"Why law? Why now?" Part 1, The Wrong Answers

Hi readers! I'm starting a series on the big questions I've faced in the pre-law process, and am proud to present part 1 on "WLWN". Check back next Wednesday for part 2. 

Almost every aspect of my application process circled around my response to two fundamental questions - "Why do you want to study the law?", and "Why do you want to do this now?"

While academic qualifications come first, law schools are similarly focused on whether their applicants are mature and motivated to handle the rigors of a legal education. (And if a school isn't asking these questions somewhere, steer clear - they might be more focused on collecting your tuition than building your career). 

But having answers to "why law, why now?" (WLWN) isn't just important for the instrumental purpose of getting admitted to a good school. In my opinion, your future is on the line. Your answers to WLWN aren't just part of your admissions outcome - they can direct the entire shape of your career and your ultimate happiness. 

Of course, having answers doesn't mean that you have "the right answers". What do I mean by this? Consider the following: 

  1. Becoming a lawyer is not a blanket guarantee of achieving a good economic outcome. The public perception is that lawyers, like doctors and many other "prestigious" professions, are almost uniformly well-paid for their work. Many students assume, then, that becoming a lawyer is a path toward economic stability and prosperity. 

    This has never been less true in the modern era. 

    For one thing, technological advances in the field have outpaced our perception of lawyering. Legal tasks that were once handled by humans, from sorting through evidence in discovery to incorporating companies, are increasingly automated and disrupted by commercial SaSS platforms like e-discovery and LegalZoom; technological displacement is on the rise, and we're only seeing the beginning of its effects. 

    While lawyers at the biggest firms are still compensated well for their (grueling) hours and many other lawyers find pathways to success in niche areas, the idea that there's important legal work for every lawyer created simply isn't true any more. Simply go on www.lstscorereports.com and examine the employment outcomes for law students at schools outside of the top 20 to see what I mean - there's a lot of un- and under-employment. 

    For another, the legal job market is no more insulated from economic turbulence than any other field. While not strictly true in certain fields - there will always be crime, for instance, and therefore always a need for prosecutors and defense attorneys - many legal practice areas are intimately tied to economic activity, and the need for lawyers in those areas rise and fall with the economic tides. A lawyer who has specialized in transactional work for startups isn't going to have a good time if (or, perhaps more accurately, when) the next tech bubble bursts. Even worse, they'll be less in control of their ability to rebound compared to, say, a web developer (who has "freestanding" skills that aren't strictly reliant on the work of others) or a tech HR employee (who can simply apply their HR skills at another non-tech company). 

    All of this is to say that stability isn't a foregone conclusion - the law isn't necessarily any more stable or high paying than many other professions. 
  2. A JD isn't the "generalist" degree it "once was". When I would ponder pursuing law school earlier in my life, my parents and teachers regularly echoed the refrain that "you can do anything with a law degree". The conventional wisdom has been that learning to "think like a lawyer", as law school allegedly teaches, is a prima facie useful skill to develop that can be applied in almost any area of government or business. 

    The trouble with this common wisdom is that it no longer represents a common reality. The growth in number and quality of MBA and other specialized business graduate degrees along with the primacy of short-term post-college business rotational programs, like the two year "up and out" programs at management consulting firms or major banks, have led to no shortage of talented people who have actually acquired business-ready skills directly out of college without any legal "finishing" done on their minds. 

    Combining this increased competition with Reason #1 - the public perception that lawyers have many good, high-paying career options - and it's not unreasonable to see why a company would be reticent to hire a lawyer for a non-legal position. While you still "can do anything with a law degree", it's no longer a given that "a law degree enables you to do anything" - even Harvard graduates, by some accounts on TLS, struggle to enter the "business world" after graduating. 

    Plus, it's even harder to justify going against these factors when...
  3. Law school is extraordinarily expensive. The Volokh Conspiracy ran a deeply troubling post based on the work of Paul Campos, a contrarian law professor, showing the drastic and absurd increase in the real price of a legal education over the past 40 years. Even prestigious public institutions like UC Berkeley or University of Michigan have had an almost unfettered rise in law school cost since the 1970s. 

    While rampant expenses in education aren't confined to the law, there are factors unique to a legal education that are concerning.

    For one, acquiring a JD is a three-year endeavor, which not only entails paying three years of tuition (as opposed to two for an MBA or many professional masters degrees), but sacrificing three years of your productive working life. While it might not matter if you're working in a field that you hate and desperately want to pivot out of, or aren't qualified to work at all without a law degree (which is almost never true), sacrificing three years of earning isn't something to be taken lightly. 

    Finally, some students trick themselves into not worrying about cost because they debt finance their education with the intent to have their debt forgiven under Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or a school's Loan Repayment Assistance Program. This is fine -- except for the tenuous ground on which PSLF is built at the moment, and the fact that it requires students to project their careers 13 years into the future. 

    So, law school is expensive in absolute terms and in relative terms. It's a tough sell. 

Based on what I just wrote, you might expect my WLWN answer to be a cynical laugh and a withdrawal of my law school applications - "not law, never".

This is far from the case. I think there are a number of extremely important reasons one could have to study the law now - but they need to be better than "I want to make more money" or "I'm good at school and could use more education". I'll get into my answer to WLWN next week, in Part 2!