Five Bad Reasons for Applying to Law School

Five Bad Reasons for Applying to Law School©2010 Paul R. Kennedy

For ten years I was the Dean of Students at Boalt Hall, the law school of the University California, Berkeley.  During that time, several thousand students consulted with me about a wide variety of matters, including why they were in law school and what they might do with a law degree after graduation.

One of the recurring topics for discussion raised by first-semester 1Ls in particular had to do with the student’s reasons for coming to law school.  As you know, if you have spent any time talking with your friends, family, or colleagues about your own desires or intention to apply to law school, there are as many reasons to do so (or not to do so) as there are potential law school applicants.

I heard from numerous students the following bad reasons for their having applied to and decided to attend law school:

  • My parents are lawyers and they want me to follow in their footsteps. (Another version of this: one of my parents is a lawyer and s/he wants me to follow in her/his footsteps.)
  • My parents aren’t lawyers but always wanted one in the family and I got picked for the role. (Another version:  One of my parents isn’t a lawyer but always wanted to be one, and so on and so forth.)
  • I want/need to make a lot of money and I know I can ace law school, go to a big firm, and become a zillionaire in no time.
  • I’m about to graduate from college and can’t figure out what to do next.  My best friend told me I would make a great lawyer so I decided to apply to law school.
  • I have always loved to argue and I know that lawyers spend most of their time in court, arguing with other lawyers and the judge.  (Another version: I was in a mock trial and won the case so I think I would make a great litigator.)

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong about any one of these “reasons” playing a role in your decision to apply to law school.  We all make important life decisions spurred by a variety of complex motivations and impulses and it’s often difficult to sort them out and make sense of them.

So, the fact that your parents (or other loved ones) think you should follow in their footsteps and go to law school isn’t per se bad, it just shouldn’t be your primary reason for applying to law school.  You should be applying to law school because YOU want to, because YOU understand fully what awaits you.

The same is true in cases where a parent or parents want their child to do something they themselves didn’t do about which they have regrets, like go to law school.  You can’t relive your parents’ lives and should not be making decisions as far-reaching as applying to law school just because your parents did not do so when they might have had the chance.  My response to dozens of students who came to me with this issue was: Most law schools love to receive applications from older, second-career applicants, so tell your parents (or parent) to apply to law school themselves, while you might decide to return to your career as a dancer, massage therapist, historian, or carpenter.

No one should ever make a life-altering decision just because of the promise of monetary rewards at the other end.  Now it is obvious that as you begin to design your career path you certainly want to include in the mix matters that touch on your ability to support yourself and your family, to give back to your parents and community, to provide yourself with some of the perks of life that perhaps you have not enjoyed.  But deciding to apply to law school simply because you think being a lawyer will make you rich is totally wrong-headed.  Remember: the three years of law school will likely create thousands of dollars of debt for you, so right off the bat any salary you are able to earn after graduating will be seriously eaten into by those monthly payments to your lenders.  Beyond that, at this point in your law school career (in other words, before you’ve even started), you cannot know how well you will do, and whether you will even want to join a large firm or be invited to do so.  Outside of the 250 law firms collectively known as “big law,” the vast majority of attorneys in the United States earn very comfortable salaries, but are not millionaires by any stretch of the imagination.  Law school is simply too demanding and challenging a three-year experience for you to undertake it simply because you want to be rich.

Not knowing what you want to do next after your graduation from undergraduate should lead you anywhere but law school.  Law school as a default is a terrible idea.  Law school involves three very intense, very challenging, often very humbling years of hard, unremitting work and to start down that path, which will also cost you $100,000 or more, just because you don’t know what to do next is simply not the best choice for you.  And if your friend thinks you would be a good lawyer, that’s nice, but even if your friend is a lawyer, her or himself, that is not enough of a motivator for you to apply to law school.

A talent for argumentation, an attraction for getting the last lick in, a track record in mock trial are all very well, but the vast majority of lawyers do not use such skills in their professional lives, and even those who do spend more time out of court conferencing, conversing, and communicating than they do arguing in front of a judge or jury.  Even if your mock trial trainer tells you that you have everything it takes to be a great lawyer, that’s not enough.

Applying to law school and spending three years training to be a lawyer are serious steps that require serious decision-making.  There are so many elements that go into these decisions, and ultimately you are the person who needs to feel absolutely comfortable making them.

In the future, I will be discussing a number of “good” reasons for applying to law school, in order to help you decide if this is the path for you.

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