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Should You Still Go to Law School If You Do Not Intend to Practice Law?

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Many people feel that a law degree will help them in business or politics. If you're thinking of a non-practicing career, consider the following:

Remember that the cost of a legal education is high. Tuition at prestige schools is hovering around $17,000 this year. Add to that the absence of income from the job you would have had if you had not gone to law school, and you can see that the ultimate cost of a legal education can be astronomical—perhaps as much as a $125,000.

Should you still go to law school, if you do not intend to practice law?

If you practice law at a medium-sized or large firm, this expense will be recouped fairly quickly. Say that your first job, at a medium-sized firm, pays $80,000, which is slightly less than this year's going rate on Wall Street and perhaps $45,000 more than your salary at the job you might have had if you'd started working right out college. Setting aside such factors as inflation or tax differentials, in about three or four years you will have recouped the cost of your education.

But let's say you go to law school at that cost of $125,000 and never practice, but work in a company where you get a slightly better Income (let's say $7,000 more a year) because of your law degree. It will take you roughly 15 or more years to recoup this expense. And if you become a sales manager or computer scientist or painter, you'll swallow the whole cost of that education.

However, let's say you're looking for some way to delay the inevitable—that moment when you have to get your first job and fly the nest. You think of law school and find a state college where tuition is nominal or your uncle, the late Judge Jones, leaves you $60,000 on condition that you use it for tuition.

Advantages of going to a law school

On a personal level, law school will give you an education in human nature and the mechanics of modern American society as no other course of study can. (In addition to being an attorney, I am a novelist of suspense fiction—murder mysteries—and I can say without qualification that my law school education was as valuable for that a vocation as all of the writing and literature courses I've ever taken.)

Simply surviving the three years will build up your confidence, get your analytical abilities in high gear, accustom you to thinking and speaking on your feet, and raise the eyebrows of the people you deal with both professionally and personally.
Very well and good. But nobody's going to plunk down 60 grand just for some insights into human nature, are they? What's the bottom line? This: If you plan to go into business for yourself or work for either a small company or a large one in an executive capacity, law school can provide you with invaluable information on business practices, taxation, and your rights and obligations in professional or corporate America. A one-semester course in business law, taught at a business school, cannot give you this kind of education.

If, on the other hand, you aim for, say, a selling career, financial analysis, medicine, stock brokerage, art, computer science, or engineering, it might be in your best interest to save the tuition money and get down to work doing what you want to do. Law will probably not help you sufficiently to justify the time and expense.

Law School Choice

Another factor affecting your decision to apply to law school is the quality of those schools that you realistically think you can get into or of those that do, in fact, accept you. The question comes down to this: Should you invest the time and money if the only school that will accept you is Sam's Correspondence

In few areas of education is the hierarchy of schools as evident as in law. Unabashed prejudices in favor of or against certain schools exist; you'll discover this as soon as you start the job interview process during your second or third year. Like all prejudices, of course, these are wildly subjective (preferring Harvard to Yale, for instance). Nor are they cast in stone. Just because a hiring partner is in love with Harvard (her alma mater), this does not mean that a Boston University grad will never get a job at that firm. I am speaking here about tendencies.

Any accredited law school will give you a sufficient education to qualify you to be a lawyer if you do the required work. Don't think that you can't practice law just because you didn't attend one of the top ten. Law is law; its principles operate independently of what is taught in school. (You will occasionally find, in fact, a prejudice against the prestige schools because they tend to neglect the nuts and bolts of practice in favor of a theoretical perspective.)

The reality is this: There are more graduates from law school than there are jobs for them. If you attend a prestige school and do very well, you can—even in today's inflated marketplace—just about write your own ticket. If you attend a local, non-prestige law school and do very well (top 10 percent), you will have much the same job opportunities-large firms, clerkships, attractive government jobs—as your prestige-school counterpart, but only in the area in which the school is located.

ABA-Approved Schools

One aspect of your selection of school is vitally important; whether the schools you are considering are approved by the American Bar Association. There are presently 176 law schools in this country approved by the American Bar Association and approximately 37 law schools that have not been approved. ABA approval status means that a graduate from that school meets the law school education requirements for admission to the bar in all states (there are other requirements for admission, of course, the bar exam being not the least). Graduating from a non approved school does not necessarily mean you cannot practice law. Some states permit non-ABA-approved-school graduates to sit for the bar exam in that particular state, but usually they are not permitted to take the exam in other jurisdictions.

It is vitally important to know whether the schools you are applying to are ABA-approved or not. If not, you should explore how attending such a school will affect your ability to practice law after graduation. Talk to the schools, the state bar association, and the board of bar examiners in the state in which the school is located.

The Grade Game

Well, what about those students who graduate from an approved school, but who have less-than-attractive academic records? Those who attended prestige schools are still going to get job offers from some big firms. Those who did not attend such schools will—if they have a reasonably good academic record—get offers from small firms and corporate legal departments. Those with low grades from local schools will sometimes look for a long time before they find their first job.

And when they do, it may not be in their preferred subject or locale. Therefore, if you are accepted only by Sam's Law School, you should plan to attend only if you are willing to work Like crazy to push yourself to the top of the class.

Get Off the Fence

Finally, keep in mind that your author is prejudiced (an "interested witness," a lawyer would say). Law is more than a job or a career. It gets into you; it makes absurd mental, emotional, and even physical demands on you. But it pays you very well, and it does so in whatever currency you want: money, excitement, fascination, the satisfaction of helping others. If you want a profession that is something you are, and not just something you do, then write out that non-refundable application fee check, stick it in the envelope sitting on your dresser and move on.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

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About Harrison Barnes

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