Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Crusade to Prevent People from Applying to Law School (And Why I Might Be Wrong)

While waiting in line for preschool registration, I heard one mom mention to another, "I had a dream last night that I applied to Stanford Law School."  "Don't do it!" I interrupted before it registered that I didn't know these women and that they weren't talking to me.

When someone asks my advice about attending law school or even mentions the idea within earshot, I immediately start thinking about the people I know who intended to have interesting jobs (writers, politicians, activists) and joined corporate law firms instead.

The people I talk to about law school are usually young and intent on changing the world or at least making it a little better.  It's too easy to take the path of least resistance and work for a law firm, I argue.  The debt burden will pressure you to take the highest paying job, not the one you're most passionate about, I cajole.  The horror of hours and hours of document review, I exclaim.

But, I think it might be time to revise my stance.  First, the easy and seductive path to a law firm - sign up for an on-campus interview, fly to an exciting city for an interview, wine and dine all summer at the firm's expense, accept a job with a six-figure salary - is disappearing, if not gone.  Second, my opinion of what lawyers do is overly influenced by my friends and my experience as junior and mid-level law firm associates.  Many lawyer friends have moved on from the positions to interesting government work at Department of Justice, US Trade Representative, and the FCC, meaningful work in the nonprofit sector, and some are even reinventing the idea of law firms.

The other argument that I sometimes undervalue is the extent to which a law degree, especially from an elite institution, serves as a certification or stamp of approval.  Everyone knows that Barack Obama went to Harvard Law School and served as President of the Harvard Law Review.  Closer to home, I've seen this stamp of approval substitute for close scrutiny or at least create a positive presumption many times in my volunteer experience: That board candidate, she went to Harvard Business School - Say no more!; That mom making root beer floats, she went to Yale Law school - a collective gasp!;  That job applicant that went to MIT - maybe we should look at her application more carefully.

If a person's goal is to change the world, maybe she should consider a law degree from an elite institution.  The credibility implied from that degree (deserved or not) could open doors and provide opportunities.  Careers are long and most career paths are not linear.  Starting off at a law firm to reduce your debt doesn't mean that you'll be there for the next 20 years.  At the very least, other parents might be a little more respectful as they ask for a second root beer float.


michelle | bleeding espresso said...

Great post! I'm not changing the world or anything with my law degree (not yet at least!) but the fact that I've earned one does give me some credibility (as you said, deserved or not) in certain situations; in fact, that's a big reason why I went in the first place. I knew I'd never practice traditional law (although you never can say never), but I also knew it would be a great credential to have no matter what I did.

Now is that worth taking out thousands of dollars in student loans for a law degree (or business degree) at an elite school? For me it wasn't (I had already done something similar for undergrad) so I went to a non-prestigious but well-respected state school that gave me a scholarship; I have to say the JD was definitely worth the three years plus bar exam study. Just in my experience of course :)

SherriLynn said...

Thanks for your comment, Michelle.

You make an excellent point. The opportunity to reduce (or eliminate) post-law-school debt is an important factor in making a decision. I vaguely remember reading about studies examining whether it's "worth" the extra money to attend an elite undergraduate institution. The studies found it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

SherriLynn you are a multi-talented person who is overlooked because you are willing or was willing to put in too much work for too little recognition. You have a natural talent as a lawyer. A law degree is a beautiful thing. The skills and knowledge learned, tremendously valuable. Now it's time to sing! :)

ric said...