Are you considering law as a career? You probably want to know how hard is law school and what issues do you need to keep in mind when considering a legal career.
Law School Grind
When considering how hard is law school, I often find students and my law clerks focus on the wrong aspects of the process. The law school grind is no joke. Depending on the school, you should expect to take three classes a day that you can’t spend in a mental fog. A student is expected to learn the fundamentals of the specific subject inside and out, often on your own, while the professor jumps into different theories and hypotheticals using the legal concept.
Practically speaking, you need to be on the ball in class and prepared to study for hours on end after classes until you’ve memorized the fundamentals and can argue the various positions presented in class. And you need to be able to do so five days a week for six semesters or twelve quarters over three years. The process is a grind, so you need to put in place habits to get you through the three years. Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and activities outside of the law are highly advisable to avoid burnout.
a. Law Clerks
You should also keep in mind that there is more to law school than just attending classes. Most students pick up clerking jobs after the first year ends. Welcome to the world of grunt work. You can expect the lawyers you work with to load you up with legal tasks they find annoying. Law clerks often spend oodles of time grinding on:
- Reading and summarizing depositions,
- Preparing responses to requests for production for attorney review,
- Performing legal research,
- Drafting memorandums on various legal topics,
- Running errands for the boss,
- Running around town to get motions files by deadlines, and
- More summarizing of depositions and documents.
Not exactly a “Law and Order” episode.
And you still need to prepare for class and study.
Expect to work as hard as you ever have in your life.
Complexity Of The Law
How hard is it to learn legal subjects such as real property, contracts, evidence, the uniform commercial code, and civil procedure? I found the general concepts to be reasonably understandable. The complexity isn’t in the fundamental idea you are studying. The complications arise when filling out the subject with exceptions, exemptions, amendments, and modifications. Let’s take a look at tax law as an example.
a. Tax Example
Businesses and the IRS are continually arguing over how to classify workers under the tax code – as independent contractors or employees. Businesses have significant tax obligations for employees, so companies often make every effort possible to classify workers as employees. The IRS, of course, opposes such efforts.
As a general rule, courts have ruled that whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is determined by analyzing how much control the company has over the work. Assume you hire a consultant to study a particular field you feel may be lucrative for your business. If you give the person the task and parameters of the job, and then let them perform the work however they see fit so long as they meet a deadline, the person is probably an independent contractor. If, however, you require the person to work from your offices and present their work for review each day, they are likely an employee.
b. Memorize and Argue
The general concept isn’t too difficult to understand. However, the IRS felt a test would make matters more precise, so it created a “right-to-control” test. The test looks at 20 factors, including:
- Level of instruction. If the company directs when, where, and how work is done, this control indicates a possible employment relationship.
- Amount of training. Requesting workers to undergo company-provided training suggests an employment relationship since the company is directing the methods by which work is accomplished.
- Degree of business integration. Workers whose services are integrated into business operations or significantly affect business success are likely to be considered employees.
- Extent of personal services. Companies that insist on a particular person performing the work assert a degree of control that suggests an employment relationship. In contrast, independent contractors typically are free to assign work to anyone.
- Control of assistants. If a company hires, supervises, and pays a worker’s assistants, this control indicates a possible employment relationship. If the worker retains control over hiring, supervising, and paying helpers, this arrangement suggests an independent contractor relationship.
- Continuity of relationship. A continuous relationship between a company and a worker indicates a possible employment relationship. However, an independent contractor arrangement can involve an ongoing relationship for multiple, sequential projects.
- Flexibility of schedule. People whose hours or days of work are dictated by a company are apt to qualify as its employees.
- Demands for full-time work. Full-time work gives a company control over most of a person’s time, which supports a finding of an employment relationship.
- Need for on-site services. Requiring someone to work on company premises – particularly if the work can be performed elsewhere—indicates a possible employment relationship.
Sequence of work. If a company requires work to be performed in specific order or sequence, this control suggests an employment relationship.
- Requirements for reports. If a worker regularly must provide written or oral reports on the status of a project, this arrangement indicates a possible employment relationship.
- Method of payment. Hourly, weekly, or monthly pay schedules are characteristic of employment relationships, unless the payments simply are a convenient way of distributing a lump-sum fee. Payment on commission or project completion is more characteristic of independent contractor relationships.
- Payment of business or travel expenses. Independent contractors typically bear the cost of travel or business expenses, and most contractors set their fees high enough to cover these costs. Direct reimbursement of travel and other business costs by a company suggests an employment relationship.
- Provision of tools and materials. Workers who perform most of their work using company-provided equipment, tools, and materials are more likely to be considered employees. Work largely done using independently obtained supplies or tools supports an independent contractor finding. Investment in facilities. Independent contractors typically invest in and maintain their own work facilities. In contrast, most employees rely on their employer to provide work
- Realization of profit or loss. Workers who receive predetermined earnings and have little chance to realize significant profit or loss through their work generally are employees.
- Work for multiple companies. People who simultaneously provide services for several unrelated companies are likely to qualify as independent contractors.
- Availability to public. If a worker regularly makes services available to the general public, this supports an independent contractor determination.
- Control over discharge. A company’s unilateral right to discharge a worker suggests an employment relationship. In contrast, a company’s ability to terminate independent contractor relationships generally depends on contract terms.
- Right of termination. Most employees unilaterally can terminate their work for a company without liability. Independent contractors cannot terminate services without liability, except as allowed under their contracts.
Is it difficult to understand any of the 20 factors in the test? Probably not for most people, but this is just one subject within one more extensive area of law. If you take a class on tax in law school, the professor will expect you to learn the test along with each factor and be prepared to argue for and against various outcomes. Your next day of class will cover an entirely different subject. In short, the totality of the topics and the speed they come at you is the challenge.
By the way, the IRS test solved nothing. Groups still argue over the employee versus independent contractor classification to this day. Uber is fighting with its drivers over just this subject.
Law School Failure Rates
How hard is law school? Law school failure rates can be a real eye-opener. We had an old fart for a professor in my first class on the first day of law school – contracts. He was a mean old bugger and started off the class by saying, “Look to your left and look to your right. Statistically, one of you will fail out by the end of this year.”
A thirty-three percent failure rate?
I nearly fainted.
He was, of course, full of the stuff that comes out of the rear of a horse. The attrition rate for my class was about five percent each year. Yes, people quit in their third year after grinding through two years of school. The drop out/kicked out rates are different for each school.
In 2017, the American Bar Association conducted a study of attrition rates at law schools. The study produced an interesting theory – LSAT scores correlate to student failure rates, which are called attrition rates in the report. Specifically, the ABA found:
- At law schools with median LSAT scores between 155 to 159, the average academic attrition rate for the 2014-2015 school year was 2.0 percent. For the 2015-2016 school year, it was 1.8 percent.
- For law schools with median LSAT scores between 150 to 154, academic attrition for the 2014-2015 school year averaged out to 4.7 percent, and 4.6 percent for the 2015-2016 school year.
- At law schools with median LSAT scores below 150 but above 145, academic attrition went from 12.7 percent for the 2014-2015 school year to 14.3 percent for the 2015-2016 school year.
- And among law schools where the median LSAT score was 145 or lower, the average academic attrition rate for the 2015-2016 school year was 25.3 percent.
The question then becomes, do lower LSAT scores reflect higher drop out rates because the schools are worse or because the students are not up to the task? The study offers no answers.
You shouldn’t fret if you are considering attending a less renowned law school. Some of the finest lawyers I know went to schools most major national firms wouldn’t touch. What matters is getting through law school and then putting in the work. Despite the drama of Hollywood movies and television shows, work ethic tends to be the determining factor in whether you will get through law school and become a quality attorney.
At this point, you probably have a pretty good idea about the answer to how hard is law school. Being a law student is no walk in the park, but there are steps you can take to make the process less taxing.
a. Pomodoro Technique
Human beings were not meant to sit and focus for hours on end when learning. Can you? I can’t. A peer suggested I try the Pomodoro Technique years ago, and it changed my practice. I wish I had known about it in law school.
With the Pomodoro Technique, you work for 25-minutes with no interruptions and complete focus. You then take five minutes off. You repeat this cycle until you’ve completed the task in question. The concept is very effective and makes sense when you consider the reduced attention span of most Americans and how many distractions we have in our lives. By eliminating distractions for 25-minutes, you can get a surprising amount done. Here’s more on the Pomodoro Technique.
b. Electronic Communications
Do you really need to respond to someone who is only texting or emailing you because they are bored? You should try turning off your smartphone and other electronics during the day at law school. Many people running online businesses now have a policy of responding to emails only twice a day – first thing in the morning and at the end of the workday. This approach doesn’t work if you have kids or some other need to be available at all times, but give it a try if this is not the case.
c. Adequate Sleep
Get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Your brain is not a muscle, but you should treat it as one. Study after clinical study has shown we need at least seven hours of sleep a night for our brains to function efficiently. If you are studying until 1:00 am and then getting up at 7:00 am, you are not getting enough sleep. Loading up on coffee or other stimulants might get you through a week or two, but you are going to crash at some point.
To improve your sleep:
- Try to go to sleep at the same time each night.
- If you watch late shows, record them and watch them earlier.
- Exercise daily to burn off stress.
- Turn off the smartphone or iPad.
- Make sure the room is absolutely dark.
Stress, baby, it’ll kill you. Jog, yoga, go to the gym – do something. Every day. Even when you don’t want to. Exercise will provide two immediate benefits. First, you’ll burn off stress. Second, you’ll have a chance to clear your mind.
e. One Day Off
You can be tempted to spend weekends catching up on law school tasks you missed the previous week. Welcome to the life of a law student. However, you risk burning out something fierce if you don’t take a break. Taking one day off each week can help you relax and recharge mentally. If you are in a relationship, spending the day with your partner is an excellent way to keep the relationship from falling apart.
Find enlightenment, my child! I must admit that I’m not a person who goes in for such things, but meditation is popular with lawyers and law students alike. While discovering enlightenment would be groovy, most lawyers and law students use it as a chance to…stop. Life can be so busy that just stopping can be surprisingly rejuvenating.
You come home, get situated, and meditate for 30 minutes. The goal is to stop doing anything – just pause. By giving your mind a break, you essentially reset mentally and lower your stress and anxiety levels. Even if you think meditation is a goofy concept, I encourage you to give it a try. It helped me get through hyper-intense periods in my life many times. You can find plenty of videos on YouTube for beginners. Here’s one.
g. Go To Court
As a normal human being, there are going to be periods where law school is tough. You will go through stretches where your self-confidence isn’t optimal. Nothing will raise your spirits more than a trip to the local courthouse. Pop in and out of the trials. You should start feeling better about yourself reasonably quickly. While there are many excellent lawyers in our profession, there are also many awful ones.
I was once the second chair in a medical malpractice defense case where the judge had to declare a mistrial during plaintiff counsel’s opening argument. Why? The lawyer told the jury to ignore the law and ask themselves how God would decide the case. Trust me, you will not learn that nugget in law school.
In another case, my opposing counsel attempted to argue that his male client should be awarded damages because he could no longer have sexual relations due to the tortious actions of my client. The claim was rather odd considering the case involved a situation where the plaintiff was working in a 20-inch trough my client had excavated. One “wall” collapsed causing the plaintiff to roll his ankle and break it. Either the plaintiff was lying about his sexual issues, or he was exceptionally well endowed. The jury decided he was lying.
How Hard Is Law School?
Law school is a challenge. Don’t let anyone tell you it is a breeze. However, you can get through it. If your LSAT scores are high enough to get you into school, then you are smart enough to graduate. You just need to be disciplined, work hard, and manage stress.
If I did it, you can as well.