend college because that is “what you do” after high school, too many undergraduates plan on law school primarily because they do not know what else to do with themselves after college. Law school seems better than moving into your parents’ basement.

Law school served me very, very well. I would do it again in a second. I have friends and colleagues, however, who believe that attending law school sent them down the wrong path in life. They cannot change course without considerable difficulty, in part because of their law school debt. I care about my students deeply, and I offer these thoughts just as I would give advice about law school to my own children. Hopefully reading my perspectives here will help potential law students make more informed judgments about their fate. If you disagree with any of my comments, please email me with your concerns. I will take them seriously and revise when appropriate.


1. My Background: Why Listen to Nick Smith’s Opinions on Law School?

At the risk of appearing like I enjoy talking about myself, explaining my background may help readers understand–and discount where they see fit–my perspectives. As a first generation college student who lucked into generous financial aid from Vassar College and became fully serious about his studies in his junior year, I applied to law school in my senior year. I actually applied to joint J.D./Ph.D. philosophy programs, thinking that I would ideally like to be a philosophy professor but my chances of that were so slim that I needed a back-up plan to make a living. In other words, I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was hedging my bets. I spent July through October of my senior year studying for the LSAT from 4:00 to 10:00 in the morning just about every day, fueled by the fear that if I did not go to law school I would spend the remainder of my productive years slicing deli meat at a grocery store as I had throughout high school.


I scored well enough on the LSAT to be admitted into the J.D./Ph.D. programs at a few “Top 20” schools. The intoxication of these acceptance letters faded when I realized the debt entailed by the top New York law schools. If I took the path of the most prestigious and most expensive schools, such debt might effectively foreclose the possibility of ever living comfortably on a philosophy professor’s modest salary. I swallowed this bit of class consciousness–if my parents could pay for law school I would have both the fancy degree and freedom from debt–and narrowed my choices to SUNY Buffalo and the  w:st=”on”>University of Iowa. Iowa was at the time ranked solidly in the Top 20 and offered me a large discount off of the public school rate. Buffalo ranked lower, but offered a fellowship (full tuition plus a living stipend) through the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy. Buffalo also had a stronger philosophy department in my areas, and the law school specialized in the sorts of public interest law and legal theory that interested me. Matters were complicated by the fact that my Vassar girlfriend planned to make the move with me. We visited Iowa City together two weeks before I was to start classes and I dropped her off at the O’Hare Airport so that she could fly home to prepare for the move. I remember pulling off at a rest stop on I90 somewhere between Iowa and Buffalo and trying to decide whether to go east or west. I took a nap in the car, woke up, and went to Buffalo. My girlfriend disliked both options, but she perceived Iowa as especially undesirable. I mention this personal story not because I think my case is especially dramatic or interesting but because it is rather typical. Emotions and irrational fears often drive the application process as much as clear-minded reasoning.  Brace yourself for this.


Buffalo proved to be a great fit for me, though not so much for my girlfriend who left early on never to be seen again. The faculty challenged, inspired, and mentored me. I made law review, graduated second or third in my class (I think I had the equivalent of a C in Tax Law and probably deserved worse), and had offers from elite Manhattan firms. I met the woman I married. I summered at Leboeuf’s (now Dewey and Leboeuf) Manhattan office and finished the philosophy Ph.D. at Vanderbilt. I worked a few different law jobs, including at a boutique firm in Buffalo and as in-house counsel at a major medical technology firm. I served a mind-blowing one year term clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the third Circuit and returned to LeBoeuf as a litigation associate.


I’ve been a philosophy professor at UNH since 2002. I teach courses and publish in areas of legal philosophy, and I have kept many close friends from my stints in the legal profession. I serve as  pre-law advisor for UNH’s Pre-Law committee, the Philosophy Department, and the Justice Studies program. I have written letters for students who have been admitted to just about every law school in the top 100. I have seen students with 4.0 grade point averages bomb the LSAT and get rejected from every school on their lists. I have seen late-bloomers with modest grades ace the LSAT and go to N.Y.U.


Numerous guides to law school exist and you should talk to as many law students and practicing attorneys as you can before you commit to this path. I was once interning at a public defender’s office and an attorney I had never met pulled me aside and said: “Do not, do not, do not ever go to law school.” I did not heed her unsolicited advice, but I appreciated her candor and felt a little less naïve going in. My thoughts here are opinionated–philosophers and lawyers make a living giving opinions–and you may disagree or receive conflicting advice from other sources. But hopefully my comments will add some perspective to your considerations.

2. Getting Accepted to a Reasonably Good Law School
A. Your Major and Course of Study

No formal “pre-law” curriculum exists at the vast majority of schools. You can major in music, chemistry, philosophy, or any other undergraduate program if you plan on law school. Having said that, what should you look for in your undergraduate curriculum? First and most importantly, you should find a major for which you have passion. Do not choose a major because your high school guidance counselor told you that it is “better for law school.” Get to college and take classes that interest you. Explore different disciplines. Once you have taken a few classes that you love in a discipline or two, then you know your major or majors. By “love” I mean a class you don’t want to end because you feel so excited and engaged by the material–a course that inspires you to work as hard as you can and learn as much as you can. Settle for nothing less. You spend four of the most vibrant years of your life in college. Don’t waste you time with classes or majors that don’t light a fire under you. Once you find this passion you will likely excel in these courses, which in turn will raise your grade point average. There is no irony here: you will likely do best in the things you love most. This holds true in choosing your major and life generally.


Second, you want to take classes that teach you how to read, write, and argue rigorously. All majors do not accomplish this equally. Philosophy, for instance, requires you to read some of the most difficult texts ever written, discuss them in class, and construct precise analytic essays arguing your position. If you have years of practice tackling Kant in this way, the Uniform Commercial Code will seem comparatively easy. Law school and legal practice require you to read, write, and discuss complex issues. Analytic essays count for one hundred percent of your first year grades in many law schools, and students who have experience constructing sophisticated arguments have a considerable competitive advantage. Note that I do not equate good writing with merely good grammar, flow, or creativity. Law school requires extensively researched, meticulously organized, and logically constructed arguments. As a general rule, you will receive the best preparation for law school from classes that require a lot of writing, professors who give feedback on the structure and substance of your writing, and smaller courses that require intense discussion and debating. Large classes with little writing will not prepare you well for law school, even if they are devoted to legal topics. You can memorize every word of your constitutional law textbook, but if you cannot construct a compelling argument about the material you will have serious difficulties succeeding in law school. In addition to choosing the right major and classes, conducting advanced undergraduate research offers one of the best means of preparing for law school. At UNH, the S.U.R.F., U.R.O.P, I.R.O.P, R.E.A.P, and senior thesis programs provide an exceptional way to develop research and writing skills. If you are serious about law school, do as many of these as you can.


Third, good advising is essential when navigating the pre-law process. The basic application process is simple enough, but you will need a steady steam of advice over all four years of your undergraduate career if you hope to maximize your chances of being accepted at a top school. This becomes especially important if you cannot seek advice from relatives and family friends who practice law or attended elite law schools. At each stage in your career small decisions can have a considerable impact. Take logic (PHIL 412), for instance, to satisfy your “math gen-ed” if your major allows. LSAT tests for your ability to build and evaluate logical arguments, and if you excel in 412 you can master these skills further by serving as a teaching assistant for the course. Study informal fallacies in particular and practice diagramming the logical structures of sentences. Enroll in the honors program and stay in it. Meet Professor Putnam and participate in UNH Mock Trial. Take Class X rather than Class Y. Apply for an undergraduate research fellowship. Present a paper at Conference Z. In the aggregate, each of these seemingly small bits of advice from an advisor builds a strong undergraduate portfolio. One misstep–like a D in a math class that you never should have taken because you should have registered for logic instead–can seriously compromise your chances. If you take the process of applying to law school seriously, you will spend many hours in your advisor’s office gathering advice along the way. If you advisor does not know your name, does not have
time for you, or does not know much about the law school process, you have a problem. Consider finding a new advisor or a new major.

B. The Dreaded LSAT

The LSAT is brutal. I have taken many tests in my life, and this was one of the worst. I have seen very smart people–even those with perfect SAT scores and grade point averages–crash and burn on the LSAT. Many test preparation courses can teach you the rather silly tricks and mind-numbing strategies for scoring well, and I see very little relation between one’s LSAT score and their legal aptitude. The LSAT does test, however, how well you have prepared for the LSAT. If you take it with little preparation to “see how you do,” you will do poorly. If you study full time for a year and become obsessive about the test, you will likely score well. I use the word obsessive intentionally, as the best analogy I can think of for LSAT preparation is the total immersion of a ten year old in an elaborate game like chess or other all encompassing passion. You must breathe and sleep the LSAT until you literally know the answer to every question asked on every previously administered LSAT. You develop a classification system for every possible type of question, and you almost know the answer simply by looking at the format of the test page. Again, I find this test and the preparation it requires rather senseless. This is, however, the game you must play if you want to go to law school. The good news: you can compensate for a mediocre grade point average by devoting about six months of your life to the LSAT. The bad news: you can squander four years worth of meticulous g.p.a. maintenance in one morning of standardized testing.


So how and how much should you study?1 The most distinctive feature of the test is speed. If you sit down over an afternoon and leisurely try your hand at a few practice sections, you might find the test rather easy and expect to score well enough to go to Yale. Timed conditions present an entirely different situation. Given this, I generally recommend four to six months of study with approximately forty hours per week of studying. Again: four to six months, forty hours per week. I have advised enough students to know the consequences of disregarding this advice. You may score high enough to get in somewhere with less intensive preparation, but if you are serious about getting into the best possible school my advice is firm: four to six months, forty hours per week.


How does one occupy this much time studying? Acquire copies of every test previously administered. Spend five mornings per week taking an old test under strict timed conditions with no exceptions. This requires all morning and will train your stamina and concentration. Eat lunch. Take a nap or get some exercise. Spend the afternoon checking your answers and studying questions you missed. Repeating this for several months builds all of the LSAT muscles and gives you the best fighting chance. I also recommend this LSAT Study Guide, prepared by one of my former students who complemented a modest g.p.a. with an outstanding LSAT score and was admitted into Top 5 schools. This guide agrees with many of my suggestions here–and disagrees with others–and also gives excellent “nitty gritty” advice that can make a considerable difference: use bubble sheets when studying, take your practice exams in public places to prepare you for the inevitable distractions during the actual exam, etc.


Should you take an LSAT prep course? Some students find these a waste of about $1200. Others find them very valuable. If you have the discipline to complete the regimen suggested above, you can do well without a prep course. Most students, however, benefit from the guidance of  companies that have made a science of LSAT
preparation.  Consider enrolling in an LSAT course as a bit like a gym membership–paying the money provides additional motivation to log the hours. Some students prefer to take the course for psychological comfort–they do not want to enter the exam room thinking that other students have taken the course and therefore have an advantage over them. Although the value of prep courses is debatable, some students prefer to take them just in case. Which test prep company do I recommend? I did not take a course and I have little to judge them on. Several UNH students have, however, recently spoken highly of Powerscore. Do not loose sight of the fact one or two points on the LSAT will likely have considerable impact on which schools accept you. The $1200 dollars can seem like a bargain in hindsight if raises your score by even one point.


Please be advised that you should only take the LSAT after you have studied to the best of your ability. Although this has changed somewhat since 2006, schools will average your scores. If you take it without much preparation to “see how you will do” and then a few years later spend six months studying properly, that early score will drag you down. Many students have made this devastating mistake, in part because of poor advising that does not emphasize the difficulty of the test. Do not take the LSAT unless you have completed a comprehensive preparation program.


I should offer a final thought on test preparation. I have heard a version of the following many times: “Yeah, right. I work full time. There is no way I can take off six months to study for the LSAT. And $1200 for a prep course is impossible on my budget.” I faced similar difficulties and I am entirely sympathetic to these concerns. See the section below on Money and Law School.


C. Internships, Resumes, Etc.

In the vast majority of cases, your LSAT score and g.p.a. will determine which schools accept you. All of those internships and public service projects you completed will probably not help if you don’t have the raw numbers. This may seem ruthless, but schools receive thousands of application for hundreds of spots and they must draw the line somewhere. If you have the g.p.a. and the LSAT score, then you also need the strong resume to compete with the other applicants who have it all.


In general, I do not recommend that students view legal internships as a means to the end of law school admission. First, it is far more important from an admissions perspective that you maintain your grades and study for the LSAT. You should avoid anything that interferes with this. Second, one should view internships as a way to learn more about the legal profession rather than a line on the resume. Take a job or internship to gain some perspective on the daily lives of attorneys. In this respect interning can help you determine if legal work would be satisfying to you before you proceed further down this expensive and time consuming process. In my experience, internships at large private firms tend to be less exciting than those at public agencies. Law firms usually have plenty of staff to do the legal work so you often end up tagging along and fetching coffee. Public defenders’ offices, by contrast, can often use an extra pair of hands and will assign meaningful tasks to interns.


D. The Mechanics of Applying

I will leave most of this to the professionals: LSAC and the wonderful Paula DiNardo at UNH Pre-Law Advising. Beyond the mechanical advice about how the process works, a few points merit consideration.


First, apply to as many schools as you can. Don’t waste your time and money applying to schools that you know won’t accept you (don’t apply to Yale with a 3.2 g.p.a. even if you’re a great person) and don’t apply to schools that you would not attend if they accepted you. I usually recommend submitting about twenty applications. This may seem too costly, but again see the section on Money and Law School below. View applying to law school as a kind of high-stakes gambling. Do your research, determine whether your numbers give you a chance, and play thepercentages. Obviously you do not know which schools are in your range until you have your LSAT score.


Be aware the the law School Admission Council recalculates your grade point average according to their own scale. You cannot assume, therefore, that your UNH grade point average will used during the admissions process. Students who exercise UNH’s option of retaking courses to improve their grades will find LSAC’s conversion especially  frustrating.


One of my friends applied to fifteen Top 20 law schools. His g.p.a and LSAT score seemed to make him a very strong candidate. He received fourteen consecutive rejection letters and called me to let me know that it looked like he wasn’t going to law school. The next day Stanford, his first choice all along, accepted him. The morals of that story: nothing is certain in the law school application process, and the more applications you submit the better your odds. You only need one good acceptance to dramatically change the course of your career. This is not the time to be penny wise and pound foolish.


I will say more about the geographic location of law schools below, but for the most part I strongly suggest that you do not allow geographic considerations to narrow your pool during the application process. Apply to the best schools in your range regardless of location. Make the difficult decisions about location once you have acceptances in hand. I have seen many students make poor decisions limiting their options because of rather myopic geographic considerations. One excellent studen
t, for instance, disregarded my advice and only applied to law schools in Manhattan because his girlfriend worked in the city. The prestigious schools rejected him, and he enrolled at a poorly ranked school in Queens. He separated from his girlfriend during the first semester (note: law school is tough on relationships2), and dropped out soon thereafter. Try to avoid conversations of the following form at the application stage: “If you apply and get accepted to Berkeley and I’m at an internship in Boston, our relationship will never work out. So don’t apply to Berkeley if you are committed to me.” I appreciate that this is easier said than done, but avoid such speculation. Cross that bridge when you come to it. Do not limit your choices because of a college romance. Compare applying to colleges based on a high school romance. If anything, I might advise against applying to schools in sought-after locations. Some law schools in New York, Boston, D.C., and San Francisco receive so many applications because of their location that they become more selective than they probably should be based on the quality of the school.


In general, you do not need to know what kind of law you wish to practice before going to law school. Just as you use college to explore your passions and determine your major, law school provides the opportunity to experience different areas of law. Most schools share a similar curriculum and therefore you do not need to apply to law schools according to specific areas of law. With that in mind, however, exceptions apply. If you intend to study intellectual property law, Franklin Pierce should rise to the top of your list. Buffalo offers excellent programs in family violence law. Apply to the University of Florida or Lewis and Clark, respectively, if you plan to specialize in tax or environmental law. Do your homework to understand these distinctions.


Should you “take a year off” between college and law school? I did not, but I probably should have. I increasingly recommend taking at least one year between undergraduate education and law school. As you can see, studying for the LSAT requires months of study. Writing samples and personal statements can require weeks of work. The applications process requires weeks of attention and can be emotionally draining, especially as you wait to hear your fate. Completing all of this work during your senior year presents numerous difficulties. Your final year of college should be filled with class work (and raising the g.p.a. as high as possible), senior theses, and enjoying your friends and college life. Cramming in LSAT study and applications can produce misery. I have seen students complete successful applications during their senior year, but only the most disciplined and high-achieving ones who spent the entire summer between their junior and senior years studying for the October LSAT. Applying during the senior year usually result in haste. Notice two additional benefits of waiting. First, your g.p.a. will be highest on the day you graduate. If you apply in January of your senior year, grades from your final semester are not included on your transcript. For many students their final semester is their strongest, and a few tenths of a g.p.a. point can make a considerable difference in your portfolio. In this regard, waiting a bit also allows you to benefit from deepening relationships with your professors and finalized senior theses and other advanced writing. This should result in stronger letters of recommendation, writing samples, and personal statements.


Second, a year or more of distance from college can provide broader perspective on why and whether you should go to law school. You do not want to rush into such an important and expensive decision. I do not find the argument from twenty-two year olds that “I’ll never go back to school if I take time off” very compelling. Most of my friends took of several years between college and professional or graduate school, and they did some life-defining things during this time. If you can, do something meaningful before law school. Join the Peace Corps, Americorps, orTeach for America. Serve something you believe in most deeply. Move to an interesting city and have experiences. Travel frugally. Play in a Brazilian noise metal band. Especially if you are a traditional student graduating from college in your early twenties, get out into the world and do things that you might never be able to do again. Once you begin law school you take on a new level of debt and responsibilities. You will probably not have more than a few weeks “off” until your retirement. Think hard about how you will view your post-college years from your death bed.


Although many schools do not require you to submit your applications until well after January 1, you give yourself the best odds if you complete the process before the end of November. Many schools accept and reject candidates well before their application deadlines, and you don’t want to be late to the table. You should secure your transcripts, letters of recommendation, writing, sample, and a personal statement during the summer before you apply so that you can send off as of your materials as soon as you receive your LSAT score.


I often hear students expecting admission into prestigious programs because, in their words, “my g.p.a. is only 3.0 but I did really well during my junior and senior year.” This very common situation will win you little sympathy from admissions council. First year undergraduates should hear this loud and clear: your performance at the very beginning of your career will determine your ultimate g.p.a. One bad semester–even the first semester in your first year–can keep you from a top school. I find this particularly unfortunate because even the most gifted students coming from underprivileged schools and backgrounds have difficulty making the transition to college. Students from prep schools catering to the wealthy come to college prepared to hit the ground running. This provides another example of how privilege compounds and the playing field isn’t exactly even, but it is best to understand how the game is played.


When considering who you might ask to write your letters of recommendation, you should look to professors who know your work best. The smaller the class and the more writing in the course, the better the professor probably knows you and work work. Thus you have another reason to enroll and excel in writing intensive courses. Your thesis advisor will likely know you best. Be warned that many professors, like me, are very candid in their letters. I write approximately twenty letters of recommendation per year, and these often arrive on the desks of the same application committees year after year. In order to retain credibility, I give an honest evaluation with no whitewashing. If your work was mediocre, you missed a few classes, you did not participate much, or your papers came in late, I will say so. When merited, I will provide detailed accounts of how you excelled in my courses, perhaps noting your specific contributions to class discussions, participation on Blackboard, helpfulness to your classmates, efforts on rewrites and extra credits, or your development as a writer. I usually do not write letters for students unless they have taken more than one class with me.


What if every school rejects you or if you realize that your grade point average or LSAT score are too low? You have a few options. You can lower your standards. You can study harder for the LSAT. This is one of the few benefits of that test–a good score can compensate for years of inadequate work. With a good enough LSAT score some school will eventually take you. Appreciate, however, that schools will average the improved score with the previous score. You can also enroll in another sort of graduate program, excel in that program, and then reapply to law school after improving your LSAT scores as well. Several students have successfully used the UNH Justice Studies masters program to this end. The key here, obviously, is excelling in the graduate program and not repeating the mistakes of the past. 

3. Money and Law School

I will repeat unpopular advice I have given elsewhere. More than ever, students work nearly full-time jobs while at UNH. If you have a full load of classes, you probably do not have enough time to also work for money. Your grades will suffer, and you will compromise your education. You only have one chance at college. What you study and the g.p.a. you earn will be with you for the rest of your life. I have seen many A students who do not have enough time for their class work reduced to C’s because of their jobs. This can change the course of their lives for the worse. Students who work during college suffer a major disadvantage when competing with classmates who can devote more time to studying. In my courses I have students who work forty hours per week at Dunkin Donuts during the semester–some of them logging eight hour shifts before their 1:00 classes–sitting next to students who have never worked a job. When I grade their papers, I am supposed to ignore this fact and pretend like the competition for grade point averages is fair.


Working during college may seem fiscally responsible, but it is actually bad financial planning. Over the long term, knowledge and a higher grade point average pay much higher dividends than the few thousand dollars you make waiting tables or working other service jobs while in college. Student loan rates are relatively reasonable. You should take out the loans you need to survive, live frugally, spend your time studying and learning, get the job you want, and pay off the loans. You may find it impossible not to work while in college. If this is the case, you have personal experience of how someone’s financial situation can hinder her success in other seemingly non-economic aspects of life. You may believe that your finances have nothing to do with your grades, but wealthy students can spend all of their time studying if they chose. They can get a good night’s sleep before an exam. Many others don’t have this luxury. This uncomfortable and often frustrating situation becomes more salient for students considering professional school. If your LSAT score and g.p.a. do not meet a school’s minimum threshold, your work schedule is no excuse. I do not mean to be callous here, but I want to make the reality for many students explicit.


In this respect, someone considering law school must appreciate that she enters a high-stakes world. Law school may cost more than your family’s house. Studying and applying properly will cost thousands of dollars. You compete for admission into top schools–and even bottom schools–with some of the world’s most privileged students. On the other end, the potential dividends from these investments explain why admission remains so competitive. Law school debt of $200,000 seems much more manageable to an associate making $160,000 than it does to an undergraduate work-study student earning $7.50 per hour.


You absolutely should not work during the first year of law school. You will need every moment to study. By the summer between your first and second year you should be able to secure reasonably well-paid legal work. Many law students work during the second and third years of their studies, but the first year requires your full attention.


One bit of good news is that although most law students pay full price, they have little trouble securing all of the loans they need to pay for even the most expensive law school at a relatively low interest rate. Banks view future law school graduates–even the ones not from the top schools–as sound investments. The bad news is that you must repay those loans, and payments can be well over $1000 per month for thirty years. See this debt calculator for a sense of the numbers. You should also keep in mind, as noted below, that most beginning attorneys do not earn nearly as much as the superstars hired by big firms. Students at top twenty schools have good odds of being offered high salaries at “Big Law” firms. Others take a greater financial risk.


Notice a trap here. You enter law school because of an interest in social justice work, you get accepted to the school of your dreams, you take out the loans, and you finish at the top of your class. Then you cannot afford $1000 per month loan payment on a $40,000 per year social justice salary. You take a job at a high-paying firm in order to pay the debt, expecting to live modestly and pay $3000 per month to your lender for six years to break even. Your salary rises from $160,000 to 200,000 to $250,000 to…. Meanwhile you become accustomed to this salary. You have a family and buy a house. You want to send your kids to the best schools. At this point you have to really, really desire to work in social justice to justify a $200,000 pay cut. I did it when I moved from LeBoeuf to UNH, but it was not easy. It only possible because this is genuinely my dream job. I would continue this work without hesitation if I won the lottery tomorrow. I know many people in law firms looking for an exit strategy, but they cannot think of another position so satisfying that it would merit the decline in salary. Thus firm money has a gravitational force that keeps many in its orbit even though they never planned on staying so long. This equation becomes more complicated when you have a family to consider. I think about my choice every evening when I come home at 5:00–rather than 9:00 as I would most nights at the firm–to make dinner for my family, but I am also reminded of our sacrifice when I pass by the dilapidated school that my children will likely attend.


Having said this, a new federal program may change the landscape of law school finances for students who devote their careers to public service. In brief, the program provides law school debt forgiveness to law students who work as public interest attorneys for at least ten years. The program is new enough that the full consequences to the profession remain unclear, but most studies of the legislation view it as a godsend for public interest lawyers. Several elite law schools have offered similar programs for some time.


I teach entire courses on the relationship between money and law and I am writing a book on the subject. If you would like to read more, this article may interest you.


4. Deciding Where to Go

A new set of questions should come into focus once you have been accepted to one or more law schools. In general, choosing the highest ranked school provides a starting point. Regardless of the complaints one has about the biases and superficiality of law school rankings, the U.S. News provides an accurate account of how the powers that be view particular law schools. For another perspective, see Brian Leiter’s equally controversial rankings. In addition to the general rankings, you can also find hierarchies for specific areas of legal study. As mentioned above, you should pay special attention to these if you intend to narrowly focus on a particular area of law. Thus if you know that you want to practice health care law, for instance, you should think seriously about choosing the University of Houston over American University even though American generally ranks higher.


Although I encourage prospective law students to disregard geographic location when applying to schools, location becomes a more significant consideration once you have acceptances in hand. As a general rule, the lower ranked the school the more relevant the location. Attending  1:placename w:st=”on”>Yale Law School will not limit you to a legal career in New Haven. Elite schools carry prestige widely. If you choose a little known and poorly ranked school, the degree will carry the most weight in its region. This is not to say that a law degree from a bottom ranking school confines you to that region, but only that you will probably find the majority of your opportunities–interviews, clerkships, connections, etc.–in that area. Relocating to another region will require a bit more effort and luck.


Students–especially those enduring four years in Durham, New Hampshire–sometimes claim that they would like to go to law school “someplace warm.” Three years of law school will lay the foundation for your life’s work. Do not treat it like Spring Break. Whether you are in Ann Arbor or Honolulu, you will be holed away in the law library studying for most of your waking hours. You should choose the law school that will maximize your opportunities to work and live a satisfying life after you graduate, not the one that offers the best beaches for three years. If, however, you wish to build your career in a warm climate, then choosing a regional law school in such a location has some legitimacy.


As discussed above, the financial numbers will seem much more concrete once a law school offers you the privilege of taking on such enormous loans. Unlike undergraduate costs which are frequently mitigated by scholarships and tuition reductions of various sorts, in most instances law schools will expect you to pay the full bill via loans. In some cases schools will recruit students with superior credentials with scholarships, and here a candidate usually most choose between full price at an elite school and a reduced rate at less prestigious school. I faced such a decision and choose the bargain. For reasons mentioned above, this worked out well for me but I cannot know how things might have unfolded had I paid full price for a top school. I probably would have been a stronger candidate for some jobs–like teaching in elite law schools or clerking for the Supreme Court–with a stronger law school pedigree, but I have enjoyed many opportunities with my degrees. If I had taken on the full debt of a private Manhattan law school, I do not know if I could afford to work as a professor. I would probably still be at a Manhattan firm. Visit a debt calculator and have a hard look at the numbers. Remember to add you undergraduate loans to your total estimated burden.


If you did not fare well in the application process, pause and reevaluate your options. You only go to law school once and you do not need to accept an undesirable offer. Should you study harder for the LSAT and take another swing next year? A law degree from Harvard costs about the same as one from Suffolk. Is it worth taking on such debt for every school? Also note that choosing a poorly ranked school makes it especially important that you make law review and otherwise do well. While even the worst Yale Law students seem to have plenty of opportunities after graduation, mediocre grades from a bottom ranking law school can create a potentially dangerous combination of debt and unemployability. I do not mean to imply that you must be on the Stanford Law Review to get a good job or be a successful attorney, but only that you should soberly evaluate your likely post-graduation opportunities. Most of those $160,000 starting salaries go to graduates from the top ten law schools.


At some point you will need to decide and–if you find one of your options satisfactory–submit a deposit to a law school. In many cases you may be waitlisted at a school you prefer. Sketchy situations arise here. Some studen
ts place deposits at multiple schools, an ethically suspect practice with a domino effect on other students. If I place a deposit at both Franklin Pierce and the University of Connecticut, I leave in limbo the person behind me in line waiting for an acceptance from either school. She may remain on the waitlist until classes begin, only to have her spot at Connecticut open up when I do not show up for classes there because I decided on Franklin Pierce. Meanwhile she may have begun classes at the University of Maine, but then uproot once Connecticut offers her a spot. Then Maine offers her seat to someone on their waitlist, and so on. Having already endured an emotionally taxing application process, this can be terribly stressful and disruptive to your first year in law school. Similar concerns apply to students who attempt to transfer to a different law school after the first year. You will have little time or energy to go through the law school application process while in the throes of the first year curriculum, and I doubt that many students successfully “upgrade” via transferring. Don’t bank on it.


5. What to Expect in Law School

Dozens of law professors have offered plenty of excellent insider’s advice to law students, so I will be brief. The basic curriculum varies little between law schools. You will take eight to ten assigned classes over the first year, usually some combination of constitutional law, criminal law, torts, property, contracts, civil procedure, and legal research and writing. You have little choice regarding your schedule, and this academic boot camp will test your limits. All but the research and writing courses will typically be large courses of seventy or more students taught in a form of the “Socratic Method” specific to legal pedagogy. In some cases anonymous day-long written exams will determine your entire grade in each of these courses. Thus you can find yourself a few days before your final exams, facing several marathon tests during finals week, and with very little feedback regarding whether you are studying the massive and dense books properly. Add the stress of accumulating debt and you can appreciate why most law students consider quitting at some point. Your classmates will intimidate you and you will wonder if you belong here.3 I certainly had my days during the first year when the whole process seemed like an absurd and masochistic initiation ritual, but in retrospect it was pretty reasonable.


The research and writing courses, I believe, are far and away the most important. These smaller classes train you in the skills of thinking, writing, and arguing in the legal style. Good research and writing professors work you hard and provide copious feedback. If you can learn to proficiently read, write, and research in the legal style, these skills will transfer to every other course and written exam. Make the investment in these legal writing courses. If you must choose, work for a research and writing course should take priority over studying for your other courses. I view research and writing courses as so fundamental not only because they pay dividends in your other courses, but also because these skills are the building blocks of good lawyering. I’ve said half-seriously that I forgot just about everything I learned in law school except legal research and writing, and that was all I needed. If you ever need to know some legal fact while practicing law, you will look it up and communicate what you found. You need the skills to research and communicate more than the raw knowledge of laws. To some extent all of the other courses in law school provide pretexts for practicing legal thinking. The best litigators, for instance, do not know much about any specific area of law. Instead, they master the craft of efficiently researching, writing, and arguing about matters they may have never studied in law school. You will eventually need to demonstrate proficiency in certain areas to pass the bar, but you will take bar preparation courses designed specifically for this purpose.


Just as you finish the last exam of your first year of law school, the law review competition begins. You will be running on fumes at this point and the timing is cruel, but an offer to join the law review can be as important as the offer of admission into the law school. Law reviews serve as the primary “honor society” in law school and segregate student populations into roughly the top ten percent of students and everyone else. Law review students get the best job offers, the best clerkships, and the best research assistantships. Membership delineates the law school caste system. Membership on a law review at the one-hundredth ranked law school can make you competitive with non-law review students at elite schools. If you rise to become editor-in-chief of your school’s law review, you will be treated as the best of the best at your school. One gains entry to law reviews through a combination of first year grades and some
thing like a “writing competition” conducted after first year final exams. As a member of the law review you will serve as an editor for the journal. You will gain intimate knowledge of The Bluebook.


The second and third years of law school tend to feel less onerous and seem more like other graduate programs. Students choose from electives based on their interests, classes are usually smaller, professors provide more feedback, and second year students have a better sense of what the faculty expects of them. Jobs opportunities begin to materialize and third year students may know by September where they will be working after graduation. Bar preparation begins soon after graduation.

6. What Can I Do with a Law Degree?

A law degree opens many doors beyond the obvious, and dozens of books with titles like What Can you do with a Law Degree? enumerate the possibilities. You can find almost as many treatises along the lines of The Unhappy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law.


I repeatedly mentioned my work in a large urban law firm, in part because I can speak from my experiences and in part because the salaries associated with such jobs occupy the imagination of many attorneys in the making. These positions pay well, but you will work very long hours. Depending on the firm and your disposition, you might consistently devote from eighty to one hundred hours per week to the job. That means something like being away from home from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days per week. You are always on call. Scheduling dinner with your spouse can often end in disappointment because work intervenes at the last minute. You record your efforts in billable hours, requiring you to account for every six minutes of your work. The more hours you bill, the bigger the bonus added to your base salary. In other words, these high salaries come at a price. The hours may be long, but I found the work less strenuous than slicing meat or landscaping.


Of the approximately 1.1. million attorneys in the United States, however, such large firm positions constitute onlysmall fraction legal profession. A much higher percentage of lawyers work as sole practitioners, in small to medium sized firm, or in the public sector. One can find a potentially infinite variety of legal careers. Whether in criminal law, international law, human rights law, intellectual property law, family law, elder law, tax law, insurance law, bankruptcy law, sports law, entertainment law, or various other specializations, attorneys graduating from all accredited law schools can design niches for their practice and find satisfying and lucrative work. Many law school graduates, like myself, make use their law degree in non-legal fields. Two of the last three presidents of the United States have law degrees.

7. Gender and Race in Law School and the Legal Profession

Statistics regarding race and gender in law school are grim. According to the most recent census, 73% of licensed attorneys in the U.S. are male and 88.8% are white. Recent studies suggest progress
on these fronts, with 19.9% of the J.D.s awarded in 2003 going to minorities and 49.2% to women. For studies on the status of female attorneys, see these articles from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. Also see the report from American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession titled “Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession.” Several students have recommended the book The African American Pre-Law School Advice Guide: Things You Really Need to Know Before Applying to Law School.

8. Joint Programs                                                                                                                                           


Many schools now offer joint programs between law schools and other areas of graduate and professional study. One can now find tracks in J.D./M.B.A., J.D./M.D., J.D./M.S.W., and all stripes of J.D./Ph.D. These arrangements often present distinct opportunities for funding law school and students can usually complete the joint program in less time than the two degrees pursued separately. Applicants to these programs typically must be admitted separately into both the law schools and the accompanying program. See Brian Leiter’s controversial but informative opinionsabout J.D./Ph.D. programs in philosophy. See the the Philosophy Department’s materials for advice specific to philosophy graduate programs. 

Notes from Former Students School Referenced Above

1.  A student advises: “I think that it can not be stressed enough that that stupid test is worth (in the end) putting all the time into.  I would definitely say to anyone applying to think long and hard about the decision, because law school is WAY too expensive and time consuming to do if you are not fully committed to it.”


2.  A student advises: “I think that it is hugely important for anyone considering law school to understand what kind of impact it will have on your social life…. Especially with the first year schedule, you are basically in class from 8-4 every day, then come home/stay in the library and read for the next day.  Forget about seeing anyone during finals week.  Thankfully, after talking with you and others who had gone through the process we were prepared for what would happen, and a few trips to the florist always helps.”

3. A student advises: “A specific piece of advice for students coming from UNH, particularly going to more prestigious schools, would be to have as much confidence in yourself as you can. Some of the jerks from the private schools will try their hardest to let you know how impressive they are.  It’s not bad at Notre Dame, particularly compared to other top schools (that’s what the faculty say), so I haven’t had much of it.  But it is definitely kind of intimidating to have classes with multiple kids from Yale, Duke, Stanford, etc. and now be on their playing field.  I just had to remind myself at the start that I was smart enough to get into the school, they must think I can do ok, and after I got through my first cold-call in class (one of the most terrifying moments in my life), things were good.”

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Law school (at the top tier academic intuitions) is intense and not for every student  There are of course many factors in such a decision, and evaluating the effort and costs involved is a weighty process.

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