Today, Susan Smith Blakely, Esquire, weighs in on the decision of attending law school, reflecting both on her own personal experience as well as what is currently going on in legal education and practice nationally. This is the first installment of a two-part article.
The Law School Decision
by Susan Smith Blakely, Esquire
The prospect of going to law school is no longer as attractive for many students as it used to be. High tuition costs and a down job market for lawyers have caused many students to rethink their careers in the law. For those students, who treated law school as a fallback position because they could not think of anything else to do after college, this is not a bad thing. Law school should not be a default career path. However, for those students, who have a real desire to study and practice law, this new reluctance to go to law school will lead to unfulfilled dreams.
We know that applications to law schools have been collapsing in recent years and that over 90% of law schools, for which 2012 enrollment information is available, had a decline in enrollment of 20% or more as compared to figures for 2010. June and October LSAT administrators suggest that there may be fewer than 60,000 applicants for fall 2013, down from more than 71,000 applicants for fall 2012 and more than 87,000 applicants for 2011. This concerns many of us in the profession because we know that there needs to be an adequate number of new lawyers in the pipeline to assure best practices and availability of quality and affordable legal services in the future. Recessions, fortunately, do not last forever, but careers last a very long time.
The question of whether or not to go to law school has been a subject of my blogs on www.bestfriendsatthebar.com for as long as I have been blogging. I refer particularly to blogs of February 4, 2012 “Is Going to Law School Worth It?” and July 12, 2012 “Failing Law Schools Does Not Mean a Failing Profession.”
Those blogs are the result of my discontent about the one-sided analysis of the advisability of a law school education. In the second blog, I react to a new book, Failing Law Schools by law professor Brian Tamanaha (University of Chicago Press, 2012), which attacks the structure and expense of law school education but also seems to unfairly impugn the legal profession with some of the same failings.
The one-sided analysis of the law school decision does not work. It cannot be either a one-sided financial analysis or a one-sided professional benefits analysis. It has to be a mix. Just as lawyers are taught in law school to consider all of the facts and evidence before evaluating a case for trial, the analysis of whether it is a good idea to go to law school is complex and takes something more serious and contemplative than rambling with rage on a blogger website of choice.
Blog sites like Above The Law and Inside the Law School Scam and Salon are having a field day with the challenges to the law profession today. That can be expected. Those blogs are in the business of stirring up the hornet’s nest, and the problems of law school education coupled with the current depressed job market for law graduates is giving them so much great material. These sites are especially active since the NY Times published an Op-Ed on November 28, 2012, by a law school dean claiming that law school is worth the investment. You can imagine the backlash from the blogosphere, and some of it was very well deserved.
I understand the sport and appeal of nay saying. However, I do not think that is a very productive approach for students contemplating law school. So, without the hyperbole, without the jaded overtones, and without the emotion that dominates so many of the blogs, let’s take a look at a career in the law from both sides.
For starters, let me explain what I love about being a lawyer. Law as a profession is both interesting and stimulating--some practices more than others. I was a trial lawyer, and I never suffered from lack of interest for my work. I spent many years of my practice as a construction lawyer in one of the first construction law firms. I worked on interstate road projects, construction of large hydroelectric dams and some of the first subway tunnel projects in America. It was very stimulating and challenging work, and there were few women in it at the time. I also spent eight years as a Chief of Staff to an elected official in public service when I needed flexibility while raising two small children. I was able to affect public policy in a very positive way in that job, and it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my professional career. I ended my career as a partner in a land-use law firm. Those are very different disciplines, but each one was interesting in its own right. I would not change a thing about my career, and I honestly cannot imagine my life without the law.
A law career is also about commitment to service, being fair and compassionate, doing the right thing, working hard and using your talents for the common good. In other words, it is about more than money. That is the part of the story that is not as appealing to the naysayers because it is not outrageous and negative. It does not play into the disappointment and despair that the law blogs feed on.
I was lucky. I had the best role model in the world right under my nose growing up. My Dad was a small-town lawyer with a practice that reached far beyond his community. He combined good general practice legal services in a small town with being a respected leader in the financial services industry that was evolving in the 1960’s and 1970’s. My memories of my Dad as a lawyer include the pro bono work he did for the American Indians on the reservation near my home in Wisconsin, his role in arranging financing for projects that invigorated our local community and saved area businesses, his efforts in arranging for land acquisition and construction of a ski hill to benefit the youth in our community and give them opportunities for low-cost recreation, his courage taking the unpopular case and standing up to the powerbrokers in the community because it was the “right thing to do”, and his empathy and support for a disabled person in our community, who turned out to be an award-winning member of the Chamber of Commerce. My Dad was a very talented lawyer, who taught his children, who both would become lawyers, the meaning of service to community and ethical behavior.
But, that was then, and now is now. Things have changed. My daughter just graduated from law school, and I know, up close and personal, how different it is today. In my day, law school did not cost what it costs now, and there were more jobs for law graduates in those days. There was not the general malaise about the legal profession that there is now.
I do not go through life with blinders. There is another side, and I know it. I understand the issues and the challenges for students contemplating law school, and I know that a lot of it is about money. It is about tuition costs and student loans and a bad job market for recent law grads.
Those are all important considerations, and we will examine those issues in the next installment.
Susan Smith Blakely is a nationally-recognized author, speaker, and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers and law students. She is the author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009) and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012) on the work-life challenges for women lawyers. She is the Founder and Principal of LegalPerspectives LLC, the umbrella entity for her writing, speaking and consulting. Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she had been featured in media, including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Virginia Lawyer Magazine, Georgetown Law, Huffington Post, Lawyerist.com and Smart CEO Magazine. Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at national conferences on women’s issues and the law profession. For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.