Are You Sure You Want to Be a Lawyer?

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<<Some want to become lawyers to protect people's rights, fight injustice, or defend institutions they hold dear. Some want to become judges or run for office. Some simply relish the daily intellectual jousting of the law.

But others go to law school because…well, they're not really sure why. Too many students, in fact, use law school as a default option when they don't want to address bigger career- and life-planning issues. This often leads to anxiety, depression, and professional burnout in the years ahead. In fact, surveys have shown that up to a third of attorneys would have chosen another profession if they had known what their lives would be like as lawyers.

So it's important for potential law students to carefully consider their options before committing the considerable time, energy, and money necessary to complete law school. Yes, legal work can be fulfilling and rewarding, and most of the time, the money is good. But prospective law students should make sure they're going for the right reasons because the law is too demanding and too time consuming for people to pursue it as a career simply because they don't know what else to do with their lives.

Here are five tips to help students see if law school is really for them, and to help them discuss career choices in concrete and useful ways:

  • Change the career question. ''What are you going to be when you grow up?'' is the wrong question. It leaves us to choose from an incomplete menu of careers we've seen on television, heard about from friends, or experienced in our own families. It becomes a choice of the least detestable options. Instead, we should ask ourselves, ''Where will you use your best skills to work on issues that are important to you?'' Allow students to focus on the functional parts of what they want their lives to look like, and then create a menu of options that may include law.
  • Find someone to listen to you. Just talking things through is often helpful. Find someone who will ask open-ended questions, focused on four key areas: What skills do you have that you really love to use? What issues do you love to think and talk about? Who are the people you most enjoy working with and serving? What do you need in the workplace to be happy and energized? Use this information to explore what type of law fits best.
  • <<
  • Seek good advice. Career counselors and pre-law advisors are terrific resources for students considering law schools. They can help students begin the process. Law school admission staff, current law students, and alumni are all excellent resources for students. Encourage students to seek out professionals with the information they need to make good decisions about law school.
  • Get some experience. Most attorneys had little or no exposure to the real lives of lawyers before entering law school and so had little idea what they were getting into. Students should seek internships, externships, career shadowing, alumni mentors, and jobs to learn more about what lawyers really do.
  • Do the math. Help students be objective and realistic in assessing schools, locations, programs, opportunities, and cost. Find ways to dive beneath the surface of websites and publications to find the information that is most relevant to your goals.
About the Author

Steve Langerud is the associate dean of career services at the University of Iowa College of Law.

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The University of Iowa College of Law


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