Monday, February 15, 2010

Epilogue: Two Years Later

Well, Dear Reader, I failed miserably in keeping a blog on the truth about going to law school. Oh, well. Clearly, this topic has been covered throughout the interwebs ad nauseum (if you're a naive soon-to-be 1L) or for the benefit of mankind (if you are living with your parents due to your poor choice in going to law school).

While this was a failure of a blog, I stand by most of the advice given. The caveat at the beginning still stands. Law school admissions, ditto.

But I wanted to give this update in light of the economy.

This blog was started in January 2008. I was a 3L, soon to be 1st year associate at a large regional firm. The world was very rosy indeed for me. What inspired this blog in the first place was my fallen brethren at my Tier 4 school. For us, it was jobs for the Top 5 (people), and uncertainty for everyone else.

Unfortunately, between taking the bar and the swearing in, the global economy melted down. My employed buddies (and me, too) held our breaths as layoffs occurred around the country. Our unfortunate unemployed friends remained unemployed for well over a year while the students loans became due. It was miserable.

So, some of this advice is hilariously dated. The "Top 35" has quickly become the Top 17. Those halcyon days when the mediocre students in the Top 35 looked down on their summer associateships at midmarket firms while their more studious friends were living it up in NYC, DC, and Chicago are long gone. Even brahmins from the T14 are suffering now. Yes, the limousine rides to baseball games and "work life balance" are things of the past. And according to most experts, the legal market will never be the same.

I won't take any more space talking about the law school racket, the inflated job statistics, the unsustainable debt burden, and the plight of so many unsuspecting law students at non-elite schools. There's so much on the internet these days on these topics. I won't add more.

But some things don't change. First, if you are planning on going to law school, you should get all the information you can. This is a serious investment. If this market has taught us anything, it is that alphabet soup following your name does not guarantee employment. Make sure you know what you're getting into before you take the plunge.

And one last thing: what I said about "wanting to become a lawyer" is still true. I am suspicious of most law students' motives for getting their JDs. And I doubt anyone can refute that most law students came to law school for bad reasons--to make money, as an easy "default" after getting a humanities degree, for a sense of security and prestige. These are still horrible reasons to go to law school. You should only go to law school if you really want to be a lawyer. Period.

And consider this: if you are facing financial struggle (like our entire generation is right now), don't you want to be doing something that is fulfilling and satisfying? Why waste your time and energy for something that isn't for you? This applies to any profession. But it is especially true for lawyers. You don't need money or prestige if you are doing something you love.

Good luck to all you law students and lawyers. I wish you all the best.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Choosing a School

Congratulations! You've been admitted to law school. Several, in fact. Lucky you! Now it's time for you to make a decision, a decision that will determine the rest of your legal career. No pressure, eh?

Choosing a law school is a very controversial subject. Many insist that you should automatically go to the best law school you can get into. I think that this is true to a small extent. Otherwise, it is important to weigh all the facts when making your decision.

Situation: You have been accepted to Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.
Answer: What the fuck are you reading this for? Your life will be an easy ride down a street paved in gold. Obviously, you should go to one of these schools. In general, there are 14 top law schools. These are: Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, NYU, Penn, Michigan, Georgetown, Berkeley, Cornell, UVA, Northwestern, and Duke. If you get into one of these schools, you basically have your choice of career. Now of course, if you want to be on the Supreme Court or guaranteed a fantastic job in a huge New York firm, HYS carry the most weight. But you are choosing among only the best case scenarios, so no matter where you end up, you should have great career choices. If you get into one of these schools, go. No matter what other school gives you what kind of scholarship or any other consideration. GO.

Situation: You were admitted to a top 35 school, but not a top 14.
Answer: Things still aren't bad for you. You may not necessarily have first dibs at the best firms in New York (although you are not necessarily precluded from these jobs either), but you definitely have your choice at large firms across the country. If you know where you want to practice, you might want to choose a school that has a great regional presence (e.g., Vanderbilt = Atlanta; Notre Dame = Chicago). If you want to work in a mid-sized city, you can basically walk into any big firm from these schools (and you might be rewarded, due to the differences in cost of living). In sum, you are still in great shape, but not as good at the Top 14.

Situation: You were not admitted to a Top 35 school, but got into a Tier 2 school (NOTE: by Tier 2, I mean anything below 35 in the US News rankings. They go to 50, but why kid ourselves?).
Answer: This is where the controversy arises. Let me say this: there are a lot of grumblings from Tier 2 students. Many Tier 2 students went to that school because it was the best school they could get into. These students scored about a 162 on their LSATs, were disappointed, and tried to save face by going to the best school they could get into. It sounds like a fine plan, but the truth is that once you are below the Top 35, your job prospects are essentially the same unless you graduate at the top of your class.

Remember my warning earlier about going to law school for money? This is where this plays out at its worst. The God's honest truth is that the only lawyers who make a lot of money work at big firms. Of course, a personal injury/criminal defense/domestic issue lawyer *could* make a lot of money. But these cases are the exceptions to the rule. Moreover, these lucky few only made a lot of money after working for about 10 years. When they graduated, they were likely working for modest pay.

When you graduate from law school, you will have lots of debt. Law schools cost from 15,000 to 40,000 per year, and most people finance this with loans. These loans place a lot of pressure on students to make enough money to pay them back. No matter how unseemly it sounds, money is very important for almost all graduating law students.

Tier 2 students pose a special problem. They are going to a school that costs quite a bit, but their job prospects upon graduation are not very good. Hardly anyone who goes to a Tier 2 school is on a full scholarship because anyone who scored high enough on his LSAT to get such a scholarship at least got into a Top 35 school (or maybe better). In turn, Tier 2 graduates have tons of loans and graduate with few prospects. What's more, Tier 2 students feel entitled to a good job on graduation because of their success. This can be very frustrating, and at least it is very stressful. I do not envy most Tier 2 students.

The truth is that Tier 2 students stand little chance of finding jobs at big firms. The will only find jobs at big firms if 1) their school is well known in the region, and 2) they graduate at the top of their class. The "and" in the previous statement was intentional. It is very difficult for someone from a Tier 2 school to find a job in a distant city. Keep that in mind if you do choose to go to a Tier 2 school--only go to one in the city where you want to practice. As far as graduating in the top of your class, that is a crap shoot, plain and simple. Everyone is gunning for the Top 10 in the class, and the margin for error is razor thin. No matter how hard you try, you cannot guarantee success at a Tier 2 school.

So what are Tier 2 students supposed to do? I strongly advise all Tier 2 students to apply to Tier 3/4 schools. I know this statement makes you feel sick inside. Most of you are thinking, "I didn't even want to apply to this Tier 2 school--it was my fallback! Why should I consider a T3/4? It's beneath me!" Before you recoil in disgust, hear me out.

1) You will get a good, if not full, scholarship. The full scholarship will enable you to have the flexibility to choose what you want to do after you graduate. You eliminate any financial risk of going to a Tier 2 school, graduating with no job, and being swallowed by debt.

2) You will perform better against T3/4 students. As I said earlier, the LSAT is not determinative of law school performance. However, it is a measure of raw intelligence. If you place as must effort and dedication as you would at a Tier 2 school, you will more likely place in the top of your class. I guarantee you that most students in the Top 10 of their classes at T3/4 schools are there on full-scholarship because of their LSAT score. In the same geographic region, the Top 10 at a Tier 2 has only a slight advantage over Top 10 at a T3/4 school. If you go to a T3/4 school, you give yourself a better chance of being in the Top 10.

3) No matter what you heard, Tier 2 job prospects are virtually identical to T3/4. Tier 2 has a slight advantage. Maybe the Top 20 people will get good paying jobs, where only the Top 10 will at T3/4. However, after this elite, the job prospects are bleak for both groups of students. The sad truth is that the vast majority of T2/3/4 (and therefore the vast majority of law students) will be doing personal injury/criminal defense/family law/quasi-legal government work, or worse, document review for $20 per hour. As I said earlier, if you want to be a lawyer, then this is no problem at all. However, if you are one of the many seeking prestige or money, the T2/3/4 is a rough place to be. You might as well take the scholarship from a T3/4 school to reduce the investment costs.

Having the same job prospects as a Tier 2 student without the debt and possibly with less struggle? Sounds good doesn't it?

Is there a difference between Tiers 2, 3, and 4? Possibly. I'm sure Tier 2 schools have better amenities, more prestigious professors, better sweatshirts. But in terms of employment, the bottom tiers are essentially the same. This is a fact--one that many law students do not discover until their 3rd year of law school, when it is too late.

Remember: If you really, really want to be a lawyer, none of this matters. Go to whatever school you want/can! If you like the Tier 2 school better, have at it! But do not go to the Tier 2 thinking it will guarantee you a good job, or at least a better job than the schlubs at the T3/4. This is just not so.

Situation: Jesus, I'm so lucky that one school accepted me.
Answer: If you barely got into law school, good for you. Just go if you're sure about what you're getting into. Again, please make sure you want to be a lawyer. There is no need incurring so much expense and spending so much time for something you do not want and will not pay off financially (unless you are at the top of your class). If you are going to law school because you aren't sure what to do with your life, don't. Throw your acceptance letter away (unless it's from HYS). Spend a year or two working. Go to Europe. Sit in your garage and work on your TransAm. Law school is the last place you want to be for no good reason...believe me.

Getting In: The LSAT

So, after several hours of deliberation, you have decided that you want a comfortable upper-middle class, I mean you really, really want to be a lawyer and this is the profession to which you have been called. Now you can get started on your application.

Listen--any guidance counselor/Princeton Review book/KAPLAN guide can tell you all about filling out your application. How to apply in a timely manner, how to write a personal statement that wows your audience, how to mask a bad semester as an undergraduate as a sign of your commitment to improvement...yadda, yadda. Although these details seem like the secrets that could push you into your dream school, I can safely tell you they mean absolutely nothing. There is only one thing that matters: the LSAT.

Now, undoubtedly you're saying, "Well, duh." But I don't think you quite understand how literal I mean this. Despite all the outright lies by law schools concerning admissions ("LSAT scores and undergraduate grades are important, but we consider everything when reviewing a candidates application" and similar horseshit), those wonderful (or horrible) three digits will determine your law school career.

Personally, I did not know this before applying to law school. I thought, "I have great grades! Look at all my community service and leadership activities! That LSAT? Minor setback! I'm a shoo in!" Alas, this is not true, and I want to underscore its importance for you.

You will read about "the Complete Candidate" who has great grades, great scores, great experience, and a great personal statement. You will probably try to be this Complete Candidate. You will also read about something about a LSAT/GPA index, where a school weighs your LSAT and GPA, gets a number from combining the two, and voila, that is how applicants will be ranked. Both of these are complete fictions. It's possible that schools actually do this, but the LSAT is still the threshold that all applicants must pass before even being considered for admission.

So, you get a 163 on your LSAT. The school you want to go to has a 25%-75% range of 166-170. I'm sorry, but you will not get accepted. You *might* get wait-listed, and eventually fall in, but there is no way you will be accepted outright, regardless of your GPA or resume. Even if your "index" places you in the running for your dream school, it does not matter. The LSAT is the first thing they look at, and if you do not fall into their range, you are out.

Of course, other things (GPA, resume, etc.) could count. Let's say you are applying to a school, and it's between you and candidate X. If you and X both have the same scores, the school will look at your GPAs. This is especially important for incredibly selective schools like Harvard/Yale/Stanford, where all applicants have great scores. But, if your LSAT by itself is not in the running at the school where you apply, you will not get in.

Why is this important? If you do not do well on your LSAT, you have substantially limited the possible number of schools you can go to. This is even more important when considering your post-law school career. The difference between a 172 and a 170 is staggering (it's the difference between Harvard and Michigan); 170 and 165 is alarming (the difference between Michigan and Notre Dame); 165 and 162 is frightening (Notre Dame and the bottom of the Top 100); and 162 and 159 is unbearable (Top 100 and the rest of the schools).

Of course, if you took my advice and you are only applying to law school because you really, really want to be a lawyer, then your LSAT score only matters in terms of getting you into a law school (if you're worried about money, and you score low on the LSAT, try again or go to B-School). Nevertheless, all your grades, community service activities, and gold stars mean nothing without a good LSAT score. You need a good LSAT (or at least one that is adequate for your school) to even get into the ballpark of getting into a certain school. Once you get that score, you can worry about grades.

NOTE: Is this fair? I don't know. I will grant that the LSAT measures (in some way) your raw intelligence. I do not doubt that people who score higher are generally quick, bright people. However, there is no correlation between an LSAT score and law school success. Even if you may have to spend more time to understand a subject, if you are determined, you can do just as well as anyone who scores higher than you. Unfortunately, the problem is that the legal profession revolves around prestige. If you get into a great school, no matter how you perform, you will automatically be considered for a job over someone who may actually be a better lawyer but went to a lower-ranked school. Sadly this is true.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Getting In: Caveat

Do you really want to go to law school? You probably find this question a little annoying, because of course you really want to go to law school. My goodness, you've always talked about going to law school. You are smart! You read newspapers! You understand the government! You gloat about how you choose to watch CNN over VH1! In fact, the question should be "Why shouldn't I go to law school?" (And look at how you turned it around, just like that! Lawyer-to-be, for sure!).

Before I tell you why those answers above are horrible answers, let me start by saying before you read about rankings, LSAT scores, and job placement, you really need to have a good answer to this question. If your motivations for going to law school are not sincere, your law school career, no matter how successful, will be a boring, soul-corroding, and unfulfilling experience.

Let's be honest. You probably want to go to law school because of one of the following reasons:

1) You majored in the humanities or social sciences and it seems that law is the natural progression of your education.

2) Sames as (1) except you have come to the realization that you will never find a job with your major and law school is the only way to support a comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyle that you secretly desire/have grown accustomed to.

3) Same as (1) except you just have no clue what to do with yourself now that you are graduating, you want to stave off the "real world" by staying in school, but the thought of reading another novel/philosophical treatise/statistical report on the voting behavior of Iowans is making you ill.

4) You have been working for a few years in a career that sucks, and you figure that by going to law school you can find an easy way to prestige and money.

These are probably the most common reasons for going to law school. Later in your life (or hopefully not), you will be in an interview, and a lawyer will ask you "So, why did you go to law school?" and you will be stymied. You will sit with your spouse/friend/cat and practice answering this question, trying to find a good answer. You'll choose something safe like, "I loved the idea of entering a career where I face intellectual challenges daily," or "The sophisticated work attorneys do on a day to day basis drew me to law school." And despite your spouse/friend/cat's eager nods of support, you will know in your heart of hearts that this is all bullshit.

In my experience, no one really knows why they want to go to law school. Most people wander aimlessly into the profession for no real reason. This seems ridiculous: no one just becomes a mechanical engineer or a medical doctor because they didn't know what to do with their life. Why are law students different? I guess it's because when you say, "I'm going to law school" everyone smiles and says "Wow, great, etc." Your mom will brag about her son/daughter in law school. But this instant goodwill is based largely on myths about the profession. Ask any attorney if you should go to law school, and you will likely hear anything but enthusiasm. You'll probably think that the lawyer's just being an arrogant prig, trying to keep you out of her elite club. Chances are, however, that she's just trying to be nice and not scare you off from this experience.

Being smart is a stupid reason for going to law school. There are many doctors, teachers, engineers, sales managers, government officials, journalists, and baristae that are "smart." Your raw intelligence shouldn't make you think, "Jeeze, if I don't go to law school, I'm wasting all my talent."

Your humanities/social science degree has nothing to do with law school, success in law school, or your career as a lawyer. Any degree qualifies you to go to law school. You are not more skilled because you know how to use semicolons correctly. Also, law school is not a natural progression from these degrees. Your first month in law school will prove that to you (trust me, you don't want to find out for yourself). Law is a completely new animal, and you will not be familiar with any concepts or prepared for the reasoning expected. Aside from your fond memories of reading Virginia Woolf in the quad (or being able to skip class all semester and still get an A-), your humanities/social science degree is essentially useless. (NOTE: I hate to be harsh here--obviously, these studies are valuable to your soul and human spirit. Reading Dostoevsky on your bus ride to work will make you a richer person. However, law school is designed to crush the human spirit, and trust me, finding a job with your BA is all but impossible.)

Money and prestige are obviously the real reasons why people go to law school. I don't care what altruistic motives you have for wanting to go, the idea of making six figures at the age of 26 is alluring to anyone, not to mention the outright joy in saying "I'm a lawyer" in the presence of others (those bumpkins at the 10 year reunion won't know what hit 'em!). This is not necessarily a bad motive. But here's the catch that no law school student ever realizes until it is too late: the money and prestige are no longer a guarantee for all lawyers. Sure, if you go to a Top 10 school or graduate in the top 15% of a Tier 2 school (or the top 5% of a Tier 3 or 4), you can get a great job right after graduation. But obviously, this does not apply to many law students. A law degree is not a winning lottery ticket. If you aren't part of this elite, you will likely make no more than you would if you just got an entry level job after graduating college (and don't forget the mountains of debt you incur as a law student). Also, not being in the elite denies you any meaningful choice in choosing your career path and area of practice, unless you have a passion for criminal defense/plaintiff litigation/family law. This is a whole post unto itself, but if this is your true, meet-your-maker reason for going to law school, 'tis folly.

So what is a good reason for going to law school? There is really only one: I completely understand what a lawyer does for a living, and it is what I want to do with my life. That's it. You should only go to law school (gasp!) if you really want to be a lawyer. And not in some cosmic sense. If you have concrete reasons why law is the profession for you, you should go to law school. Otherwise, save yourself the time, expense, trouble, and disappointment.

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,

This is the first post on this blog. I am writing this blog with the purpose of giving potential law students real, useful information about law school. In advance, I would like to apologize for any apparent pessimism/fatalism on my part. I do not intend this blog to be a sounding-board for insecure rants, rather a source for individuals who are considering going to law school. Honesty is this blog's goal.