This article is broken down into four parts: (1) Advantages; (2) Disadvantages; (3) Money matters; and (4) Final thoughts. Here it is, without further ado:
1. ADVANTAGES OF LEGAL EDUCATION
(A) Intellectual stimulus. The serious, non-superficial study of law (that only law school can offer) is an intellectual feast. If one fully takes advantage of the opportunities that a decent institution presents, law school will turn the undergraduate writer of open-ended comparative literature papers into a sharp logician, whose understanding of legal, political, and social relationships seems sometimes to border on clairvoyance.
Law school develops an individual’’s capacity for analysis farther than most people can imagine, as well as his ability to develop sound arguments and to articulate them in a concise, persuasive, and practical manner. Through law school, one can gain an understanding of not only what the law IS, but also WHY it is, and how it is likely to change the future. Law school also gives one an understanding of how particular legal principles and doctrines affect our day-to-day existence, and how they shape even the most minor of transactions.
The list can go on, but if I were to reduce the intellectual benefits of legal education to a single, all-inclusive principle, it would be this: Law school enlightens.
(B) Exciting career. The legal field offers a wide range of careers in many different areas of law and in varied types of practice. Moreover, a law degree can jump-start a non-legal career as well, such as in business or finance. A career in law may give an individual the opportunity to earn a lot of money –– although by far not in every case and usually not at the outset –– as well as a chance to start one’’s own business. The practice of law also gives one an opportunity to effect important changes in the legal system and in the clients’’ lives.
(C) Social aspects. For all the resentment that the public shows towards lawyers at large, I find that the lawyer-bashing has not significantly affected my life or my practice. On the contrary, I find that people treat individual lawyers with a special degree of respect and deference (based at least on lawyers’’ ability to comprehend seemingly incomprehensible documents, such as a car lease). If you plan to go to law school right after college, you will discover that there are few things more exhilarating than being a single young professional in a big city, where most lawyers begin their careers (and there is hardly any magnet stronger, apart perhaps from a Brazilian bikini, than a law treatise on a beach towel).
(D) The wardrobe. If you value elegance over comfort, and smart looks over drab casual garb, then having a job as an attorney will provide you with an excuse to get those expensive suits, shoes, and accessories.
2. DISADVANTAGES OF THE LEGAL CAREER
(A) The academics. I suppose that some college students who find themselves at a crossroads may think: Law school is just like the humanities, right? After all, it’’s not like the hard sciences, right? How difficult can a non-technical school be?
The answer is: VERY. True, law is not like the hard sciences, but it is not like culture studies, either. The legal education involves acquiring a very intricate and highly specialized set of skills, as well as a vast body of substantive knowledge. Bottom line, law school is just darn hard. If you think about a career in law, be prepared to commit approximately 70 hours per week to academics and about 15 hours per week to a part-time job at a law firm; you are free to use the remaining time to fret about your future.
A propos, the majority of law school courses have only one exam, graded on a strict bell curve, which accounts for 100% of a student’’s grade. In some very, very rare circumstances, professors have very, very limited discretion to raise a border-line grade to the higher notch, but as a practical matter, ““one bite at the apple”” is the cardinal rule governing law school grades.
(B) The Socratic method. I vaguely remember someone refer to the Socratic method as the ““psychotic method””. There is truth to that statement, because the Socratic method is analogous in practice to pulling a fly’’s wings, zapping a cockroach with electricity, and other similar examples of insect cruelty.
A typical law school course is taught as follows: (1) the professor calls on a student to answer extremely difficult and tricky questions about the voluminous materials assigned for that day; (2) if the student’’s preparation is anything less than backwards-and-forwards knowledge of the material, complete with analysis and intercorrelation, the professor publicly humiliates the student and lectures him like a child in the most offensive and belittling terms; (3) the rest of the class observes this and learns from the experience. Depending on the size of the class, anywhere between one and four students are singled out on any particular day to endure the ordeal throughout what is usually a two-hour session.
Various justifications have been advanced in defense of the Socratic method: it supposedly desensitizes students to scorching criticism and prepares them for what is essentially a conflict-oriented field; it is traditional; it trains students to be well-prepared for class, since they one day better be well-prepared for court, etc. Personally, I believe that all these justifications are mostly sham, and that, far from imparting the wisdom of Socrates, the method’’s true nature as an exercise in petty classroom tyranny far outweighs whatever benefits the mechanism may arguably have.
However, my personal opinion does not change the fact that the Socratic method endures. Virtually all law school professors are more or less Socratic. Some professors are more Socratic than others. Some are REALLY Socratic.
(C) The expense. The annual cost of tuition alone at a private law school in a major city (which is where one should study law) is pushing the upper twenties, and climbing relentlessly. Add living expenses (of a big city). No matter how brilliant a student you turn out to be, scholarships and grants in the aggregate will never cover more than approximately 25% of the cost. In the most likely scenario, however, about 95% of the cost of your legal education will have to be financed with loans. Only about half of those loans will be federally funded; the rest will be private loans and carry a higher interest rate. All these loans will be layered on top of any undergraduate loans you may have carried over from college.
Ultimately, unless you are independently wealthy, expect your post-graduation debt to be in the six figures, or thereabouts. Note further that educational loans are usually not dischargeable in bankruptcy (and bankruptcy may prevent you from getting a law license).
(D) The hours. In the United States, lawyers log in more hours than members of any other profession. As an associate at a major law firm, you will be expected to bill as much as 2,500 hours per year; only about 65% of the lawyer’’s time is billable. You do the math. Moreover, since raises and promotions are competitive and merit-based, it behooves an associate to bill a number of hours far above the prescribed minimum.
As a practical matter, associates at such law firm work anywhere between 80 and 100 hours per week. You are expected to dedicate nights, weekends, and children’’s birthdays to the firm without your boss’’ asking. You are expected not to get sick. Smaller law firms have more relaxed schedules, but it is never 9 to 5. Be aware also that more relaxed schedules are accompanied by sharply lower remuneration.
(E) Weight gain. Lawyers, even litigators, lead a very sedentary lifestyle. Lawyers also work long hours and don’’t have enough time to prepare healthy, well-balanced meals. That, coupled with such powerful munchie-inducers as stress, procrastination, all-nighters, and writer’’s block, really –– I mean, REALLY –– sticks to the ribs. So lest at graduation you find yourself 40 pounds overweight (yikes!), stock up on lettuce and grapefruit, and carve out time for regular workouts from the very first day of law school. Get a gym membership; consider it a part of the cost of your legal education.
(F) Loss of joie de vivre. Incurred by yourself AND others, that is. In your first year of law school, you’’ll see everything as a tort. In your second year of law school, you’’ll see everything as a tax issue. In your third year of law school, you’’ll see everything as a debtor-creditor relationship. You will drive your lay family and friends completely nuts with lawyer talk. Dinner conversations will never be the same, and you will constantly tempt whoever makes the meal to add a pinch of sedative (or laxative) to your plate.
Movies and television shows are yet another issue. As a child, I once read a science fiction story about a man who thoroughly described the mechanism of inducing laughter. As a consequence of reducing laughter to a science, he himself lost the ability to laugh. Where am I going with this? To a place where you will never again enjoy a courtroom drama.
The only legally sound lawyer show is ““Law & Order””, whose sole defect is making judges more gullible in the face of stretched arguments than they probably are in real life. The only legally sound movie that I know of is . . . ““My Cousin Vinny””, whose sole defect is a few inaccuracies, which may have been committed intentionally, in order not to weigh down the comedy with tedious details of evidentiary and procedural rules. All other courtroom dramas range from legally untenable to downright ludicrous.
Once again, not only will you yourself fail to derive enjoyment from this genre, but you will also make your friends and family crazy, explaining to them in excruciating detail why ““Double Jeopardy”” with Ashley Judd is legally flawed through and through, how the situation would resolve itself in real life, and why one should never –– EVER –– take legal advice from a disbarred lawyer. Your computer-savvy friends will not hesitate to take revenge by lecturing you on the idiocy of ““Swordfish””.
(G) Social aspects. One sad disadvantage of becoming a lawyer is the danger of losing faith in mankind. As a law student studying real-life cases and later as a practitioner, you will on a daily basis encounter such disheartening examples of human depravity, that the proverbial innate goodness of man will reveal itself for the silly illusion that it is. And that, even without considering the province of criminal law.
On a particularly stressful day, the abundance of fraud, betrayal, back-stabbing, and callousness makes people’’s hatred of lawyers particularly difficult to cope with, since it is the lay litigants’’ own inequities which bring them to the courthouse in the first place.
Lawyer-bashing, of course, is the icing on the cake of human corruption. No matter how thick-skinned you are, you will find it unnerving to hear reproaches that you live off people’’s bickering and failed professional, commercial, financial, and familial relationships; since no one would think to fault doctors for deriving financial gain from disease, undertakers –– from death and grief, grocers –– from our physiological need for nourishment, contractors –– from the necessity for housing, teachers — from the fact that human beings are born illiterate, and police officers –– from the ineradicability of crime. A young lawyer’s ability to grow a very thick skin is a basic prerequisite to survival. However, what makes this armor necessary is not the complained-of “inhumanity” of the legal profession, but the constant barrage of demagogy and ridiculous distortious pouring in abundance from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as from radio and television.
Believe it or not, quite a number of sexy law review articles have been written, purporting to pinpoint the core reason for the anti-lawyer phenomenon. I find these attempts at psychoanalyzing lawyers’’ poor public image pointless, and the theories offered so far –– all too esoteric to be accurate. Here is my own non-sexy, simplistic hypothesis (if you are curious) –– because the legal process inevitably exposes the worst in people, they are instinctively compelled to transfer the blame for the consequences of their misconduct.
This is why in a marriage where the husband repeatedly let his girlfriends max out on jointly held spousal credit cards, and the wife was in the habit of slapping him around a bit with a baseball bat, the matrimonial lawyers are faulted with ““breaking up the family””, why most abusive domestic partners who land in jail decry the system which ““interferes with personal relationships”” and why an ex-doctor blames the greedy plaintiff’’s lawyers for ending his career in medicine (while the fact that he showed up in the operating room inebriated and severed the patient’’s genitalia instead of his appendix of course had nothing to do with ending his career).
Then again, lawyer-hating talk may be just a polite social convention, so there is no reason to take it seriously.
(H) The wardrobe. If you value comfort over elegance (which is a subjective matter, anyway), and prefer sensible, seasonable clothing over deadly contraptions designed to cut off your circulation and to squash your feet into a raw, quivering mess, well then –– have those credit cards handy and say farewell to wearing jeans and sweatshirts to work. Oh, and be sure to make permanent room for dry-cleaning in your budget.
3. MONEY MATTERS.
The question of money belongs neither with “Advantages” nor with “Disadvantages”, because it is a little bit of both. On the one hand, the financial rewards of legal practice are a good reason to become a lawyer; on the other hand, it is not nearly as lucrative as lawyer-bashers maintain.
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what lawyers actually earn. If you believe headlines (which you should not, since the media, by virtue of the First Amendment, for better AND for worse, bears no legal or fiscal responsibility whatsoever for its statements), the practice of law looks something like this: pick up a class-action lawsuit on the way to the office; in the afternoon, make a tear-jerking shpiel, which took you only a couple of hours to write; win $100 million verdict, of which you will take $99 million as your fee; pick up your $99-million check on the way home; deposit into your savings account; chill with a nice martini; repeat the next day. Yeah, right.
Some people will always believe whatever they want to believe, no matter how absurd — this review is not for them. For those who are seriously considering a career in law, however, a reasonably accurate picture of reality is in order. We keep hearing about astronomical jury awards and lawyers pocketing multimillion-dollar fees, but there is much more to this picture than is usually told.
First, these exceptional cases represent the tip of the iceberg, not the mainstream, of the legal profession; the overwhelming majority of lawyers will never net a single verdict of a million dollars or more, or argue a case before the US Supreme Court, or even present an appeal before a state’s court of last resort.
Second, astronomical jury awards almost invariably get knocked down to below a million (sometimes substantially so) either by the trial judge or on appeal; they have primarily reputational, not financial, value for law firms.
Third, there is a problem of collection, since a zillion-dollar verdict is not much good to anyone if there is no money out of which it can be satisfied.
Fourth, a good portion of a fee, if not its bulk, is swallowed up by operating costs. Running a law practice is extremely expensive, and in addition to salaries and rent, the partners must also pay for experts, support, and research (and as any practicing lawyer may tell you, the likes of Lexis and Westlaw are as exorbitant as they are indispensable). And as if that was not enough, the law firm must also maintain a certain cash cushion, since, while astronomical jury awards come once in a blue moon, bills and operating costs must be satisfied on a regular basis.
Fifth, moving away from contingency compensation, the legal profession is heavily regulated, and there are numerous restrictions on how, when, by what means, and how much a lawyer can get paid, as well as restrictions on withdrawing from representation in an ongoing proceeding based on the client’s failure to pay.
So how much DO lawyers make?
Let’s start at the bottom, with first-year associates in law firms. According to the 2003 associate salary survey by the National Association of Legal Professionals (NALP), the median salary for a first-year associate is $93,190; the median salary for smallest firms (under 25 attorneys) is $59,500, while the median salary for largest firms (more than 500 attorneys) is $113,000.
One should not be fooled into thinking, however, that he is guaranteed a salary of at least $59,500 upon graduation, since the NALP bottom category is overinclusive. A law firm with 5 attorneys is very different from a law firm with 25 attorneys in many ways, including compensation. As a practical matter, starting salaries can be as low as $30,000 for entry-level positions in government, insurance companies, and small law firms. At the same time, associates at the largest law firms in major cities can have a base compensation of as much as $125,000. Of course, there are also bonuses, but one should never count on them: your law firm may shower you with gold one year, then send you fruit baskets for ten years afterwards.
A good way to see how much associates earn is to calculate their hourly rate. As I said before, major law firms pay handsomely, but they require horrendous hours of their associates. Let’s say you are hired by a top law firm at $125,000 per year, to work an average of 90 hours a week for 48 weeks. That works out to about $29 per hour — or about $971 an hour less than what Hollywood has always been promising you would earn as a lawyer.
Now let’s move to the very top of the food chain, to where senior partners in major law firms are. According to the American Lawyer 2002 survey of New York’s top 25 law firms, a partner in New York’s most profitable law firm (Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz) took home about $3,165,000 in 2002. A partner in the bottom 25th of New York’s top 25 law firms (Coudert Brothers) took home about $415,000. The median (Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft) was $990,000. Granted, that is huge. However, we are talking about the cream of the crop here, and these numbers are considerably less than what CEO’s in financial firms and corporations of the same caliber make.
“Pre-law” college students and first-year law students talk rather casually about “making partner” in one of these big shots. But, planning to become a partner in a top law firm is like planning to become the CEO of a major corporation — it does not happen as a matter of course. (In any event, personally, I do not think it is worth it to slave away 90 hours per week for $29 per hour, unless one has a REALISTIC chance of becoming a partner one day.) Unless you have a lot of cash to pour into the firm, or can bring in a significant number of very rich clients, becoming a partner in a star of the industry requires exceptional credentials, as well as exceptional sacrifices over a long period of time — and even that may not be enough. No matter what law firms say, and despite the fact that changes are afoot, such things as gender, race, ethnic and immigration background, camaraderie, and the identity of your dad’s golfing partners still matter very much when it comes to “making partner” at White Shoes Neckties & Cufflinks, Esqs.
In the most likely scenario, if you become a decent lawyer and pay your dues, then in time, your earnings will put you somewhere in the mid-to-upper middle class range. You will make a comfortable living, possess the means to pay for your children’s educations, and eventually have room to splurge in a luxury cruise or two. If, however, you are eyeing law because you have been led to believe that it is a likely way to become a multimillionaire with a villa in St. Barth’s and a private jet before you hit middle age, then law is not for you; instead, you may want to consider the much more lucrative career in making self-righteous movies about greedy lawyers.
4. FINAL THOUGHTS
I am afraid that I came off as overly pessimistic in this article, though it was not my intention. When people ask me how I like the practice of law, my standard answer is that “it has its moments”. This expresses the reality of the situation: the legal practice has its moments, both good and bad, and I have made a concerted effort to present them here as concisely as possible. I am the first and so far the only attorney in my family, so I went into law school knowing very little about what it means to be a lawyer(although I never believed the ruse about staggering fees and quick easy money). However, if I knew what I know now, I would make the same choice, because the legal profession is rewarding to me in ways more than financial. I do not know whether my personal perception of it provides any guidance for people who are considering this field, but I hope that the practical issues that I have discussed will help them make informed decisions. If you have gotten this far in this behemoth review, I thank you for your interest, hope that my observations have been helpful, and wish you the best of luck in whatever path you choose.
PS: “But what should I major in?” American law schools do not have specific requirements regarding the undergraduate major, so technically, you can major in whatever you want. There are two caveats, however. The first is that good law schools generally want applicants who majored in something which is a discipline in its own right (as opposed to a hodge-podge of subjects grouped under the barbarous term “pre-law”). The second is that they want candidates with genuine undergraduate education, rather than a mere piece of paper; and are thus wary of certain watered-down, superficial majors which entered college curricula during the draft-dodging era and whose courses of study boil down to something like digests of current news editorials. Even if you get a solid 4.0 GPA, admissions committees see such “fields” for what they are; and even if you do get into law school, you may find it difficult to compete with those students who have real academic backgrounds.
Most law students majored either in political science or English as undergraduates, with a lesser proportion of economics majors and a sprinkling of others. Notwithstanding this tradition, however, none of these three majors embody the best course of study to prepare you for law school and a career in law. I took a lot of political science courses in college, and acquired virtually no knowledge which proved to be useful later. A firm grasp of English is essential, of course, but one can acquire it without majoring in English. The study of economics has a tangential significance for a law student, and while courses in economics and finance are helpful, it is not necessary to acquire a degree in those subjects to succeed in law school. This is not to say that those fields of study are useless or irrelevant – rather, concentrating on them is not the best way to prepare.
The best preparation for law school is a major in philosophy.
I am not tooting my own horn here: I did not major in philosophy, but with the benefit of hindsight, I really wish I had. There are three reasons for this (arranged in the order from least to most important):
1. It is unusual, so your application will stand out. As with college applications, being different from your average law school applicant (in a positive way, of course) invariably scores you points.
2. It is an indication of your intellect. Philosophy is one of the most challenging fields of study, and certainly the hardest among the humanities.
3. The lion’s share of the first-year, and particularly first-semester, law school curriculum and methodology is dedicated to teaching students what, regrettably, most of them do not bother learning in college: how to think. Naturally, if you already know how to think, you will find yourself ahead of everyone else.
Contrary to yet another commonly held misconception about law, the science of how to think is different from the art of how to use language to express one’s thoughts. They are related, to be sure – but not the same. Once — and for millennia — the mainstay of classic Western education, the true study of how to think has been relegated to the dusty status of a specialty, which is fading from undergraduate education as cramming the ever-increasing volume of factual information becomes more and more important. Undergraduates in good universities learn bits and pieces of analytical thinking, but usually acquire no comprehensive mechanism for applying rules to facts, or for distilling rules from different sets of facts – which is what legal analysis is all about. Once in law school, students are subjected to a ferocious boot camp of how-to-think, for which the best preparation is, as I said, a background in philosophy.
Even if you cannot, for whatever reason, major in philosophy, at least take some courses. By this, I don’t mean trendy superficial courses designed to give non-majors conversation-making tools for cocktail parties. Stay away from “Postmodern Deconstructionism in Today’s Mass Media”. (In fact, stay away from any course with the words “mass media” in the title or course description, unless you are planning to become a journalist.) Rather, you should take some basic, genuine, nuts-and-bolts, honest-to-goodness, no-nonsense philosophy courses, designed to teach students how to think logically, consistently, and impartially. I cannot tell you how far this will put you ahead of your first-year law school class. Take this piece of advice to heart – you won’t regret it.