“Letters! I get letters!” Well, actually, I get emails, and sometimes direct messages on LinkedIn, but the main thing is, people frequently write me with questions about what they should do in the new legal market. I respond as best I can, but I’ll give particular priority to anyone asking, as one person recently did, whether now is a good time to go to law school.
These days, that question is almost begging for a putdown — are you trying to throw your money away? And as you’ll see, especially given everything I’ve been saying about the shrinking legal profession and the steep decline in law firms’ interest in associates, my response wasn’t filled with unbridled enthusiasm for the prospect. But it’s still a question worth regularly revisiting, because nothing ages faster than conventional wisdom, and the conventional wisdom right now is that law school is a mug’s game. That has become today’s pat answer — but it doesn’t address what tomorrow’s answer might be for the class of (I can’t believe it) 2020 and beyond.
My correspondent was writing from Europe to ask whether he should accept an opportunity to attend law school in North America. As I told him right off the top, a lot depends on context. Future legal careers will vary considerably by jurisdiction, industry sector, and practice type. So my response to him was necessarily broad in scope. But I thought it had enough generally applicable value that I would reproduce it, with some edits, here.
This is not a good time to enter law school if you’re intent on becoming a “traditional” lawyer — that is, someone who knows the law, carries out various legal functions, collects a paycheque every two weeks, and repeats the foregoing for six to ten years until partnership comes calling. That type of career is close to being on life support.
The truly elite lawyers — unparalleled expertise, tremendous advocacy skills, heavyweight presence — sure, they’ll still call their own shots and make scads of money. But there’s no way for you to know whether you’ll become that type of lawyer. The safer thing is to assume you won’t, simply because the odds are heavily against it. That’s not a knock against you — it’s simply a reflection of the fact that maybe 1 in 100 newly graduated lawyers will follow that path to a successful conclusion, and most will be as surprised as anyone that they wound up there.
It’s a better time to enter law school if you have a relatively clear vision of what you want to achieve with the law degree and where you want it to help take you. Because if there’s one change I’ve seen with regard to a law degree over the past 10 to 15 years, it’s the evolution of the degree from being an end in itself to being a means to an end.
When I entered law school in 1990, to the extent I had any effective vision of why I was doing so (which I didn’t really), I viewed a law degree as an asset that, once obtained, I could immediately put to use by being hired somewhere to work as a lawyer. I don’t think you should rely on that outcome anymore.
Obtaining a law degree to help you get somewhere specific, though — eyes wide open and fixed on the prize you want — that makes a lot more sense to me. If it’s your goal to acquire a specific type of position within a particular industry or government sector, and you’ve concluded (with some evidentiary support) that a law degree is both a qualification and an experience that will help you get there, then it’s a much better bet. That’s a law degree worth pursuing — a stepping stone towards a larger goal that you’ve set for yourself and that you reasonably believe, because of your other qualifications and assets, you can achieve.
If you don’t have a specific life goal in mind, though, or if you’re set on engaging in the private practice of law regardless of what form it takes in future — well, on balance, I’d still endorse obtaining a law degree, so long as each of the following criteria are met:
1. The financial cost of the degree won’t crush you, now or later. Basically, if you can afford the risk that you could sink $150,000 (more or less — in some cases, way more) into something from which you’ll never derive much value, then sure, go for it. Bursaries and scholarships aren’t a solution unless they cover about half of all your costs — otherwise, they function more as enticements to enrol in a system that has a very loose connection between qualification and employment. It’s true that some legal education providers are trying to reform the system, and we should support those efforts; but it’s also true that many law schools have decided they’re okay with being training grounds for the already elite, and they assume at this point that you know this as well. So if you simply can’t afford the risk that this investment won’t more than pay for itself, act accordingly.
2. You’re bringing something to law school other than intellect and enthusiasm. My 23-year-old self brought nothing to law school beyond those two qualities, and I was finished as a practicing lawyer within 18 months of graduation. And that was back in the 1990s, when even halfway-decent law graduates could wind up on a six- to seven-figure partnership track. Try that today, and you’ll be a statistic before you know it. But if you’re older, if you’ve already acquired some skills and qualifications, if you’ve got first-hand experience managing or running a business or organization, or if you can use a law degree to amplify your existing assets in a known direction, then it’s worth pursuing. This is especially the case if you have technology, systems, or engineering skills — you will be in serious demand, and not just by law firms.
3. You’re truly flexible about what you might end up doing. It’s a myth that “you can do anything with a law degree.” But I think a slightly alternative take on the old saw applies: “A law degree can lead you almost anywhere.” A good legal education, in addition to providing you with some marketable knowledge and skills, should also set you up to pursue myriad paths in life. This is especially true now that a wide range of new legal careers is opening up. Recognize that “practising law” represents only a sliver of the many legal employment options that will be available to you from 2020 to 2060, and that many of the “alternatives” will wind up being more engaging and fulfilling than you might currently imagine. And if your path takes you outside the legal industry altogether, well, that’s fine too. A law degree should change your mind about some important things and set you looking, if not travelling, in unexpected directions.
That last point is important. There’s still pedagogical and intellectual value in a law degree, and while tallying up the very real costs and risks of obtaining that degree, it’s also important to weigh on the other side of the scale the equally real rewards that a legal education, properly delivered and properly received, can provide. And that brings me to a final argument in favour of going to law school: We need more good people to be lawyers.
I’m convinced that from a business perspective, the role of the lawyer will change profoundly in the years to come. But I’m equally certain that from a societal perspective, the importance of lawyers will not change at all — unless it’s to become even more pronounced. Every few decades, during a moment of crisis, society remembers why it really has lawyers: to protect the rule of law and advance the cause of human dignity. Society calls on lawyers to do that every so often, and it’s really, really important that enough good people become lawyers that we can respond in sufficient numbers. I’m not saying the legal profession deserves all these good people — I voiced my concern more than five years ago that the profession has squandered its inheritance in this respect — but we need them all the same.
Now, if you’re reading this, and the thought of defending the rule of law at a moment of crisis bores you, then please, go become a hedge fund manager or something, where you can rake in money and prestige until the day the revolution comes. But if the prospect instead stirs in you a feeling of urgency and purpose, if you feel drawn to a profession that will offer a broad spectrum of engaging activity but is rooted in a single unifying mission — and you can somehow afford the risks involved in getting there — then please sign up. We need you.
Hey, you know what? All this talk of law school makes me feel like having a book sale. Start of the school year, and all that.
From now until the end of the month, or while supplies last (whichever comes first), Law Is A Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm is available at a 10% discount. Visit the sales page for Law Is A Buyer’s Market, proceed to the checkout, and in the “Discount Code” slot, enter “SEPT”. The discount does not apply to bulk orders of 10 or more copies, for which reduced prices are already available.
Excellent post all the way around. But I would quibble a bit with the interplay between (a) have a good idea about what you want to do and (b) be flexible. I think one needs a better understanding (compared to me in 1982) of what kinds of problems lawyers help solve, and how they do it, but I think you need to embrace the uncertainty and need for flexibility. And as for #2, if you’re going to law school but planning to, or needing to, fall back on existing skills, how is that an argument for going to law school?