Advice for Entering Law Students Roundup:

U of Cincinnati law professor Paul Caron of Taxprofblog has a fairly comprehensive roundup of advice for entering law students from a wide range of law professors (myself included), current students, and others here.

I don't endorse all of the advice given, but it's good to get a wide range of perspectives. One last piece of advice, that I think too many law school applicants ignore:

Don't go to law school unless you're fairly sure that you have a real interest in the law or in one of the other professions to which a J.D. is a gateway. There are lots of unhappy lawyers out there who went to law school simply as a kind of default option because they couldn't think of anything better to do. It's no surprise that many such people end up disliking the practice of law. The same point, of course, applies to entering any other profession, but law is particularly susceptible to this problem because of the fact that pretty much anyone who did well as an undergraduate can get into law school. Admission to most other professional schools or PhD programs requires demonstrated competence in specific fields of study or a longstanding interest in the subject in question.

I don't object to people going to law school simply because they want to enter a high-paying profession. But if you go into law primarily to make money, then you should expect that you may not like the work and not be too disappointed if it turns out to be boring or unpleasant.

Lincoln (www):
I'm still amazed at the number of people who go to law school either for the money, or because they think they'll be wining and dining with Hollywood stars on a regular basis...or both.
8.20.2006 5:29pm
John Lederer (mail):
I keep reflecting on the fact that my most successful semester in law school was the one where I and another student only missed one day of the waterfowl hunting season. We frantically caught up near the end of the semester.

I think it says something despicable about myself or about law school. Not sure which. Maybe both.
8.20.2006 5:35pm
Edwin (mail):
I once ate lunch in a university cafeteria at a table next to a group of law students. They were exchanging gossip about the best firms in town to hire on with, which had the most prestige for a young lawyer, which were most likely to give out partnerships soonest, who paid the best, etc. It was a truly nauseating conversation. Not a word about the kind of work they hoped to do, or which firm might offer the best learning experience. For these grasping young careerists, it was all about getting as much money as quickly and easily as possible. I looked at them and thought, this is why people hate lawyers - they're assholes. In the 15 years since, I've confirmed this opinion many times.
8.20.2006 7:49pm
Prospective students don't understand how tedious law school is, and how tedious practicing law can be. It's sound advice here, do not choose law unless you have a true interest in the law. This is especially sound advice to humanities majors, who often end up under employed at jobs like Starbucks or Barnes &Noble and become frustrated by their lack of earning power. Being a lawyer all too often ends up being a tedious daily grind, offering scant psychic satisfaction to most with a humanities background. And rememember, being a lawyer means dealing with other people's problems. The abstraction of law school and studying for the bar makes this easy to forget. And then there's the business side of the practicing law, like getting clients to pay up. Bottom line: find what you love, and do it. (Sigh. Easier said than done.)
8.20.2006 7:55pm
MnZ (mail):
But if you go into law primarily to make money, then you should expect that you may not like the work and not be too disappointed if it turns out to be boring or unpleasant.

Don't forget the people who go to law school to please their parents. Pushy parents everwhere dream about being able to say, "My son/daughter is a lawyer/doctor."
8.20.2006 8:48pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
And rememember, being a lawyer means dealing with other people's problems. The abstraction of law school and studying for the bar makes this easy to forget.

As I told some students--remember, people don't seek an attorney when they're in love, they seek one when they're getting divorced. They don't come to you when they get a nice job, they come when they got fired and screwed over. Or when the breadwinner got disabled for life, or a kid got killed. A doctor at least can cure things ... all we can do is get some money compensation.

Or as my former partner used to say: courts exist for two purpose, to throw people in jail or take money from one person and give it to another.
8.20.2006 9:14pm
Houston Lawyer:
I think the primary trait you should have if you want to be an attorney is ambition. Whether you have any particular interest in the practice of law is fairly irrelevant, since most law students have no idea what the practice of law entails. In addition, there are a great variety of legal practices out there.

You must be willing to put in years of tedious work for an uncertain reward. The sacrifices are many, and I have counseled a few who clearly were smart enough that they weren't othewise suited for it. Some people won't tolerate what gets thrown at them.
8.20.2006 10:29pm
Irina (mail) (www):
I'm just starting law school, and although I've been warned about the tediousness of it many, many times, I wouldn't necessarily agree with the assessment. I think there are different ways of looking at it. You can look at the cases and other reading as mind-numbing theory, which has nothing to do with what you think (or hope) you'll be doing in the future, or you can think of each situation as a problem that a real person had and which has a direct connection to real life. For instance, many students find landlord-tenant dispute cases painfully boring at first, but I try to put myself into that situation, and identify it on a personal level, as someone who once lived in a rented apartment and faced some problems. I think people might have more fun with the law and law school, if they could see very specific reasons for learning what they are learning, rather than see it as just a painful necessity to get through. Besides, I think, even the most "tedious" subjects can be seen as interesting if you open your mind to them, and ask yourself, "why?" Why was this particular decision made? I think that even if all you care is the money you can make the experience more interesting for yourself if you just show a little bit of curiosity and creativity when approaching the subject, as well. For instance, once you get more advanced, you can start thinking out of the box, of the way particular legal theories can be applied in other areas of the law, try to imagine unusual angles for dealing with particular legal problems. You don't have to be miserable making your millions! : )
8.20.2006 11:29pm
Paul Horwitz:
Reasonable advice, but if I may offer a counter-example, here's Learned Hand's account of his decision to go to law school:

You see, the family had all been lawyers . . . . And there it was. Law has always been a kind of slop box for boys who don't know what else they want to do anyway. It's decent and it may lead to something or it may not. So I found myself in the law school. And there were a lot of men I knew who had gone in for the same reason -- they didn't know what else to do.

He turned out OK, didn't he?. I guess, in light of his and other examples, I'd advise new students, even if you are in law school because it's a default option, don't treat it like one. You won't know whether or how much you might like the law until you make a good-faith effort to commit some energy and enthusiasm to what you're doing. If you're incapable of that, or if you try it and still don't like it, you may indeed want to look elsewhere; don't wait three years to make up your mind to do something else. But lots of honorable and satisfied lawyers have started law school with all kinds of so-so reasons and ended up loving their profession.
8.20.2006 11:49pm
Irensaga (mail):
Go to the cheapest school you can, on as many scholarships as you can (assuming it's located where you want to practice). Then live dirt cheap during law school. If your hobbies cost money, drop them and do something for fun that doesn't cost money. Don't go out to eat, except maybe once a month. And you absolutely must get a paying job during the summer, even if you're just flipping burgers.

The money is the preeminent concern. Everything else is just ancillary.

Nothing you do in law school will have a greater impact on your entire life than how much debt you rack up during your education. That debt will enslave you and force you to take a rotten job you hate. Then you won't dare leave because of loan payments.

The school has a "great environmental law program?" For 90% of prospective law students, that's irrelevant. You'll likely change your mind halfway through school anyway. I did. High US News rankings? Not a big deal. Unless you are dead-set on a large law firm (which I think you'd be stupid to want at this point), determined to clerk for a federal judge, or planning to be a law professor, the stupid rankings don't matter.

Most lawyers end up in small private practice (what is it? 80% or something?). Out there, very few people give a damn where you went to school. Most clients don't. Most lawyers aren't particularly impressed with it either. Those lawyers who are concerned with how highly ranked your school was probably aren't worth impressing anyway.

If I had a choice between Georgetown and South Dakota (assuming I wanted to live somewhere in the midwest) - no contest. I'd take South Dakota. For 80% of us out here, Georgetown cache isn't worth the paper it's printed on. But the freedom from indentured servitude you gain by going to a cheaper school is priceless.

But maybe these illusory trappings matter to you. In that case, there's no hope for you. You probably also think it matters whether your summer internship firm takes you out to fancy restaraunts and Steelers games too...
8.21.2006 12:10am
Cornellian (mail):
They were exchanging gossip about the best firms in town to hire on with, which had the most prestige for a young lawyer, which were most likely to give out partnerships soonest, who paid the best, etc. It was a truly nauseating conversation. Not a word about the kind of work they hoped to do, or which firm might offer the best learning experience.

I'd give them a bit more credit than that. They have to pay attention to which firm pays the best in order to pay off their enormous student loans. They probably also realize that the idea of getting a good learning experience at a law firm is laughable. They're pretty much all equally bad, at least the big firms. And they don't know what kind of work they want to do since they know only the study of law, not the practice of it. In other words, far from nauseating, they sound like nothing more than rational actors.
8.21.2006 5:57am
JR (mail) (www):
Last year at this time, retired lawyer David Giacalone wrote a blog post on this subject that is worth reading by all new and prospective law students. Link
8.21.2006 11:10am
I agree with Mr. Horwitz. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I don't discourage anyone from going to law school. I went as a "default" option because the year was 1991, the economy stunk, and with my obscure undergraduate degree I would have been lucky to get a job flipping burgers. With admission to law school, I could get loans and continue living the fine life of a student for a few more years while deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I had no actual interest in being a "lawyer."

Something odd happened to me, though. About halfway through my 1L experience, I realized that this law stuff was interesting and kinda cool. I enjoyed the research and writing, and loved the argument. I got my first taste of litigation through a clerkship with a government agency, and found it to be exciting and inspiring. I've gone on to have a reasonably successful career as a lawyer, despite my intentions upon entering law school.

Even if I hadn't, however, I still would have benefitted from my legal education. I know it's a cliche, but law school really does teach you to "think like a lawyer", and that's a skill that is useful far beyond the practice of law. Law school teaches you how to analyze complex and often fuzzy problems, how to communicate persuasively and effectively, and many more things. While some people may enter law school already skilled at many of the traits law schools attempt to instill, many more of us really develop those traits for the first time as part of a legal education. They are skills that serve you well in almost any profession or endeavor. I work in the corporate world as in-house counsel, and I interact daily with people whose careers would be enhanced a lot by improvement in their critical thinking and communication skills.

In fact, the President and CEO of my employer (a major public corporation) is a former lawyer.

In my not-so-humble opinion, the mistakes most law students make occur in their first year or two AFTER law school. Too many students fail to consider options beyond the obvious ones. And too many disillusioned and disappointed lawyers elect to blame the law degree for their unhappiness, instead of recognizing that the degree merely represents another tool that can be used to help achieve their personal goals.
8.21.2006 11:15am
Peter (mail) (www):
My caps lock is not broken, but I would go so far as to discourage ALMOST EVERYONE from going to law school. All the bad stuff you've heard about being a lawyer is true. The debt is a giant 200 lb. turd on your head that keeps you glued to your desk. And away from your desk, it makes you think, "I should be back at my desk billing."

You will not be like the bloggers on VC, discussing interesting things about the law. Look at their CV's. This all star roster is analogous to a bunch of NBA players and you're the little black kid in the ghetto thinking, one day, that'll be me! But most likely you won't.

The unbelievably dumb part of this is that I'm not even telling you something I didn't know before starting school - everone told me this. But I thought, hell no, I'm different. And then you get to school and you see everyone thinks this way and then, uh oh.
8.22.2006 4:52am
Contributor X (mail) (www):
Attending law school is likely to be one of the most -EV (expected value) decisions of your life. Part of this is because we're of a generation that thinks that careers are supposed to offer some sort of personal fulfillment. My parents suffered no such illusions.

Ignore this advice if you're super smart and can go to a top 5 school and crush your peers there. If that's the case, you'll probably enjoy your future career. I wouldn't know though, I'm only kinda bright.
8.22.2006 5:02am