During the most recent college graduation season, many of us were probably approached by graduates asking if law school might be a good option for them. The answer to the question is probably more difficult to answer today than it has ever been.
On the one hand, the legal employment market has been challenging for some time and has been particularly challenging for graduates of lower tier law schools. This trend has even led to lawsuits against some law schools for failing to accurately disclose post-graduation employment statistics, a type of failure to warn claim. On the other hand, job satisfaction for young lawyers has been, somewhat paradoxically, actually rising during the same period of economic tumult. A recent survey of new lawyers (defined as lawyers in their first through seventh years of practice) showed that 76 percent of new lawyers were "extremely or moderately" satisfied with their decision to become a lawyer.
The survey was conducted by a group of academics as part of the "After the JD" project. Their information was gleaned from surveys of 4,000 young lawyers. Interestingly, the study found that young lawyers had a very high rate of both attrition (people leaving the law) and job turnover (changing jobs multiple times within a few years). And yet the satisfaction rate of those who remained in the law was relatively high compared to similar previous surveys.
So what to do when approached by the bright-eyed graduate seeking advice about applying to law school? The lessons from the recent trends confirms two things that we all know to be true: 1) Law school is not for everyone; and 2) the law can be a very satisfying job for some people. So the best advice you can give an individual contemplating law school is to do some serious self-analysis.
First, do you enjoy making other people's problems your own? When someone in your family or your circle of friends has a problem, do you inexplicably make that problem your own for no reason that you can think of? When was the last time someone you know had a real problem? How did you hear about it and what did you do to help?
The insight of this line of questioning is that the fundamental role of a lawyer is to be contacted by a complete stranger and, for some reason, to make that person's problem your own. If you think about it, this is a fundamentally unnatural act in many ways. We all have our own problems to deal with, why take on the problems of a complete stranger?
But wait, lawyers get paid, quite handsomely in some quarters, for taking on the problems of complete strangers. Why isn't it a sufficient qualification for attending law school that one is smart and a hard worker who enjoys being paid handsomely? Unfortunately, this might be the primary reasoning pointing many individuals towards the legal profession. No wonder they feel cheated and jaded at the end of law school when the promised pot of gold does not immediately materialize.
On the first day of law school, a particularly insightful law school dean said, "You can make a lot of money as a lawyer, but it's not a profession that you can do for the money." He then listed a litany of other ways that you could simply make money if you were so inclined, including banking or starting your own business. This is probably true. You really can't do this job just for the money, do it well, and be happy. Those of us who have enjoyed making a life in the law, have enjoyed the activity of helping people or organizations, or something else about the actual activity of the practice of law.
So next time you are approached by a prospective law student, encourage the student to ask the right questions. You might find it is a cause for self-reflection for the student and the lawyer alike. •