The legal market is oversaturated. Law schools are pulling out all the stops to keep butts in seats. The entire structure of legal practice in law schools is torn between maintaining tradition and standards, and facing the fact that law school, as we currently understand it, just doesn’t make sense anymore. One year ago, I was a freshly minted Lib Arts Queen, with two degrees from a large state university under my arm. I had been planning on attending law school for my entire undergrad career, I had three legal internships under my belt (which makes me a rare and beautiful tropical fish, in the world of law applicants), and, most importantly, I had a good LSAT score and was accepted into a good law school.
Today, I’m battered, learning how to live with depression again, and wondering what the hell I was thinking. Even worse, the Stockholm Syndrome has set in, and I honestly can’t say whether or not I should stay and take it on the chin, or get out while I still have my health. The point of this piece is not to frighten you or dissuade you. If you’re anything like I was, reading this will just make you say “I’m tougher than that, I can do it.” But these are the things I wish I had thought about/somebody had told me before I applied to law school.
1. Do you really, really, really actually want to be a lawyer?
Okay, kiddos. This one seems obvious, but it is Number One because it is the most important. Do you absolutely want to go to law school? If the answer is, “I hear lawyers make good money” or “Maybe. Idk. Seems like a good use of my degree” or “I just want to go to grad school and put off the inevitable” or anything other than “I can’t see myself doing anything other than law and this is my calling and my passion and I want to give my all as a servant to Lady Justice,” then you should not go to law school.
Here’s the cold brass tax of the issue. What we know as “lawyer money” is Big Law money — further, it is Senior Partner at Big Law money. Only the very cream of the law-student-crop make it to Big Law, and even fewer make partner. Meanwhile, everyone puts out blood, sweat, tears, hours, and sells your soul to the angry god of Billable Hours.
Of course, there are many different areas and paths of law, but recognize that other paths may offer more in work/life balance, but you end up making about the same money as you would on any other traditional career path.
Furthermore, law school is a totally different animal than most post-grad programs. While it is true that more law schools are switching over to the GRE as an option for an entrance exam, this is a slow process, and the vast majority of law schools are not on board. Legal practice is a series of grueling and unique exams: LSAT, MPRE, MBE, and finally, the Big Bad Bar. This makes law school a bad choice for graduate exploration. It cuts off your other options and pigeon-holes you into one very difficult, very expensive course of study.
2. Consider your mental health needs and how you handle setbacks.
I remember my 1L orientation: one week of meet n’ greets and informational meetings and short networking events. What I remember most clearly was that every day of that weeklong orientation, we had some sort of seminar related to mental health. The statistics are scary. More and more law students and legal professionals struggle with depression, and many people graduate with their JD and a substance abuse problem. There is a reason for this.
Law school is hard. Being graded on a curve is grueling. Being in a curve with a section of Type A overachievers is something few people entering law school can truly appreciate. In the world of law school, you can bust your ass and do all the reading and join a good study group and give it your all, and still end up with mediocre (or worse) grades. Law school is unbelievably competitive, and it thrives on a system of elitism. You are pushed down a path of expectations (highest grades, best internships) with the knowledge that only very few can actually make it.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, but entered law school after a phase of fantastic mental health coming off of undergrad. Law school was the perfect cocktail of circumstances to tear apart all my good work, and now I’m having to clean up the mess and learn how to live a healthy life again. My partner, who will graduate from law school this year, will be one of the many who now has to learn to live with depression, as well. Law school can be very rewarding, and certain mindsets and personalities are particularly keyed into it, but even the sunniest law school experience comes with major setbacks. Know yourself, and take care of yourself.
3. Be real with yourself. What kind of student are you?
Were you always top of your class? Do you have a solid foundation of study habits? Are you a procrastinator? Do you have problems speaking in class?
Law school demands the absolute most from you — academically, it is one of its greatest challenges and greatest rewards. Knowing where your strengths and weaknesses are, as a student, is all part of the puzzle in figuring out if law school success is within your wheel of capabilities.
4. Choosing a law school: the numbers game no one tells you about.
This was a concept that didn’t occur to me until I had already been in my law school for a semester, and I will do my best to break it down in a way that makes sense (this is my way of admitting that all of my thoughts on law school equate to the ramblings of a woman driven mad).
As I mentioned previously, for optimal law school/law career success, you need to be shooting for Top 10% of your law school class. When you’re applying for law schools, you will hear many people say that the most important thing to think about is getting into the highest ranked law school possible. This is true, but even more important than that is the rank you will graduate with. Class rank is the most important thing that law firms (especially the gods in Big Law) are looking at. School rank comes second. That top class rank will also come in handy in securing the sweetest summer/semester gigs.
When I was applying to law schools, my LSAT score was in the 77th percentile of test takers (pretty sweet) but my GPA was meh (not bad, just painfully average). This closed the door to T14 schools, but I had many offers for schools ranked high and low (and among those, several seductive scholarships). I ended up choosing the highest-ranked law school on that list, where my stellar LSAT was the median in the class. Looking back and fully appreciating the complete picture of what law firms are looking for, I would have chosen a lower-ranked law school in which my LSAT score was in the 75th percentile of my class or better. It seems shallow, but any leg up you can have in being at the top of your class is a worthy investment for someone willing to put themselves through the hell of law school.
5. Don’t listen to talking heads…but kinda do.
When you begin researching and applying to law schools, you will be smacked upside the head with information. Blogs like “Above the Law” and “Law School Expert” will reveal to you the horrors of the legal job market and schools that lose their accreditation, and (my personal favorite) will publish the yearly rises and drops in law school rankings and the percentage of students who failed the Bar that year. You will be given every scary statistic about law school, and it can all be disheartening and overwhelming.
When you get into law school, your deans and profs will tell you that it takes all kinds and that “there is more than one way to be a lawyer,” while also pressuring you into the very narrow idea of success that we talked about before.
It sucks. It really really sucks. But the most important voice you can listen to is your own. Take in all the scary info (including what I just dumped on you) and apply it realistically to your goals and expectations and capabilities. I had a total shift in values and priorities between my first and second semester of 1L year, and another one after completing my first year. I know this piece may be a little doom and gloom, but it’s also real. I have many friends who took those struggles and ran with them and are doing amazing things, but every journey is different.
Caitlin is a 1L year survivor and coffee shop haunt who splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and Austin, TX. When she’s not writing, Caitlin enjoys movies, yoga, and indulging her INTJ/Capricorn bend with research on her many academic passions.
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