Eyes wide open

Over at the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog, they’ve published a Q-and-A with a young New York law grad named Kirsten Wolf. She graduated from Boston University Law School in 2002 right into the dot-com collapse and couldn’t find work, even though she was a B+ student. She has the courage and grace to admit that she went into law school not really knowing what else to do, and that when it became clear halfway through her degree that there wouldn’t be a job for her, she found she didn’t really have a passion for the law after all. Today, she works at a job she loves for a New York publishing company, but she has $87,000 in debt, which will take her about 30 years to repay.

This is what Ms. Wolf is currently up to:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

I think she’s exactly right. I’m one of those people who went to law school not really knowing what to expect or what I wanted to get out of it, but needing something to do after completing my undergrad (a five-year honours English degree isn’t exactly ambrosia to most employers). As a follow-up degree, law seemed to offer three attractive features: an intellectual challenge, the promise of steady and even lucrative work opportunities, and (remarkably, this was my leading reason at the time) a chance to help people. The first I found in abundance, the second not particularly, and the third hardly at all.

Looking back, it’s amazing to me how little research I did into the reality and prospects of a legal career. There were no other lawyers in my family or among family friends, and this was in 1989, roughly the Pleistocene Era before the Internet. So I had to settle for a couple of conversations with career planning staff at the university (you can picture how in-depth and helpful that was), a couple of conversations with undergrad professors (one of whom actually did utter the “you can always use a law degree” line), and a browse through about a half-dozen law school application kits. The aura of law as a remunerative and fulfilling career was powerful enough to do the rest.

Law school was great fun, intellectually and socially: a perspective- and life-changing experience. But I made the common mistake of believing that what I loved about law school — problems to be solved, justice to be served, meaning to be found — would be available in equal abundance in the legal workplace. It took most of my articling year to make the adjustment and understand the industry a little better, by which time it was too late to be hired back. And once the admissions process was over and I’d received my license to practise, I had the same bone-chilling feeling Ms. Wolf must have experienced: now what? I have no job, I have no particular passion or aptitude for the practice of law, and I have bills and debts to pay. Getting from there to my current position is a long story beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say I caught a lot of breaks. Most new lawyers in that position aren’t so fortunate.

I can’t conceive of graduating from school $87,000 in debt, even though this is reality for many new US lawyers and a growing number of Canadian ones. From 1990-1993, Queen’s Law School charged an average of $2,000 – $2,300 for tuition. Throw in another few thousand for room, board and books per year, and the whole experience came to maybe $15,000, a quarter of which I financed through summer jobs and the rest through the good people at Scotiabank and the federal government. Because my undergrad degree was also remarkably inexpensive, my eight years of post-secondary education ran me, at most, $20,000. Some students now burn through that in a year.

You know, I understand and empathize with the concerns felt at law schools and law societies about the rapidly growing cost of a law degree. I recognize the potential barriers that these prices erect to would-be lawyers who come from middle-class or less well-off backgrounds (though I note in passing that law schools spend more than ever these days on bursaries for students with financial difficulties). But I can’t help thinking there’s an advantage to the higher cost of a legal education in Canada: it can act as a deterrent to the browsers and test-drivers of legal education, the people who try out law school to see if it’s right for them. If I’d been facing $20,000 a year to go to law school, I’d have had to be extremely sure I knew what I was getting into, or I wouldn’t have been able to justify it. We will lose some good potential lawyers from the profession because of this, no question; but we will also have much fewer stories like Ms. Wolf’s, or mine.

What we really need, of course, is a much better understanding and appreciation among would-be lawyers of exactly what this profession offers and requires: not just its intellectual challenges, but also its ethical peculiarities, its extraordinary personal demands, its diversity of career paths, its captivity to hiring cycles, its average annual salary, and its amazing ability to, every so often, change the world. Thanks to a more sophisticated applicant pool and a wider array of websites devoted to pre-law and law school information (Law is Cool is an excellent Canadian example), we’re getting there. The sooner we can dispel both the good and bad myths of a legal career, the better.

1 Comment

  1. lawiscool

    Why, thank you Jordan!

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