A couple of years ago, I attended an informal panel featuring nine or ten in-house attorneys at Google. These lawyers were all kind enough to share stories about their law school experiences and offer up general advice. Their perspectives on law school varied quite a bit – some loved it, some hated it, some had blocked it out of their memories.
However, they all unanimously agreed on one thing: They either wished they had waited a few years after college to attend law school or were extremely thankful that they had. Working as a paralegal, I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of lawyers of all stripes – Big Law, public interest, company in-house – and everyone (this word should raise a red flag on the LSAT, but in this case it’s meant honestly) had the same advice for prelaw college students:
Even law school admissions officers offer the same wisdom. As quoted in Richard Montauk’s How to Get Into the Top Law Schools, NYU’s Irene Dorzback states it best: “If all the top law schools agreed not to accept applicants unless they had three-plus years of experience, it would probably work out better for everyone.” In fact, some top law schools are doing just that. Northwestern’s School of Law all but requires post-college work experience, with 98% of their entering students having one or more years of a full-time job under their belts.
It is virtually impossible to understand the “real world” without substantial work experience. It’s unfortunately not something that can be experienced vicariously. As one of the Google attorneys succinctly put it, “You just don’t know who you are and what you want out of your job until you’ve worked for more than a summer or two and had to pay rent.” That type of self-knowledge is rarely achieved by the age of 22. And yet, each year, anywhere between one and two thirds of entering law school students come directly from undergrad. These young men and women aren’t stupid; they represent some of the brightest minds of their generation. But sadly many are there for the wrong reasons.
Here are 5 things to consider when you’re making your decision:
1. A JD is a technical degree
A law degree prepares you to be a lawyer or someone intimately connected with the legal practice. Period. The true multipurpose degree is a BA or BS, which is what makes college such a valuable experience, or perhaps an MBA, which very often does offer skills that are transferable to a number of careers. (A word to the wise: If you’re using phrases like “universal degree” to justify getting a JD, law school is not for you.)
2. Not all legal whizzes go straight to law school
Two words: Barack Obama. Post-Columbia, Barry worked for two years in New York, then spent three years serving as a community organizer in Chicago before finally deciding to attend law school at Harvard. Other famous law graduates who waited a year or two before studying law include John Adams (who worked as an elementary school teacher), Bill Clinton (Rhodes Scholar), Stephen Breyer (Marshall Scholar), and Elena Kagan (Master’s at Oxford). Admissions officer Monica Ingram from the University of Texas promises, “There is absolutely not a penalty for waiting some years after graduating college to apply.”
3. Legally Blonde is slightly misleading
Law school is a good deal more challenging than it seems on TV, and attorneys aren’t always crusading for justice like Atticus Finch. To see if you’re merely drawn into the glamour or prestige of calling yourself a “lawyer,” try this mental exercise: simply replace the word “lawyer,” with all its cultural baggage, with another title. If the job were called “word accountant,” or “trial attendant,” or “case pleader,” would you still be as interested? If so, great! You’re genuinely excited about the law. If not, you should strongly examine your motivation for going to law school (note: this exercise also works for “doctor”).
4. Law school teaches you how to be a lawyer, not how to think.
“Learning how to think” was what the last eight years were about. If you’ve made it all the way through high school and college and still don’t know how to learn or think, another three years probably won’t make much of a difference.
5. You always have options
Many students rush to law school right out of college because they don’t know what else to do. The irony is that at the time of college graduation you can do almost anything except practice law. Only a handful of jobs require an advanced degree, whereas a vast array of positions require either a bachelor’s and/or previous work experience. It’s true that a liberal arts major may not lead to a specific career, but that open-endedness should provide a sense of freedom, not panic.
It’s true that the post-college graduation years can be a frightening—sometimes even a painful—experience. But ultimately, they are the best time to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. It’s certainly possible that you’ll find that practicing law is exactly what you want—this conviction will make you a more driven law school student, and in the end a better attorney. You’ll walk through those hallowed ivy covered gates with a newfound air of maturity and wisdom. As Rick Geiger of Cornell Law says, “It’s never a bad idea to take time off before law school. We’ll still be here, and a legal career lasts for a very long time, so there’s no need to rush.”
Matthew Busick is a Content Developer at Knewton, where he helps students with their LSAT prep.