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Should You Go to Law School? The Drawbacks and the Positives

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There are so many erroneous judgments floating about law school, that project it as something very difficult and that many students drop out after the first few months. This misbelieve has raised many questions in the minds of the students. Should we go for it or should we opt for so some other course?

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Let's address this very legitimate question many of you may have. Should you go to law school? Of course, that's a question only you can answer, but this article will tell you in basic terms what a law degree can do for you.

First - forgive the apparent truism - it will let you practice law. Although it is still possible in a few states to be admitted to the bar by virtue of work experience, this is not a realistic possibility. If you wish to practice law, you must have a degree.

This implies an even more basic question. Do you want to practice law? The answer to this is to become aware about the rewards and drawbacks of the various types of legal practice in this country.

A second question to consider is what kind of law school can you realistically expect to get into, and how will that affect your future career plans?

Once you complete your degree, obviously you’ll want to practice. But where and how? It is important to know the types Of Practice options that are available to you.

Wall Street Firms

The name "Wall Street" - that very short avenue in Manhattan-is used not out of any geographic chauvinism, but rather because throughout the profession the term "Wall Street-type firm" has come to mean a large, more or less prestigious law firm representing major U.S. and foreign corporations, whether on LaSalle Street in Chicago, Market Street in San Francisco, or any other street in a city's financial district. These firms are usually very large - while most of them employ around 200 attorneys, some have more than 600. They specialize in the most sophisticated legal services available anywhere in the world, and charge their clients around $1,000 an hour for their services (and even more for specialized work).

The litigation handled by these firms is often massive. Huge corporate lawsuits may last seven, eight, even nine years from the time the suit is originally filed until the date it is ultimately resolved. On the non-litigation side of the business, these firms represent their clients in multimillion-dollar business transactions, orchestrating corporate acquisitions and takeovers, issuing stocks and bonds, or lending billions of dollars.

The Wall Street firm is segmented into specialty groups: litigation, corporate, real estate, trusts and estates, and sometimes such specialties as antitrust, entertainment, labor, admiralty, aviation, and food and drug law.

A partnership is the usual business structure of these firms (as opposed to, say, a corporation), which means that there are a number of owners (the "partners"), who both manage the firm and are responsible to the clients for the legal work.
The employed attorneys are called "associates." Associates spend most of their first year or so doing research for partners or senior associates on a wide variety of legal questions, often rotating from one department to another. They also write simple legal documents or - more likely-small portions of very complicated documents, proof read, carry partners' files for them on business trips, oversee the mechanical aspects of getting documents in proper form, and in general serve as assistants whenever needed.

The next logical question that follows, is the work interesting? It can be, especially if you like the challenge of library research or the excitement of being a part of a multimillion-dollar international business transaction. In the whole, however, much of an associate's work can be dreadfully dull. And the hours can be excruciating - an associate may have to work through the night, 24 hours straight, on occasion.

But there are compensations. First, you won't be enduring drudgery for long. In a few years, you'll be doing small deals of your own. Second, you'll be paid a great deal of money. First-year associates in Manhattan were making money in six figures and if you're at all capable, that figure will rise appreciably every year.

It used to be that an attorney would be hired either out of law school or from another firm and after about eight years' experience he or she would be evaluated by the partners with an eye toward inviting that attorney to join the firm as a partner. While this procedure is still generally true, changes in the economy and in the mentality of firms have given rise to different systems.

Sometimes, if an associate is not asked to become partner, that attorney is given the option of staying on as a permanent associate. Some firms are experimenting with a tiered partnership arrangement, which confers varying rights and responsibilities on different levels of partners. Some attorneys are hired with the understanding that they are not interested in competing for a partnership slot. The formula for making partner is complicated and largely unwritten. Among the factors tossed into the hopper are:
  • Legal knowledge and experience
  • Compatibility with fellow partners
  • Area of specialty
  • Ability to bring business into the firm
  • Relationship with clients
  • Certain social graces (although firms may deny using this criterion)
If you do make it to partner, you'll very likely find yourself in a job that will pay you well over the year and will get you home by seven or eight every evening, leaving some although not all-weekends free. Wall Street-type firms have also been a breeding ground for politicians. If you have your eye on the White House or Capitol Hill, it can do you no harm to start making contacts through a major law firm.

Small Urban Firms

Wall Street-type firms represent the major corporations and banks in this country. But many corporations and individuals can't afford their services and don't need their high-power legal talent. It is the small law firms located in or near cities that service such clients.

The nature of the work is similar to that of the larger firms-mostly corporate law and litigation-although small urban firms tend not to do much of the large antitrust, tender offer (a type of corporate acquisition), and financing work of the larger firms. But the principles are the same; only the scope is smaller. Like the large firms, these have partners and associates (generally between 20 and 100 attorneys altogether). Your chances for becoming a partner will probably be somewhat better at a smaller firm because there is more room to expand. In many smaller firms, hours tend to be shorter, but the pay is less than at the large firms. And you won't have the abundant support staff and technology (computers, libraries, and continuing education programs, for instance) that large firms provide.

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These smaller firms tend to offer more personal or individual legal services (wills, trusts, divorces, personal injury ad vice and litigation, and house and condo closings, for instance) than larger firms. If you wish to specialize in one of these areas, a smaller urban firm might be for you.

One- or Two-Attorney Practices

Law offices with one or two attorneys have largely gone the way of general practice physicians (the ones who used to make house calls, remember?). Certainly in the areas of general corporate law, financing law, and large litigation, an individual attorney cannot hope to compete with a large firm-the cost of the support equipment and staff is prohibitive. But apart from such areas of practice, an attorney who is able to build up a clientele (or take over an existing clientele from a retiring attorney) can establish a successful practice.

Don't count on a huge income, and don't expect the hours to be shorter. Solo lawyers work very hard, and because their clients are usually working people, conferences are often held at night and on weekends. Moreover, if you're the only one running the show, vacations present obvious problems. Solo practitioners who specialize in litigation also find themselves spending much time doing nonproductive (and, therefore, nonrevenue-producing) tasks, such as sitting around the courthouse waiting for calendar calls.

Still many people are quite attracted to the notion of having their own practice, and there are several young attorneys who, after a few years of practice with a large firm, begged or borrowed money to hang out their shingle. They specialize in landlord-tenant law, residential real estate, immigration law, and divorces. After a brief period of struggle, they now have solid client bases and, although they don't entertain at Maxim's or Lutece, have sufficient job satisfaction so that they consider themselves more than adequately compensated.

Government Law Practice

Federal, state, and city governments hire many attorneys. The most visible of these are, of course, the prosecuting attorneys who represent the state or federal government in criminal actions. Probably nowhere will you get as much trial experience as quickly as by prosecuting criminal cases.

These lawyers (called "state's attorneys," "district attorneys," or "attorneys general") usually have their choice of specializing in trials or appellate argument.

What then are the drawbacks? There is a “burn-out factor" among these lawyers. Beyond a certain time, usually four or five years, the rewards and learning benefits are outweighed by the low income and lack of variety in the job. Finally, prosecuting jobs are extremely competitive. District attorney’s offices are flooded with applications for the openings and there could be as many as 10 attorneys vying for a single opening. And many of those seeking the jobs were top graduates from prestige schools.

The state's attorney's office and the U.S. attorney's office are not limited to handling criminal cases. They, along with attorneys working for specialized agencies in the state and federal system, also handle civil suits involving the government as a party. For instance, a contractor enters a contract with the state to build a road, but doesn't complete the job on time. The state-just like any individual or business - can sue for this breach. But this isn't a criminal matter; it's a civil lawsuit, and the state will be represented by one of its own attorneys in this action.

To give you an idea of the variety of governmental legal jobs and how they relate to individual functions of government, consider these departments in which you, a young attorney, seeking a job with New York State, might practice:
  • Criminal prosecution
  • Civil rights
  • Antitrust
  • Consumer fraud protection
  • General litigation
  • Trusts and estates
  • Labor
  • Mental hygiene
In addition to these you might choose the legal office of a specific agency of the state: the Department of Taxation and Finance, the Environmental Conservation Department, the Secretary of State's office, or the Department of Insurance.


All large corporations and many small ones employ attorneys in their corporate legal departments, supervised by the company's general counsel, or chief attorney. The rising cost of outside legal services and the fact that much corporate law is straightforward have led to the recent growth of such departments.

In companies with small legal departments the legal staff serves as liaison between the company's executives and the outside law firm and does the simpler legal work. In large departments, the corporate attorneys do the bulk of the company's legal work and rely on outside counsel only for specialties-antitrust matters, tender offers, bond offers, stock issuances, and large litigation. In-house attorneys, as they are called, are well paid - they earn less than Wall Street lawyers, but receive more in perks: stock options, profit sharing plans, and retirement plans.

In-house counsel jobs are also good springboards from which to move into management of the corporation itself. The major problem with this type of practice is that it can be dreadfully routine; the good, challenging work gets farmed out to firms. There will also be fewer opportunities to go to court. And, if you go directly from school to a corporation, you will be less professionally mobile than if you first work in a law firm. In other words, it is difficult to go from a corporation to a prestige firm, but easy to do the opposite. It is, in fact, quite common for associates who are not chosen to be partners to leave their firms and take a job with a corporation client they had been representing.

A final disadvantage is that legal departments in corporations are structured on the pyramid principle. There is one boss-the general counsel. If you are ambitious, you're going to find yourself standing in line with maybe 30 other ambitious, talented lawyers, waiting for that job to open up. A law firm, on the other hand, can simply grow to accommodate new partners.

Public Service

By public service it does not mean politics, but rather a legal career with a nonprofit organization or other group dedicated to the benefit of the public or a particular segment of society. Some of these organizations have a specific purpose other than providing legal services for their members (e.g., the NAACP or Planned Parenthood). Others function solely as a mechanism to provide legal help to those who need but can't afford it (such as the Legal Aid Society).

To give you an idea of what public interest law is, consider the New York Legal Aid Society, which employs hundreds of full-time attorneys. Examples of the services provided to more than 200,000 persons each year are the following: class-action suits contesting the failure of city agencies to provide the poor with adequate emergency housing and assistance in locating permanent housing, child custody cases, challenges to the denial of social services and benefits, consumer protection litigation, and defending indigents accused of crimes.

The pros and cons of these jobs are obvious: superb experience as each Criminal Division Legal Aid lawyer gets to handle hundreds of cases. Moreover, the spiritual rewards of working for a cause that you believe in. The negatives are the low pay and the limited potential these jobs have as long-term careers.

You should also be aware of a couple other aspects of these jobs, one bad and one good. First, they're not easy to come by. Even in Manhattan, where overhead is as high as in any city in the country, young lawyers-many of them top graduates from prestige schools-are standing in line for such jobs. Funding cutbacks have hit public service legal programs particularly hard.

Second, on a more positive note, although the work may sound unimportant, public service attorneys have traditionally been on the cutting edge of making major changes in American society. Often, it is not a Wall Street firm but a young public service attorney who takes on a case that re defines the U.S. Constitution and safeguards personal freedoms. It is entirely conceivable that even as a newly admitted attorney you might find yourself arguing a case before the Supreme Court, an honor very few Wall Street partners have had.

Keep in mind that if you're a public-spirited sort but find a public service career financially beyond your means, all large firms offer their attorneys a chance to take on cases of a "pro bono" nature (from the Latin pro bono publico-"for the public good"). These are, in effect, charity cases taken on by firms for free. (Don't worry-you'll still get your paycheck; the law firm foots the bill!)

Non Legal Careers

What if you don't intend to practice law? Should you still go to law school? This question isn't as curious as you may think. 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 extremely high. 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 much more than you had bargained for.

If you practice law at a medium-sized or large firm, this expense will be recouped fairly quickly. Setting aside such factors as inflation or tax differentials, in about three or four years you will have recouped the cost of your education.

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.

The Quality Of Your School

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 one of the many small Correspondence Law Schools.

The Myth of the Prestige School

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.

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 todays inflated marketplace-just about write your own ticket. If you attend a local, non-prestige law school and do very well (top 10 per cent), 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 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 smaller law schools, 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 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, only then write out that non-refundable application fee check.

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