This past fall I was speaking to my babysitter who had just graduated from law school. She went to a tier 2 law school, took the bar exam and was waiting for her bar results. She did not do any internships, clerkships or legal work during law school. Her grades were fine but not stellar. This might be obvious to some of you. But I am going to be honest. She did not put herself in the best position to get a job after law school. And now she’s 24 years old with no practical work experience.
I also wish somebody had told me to think about what kind of law job I would like BEFORE law school. I am a mom of two, and we started our family approximately 5 years after we graduated. I completely stopped working for several years to care for my young children because, at the time, it didn’t make sense to continue working. In hindsight, before law school, I should have spoken to as many working moms as I could find in the areas I was interested in and figured out which areas were ideal for part-time work, or more family-friendly anyway. Many of you have had those hindsight moments, but we all know by this point in our lives that being forward-looking is much more productive.
I know most of you going straight to law school after graduating from college, and it probably feels good to tell people that you are heading to law school. That answers the “what are you doing when you graduate?” question definitively. But have you thought about what will happen after? If you don’t think about where you want to be when you graduate from law school, a couple years from now you may be exactly where my babysitter was or where I was when I chose to stop working.
Some factors should be considered in an overall decision to attend law school. Assuming you have already made the choice to attend law school, serious thought about the issues I discuss here will help put you in a better position than my babysitter. The best scenario is a job that fits your lifestyle and that you are excited about. That’s the goal, right?
Have you considered the cost of law school and how you will pay for it? The average cost of law school (excluding interest) is over $100,000. This is on top of any undergraduate or other graduate school debt. This means that on average you will be paying back more than twice this amount. This does not even take into account other expenses such as books or living expenses. I am not sure if any of you have done the math, but given the median salary for a lawyer (see below), there are situations when the monthly payment to repay debt plus other expenses may be more than you can afford. I am not trying to discourage you from going to law school if you want to be a lawyer, but I am presenting the reality for those that might be choosing law school so that you don’t have to figure out the rest of your lives right now.
Is your primary goal to earn a high salary? Some of you may have an illusion of how much money you will be able to earn fresh out of law school. Unless you plan to work in big law (at a huge law firm), according to U.S. News and World Report, the median lawyer salary is approximately $115,000. And this is not a first year salary. The median first year private sector salary is closer to $70,000. A larger percentage of big firm lawyers are hired from elite law schools. That being said, you should think about what kind of salary you would like (or need) to earn in determining which law school to attend and whether you would like to work for a big or smaller firm. Some of you may also be interested in public interest jobs such as city, county or state attorney’s offices. If this is one of your goals and you are taking out loans, I recommend that you research loan assistance programs (at the law school you plan to attend and outside programs) so that you can plan for your debt. Of course talking to other public interest attorneys and how they managed their debt might also prove very informative.
Something else to think about is your lifestyle, or what matters most to you. Many law jobs are extremely demanding. Even some smaller firms ask that you bill over 2,000 hours. Others have demanding deadlines. Can you handle extreme pressure (lots of deadlines and/or trials), or would that cause you to have a nervous break-down? Is exercise or being outside essential to your everyday life? Do you require 8 hours of solid sleep per night? If so, how will you fit it all in? Do you plan on being actively present during the week days in your (future) children’s lives? These questions give you some of the things to think about in deciding what kind of job would be right for you. There are niches or lifestyle firms where hours are more reasonable. You can educate yourself by researching which areas have the most liberal deadlines, hours, expectations, etc.
A Special Note For Women
If you aren’t making enough money to cover child care, you may have a tough argument someday with your spouse as to whether or not you should continue working while your children are young. Another factor is whether you would prefer a part-time or contract position after having children. You might not be able to answer this question 100% right now, but you should take these factors into account when starting out your legal career. Some jobs have slower deadlines, and thus are more suited to part-time work. Also, even if you are working full time, when your child gets sick some firms are much more family-friendly in terms of how personal days can be used.
Something most people don’t tell you is that once you start getting experienced in a particular area of law and become more of an expert, it is easy to get “pigeon-holed” or stuck in that niche. Since you have the experience, more opportunities and money are available to you in that area. So, the question becomes what can you do to put yourself in the best case scenario after law school? Soul search. Think about some of the important questions here. Get experience. Take as many internships or summer positions as you can in areas that interest you. Some schools even offer school credit for internships during the school year and/or summer. Do your research. Interview and speak to as many lawyers of all different levels of experience as possible (including prospective employers).
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