I don’t mean to interrupt your summer, but if you are anything like me and you just graduated from high school or college, the thought of what you’ll do for money when the proverbial family bank closes is becoming a pressing concern.
A few of you have a keen sense of what you want to do with your life. If this applies to you, stop reading and follow your bliss. This article is not for you. It’s for the vast majority who need some time to completely discover their gifts and ambitions. In particular, it’s for those who, along the way, think they may want to become a lawyer.
A lot of people consider going to law school, despite the mixed reputation of the legal profession and the mixed experience of lawyers in the profession.
In my view, lawyers are among the most intelligent, hard-working and ethical professionals out there, and the legal profession is an excellent career field that offers many options. But I would also suggest, and I think most of my colleagues would agree, that this job is not for everyone, there may be an over-supply of lawyers who enter the market each year, and lawyers who get into this profession for the wrong reasons often live to regret it.
It’s not uncommon for a young person to try out a number of things before they settle on a career. But the legal profession, or any other career field with high costs of entry, is not one you should just “try out” or enter into blindly. The costs are simply too high.
The ABA Journal recently reported that law students are graduating on average with debt in excess of $125,000. Add on three years of lost earnings as “opportunity cost,” and going to law school looks a lot like plunking down a quarter-million for the training required to sit for the bar. Assuming you pass the bar and get a legal job (an increasing number of law grads are having trouble finding work), servicing debt of this magnitude will be a significant hardship unless and until you realize the returns on this investment.
For a few law grads, there is an immediate return. New attorneys at the large firms in big cities will make six figures. They will earn that money, though, often spending nights, weekends and holidays at the office to meet the high billable hour requirements. Regardless, these jobs are highly sought-after, and they typically go to the graduates from elite law schools and the top students at the other schools.
For the majority of new lawyers, the financial results of pursuing a law degree are more pedestrian than most would hope or expect, especially at the beginning. This will be a tough thing to stomach if you made the investments described above.
So why should anyone who can’t pay for law school with a check from the family bank pursue a legal career? My answer is simple — because you have decided, based on reliable evidence and appropriate criteria, that becoming a lawyer is your ideal path in life and that you are willing to bear the burden of the costs of entry.
Sounds simple enough, but this is an adult decision that can only be responsibly made after conducting a significant amount of what lawyers call “due diligence.”
Due diligence does not include reading Grisham novels, binge watching Law and Order, or memorizing Lieutenant Kaffee’s cross examination of Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” Doing mock trial was a good start, but mock trial alone is not complete due diligence.
Due diligence should begin with discussions with practicing lawyers. Discuss what they believe to be the positive aspects of the profession and the negative. Learn what they actually do with their time. If possible, work in a law office, even if it means working for pennies. This will give you invaluable practical insight into the profession, which will inform your decision and give you a leg up in law school if you decide to go for it. Talk with someone skilled with finances about what it will be like to pay for the law degree. Analyze the data about what new and established lawyers in your desired specialty make. Don’t rely on the law schools’ promotional materials for this information. They’re selling something.
If, having thoroughly performed your due diligence, you determine that becoming a lawyer is your ideal path in life, do it. It’s worth it. If you determine that it’s less-than-ideal but still attractive, do something else, and avoid what could very well be a romantic but costly misadventure.
Matthew Trinidad is a transactional attorney at Karp Neu Hanlon PC. He can be reached at 970-945-2261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.