If You Had To Do It All Over Again, Would You Go To Law School?

Let me preface this post with the following:  we have an amazing group of students attending Solo Practice University ranging from 3Ls to twenty year veteran professionals. It is also not our practice to share conversations outside our walls.  However, within one of our favorite groups, The Student Lounge, I posed the following question:

“If you had to do it all over again, would you go to law school?’

With permission I’m sharing the answer from new SPU student, James Blount Griffin, and I hope you appreciate the sentiment.

Ship Building“I went to law school later in life and got out during good times. My big-law job was not a good experience. My small-firm experience has been much better. I feel called to be a lawyer, so I would do it again, though anyone who thinks he is ready to go to law school should jump into a cold river as the snow melts and imagine being in it for a few months or years.

Don’t go to law school unless you are willing to play the most common end game: solo practice. If you are gutsy enough to play the end game of solo practice, you are probably savvy enough to navigate working for a firm, at least for a little while, but don’t wait for “your ship to come in.” You are going to have to build the ship from stem to stern.

If I had to do it again, a cheaper law school and a judicial clerkship would have been better training for practice. I should have gone to the local courthouses, introduced myself to the judges, clerks, and deputies, and sat in the courtrooms a hundred days to get a feel for the life of lawyers and various types of practice. The fact that I did not do so indicates I was less serious about learning my craft than I thought I was.

Lawyers can figure out if you are gutsy enough to practice on your own, and if you are not, they will exploit your fear of failure. A firm may want your credentials and 2000 hours a year, but the firm doesn’t really want you as a partner unless your presence makes the pie bigger for all. To make partner, you are going to have to prove to them that they cannot afford to watch you leave. The effort is probably better spent on a venture of your own design and control.

Law practice is more like chess than checkers. The end game is that you cannot depend on a law firm, many of which have less permanence than rock and roll bands, to develop your clients, skills, and business sense.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, James, especially on the heels of this article discussing how temp work is becoming the new norm now that workers simply can’t find permanent employment.

If you had to do it all over again, would you go to law school?  If you would, what would you do differently today?

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9 comments on “If You Had To Do It All Over Again, Would You Go To Law School?

  • I would. I had a blast during law school (I’m weird apparently?), and have love being a lawyer. That may change at some point down the road of course, but after 2 years I have no substantive complaints.

  • I would definitely not start out as solo; rather find a few like minded individuals who I could tolerate and establish a small firm of our own; then spend at least 50% of time and effort on non-contingency work.

  • Today, were I deciding, I’d probably go to business school because the one stupid thing I’d do over and over and over again is be a Lit major undergrad. So, of course, I’d need grad school to make me a useful member of society.

    If I could rewind my life to the time it was then (not now) I’d go to law school over and over again, like Groundhog’s Day. I came out of law school $2,000 in student debt and that included emergency loans I took out in undergrad. My legal education cost $2,100 complete. The IDENTICAL education at my law school now costs $150,000.

    That’s. Just. Nuts.

    That said, the reason I’d do law school again, when it was affordable, because I grew up with a mother who had zero worldly knowledge and zero worldly power. My father left when I was nine and mom took a job for minimum wage ($1.25/hour) in a shoe store. The salesMEN made more but being a woman’s shoe salesMAN was solely employment for men. Women need not apply.

    So I wanted to learn (and did learn) how to operate some of the wheels and levers of power. I never wanted to be victimized. I never wanted to be trapped in a miserable marriage (as my mom was until Dad finally left for good).

    Being a lawyer allowed me to have a middle-class life, work with (and against) super smart people, sit in a library one day and argue an appeal before an appellate panel the next. I loved – and continue to love – strategy and tactics.

    Today, I’m doing that for women (back to what I’m passionate about) and without an opponent. How great is THAT? And I’d never be of real use to my gender if I hadn’t hobnobbed in the corridors of corporate power and learned what those people fear and desire.

    It was a good life and a good living. But the adversarial system’s last hours are ticking away as I write. It’s too slow, too cumbersome, too expensive and too riddled with ridiculous procedural rules and traps to be an efficient or effective means of resolving disputes.

    I don’t have an alternative. Only to choose SOMETHING, anything, and give it your ALL.

    The joy is in the ride, not the destination.

  • This is a tough question for me to answer … I wanted to be a lawyer since I took a business law class in high school. Everything we learned was fascinating to me, and I realized quickly that I had a knack for standing up for what I believed was right. I never considered not going to law school, but I never did my due diligence before applying to figure out whether the debt to income ratio from going on to law school would be worth it.

    I enjoyed law school. I was probably one of the only people in my 1st year group that actually enjoyed most aspects of that first year.

    I don’t necessarily have regrets about my education, but I have massive regrets about the amount of student loan debt it required to get me here. I feel like I will be a slave to the government forever trying to pay them back. On top of that, I graduated from law school at a time when jobs were almost impossible to find. The only people who were able to find great jobs, either already had them or had some other skill set they got outside of law school that made them a good candidate. I even applied for $25,000 a year jobs with the state that were being given to people with higher experience levels than me.

    I eventually found at a firm that only lasted a few months because they really couldn’t afford to keep me on. After that I struggled and opened my own practice. I know nothing worth having comes easy, but it is has been a huge struggle from day one. I found a niche that I feel passionate about and feel is necessary, but convincing enough clients to come to my door has been a huge struggle. I’ve been working 2 jobs for 2 years now just to get by.

    To directly answer the question, I would not go to law school like I did – without consideration for the job market and what the student loan debt would really mean for my life. As much as I wanted to go to law school, if I had been aware of these things before I applied, I probably would have chosen a different career path.

    • Nicole,

      When it comes to student loans, from the time I entered undergraduate school until the time I paid off my law school student loans was 34 years! This was with two very large lump sum payments, several hardship deferments and forbearance. (There was 10 years between undergraduate and graduate school). At the time I entered law school I DID do an economic analysis – the cost of school over three years plus lost income for those three years. Back then it actually made financial sense as school ultimately was a total of $60,000. Debt is horrible even though some will spin it as an ‘investment’. Those who have accomplished their goals, paid off their notes, may say, ‘yes, of course I’d do it, again’. But faced with today’s economy and tuition costs and making the same choice, I wonder if they really would. For those who remain passionate about practicing law, they have to go to the best school they can AFFORD and truly plan their finances so they can also have a life despite the job market and student loans. They must be creative and willing to pivot, plan from the day they actually enter law school how they are going to capitalize upon their time there to maximize their opportunities. This is what I would tell anyone considering law school today. Plan, plan, plan.

  • I used to say that, if I ever won the lottery, I’d use the money to go back to school – specifically law school. I never won the lottery, but I still got to do that thing I had been dreaming about. So yes, personally, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

    I think that if that’s how you feel about law school – like you won the lottery every day you get to go to class or every day you get to be a lawyer – then law school is definitely the right decision for you. If not, maybe you should ask yourself why you are doing this at all?

  • From Dan Reuter:

    A very sensible & perceptive article by Mr. Griffin.

    My father, who was admitted to the N.Y. bar in 1926, left the practice of law during the depression (his clients couldn’t pay him) & got back in through employment in a temporary state agency, then worked for a small law firm (1 owner, 3 associates) for 8 years. At Christmas time, when I was 12 years old, his employer told everyone that he was retiring on January 1. They were all out of work. The other 2 lawyers found jobs. My father went on his own, saying that there is no security in working for anyone else. Except for a brief stint in state government, he never worked for anyone else again.
    -Dan Reuter

  • I started law school in 1982 after receiving an MBA and working as a general building contractor. I was fortunate in that when I graduated in 1985, I had no debt, i.e., I was able to pay-as-you-go which is unheard of today.

    For me, there are two positives about going to law school. The first is obvious, it is a great education and teaches one how to teach herself. The other, it was the first time in my life I was around that many women.

    Up until then, I was immersed in a “man’s world” – even though my undergraduate degree was in the liberal arts, I went to an undergrad school that predominately male students; in my graduate business classes in the mid-1970s, I was sometimes the only woman in the class; and, in the late 1970s, there weren’t that many women involved in the construction business. I remember looking around the classroom my first day of law school in amazement that there were so many women. My reaction was almost like a dog when going to the dog park and realizing I was going to get to have meaningful interactions with my own kind.

    That being said, I am doing everything I can to get out of the law business. It has been anything but financially rewarding (I kept my foot in the construction business for years, telling folks that I needed to “support my lawyering habit”), and the practice of law is a grind. It’s time to call it quits.

    It’s taken me ten years. First I shut down my construction corporation, then I developed an exit strategy while supporting myself doing attorney contract work (best legal job I’ve ever had!). Fortunately, I have a Masters of Taxation and I am running in the direction of only doing administrative tax appeals which is admittedly quasi-law related. And, to get out from behind the computer, in 2015, I’m going to do more construction consulting work.

    That’s the long answer. The short answer? Yes, I’d go to law school again; no, I would not practice law.

    • Part of my quest here at SPU and on my own is to develop ways to interact with the public more than one normally does as an associate in private law practice. If someone described law school as a ticket to ten hours a day chained to a swivel chair, who would really want to go?

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