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Before you send in your law school deposit, read this…

By July 3, 2012 No Comments
By Ben Sands – For additional insights, tools, and leadership resources, click here

Readers of Regret Free Life know that I set a pretty high bar for clients who want to go to any sort of graduate school:

Some of you have asked and answered these questions in a convincing manner.  You want the graduate degree for all the right reasons. Go. Give it hell. Make the world a better place.   

Others, well, you still want to go – but for far less convincing reasons.  You’re not alone. The reason: you still simply don’t know what you want.

The decision on whether to go or not to go to graduate school – like every other choice we encounter throughout our life – is essentially this: Will it make me happy?

Happiness, as I define it: the ability to meet our needs for certainty, uncertainty, significance, love, growth and contribution at a high-level, in a positive way.

Will an MBA, JD, PhD, Masters…get you there?  That’s the last question to consider as you decide in favor, or against, going to grad school. Complicating this analysis however, is that there tends to be a marked difference between life in graduate school and life after.

Let me explain using law school as the example…

LIFE IN LAW SCHOOL

  • Certainty: For the next 3 years you know what you will be doing…and, an added value, you know that the school itself will be working to ensure that your peace-of-mind continues after you receive your J.D. as well.
  • Uncertainty: This may be the hardest need to meet but, hell, the recent healthcare debate has made even “Con” (Constitutional) Law a little more interesting.  In addition, there’s always the uncertainty of whether or not you are smart than the guy/gal sitting next to you to keep you going.
  • Significance: You’re an f-ing law student!  Bill Clinton was a law student at one point…so were Roberts, Scalia and Ginsberg!  First master of the law, next master of the universe!  Right?  Well, maybe not, but at least your parents and grandparents are still proud as hell.
  • Community/Love: An easy one…three years of self-afflicted suffering and poverty is a helluva human adhesive. If you’re married, and one of you isn’t in law school, you’ve got an extra degree of difficulty here.
  • Growth: Learning – about torts, taxes, tribunals, etc – it’s why you’re in school in the first place. You’re also learning a bunch about yourself, too.  And, finally…
  • Contribution: Let’s hope so. These years spent in academic isolation was likely done in the name of preserving freedom, justice and equality for others…right?

THE VERDICT: While my descriptions have been a bit flippant, I mean it when I say that I understand why people go to law school…it’s an attractive environment of guided learning, growth and achievement. It’s a three-year hiatus from the “real” world; a short, but welcomed, break from the burden of achievement that most aspiring lawyers face until they get accepted to Harvard, Columbia or Yale.

But, here’s the cold water: that same analysis following grad school is a lot less compelling.

LIFE AFTER LAW SCHOOL

  • Certainty: This used to be the trump card…$160,000 starting salaries! Today, it’s anything but. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, post law school employment rates are at an 18-year low…with 86% percent of the graduating class of 2011 finding jobs.  But wait!  Only 55% of those folks were actually employed as lawyers 9 months after graduation. Yikes. $100,000 would buy you a lot of fancy resume paper.
  • Uncertainty: Well, the guys and gals with no jobs will have plenty of this…but how about the ones that did get accepted to Patton Boggs, Skadden Arps or Jones Day? (Incidentally, only 8% of the 2011 graduates are working for Big Law). What’s the forecast for adventure, excitement and variety?  Not much. This year, 2000 hours of your life are spoken for – and not just committed, tracked – per 1/10 of an hour.  Next year?  More of the same… If you’re on the partner track well, this pattern is one you will have to get used to.
  • Significance: I can’t answer this one.  I suspect it would feel good to say you are a lawyer at White & Case..until you walk through those steel and glass doors and you’re just like everyone else, except that you make less money and have no control over your time. Fortunately there will be a new crop of first year associates in twelve months…
  • Community: In working with countless lawyers who are in the process of transitioning out of the law – this is the need they most often tell me is not being met. As one of my clients related to me, the pressure to reach partner was such that he started to measure the opportunity to spend time with him family and friends against the opportunity to bill a few more hours.  Needless to say, that guy’s not going to be a lawyer for much longer.
  • Growth: This will happen.  For better or worse, all that time spent working in and on the law, will make you a better lawyer; a master. Assuming that you specialize in an area of great interest (e.g. international trade, tax, bankruptcy, etc) this could be a silver lining.
  • Contribution: So many young lawyers enter law school with a vision of serving and saving the world – contribution at the highest level.  Sadly, this can prove easier said, than done.  Ironically, even those who graduate from school with the financial freedom to work outside of corporate law find it hard to pursue their calling.

THE VERDICT: Life after law school is long.  A lot longer than life in it.  It doesn’t take away from the attractiveness of pursuing the degree – but it does lead me to conclude this: Only go to law school if you know – heart and soul – that you want to be a lawyer for a long time.  Of course there are other things you can do with a law degree – but then it becomes a question of strategy (see blog post #2) again. Do your odds of identifying and doing the thing or things which will make you most happy increase or decrease with $98,000 debt (the average for graduating lawyers)?

***********

Let me conclude with a short story shared with me by a friend who was considering going to medical school:

“Coming out of college I was one of those lost kids considering grad school, because I wasn’t sure what else to do with myself. 

In my case, I’d actually gotten accepted to medical school, and had my choice of locations. However, I was a nervous wreck.  I was already in debt from college, I was scared to death about taking on new debt for a career path that I wasn’t 100% sure about, and I was simultaneously convinced that if I didn’t got to med school, I’d be throwing away a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

I was utterly lost.

In the middle of this, I caught up with an old salty Duke professor who told me ‘if you aren’t sitting up at night, thinking about how great it will be to be a doctor, then you have no business going [to med school].  You won’t be any good at it, and your patients deserve better.’

You deserve better too.

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Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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