Nathaniel Burney writes The Criminal Lawyer mainly for his own amusement and that of his sexy sexy followers. Although he is brilliant, talented and charming, he’s modest enough to admit that he’s also dashingly handsome. You can learn more about him at his firm’s website.
The law is an amazing profession, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for the vast majority of people. And when it’s not a good fit, the downside is awful. Mismatched lawyers are miserable. Their lives can really suck. They may be very good at what they do, but it’s not particularly fulfilling. Or it’s too time-consuming, preventing them from doing the other stuff that would be fulfilling. Maybe they can’t stand dealing with other lawyers. And if they’re not very good at what they do, their clients can suffer far far worse.
But for those who belong here, the law is a wonderful place to be. It challenges the intellect, inspires ideas, and gives you a chance to really make a difference. And that is huge. It doesn’t matter what kind of law you practice; you’re dealing with real people, with real lives, and you’re helping them with a real need. A life in the law is deeply fulfilling, and a life well spent.
Unfortunately, most mismatched lawyers don’t figure it out (if ever) until far too late, when they’re already practicing. Some cut their losses and start a new career. But most don’t. Maybe they’re in a large law firm and just hate it, but can’t leave the paycheck. Maybe they feel they’ve invested too much of their lives in law school and advancing through the profession, and so are unwilling to chuck it all and start over doing something else. Maybe they sincerely can’t think of anything else to do. And they wind up getting more and more miserable. It’s no wonder that alcoholism, depression and divorce are rampant among lawyers.
The best time to figure it out, of course, is before going to law school. Some people wisely drop out (or, thankfully, wash out), but that’s rare. No, once a mismatched lawyer is admitted to law school, the odds are they’re going to stick it out and become a sinkhole of misery. Far better to have turned away and pursued a more fulfilling life before ever going to law school in the first place.
But how can you tell if the law’s going to be a good fit for you? It’s tough, if you haven’t tried it out first. Whether you’d be happy or not is all hypothetical until you start working.
Fortunately, you know yourself pretty well. Nothing hypothetical there. If you’re honest with yourself, you know what traits you have and don’t have.
And fortunately, we’ve known plenty of other happy lawyers, and had the chance to observe what traits we all seem to share.
So if you’re wondering whether you ought to go to law school, you might want to ask yourself a few very simple questions:
1. Do you want to be a lawyer?
If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t go to law school. Sure, lots of people say it prepares you for other kinds of work, and trains your brain to do marvelous things. But if that’s all you want out of it, go take some continuing ed courses in History, Philosophy and Economics. A rigorous study of History will give you the same issue-spotting, researching and detail-checking that you’d get from law school — probably better. Philosophy will certainly give you a better grounding in logic, analysis, and reasoned argument. And Economics, along with the other two, will give you enough grounding in how people actually work, and why they do what they do. There is nothing else that law school teaches if you’re not planning to be a lawyer.
Law school serves a single function: it is a trade school for those who would practice law. And it’s fucking expensive. Would you spend a hundred grand to go to plumbing school and apprentice as a plumber if you weren’t planning on being a plumber? (And yes, that’s a valid comparison. Plenty of lawyers make about as much as the average plumber.) If you don’t want to be a lawyer, don’t go to law school.
“I don’t know” is not a good answer. “I don’t know” is the same as “no.” “No” does not mean you’re opposed to the idea of being a lawyer — that’s not what we asked. We’re only asking if you actually desire to be one. If the honest answer is anything other than an unqualified “yes,” then stop right here. Do not go to law school.
But if the answer is yes, then keep reading.
2. Why do you want to be a lawyer?
If you want to be a lawyer because lawyers make good money, then you shouldn’t go to law school. Yes, some lawyers make great money, but that’s still no reason to be one. If a major part of why you want to be a lawyer is the money, then in all sincerity you lack the single biggest trait of a good lawyer, and you do not belong in the profession. If you can’t think of what that missing trait is on your own, you doubly don’t belong here. Put simply, that trait is not putting yourself first. The number-one thing that separates the law from almost every other endeavor is that the client’s interests always always always come first. If you’re in it for the dough, you’re in it for you, and you’re not in it for the client. (And if you’re in it for the dough, unless you’re going to be one of the top 1% of lawyers, you’re an idiot. Because most aren’t going to make huge bucks. Idiots don’t belong, either.)
If you want to be a lawyer because of the prestige, job security, or other benefits to yourself, the same goes for you. You’re putting yourself first, and you probably have an unrealistic idea of what being a lawyer is like as well. Please find something else to do with your life. We’ll all be better off for it.
Do you want to be a lawyer because… well… you don’t know for sure? Or because going to law school is some kind of default, because you still don’t know what to do with your life? Or because you don’t want to be blue-collar, but didn’t get a background in science or engineering, don’t have the chops to do business, and didn’t develop any marketable skills in college? Be warned: the law is not a default career. Don’t count on discovering an aptitude and love of the law by chance during law school — it ain’t gonna happen. Please go somewhere else.
But if you want to be a lawyer because of a genuine desire to help others — with what, it doesn’t matter — then you might be one of us! Keep reading.
3. Are you smart? Are you a good person?
This is really two questions in one. Intelligence has nothing to do with whether you’re a good person. But we’re lumping them here because what we’re really asking is whether you are the right kind of person for the job.
You don’t need to be a genius to be a good lawyer. But you do need to have above-average intelligence. You need to be able to learn new things quickly all the time, figure out what’s important, and deal with it right there. Most people can’t really do this well enough. It doesn’t make them bad people, it just means the law isn’t for them.
On top of basic intelligence, you need some basic maturity and good judgment. You’re going to be making decisions that affect your clients’ lives in important ways, so you need to be able to make the right decision. Intelligence only gets you to the point where you know what decision has to be made, and helps you identify what options you have. Judgment and maturity (and experience) are how you make the right decision.
“Smart,” however, means more than just intelligent and wise. It also means you know stuff. A good lawyer is going to be a well-rounded person. Every case, every matter, involves new issues to learn, new situations to figure out, and new people to deal with. The more and varied your life experience, the better you will be able to deal with it. Taking lots of different courses in college helps. Doing lots of different activities and working different kinds of jobs helps more. There’s a reason all that stuff looks good on a resume.
Beyond smarts, a lawyer must have a diligent work ethic. You don’t need to be chained to your desk, but the law is a time-consuming profession, and you need to be able to put in the time to do it right. That doesn’t mean you need to be chained to your desk every waking moment — unless you’re on trial or dealing with an emergency, there’s no reason why you’d need to forego your non-work life. In fact, the most successful lawyers always seem to have time for family and personal pursuits, despite the fact that they work very hard. And throughout law school and throughout the practice of law, the people who perform better are not the smartest ones, but the ones who put in the time to prepare more thoroughly. It can’t be done quickly, and it can’t be crammed. Those with a diligent work ethic will shine. The rest will suffer.
And a lawyer must have strong morals, and a basic sense of decency. This should go without saying, but there’s a popular misconception that the law is filled with assholes, and that assholes make better lawyers. Nothing could be more wrong. The lawyers who get ahead are without exception, trustworthy, fair and honest. The rest of us make sure that those who aren’t don’t get very far. It may seem like there’s a glut of lawyers in the world, but within the profession it’s a very small world indeed. A lawyer who lies, who cheats, or who steals will not last very long at all.
4. What kind of law are you thinking of practicing?
“I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer here. If you’ve made it this far, you probably have at least the bare minimum of threshold personality traits to practice law. But let’s fine-tune it a little more. What you want to do with that law degree will affect not only whether getting it makes sense, but also where you ought to go to school. There are countless combinations of law schools and kinds of practice, but here are a few for comparison:
If you want to practice large-scale corporate law, helping big deals get made, doing M&A work, structuring intricate financial matters, etc., then your best bet’s going to be working in “biglaw” — the super-sized firms that work for major corporations. The pay there is the best, the hours are the worst, and getting in is the hardest. Because they pay far more than the true value of a freshly-minted JD, there is an oversupply of candidates for the jobs. So they get to cherry-pick only the best candidates, which usually means those with the best grades from the most prestigious schools. (Note, we did not say the “best” schools.) If that’s your goal, you’re going to need to ace the LSAT and either have a near-perfect undergrad GPA or some awesome real-life experiences. Otherwise, you’re not going to get into those top schools, and you’re not going to work at biglaw.
If you want a career studying the law, maybe shaping it, then academia is the place for you. Oh, did we say biglaw was the hardest job to get? We lied. Legal academia is way harder. In addition to a JD from a top school and law review, you’re probably also going to want to wrangle a federal appellate clerkship. More importantly, you’re going to have to get published. Not self-published. Not a blog. Not articles in Forbes. You need to publish law review articles (even though nobody outside of academia ever reads or uses them). The more the better. At this point, however, you’re going to need to get into a top school. If you can’t, then your chances of success here are low.
But you don’t need to go to one of the most prestigious schools if you want to practice local, small-scale law. St. John’s and Cardozo prepare people far better for general local practice in New York than does Harvard. However, you do need to go to a school that’s good at what it does. The better the school, the better you’ll be taught, and the better you’ll be at what you do, and the better your chances of success. Go somewhere in the top 100. If you can get into one of the more prestigious ones, and can afford it, then by all means do — it really opens doors throughout your career — but it’s by no means necessary. (And if you can’t get into a top 100 school, then you might want to rethink whether you meet the threshold requirements for practicing law in the first place. Seriously.)
Do consider the fact that you’ll need to get a job, and even in the best of economic climates the lower your school’s ranked, the less likely you are to be hired. The better your school, and the better your class rank there, the more likely you are to get hired. Someone who had what it takes to get into Yale, but only did average there, is still going to be more marketable than someone who did great at Gonzaga.
5. So how are those grades, anyway?
As you may have gathered by now, your grades and scores are pretty damn important. As well they should be. More than just determining how good a law school you can get into, they’re a great indicator of how well-suited you are for the legal profession. If you don’t have the grades and the LSAT to get into a decent school, you’re probably going to be happier doing something else.
“But my grades don’t truly reflect me as a person,” we can hear you saying. And you’re right, they don’t. Grades and test scores don’t have any correlation to being a good person, having awesome potential, or your value as a person.
But grades are an outstanding indicator of whether you’re the kind of person who will achieve. Face it, if you’re in college, you’re a grown adult. You’re not a child. If you’re not achieving now, what makes you’re going to start later? Law school is not going to be kind to you if you don’t already have what it takes to earn great grades. And if you have what it takes, why aren’t you getting those grades now?
And test scores like the LSAT are, like it or not, strong indicators of how well you’ll do in law school and beyond. The LSAT tests logical thinking, reading comprehension, and issue spotting. If you’re not really good at these now, you’re simply not going to do well in law school and beyond. You’re not. Don’t insist that you are, you’re not.
So as we said before, if you don’t have what it takes to get into at least a top 100 school, you really need to rethink whether the law is a good fit for you.
But if you’ve gotten this far, and you’ve got the grades and scores to get into one of those schools, or better yet one of the more prestigious schools, then come on in. You’re probably going to love it in here. And we’d love to have you. People may complain that there are too many lawyers, but what they really mean is there are too many crappy ones. There’s always room for more good ones. Always. So yes, we’d love to have you.