Deborah Schneider Author Gives No-Nonsense Advice

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In fact, Schneider, who co-wrote the book with journalist Gary Belsky, was guilty of that herself as a student at Washington University School of Law.

"I began to realize there was a need for this book on my third day of law school, when I realized how little I knew about the legal profession and what it was to be a lawyer," she said. "I saw how typical it was for students to come into law school without ever having spoken to a lawyer or having worked in a legal environment. That was very common among my classmates."

Schneider graduated from law school in 1999. She has worked in public interest law and political advocacy and has served as Associate Director for Career Development at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Q: What are some of the worst reasons for going to law school?

There's a combination of people relying on what we call rules of thumb. "I like to talk, so I'll be a good lawyer." Or "I like to argue, so I'll be a good litigator." Or "I don't know what I want to do, and I don't want to look for a job, so I'll go to law school." It's a combination of reasons like that, but also not doing any research into what lawyers actually do.

Q: What questions should prospective students ask themselves before committing to law school?

The first one is "Why am I really thinking about law school?" Are you thinking about law school because you have some real knowledge about the legal profession and it's something you'd enjoy doing? Or are you thinking about it as a default option?

Then look at the question of what the law school experience is all about. That includes what the academic experience entails, what the psychological experience is of being a law student. And most importantly, how much money is law school going to cost you? When you take into account loans and interest rates, what's the total cost of your legal education really going to be? I've met so many law students who don't actually do the math.

The other question to look at is "What am I passing up to go to law school? Are there any other life experiences I want to have or other careers I want to explore?"

People often say, "I'm going to law school because I want to keep my options open." Usually that means "I don't know what I want to do." Okay, if you graduate from law school with $90,000 in debt, are you going to feel like you have more options or fewer options?

Q: Do graduates often overlook all the options within the law itself?

Unfortunately, yes, that does happen. If you go into law school without some knowledge about the different types of legal options that are available, it's easy once you're a law student to get so bogged down in your coursework. The academic demands can be so time-consuming. I frequently encounter students who have said they don't have time to explore all these options. As a result, they might be likely to take whatever job comes along or follow the lead of their classmates. If they see all their classmates looking for law firm jobs, they might use that as a shortcut and just pursue those jobs.

Q: What can they do to ensure they find the right job?

The key is starting as early as possible. Ideally, you'd start to have informational interviews, read some books about different types of career options in the law. Start that process before law school, before you get really busy with your coursework. Once you've started law school, using your law school's career services office is very important. I've met a lot of students who've never set foot in there until the end of first, second, third year&nmdash;or even after they've graduated. It's so important to get in there early to meet with a career counselor who can help you assess what your interests are and what type of work environment and job is going to be a good fit for you. Read books and look at websites that have descriptions of different types of legal jobs and career paths. Use your school's alumni network to set up informational interviews with lawyers in all types of jobs. That's the most valuable source of information&nmdash;talking to attorneys and going out and doing internships or getting some volunteer experience.

Q: What advice do you have for practicing attorneys who have hit a slump?

For attorneys who are questioning whether they're in the right job or even in the right career, the first step is to do an assessment of where you're at. In your current job, what's working and what's not working for you? What do you like and dislike about it? That can give you a starting point to see if there's a way to be happier in your current job. Is there another role you want to play within your organization, or is it time to look elsewhere?

There are a lot of mental obstacles that come up when attorneys are thinking about changing jobs or careers. The biggest one is what we call the sunk-cost fallacy, which is "I'm not happy in this job, or I'm not happy in law; but I've invested so much time and money and energy that I don't want to throw all that away." The problem with that is you're making decisions based on what you've done in the past as opposed to what will make you happy in the future. So another step is to look at those mental obstacles that might be keeping you stuck in a job or career that isn't right for you.

Washington University School of Law


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