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Why You Should Think Twice About Remaining in Law (or Going to Law School)
By Harrison Barnes
Several years ago, an employee who curated content for our company website and was making around $120,000 a year was recruited to teach at a fourth-tier law school for a higher salary and less work.
Over the past several years, law schools all over the United States have gone on a building spree. When you walk around some of these law schools, it’s like visiting the Roman Empire at its zenith. These schools have faculty paid to think and teach very little; the campuses boast giant fountains and new, state of the art facilities accented with tons of marble. Until recently, these law schools had students clamoring to get into them. People were willing to pay exorbitant tuitions in hopes of getting to the Promised Land where affluence and prestige awaited.
I review hundreds of attorney and law school resumes every day as part of my job. I run three national legal recruiting firms, a legal outplacement firm, and the largest job site for attorneys in the United States. I talk to countless attorneys each week. While there are some success stories, the vast majority of people who go to law school and graduate in this economy are not headed for anything special. In fact, the waste of the skills of these promising young people boggles my mind and has progressively gotten worse over the past decade.
In order to get these sorts of jobs, you generally need to go to a top 10 law school (there are around 300 law schools in the United States) or be at the very top of your class in a less prestigious law school. Even that, however, isn’t enough. You also need to have a bit of personality and a good work ethic.
And to get into the top law schools, you need to be at the very top of your college class. Because lots of people are at the top of their class in college, law schools generally prefer people at the top of their class at the best colleges. This means, that if you go to a school like MIT, you are more likely to get in (all things considered) than someone from a school like the University of Michigan with similar credentials. In addition to doing well, you generally are going to need to perform above the 90th percentile on the law school admissions test.
Right at the outset, you should understand that getting into a good law school is a function of how hard and effectively you work (your grades) and your intelligence and aptitude for practicing law (your LSAT score). The law school an attorney goes to will follow them throughout their career. I talk to attorneys daily—even attorneys in their 60s will provide all manner of excuses and justifications for why they didn’t go to a top law school if it isn’t on their resume. If someone does not get into a top law school, this is really something to think about. Attorneys judge each other all the time and every time an attorney works with or against another attorney, they always research where that attorney went to law school (and what honors and so forth they received in law school) and use this as part of their calculus for judging that attorney. Regardless of the attorney’s competence, opposing counsel and others will make all sorts of assumptions about this attorney and their abilities.
When I started out practicing law, the majority of attorneys in my law firm went to Harvard Law School. My firm was growing like mad. One day I asked a partner why they hired so many people from Harvard and not schools nearby like UCLA and USC (which seemed perfectly good to me). I was told,
“We are more likely to get hired when we have attorneys from schools like Harvard and Yale because the clients know they are smarter and will work harder. If you were paying to hire a law firm, who would you hire: The smartest or an average attorney?”
And this is the crux of the matter at large law firms. The law school you went to is a mark of your intelligence for clients. They simply want to hire the smartest and best people. If you are not one of these people, a firm is less likely to want you because your credentials will not look good to their clients.
Why would you go into a profession if you are likely to be considered a second class citizen in the profession the rest of your career?
When a lawyer judges someone, would you believe that they are more likely to think higher of someone’s intellectual ability if they went to Brown University and did nothing after that than if they went to Brown University and then a fourth tier law school like Whittier Law School, for example. Going to a good law school is important in the legal profession.
Once you get into a top law school, there are all sorts of things that distinguish attorneys as students as well. Stellar law students are expected to do very well, get on law review, and get other honors. If an attorney is at the bottom of their class in most top law schools (I would choose as an exception to this maybe Yale Law School—which is at a whole different level from other American law schools in terms of its prestige) — they are going to have a very hard time getting hired by a large law firm.
If an attorney does not get into a top law school, they need to do exceptionally well at the school they do go to. Generally, that person is going to need to be in at least the top 5 to 10 percent of their class to stand any chance of getting a job with a large law firm. There are some exceptions to this, though. For example, if the person is an electrical engineer by training they may not need to do as well because patent attorneys are in demand. For the most part, if an attorney is not in the top five percent of their class at a second-, third-, or fourth-tier law school they are going to be completely shut out of top law firms for the rest of their career.
At the same time, even attorneys who graduate from top law schools are struggling to find work. I review the resumes of hundreds of unemployed new attorneys who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, the University of Texas, Harvard Law School, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Michigan and similar schools weekly. These attorneys simply cannot get jobs. For whatever reason, they end up working as contract attorneys and other things.
If the legal profession does not want them, why are they bothering? Reviewing documents year after year is not the best use of a mind that graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a good college and is smart enough to score in the 90th percentile on the LSAT.
My main office is in Los Angeles. Last year I looked in the database for one of my recruiting firms and realized that for that year, more than half of the class from UCLA Law School was looking for a job several months after graduating. This is a hard law school to get into – it’s in the top 15 ranked schools in the country. If that many students are looking for jobs, then something is wrong with the system out there.
Young attorneys who do get jobs with top law firms will be expected to work to the maximum extent their bodies and minds can tolerate and very few of these people will ever have a chance of getting too far ahead in their firms.
As someone in the legal recruitment industry, I can tell you that virtually all attorneys who get a job with a large law firm initially will also bounce around. They will bounce around because either they will lose their job and will be given time to look for a job; or, they will have to because their firm simply runs out of work.
Most attorneys who land positions in large law firms are simply not cut out for the work. Because they have been praised for their test-taking ability and grades throughout their lives, the reality of the economics of working in a large law firm is simply too much for them. They realize that the law firm is a business and can find people like them in an instant – there is nothing special about them. They realize that they need to work very hard to survive. They are suddenly part of a political machine with a whole set of rules that can change on a dime. They lack any control over their own fate because law firms can lose clients – some large ones even go out of business. The only thing they have to offer is their time: The more they bill, the more likely they are to get ahead (provided the law firm does not lose the client, or go out of business). Billing hard is not even enough, though. They also will eventually need to generate business to survive.
I started my career in the home office of a large Los Angeles law firm. I could not believe how hard people worked. I shared a secretary with a girl who was a new attorney like me – she had gone to Yale Law School. She worked much harder than I did. She turned in time sheets a couple of times a week that showed her working complete 24-hour stretches. That is 24 straight hours with no rest whatsoever. I remember being in the office on the Fourth of July and seeing just about the entire firm working. The entire firm was always there on Sundays. Simply put, you needed to work all of the time, and even that was not enough—to really get ahead you needed to push it to the limit.
I was friends with a partner there and asked him why one person had made partner and not another. I was told that the person who made partner had billed 3,300 hours and the one who did not only billed 2,900 hours. Keep in mind that 2,900 hours is almost 60 hours a week of billable time. Not every second you are in the office is billable: to bill that type of time you need to bill a lot of hours.
I moved to another law firm looking for a more normal life. But when I got there, I wasn’t given any work for the first month I was there. I sat in my office mindlessly looking at the computer screen. When I asked why there was no work, I was told that the firm had lost a major client. Over the next 12 months or so, I watched about thirty percent of the partners in the firm get let go – some of whom had been there for decades. An associate down the hall from me who had been at the top of his class at Columbia Law School had not been given any work in over 12 months. Fortunately, I started getting work from a partner who had a good amount of work and is still my friend to this day – he too, however, was ultimately let go.
There is nothing wrong with the competitive nature of the law firm environment, or what it takes to rise there. What is important to understand, though, is that a law degree may not make as much sense as it appears to make on the surface for most talented people. In fact, unless you are really intelligent and willing to work very, very hard, it does not make a lot of sense for most people.
I will just come out and say this because it is important to understand: Most of the attorneys who do really well have something deep down to prove. No one can work those sorts of hours without having some sort of need that is fulfilled by doing this. The best attorneys I have met typically do not come out of upper middle class environments, for example. They generally come from middle to lower-middle class environments. They are hungry to get ahead and prove something to themselves and the world. These are the sorts of people who stick with it —not your upper crust types.
Only the very best law school graduates ever have the chance to reach the heights of the law firm world. Even these attorneys, however, most often are not enjoying themselves too much. Due to the work load and time behind a desk most gain a lot of weight and start looking very old quite early.
After I had been out of law school about 10 years, one of my law school classmates visited me. He was working for a foundation raising money at the law school. He had been going around meeting law school classmates.
“You look good,” he said. “You are the only person I’ve visited so far that has not put on a lot of weight.”
What made this statement so unusual to me was that I had just gone to the doctor and been told I needed to lose 15 pounds. I guess I looked good compared to my classmates who were still practicing law.
Despite the realities of the law firm world, I would assert to you that something odd is going on in the world. This oddity is being driven by the government guaranteeing law school loans and high tuitions paying for a lot of administrators and others inside of law schools.
Thomas Jefferson Law School, for example, recently built a new law school at a cost of more than $90-million dollars. Here is one thing I read recently about Thomas Jefferson Law School:
According to Law School Transparency, less than a quarter (24.1%) of 2011 TJSL graduates found long-term, full-time legal jobs as of nine months after graduation. That is a total of 63 grads out of 236. Two (yes, two) students were known to have found full-time jobs in large firms (more than 100 attorneys). Zero obtained federal judicial clerkships. Ten found their way into full-time government gigs and two into full-time public interest jobs.Why would anyone attend Thomas Jefferson Law School with odds like this?
The reason, I believe, is simply because they can. Despite the fact that the degree is virtually worthless in the legal community, the United States Government is happy to guarantee loans for people to attend this school. In addition, law schools are happy to perpetuate the myth that success lies around the corner for people who attend the school.
One of the strangest and most frustrating parts of my job is attempting to help graduates of schools like Thomas Jefferson get jobs that actually make use of their degrees.
There are close to 300 law schools in the United States and lots of places that attorneys can work. However, the majority of attorneys are of the opinion that they should be working at large law firms in big cities. Many take jobs in big cities that are unrelated to the practice of law – or loosely so (such as being a contract attorney)—which never lead to any sort of success. The problem with the practice of law, in my opinion, is often related to attorneys not going where they are needed.
Another issue that hinders attorneys from getting jobs is related to law school administrations – the Career Services Offices. I have seen more people working for me get jobs there than I can count. Most of these jobs pay between $70,000 and $120,000 a year. These are very good jobs. The administrators generally get the summers off. They also work very normal hours – and the employment rates of their graduates rarely impact whether or not they remain employed.
Law school career services administrators typically will meet with students and offer them subtle encouragement. They may suggest a change here and there on their resumes. They may post a few jobs that they get from law school alumni. They may provide students with local lists of employers for them to contact. They also will give interviewing tips—and the best ones will even give students mock interviews.
I like law school career services offices people. They have tough jobs. Getting jobs for people without the aptitude for practicing law is a tough job. Most of the law school career services offices at “average” law schools have a tough time getting people jobs, and this is simply because there are not enough jobs out there in the cities and areas where the majority of law students want to work.
Our company has a few businesses that have a lot of success getting people in law school (and recent graduates) jobs, regardless of where they went to school. I’m not going to name these businesses because the point of this article is not to promote these businesses. What I can tell you, though, is that law school career services offices are hostile to anything that can undermine their authority to get people jobs.
I have over 400 employees who research and classify every legal job in the market—a staff larger than virtually every law school in the United States–and it is like pulling teeth even getting law school administrators to tell people about these businesses. Why? I believe it’s because law school administrations are archaic. I believe it is because they feel these businesses undermine their authority to be the only ones who get their graduates jobs. It is like a priest telling someone that the only way to have a relationship with God is to go through them and someone cannot do it independently.
Like the priests of long ago, they are supported by a taxpayer and government-funded system that makes them accountable to virtually no one. People come to them expecting salvation (i.e., high paying jobs), with virtually no chance whatsoever of achieving this. Law schools pay their faculties large salaries and make them virtually unaccountable. They build giant churches (i.e., law school campuses) with the huge donations (i.e., tuitions) from their students. The entire system is out of control and something needs to change.
The legal profession is the way it is and I do not expect it to change anytime in the near future. What is discouraging to me is what the people who go to law school are capable of achieving but simply cannot in the legal environment. There are a couple of points to consider.
First, I believe that most law school graduates can get jobs in the legal profession. There are jobs in small towns, places where no one wants to work and more. If current and future attorneys track down these sorts of opportunities (which is what my companies do) they can find work. No doubt about it. However, and I hate to say this, most law firm career services offices and attorneys themselves have no idea how to look for jobs.
To be a good attorney you should look beyond the obvious and be a good researcher. Most attorneys will not and do not research the market. They look for the obvious, low-hanging fruit and jobs that everyone else is looking for. They seem to have forgotten that an attorney never wins a case by looking for the most obvious answer. They win by finding the least obvious answers most often – the stuff that people miss. It is also like this in business. The most successful businesspeople are the ones who see things other do not and find solutions and patterns where others do not. Look at companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and others—the people behind these companies all saw opportunity where others saw obstacles.
I promote my businesses like LawCrossing (a legal job aggregation service) to attorneys who are unemployed and regularly receive messages like: “You must think I am stupid to pay to look for a legal job.” However, what a service like LawCrossing does is research and find every job in the market. If someone wanted to buy a good stock they certainly would research every stock they could learn about (not just big ones like Apple, Coke, General Motors and so forth). Why shouldn’t they use the same logic to look for jobs?
Because it takes the ability to look beyond the obvious to get a good legal job, perhaps this is simply part of the weeding-out process that occurs for attorneys. If an attorney is not smart enough to find a job (there are tens of thousands of them out there), then perhaps they have no business finding solutions for their clients’ problems either.
There are people who do not have any business being attorneys. They may have a personality that prohibits them from connecting to either the material they are working on or clients. There are people who do not have the intellectual ability to connect ideas; these people do the world and their clients a huge disservice by practicing law. A bad attorney is like a doctor who cannot diagnose and treat a disease. A doctor like this would probably never become a doctor to begin with. Medical school is extraordinarily tough to get into and practicing medicine is also very tough. Not anyone can get into medical school, and although almost anyone with law school training can eventually pass the bar, there is no “bar” to being an attorney, and because of this some of the most inept people you can imagine are out there practicing law.
There are some truly lousy attorneys out there and – let’s face it – someone who cannot compete intellectually has no business being an attorney. I see attorneys like this all the time.
The second, and more important point, is that a good proportion of attorneys and people in law school are probably better suited to doing something else than practicing law. Imagine a basketball player who could not even make the varsity team in high school declaring they wanted to become a professional basketball player when they were in college. They never would get anywhere because they simply did not have the ability. Some of these people might get somewhere if they were incredibly motivated – but most would not. They simply would not have the natural athletic ability.
An attorney needs not only drive, but natural ability and to be very smart to have a chance to survive over the long term practicing law. Why, if they do not have this, are they putting themselves into a profession where they are likely to consistently be second class citizens and never achieve what they want to?
I am not saying there is something wrong with people who are not the most accomplished at practicing law. What I am saying is that they certainly might do better doing something else. Most people on this earth have some natural skills that emerge when they apply themselves enough. Perhaps they should concern themselves with doing something along those lines and not something where they are likely to never succeed all that much.
Mike Tyson was a great boxer. Despite his personal demons, he will always be remembered as a great boxer. What if instead of being a boxer Tyson declared that he wanted to be an astrophysicist? He might have gotten into some correspondence school program or enrolled in a horrible college and got passing grades. They would have taken his money and tutored him and pushed him along the chain as he took out more and more student loans and finally declared himself to be an astrophysicist.
Do you think Tyson would have gotten a job with Caltech or NASA after becoming an astrophysicist? Of course he would not have. In fact, he would have been lucky to get any job at all. Also, whatever future he might have had as a boxer would have been lost to history.
Sadly, this is almost the same situation law school graduates are facing today. Most attorneys have no business being attorneys. Even those who do are in a profession where most of them are commodities and are expendable. These are all things to think seriously about.
I love the law. Despite operating several businesses, I also have a small Malibu law firm which remains active with various cases that keep me interested. Despite the law and what I love about it, I also believe that it does not make sense for most people and that the system is largely rigged against the people going to law school. There are far too many law schools and there are too few jobs of the sort that attorneys want.
Most people going to law school probably would make more money selling Toyotas as car salesmen in an auto dealership than being attorneys (I’m serious). And this is where the crux of the problem lies. What is the sense of putting your efforts into something where the odds are stacked against you unless you know you are likely to be able to compete at a very high level?
You should go where you know you can do well and direct your efforts there. You should follow your heart and where you get the most positive feedback. Don’t do something because you do not know what else there is to do—or because it seems like the right thing to do at the time.
Most people are very skilled and have a natural ability in something. It could be teaching, counseling, math, sales, public speaking – the list is endless. In the case of the legal profession, I would submit to you that it is a “mirage”: It looks available to everyone but is in actuality a very closed profession that opens up for very few attorneys.
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To your success,
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