When I talk to people considering going to law school, I usually try to figure out what they really want from it. Not the BS, surface reasons like - "law is my passion" (really? REALLY?) or "I like to help people" (you don't need to spend $200K to do that - get any job at a charity, you will probably be better off than going to law school) - but the real reasons. The deep down reasons. The reasons that aren't so nice or so PC. The reasons that they don't even want to admit to themselves - because it is only through the filter of their conscious minds that they can rectify their unconscious need for that they really want with what they have been told (or told themselves) is appropriate. The reasons that they have been taught that (although true and accurate in the purest sense) will bring condemnation from society if spoken frankly.
In short, I try to get a glimpse of who they really are and what they really want. For a few, they are a good match for law school - but most of the others often want something that law school - or even a law career - can't provide. Let's take a look at the most common things that the people that I meet really want - and whether they can get it from law school.
First, people that did not graduate in the lat 5 years need to recognize that the competition in colleges has greatly increased. That means that not only did the competition itself evolve, but the people competing have had to evolve and the impact of the increased competition on them gives them a different experience - which in turn impacts their world view. Imagine you are a college student today that has managed to fight your way into a top college. (Let's limit our consideration to top colleges - virtually anyone can get into some "college" today and the value of a "college degree" has been very much diluted.) Competition today is really fierce, and unyielding at top colleges - the students that have won the competition and gain entry and are doing well have usually been single-mindedly focused on their goal of getting good grades for years upon years. Consequently, let's look past all the "leaning is my passion" BS that some people expect the students to spout - frankly, "enjoyment" or "passion" would only have gotten the students so far (and not far enough to out-do the competition) and the rest is single-minded determination, absolute focus, the ability to delay gratification, and maybe desire for or fear about the future - or a combination of the two.
As this college student, you recognize that you have assets of intelligence and the ability to do work and you want to exploit those assets in the most reliable and effective way to achieve your goals - although you may have trouble explaining exactly what you want and may even feel a little guilty or mercenary to explain it that way. However, you haven't put in all this ginding, painful work over the last several years and passed up so many fun opportunities to let your work go to waste - you want to get as much out of it as you can. So what do you really want?
Well, you want money - lots of it. (You probably have been taught that it is impolite to phrase it as "lots", but you definitely want to have more than the average US worker's $40K - so you really do want "lots".) Money represents freedom and power and pleasure. With money you can have stuff that you want, live with less worries, and generally make your life easier. Also, although you may or may not realize it, you also want job security - the ability to consistently earn money year after year for as along as you want to earn it. In addition, you want to do a job that doesn't suck - but you recognize that work is work - in fact you anticipate that work will be much like going to school has been for you in that 1) you will be given a series of highly regulated and overseen tasks to do, but 2) you will get to pick the general subject/career that those tasks will be in. Also, you may not realize it yet, but you also want time - sometimes called "work/life balance" - time to go on vacations once or twice a year, time to take off a couple weeks when your child is born, time on the week nights and week ends to be with family, socialize, or just vegetate. I will shorten these to: 1) Money, 2) Job Security, 3) Appealing Job, and 4) Free Time. (There are other aspects that I frequently see people wanting, but these four are pretty much universal.)
So you look around and you try to identify a modality to allow you to most effectively exploit your assets to achieve your goals. However, although some metrics are fairly easy to come by (such as average starting salaries which inform you about the "Money" metric) other metrics are not transparent at all or are very vulnerable to subjective interpretation or misinformation.
For example, if you consider a "good work/life balance" to be one in which you are home at 6pm, don't work on weekends, and can take two weeks off/year - and you hear a potential employer pitching their "great work/life balance", you may assume that the employer and yourself share the same vision of "great work/life balance". Instead, their idea of a "great work/life balance" is you working until 9pm on weekdays, spending 6 hours on e-mail both on Saturday and Sunday and either not taking vacation or taking "vacation" where you are logged in to e-mail and available for 6-8 hours/day. Consequently, you have a hard time getting good, solid data about the "free time" aspect - you may think you have good data, but you are often deceiving yourself.
Also, the "Appealing Job" metric is pretty hard to get a handle on. You don't really know what it is going to be like to work in a specific job - especially one that you will be doing for year-after-year once the novelty has worn off. You can get a better idea by interning or doing a co-op, but they may be hard to come by and really only show you a brief glimpse of a job- not how the understanding of your job will change over time, how you will come to view your job over time, or how your responsibilities and tasks will change over time.
Similarly, the "Job Security" metric is tough to evaluate - it is really asking you to look into the future, maybe up to 40 years in the future when you are in your 60s. That's very tough to do under any conditions. It is especially tough to do when you have not even started working at a specific job and don't have a few years under your belt to get a sense of where the industry - and your company - are going.
So you default to Money as a metric. Here you can get a wealth of statistics that (at least at first glance) seem reliable. However, you really do have 4 goals that you would like to maximize. Unfortunately, in the absence of clear metrics for three of those goals, you are unable to develop a plan that maximizes the combination of the 4 goals. Instead, you find yourself defaulting to a plan that maximizes the metric for which you have data - Money. You can tell which options seem to make the most money - and you subtly diminish the remaining factors by filling in "soft" data in the absence of hard metrics. For example, instead of hard data with regard to job security of lawyers, you might say to yourself "we will always need layers, right?" or "there have always been lawyers and always will be, right?" or "you can do anything with a law degree". Further, in the absence of hard data about the day-to-day work of a lawyer (or in response to misinformation provided in sales pitches by law school recruiters) you may fill in the Appealing Job metric by saying to yourself "lawyers are a very respected profession" or "lawyers get to work on interesting things", etc.
If you are that college student, then I urge you to be selfish and to be smart. (Sounds strange, doesn't it?) Selfish because it is really your own life and you need to decide what is best for you - only you can arrive at the balance of the four factors that will work for you - and will work for you not just for a month or a year, but for a decade or more. Take some time to think and identify what you really want from the working world. Identify how YOU want to balance the four factors. Also, stick to your guns! If you decide that you want to be able to have evenings free, then stick to it! Don't be persuaded to give up your evenings for a little more money - not because of any moral "good", but because it just is not going to be effective for you in the long run.
That is, you might think that having that little extra money may make you happier - money makes people happy, right? To an extent it does, but there is a point of diminishing returns - and it is not a specific dollar amount. Instead, everyone has a balance of the 4 factors that works for them - and each factor (and the balance) is different for all of us. However, if you don't know yourself - if you transgress from your personal balance - for example by sacrificing Free Time for Money beyond the extent to which you are internally prepared to sacrifice it, you will find that the additional money really does not have the positive impact that you expected (and that could happen at $30K or at $200K, depending on your personal aspects).
What brought this on is that I have interacted with literally 20-30 undergrads in the last year who have come to me saying that they "want to go to law school." However, when we really dig into what they really want it turns out to be the four factors outlined above, and law school is the modality that they believe will allow them to achieve them. However, law school and a career as a lawyer typically does not match with the actual personal balance of the four factors that the potential law student has. In the next post, I'll take a look at each of the four factors, compare them to what the students typically really want, and then compare them to what law school can actually provide.