Jill Russell is a 2008 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and a 2001 graduate of the College of Literature, Science, & The Arts. She is an associate in the labor & employment department at McGuireWoods LLP in Chicago, IL. Today, Ms. Russell shares with us her top three reasons not to go to law school.
For the money
While there is no doubt that some lawyers rake in the bucks, that percentage is small, and appears to be getting smaller. According to the National Association for Law Placement, for the Class of 2008, the median salary was $72,000, with 42 percent of new lawyers reporting salaries of $40,000-65,000. Only 23 percent made the coveted $160,000 salary paid by large law firms. Keep in mind that this data is for the last class to graduate law school before the economic downturn. Since then, large law firms have cut back significantly on their hiring, with some cancelling their new classes all together. Even students from the exclusive top 14 law schools, who once were practically guaranteed a six-figure job at a major law firm are now struggling to find employment. And while the market may rebound, that’s no guarantee that the market for attorneys in those high-paying corporate law firms will follow. The recession has made clients more skeptical of high law firm billable rates for young lawyers–and if partners can’t pass on the costs of your time to the client, they aren’t going to continue to pay that salary out of their own pockets.
Also, keep in mind that law school often comes with a mountain of debt, and loan repayment assistance are limited. A median salary of $72,000 sounds pretty good until you realize that $24,000 a year of that is already spoken for during the next ten years to pay off your loans. While some schools have loan repayment assistance and the government has recently implemented the income-based repayment programs, these programs are limited in scope and availability and have potential pitfalls. Be sure to do your research before signing that promissory note!
Because you have an English/political science/psychology/history degree and you aren’t sure what else to do with it
Law school is a haven for the risk-averse liberal arts graduate—it’s the path of least resistance for those of us whose degrees don’t have automatic career paths attached. Taking the LSAT and putting off the real world for three more years while you continue your school is certainly much easier in the short-term than finding out what you really want to do with your life—but those are an expensive three years that can trap you in a job that you might love… or you might hate. Do your research first. Lawyers do a lot of different things, but are any of those of interest to you? Working on closing a multi-million dollar deal sounds sexy, but when you’re drafting contract documents and conference calling until 2:00am over the holidays, does it still sound worth it? And while trying a huge class action case might be your dream, are endless hours of document review and writing deposition outlines your worst nightmare? Being a lawyer can be interesting, intellectually challenging, and invigorating—but often times the tasks can be tedious and downright dull. Even the things that I love about being a lawyer—researching and finding a solution to a problem for a client or brainstorming arguments to use in a motion to dismiss—might sound like punishment to some people.
All of this is not to say that you won’t love being a lawyer—lots of people do (myself included). But you should know what being a lawyer might actually entail so that you are able to make an informed decision. There’s nothing worse than having six-figures in law school debt and no desire to actually be a lawyer.
Because you want a steady nine-to-five job
Lawyers rarely, if ever, are blessed with a nine-to-five schedule. The nature of the work doesn’t permit that. Lawyers are never truly in control of their schedules—they must be available at the beck and call of the client. So if your client gets a temporary restraining order forbidding them to distribute their product at 6:00pm on a Friday, and you have weekend plans, bid those plans goodbye and say hello to writing a brief to quash that temporary restraining order to be filed Monday morning. For clients, their livelihood is at stake, and they aren’t likely to put that on hold for your social obligations. This has become worse with the advent of the Blackberry. Clients expect you to be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and if you’re not, they’ll take their business elsewhere.
I’m not saying that lawyers work every weekend—we don’t. And as you progress in the profession, you may gain some level of control over your time. However, it often takes awhile to get to that point. If you can’t handle an unpredictable schedule, being a lawyer is probably not for you.
This column is meant not to discourage you from going to law school if that’s what you want to do; rather, I want to encourage you to think about what’s at the end of the tunnel before you enter it. You have lots of resources at your disposal, from The Career Center to Michigan alums who are willing to talk with students about what their own career or law school experience is like and everything in between. Just be sure to research law as a career as much (if not more) than the law school admissions process before making the decision to attend.