I was recently corresponding with a 2009 graduate of a Tier 1 law school who I will call Lawyer X. Lawyer X is a smart, hardworking law school graduate that is trying to make his way in the worst recruiting market in decades. In many ways, Lawyer X is representative of a large portion of current law students. Lawyer X generously agreed to answer some questions that I posed with regard to his thoughts on law school, the legal profession, and recruiting. For current lawyers, Lawyer X's experiences can provide insight into the current law school experience. For prospective law students, reviewing Lawyer X's answers may help you make your decision as to whether to attend law school, or may help you get more out of your law school experience. This will be the first of a multi-part series. My questions, Lawyer X's answers, and some comments appear below.
1) Why/how did you decide to go to law school?
I grew up watching Matlock and thought being a lawyer would be amazing. I would have to say at the age of about 8 or 9 is when I really decided that I would become a lawyer some day in the distant future. I actually did not know a single lawyer and never met one until I was an undergrad student (and the lawyers I met were the professors at the law school). I thought what Matlock did was extremely interesting and over the years I tried to learn more about the legal profession and slowly realized that the transactional side would be more my cup of tea.
Comment: Like many people that go to law school, Lawyer X did not have a thorough understanding of the legal profession before deciding to be a lawyer. However, it is tough for people to really understand the life a lawyer without having a lawyer in the family. I find that Lawyer X's reasoning for attending law school is representative of many students today - their initial understanding is based on mass media and they make a decision to be a lawyer very early. Personally, my understanding before attending law school was only marginally better.
2) Did anyone tell you that law would be a good profession?
Just about everyone I knew thought that the legal profession would afford me an extremely stable job, along with high income. I never ran across someone that told me that the legal profession could be at all risky. Never. Mostly, people just reiterated that I would be very well off as a lawyer. Again, I had never actually spoken with a lawyer, but everyone else I ever talked to (including other professionals) seemed to think that a law degree was a license to print money. And I of course simply believed them.
Comment: Again, like many prospective law students, Lawyer X hears a consistent message from everyone he encounters that the financial reward will be there. It looks true from what he can see, but he does not aggressively pursue the question with actual practicing attorneys.
In practice, I note that many undergrads or recent grads seem very reticent or shy about discussing the legal profession with actual lawyers. Instead they prefer media accounts, conversations with professors, and talking with prospective law schools. However, the best way to get accurate information about your career prospects is to talk to practicing lawyers in the field, geographic area, and type of firm that you want to practice in. How? Look up some names in the alumni directory for your undergrad, call them up, explain who you are and what you are interested in, and offer to take them to lunch - they probably won't even let you pay.
3) What was your understanding of lawyer salaries before going to law school?
As I had been told over the course of many years that lawyers made gobs of money, I pretty much bought into that idea, hook, line, and sinker. I never really questioned the conventional wisdom and as far as I could tell, lawyers led pretty glamorous lives and were very well off. Of course, I only ever saw them on TV so maybe that should have tipped me off, but I suppose I was a bit naive in that respect (as are the majority of young people I suppose). My supposition was that all lawyers made 6 figures at least. In my mind that was absolutely a boatload of cash to be earning each year. This, of course, was colored by the fact that I grew up relatively poor (my parents together, after 25-30 year of working full-time, still make a bit less than 65K/yr combined).
4) Did you read and believe salary information provided by the law schools?
I did see salary info for several of the law schools to which I had intended on applying. I had my sights set on very good law schools (i.e. T-14, although I didn't know what the "T-14" was at that point), and every one of them had six figure salaries (135/145K I believe) as the median starting salary. I also looked at the info of my undergrad university's law school (ranked 34th at the time), and the median salary was also six figures (~120K). As far as I remember, there were no disclaimers as to how many students were actually counted in the employment stats. I actually just reviewed my own law school's salary info and there are indeed no disclaimers of any kind. Coupled with what I had been told me whole life, I believed 100% the salary info I had been reviewing. As far as I could tell, there was not a huge difference between that 34th ranked school and the very top schools with regards to starting salaries.
Comment: As discussed previously, the information provided by law schools is often unreliable. Further, the average starting salary, even for lawyers from Tier 1 law schools, is likely in the range of $60K-$70K.
We will continue with Lawyer X's experiences in the next installment.