As the years pass, one tends to gain expertise in piercing the propaganda associated with particular careers. This learned ability certainly applies to the practice of law. Many promises made to potential lawyers about the benefits of going to law school are correct, but many others are not. With this in mind, here are my thoughts on picking a law school from the perspective of a lawyer with nearly 30 years of experience. [My God, I’m getting old!]
Most articles of this type are what I prefer to classify as “unicorn and rainbow” articles. The general theme is something along the lines of law school is the right answer for everyone, and you will definitely be a success upon graduation. Well, I don’t have anything to sell to you, so I’m going to give you a different view that is perhaps less rosy, but may help you avoid making a critical mistake in your life.
I am not suggesting law school is the wrong choice for you. Some people will enjoy practicing law. Some will not. Your goal is to be in the group that will, which means you need to step back from the pro-law school propaganda and smell the sweet, sweet stench of reality.
As with any career, there are positives and negatives to becoming a lawyer. Yes, practicing law can be incredibly rewarding emotionally, morally, and financially. However, lawyers also tend to rank high for professions with the highest suicide and addiction rates. If you take anything from this article, I hope it will be the following.
Only go to law school if you absolutely want to practice law.
- Not because your parents want you to go.
- Not because dad or mom were lawyers.
- Not because the money is good.
- Not because a law degree will give you alternative opportunities.
- Not because you’re about to graduate from college and need to find something to do.
If you have always wanted to put away scumbags for their crimes or fight to keep the fascist government from putting the little guy in jail over trumped-up charges, then law school is for you. If you’re thinking about law school because you’ve always dreamed of having a big house, you are probably making a choice you will regret. You can find plenty of other ways to make money.
In short, don’t just jump on the law school bandwagon. Do some research. Search your feelings. Learn how hard law school is and whether it is something you can handle. Know thyself!
I’m not trying to direct you away from the practice of law. Just make sure this is what you want to do, and understand the commitment you are making. Otherwise, you could end up working 60 hours a week in a job you hate for the rest of your life.
Know Your Field – Sort Of
“I want to practice law.”
Good for you, but what does that statement mean? I want to practice law is akin to saying, “I want to work in computers.” Well, what aspect of computers? Programming? Web design? Hardware? IT?
Your chances of enjoying a fruitful and satisfying career will increase the more zeroed in you are on a particular field of law. The niche should also, if possible, meet three criteria – 1) lucrative, 2) highly specialized, and 3) long-term viability. Let’s look at an example.
Hacking has become a significant issue in our modern digital world. Large companies continually are hacked with the parties procuring the data selling it here and there with few problems. If hacking interests you, then why not investigate whether going into practice as a criminal defense attorney specializing in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) makes sense? Let’s run through our tests.
1. Lucrative Practice Area?
A CFAA conviction can land a defendant in jail for 20 or more years – serious stuff. Given this, defense attorneys can easily charge retainers in the high five to six figures. Four or five cases can meet your financial needs for a year. A CFAA defense practice would be exceedingly lucrative. Consider this box checked.
Here’s a secret to enjoying a successful legal career. Instead of taking hundreds of small retainer matters, try focussing on a field where you need less than ten clients a year to make a nice living. You’ll have more free time, be less stressed, and likely provide a higher quality of legal service to your clients.
2. Highly Specialized?
Absolutely. The CFAA is a federal law. Run of the mill defense lawyers are not going to tackle these cases. By establishing a presence at conferences and via articles on the Internet, you could quickly build a strong referral network.
3. Long-Term Viability
The viability of your field of practice is another critical issue to consider. Put briefly, will your field exist for the term of your career and be a high-need practice area? If not, you need to move on to another subject.
Let me give you an example. In the early 2000s, the criminal defense field associated with pornography was hot, hot, hot. States and the federal government were bringing a flood of obscenity cases against companies producing adult content, and defense lawyers were in high demand. Flash forward to 2020, and the field is almost dead. What happened? As a society, we became more comfortable with sexuality. Successfully prosecuting pornography cases became exceedingly difficult. Prosecution resources were allocated to other areas. The need for defense attorneys dried up, leaving many of the attorneys in the niche in a lurch.
Don’t make the same mistake. You don’t want to be a dial-up modem attorney in a broadband world.
Selecting A Top-Tier Law School
Gaining admission to a top-tier law school is an excellent move from an educational and career perspective. If you wish to work at a large firm, listing the law schools of Chicago, Yale, or Duke on your curriculum vitae may well be a minimum requirement for certain positions. However, does admission to one of these excellent institutions guarantee a successful law career?
Not even close.
The appealing aspect of practicing law is it is a merit-based career – results matter. The quality of a lawyer is determined by the results they achieve. If a firm hires an attorney from ACME Beauty and Law School and another from Harvard, the attorney that ultimately makes partner is the attorney that drives business to the firm and produces quality results.
And here is a second issue to take into account – focussing on your second job.
Hiring a lawyer that just passed the bar is always a risky proposition. The lawyer has never practiced, so how can a firm know if they will produce? Many firms will account for this risk by looking for young lawyers who are already practicing and producing impressive results.
If you just won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in complex litigation against Monsanto in an agricultural patent case and my firm needs litigators in that field, I don’t care if you went to the Kracker Jack School of Law – I’m going to strongly consider hiring you. Put another way, the end is not nigh if you do not gain admission to a top-tier law school.
If you can get into a top-tier law school – great. If not, don’t stress.
Niche Law School
Not only do you know you want to practice law, but you know the exact field. Well, guess what? A degree from the law school at Yale may not mean much if Yale doesn’t have an excellent program in the field you are interested in practicing. Consider the following example.
You’re an eco-warrior and hell-bent on dedicating your life to stopping chemical and oil companies from polluting the environment in third world countries. Well, you might focus on picking on a law school with an excellent environmental law focus. The big surprise? The top two law schools with environmental programs not only aren’t Ivy League – you might not have heard of them.
Ranking law schools is always a subjective affair. Still, it is relatively well known that the University of Northwestern at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon has an impressive environmental law program, including its International Environmental Law Project, which offers top intern and clerking opportunities. Pace University in White Plains, New York, is also known to have an outstanding environmental law program. A degree from either institution, along with the connections made through impressive outreach programs, would be superior to a degree from most top-tier general law schools.
Having said all this, there are a couple of caveats to keep in mind. First, make sure you run the lucrative, specialized, long-term tests before dedicating yourself to a specific niche when picking a law school. Second, always research the proposed niche to make sure you understand the daily reality of the practice and the potential negative factors involved. Taking a lawyer practicing in the niche to lunch can be an excellent method for generating information.
Does The Law School Matter?
Yes and no. Particular clients are only going to hire attorneys from top-tier schools. Having a Harvard-educated lawyer on the staff of a multinational corporation provides management with a certain amount of protection. The attorney may be an idiot, but shareholders are less likely to complain about decisions gone wrong, but backed by an Ivy league attorney, than if the lawyer is from a less prestigious school.
The vast majority of attorneys are not educated at top-tier schools. Many are incredibly talented. I’ve never been charged with a crime, but I would make my one phone call if I were to an attorney in Los Angeles who was educated at one of the poorest rated law schools in the country. His school may have been laughable, but he is an incredible criminal defense attorney and has rarely lost a case. Now, what am I more impressed by? The fact he went to Horrible Law School or that he wins nearly all his cases?
Picking A Law School
I’m often surprised at how little thought people put into picking a law school. In fact, I’m a complete hypocrite in this regard. I selected a law school in San Diego, primarily because I was interested in living by the beach. True story! I graduated from law school with an epic tan, a huge law school loan balance from “studying” at the various outdoor bars in Pacific Beach, and a mediocre understanding of the law. The average knowledge of the law was down to my lack of working hard, not the merits of the law school.
Stop reading law school propaganda. Take some time and contemplate what you want in life. If you have a burning desire to practice law – good for you. Go ahead and investigate the various law school options available to you. While top-tier schools should be your goal, don’t sweat it if you can’t gain admission. Many a successful lawyer exists who has gone to lesser schools – lawyers that consistently kick the butt of top-tier graduates in court.
I won’t wish you luck with selecting a law school because, frankly, luck should play no part in the process. You are an adult now. Invest in yourself. Do your due diligence. Take your time. If you are committed to practicing law, picking a law school is going to be one of your most important career decisions.
To your future!