Law school is a large investment. Whether that’s an investment in time, money, or both, it can be scary to figure out if this is the next step you should be taking in your career. Thankfully, there are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if law school makes sense for you, whether that’s now or in the future!
Your “why law?”
I strongly suggest students take some time to figure out what issues they want to be a part of solving in the world and work to really drill down their “why law?” It’s important to have a general idea about your passions. So ask yourself: What’s driving me toward law school? Try to be a bit more specific with yourself than just equality, equity, justice for all, and/or marginalized communities. Instead of saying, “I want to help marginalized communities,” consider:
- “I want to help marginalized communities with housing issues.”
- “I want to help marginalized communities as they relate to the criminal justice system.”
- “I want to help marginalized communities as they relate to food deserts and basic needs.”
- “I want to create and reform health care policy for marginalized communities.”
A lot of students may feel they know in their gut that they want to attend law school, but they don’t know what kind of law they want to practice. If this is you, that’s okay! You don’t have to have a completely mapped-out plan right now. You have time to explore, change your mind, and be inspired by the courses you’ll take while in law school. However, if you have a specific goal going into law school, it’ll not only help you in your applications but also in your law school career.
Your law school plan
Your specific “why law?” will help motivate you in those moments you feel overwhelmed or discouraged your first year. And while everyone takes the same classes the first year, after that, you're mostly on your own. Some schools will have an evidence requirement or may strongly suggest you take a certain class, but other than that, you have to craft the courses, clinics, and internships to give you and your career the best leverage. Without a solid plan going into law school, you may not make the best strategic decisions in seeking out the opportunities you need on your résumé to land a job after graduation. If you’re intentional about the area of law you’re interested in, you’ll have some practical experience on your résumé, showing future employers tangible policy or direct-service work experience.
Other questions to ask yourself
There are questions you should ask yourself to determine if the legal career path makes sense for you before you invest your time and resources applying to law school.
What are your academics strengths and interests?
First, you should take a hard look at your academic strengths and desires. As a lawyer, you’ll be doing a lot of research, writing, and reading. If these aren’t your strengths now, that’s okay, but you want to make sure these are academic areas you’re willing to strengthen and pursue.
If you don’t like to write, you hate research, and reading isn’t fun, law school is going to be really difficult for you. In law school, you fully invest yourself in legal questions until you come up with a suitable answer. Whether you're a litigation attorney, a corporate attorney, or trying to advocate and find a loophole for a client, you’ll read a lot of case law. You’ll need to understand and research what the precedents are and what the legal jurisprudence is on a topic and come to your own conclusion, being able to back it up with other cases you're researching. Research is so important that one of the first classes you’ll take in your first year is legal research and writing. Many law schools also have advanced legal research and advanced legal writing available in your second and third years if you feel like you need more practice.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be interested in public speaking to be a lawyer. On television, we see a lot of trial lawyers and courtroom dramas. This can lead to the misconception that a bulk of what a lawyer does is make impassioned speeches. But even trial lawyers and debaters need to conduct heavy research and have strong reading and writing skills. There are also so many different types of lawyers, many of whom spend their time writing motions or briefs or drafting documents or contracts rather than engaging in public speaking and arguing cases out loud.
What experiences do you have?
You don’t need to have legal experience to apply to law school. However, if you’re trying to figure out if the law is for you, getting some firsthand experience is a great way to figure out if you’re interested in the field. High school or college internships are a great way to figure out if you actually like the work of being a lawyer. Even if you're not working at a legal internship, there are ways to get experience in the field.
Let's say you think you want to do criminal law, but you have no experience in criminal law. Try to volunteer for a prison project or find something that gets you tangentially adjacent to that world. Even if it's not a legal internship, there might be opportunities at a defender's office or a prosecutor's office. What can you do? What can you expose yourself to solidify your passion for this area or topic? One thing I really encourage students to do is see what they want to do, see who is doing that, and then look at that person’s LinkedIn profile and work backward. What did this person do? What was their first legal job? This might be helpful to get a sense of the arc of a legal career and the different paths you can take.
What kind of work/life balance do you want?
We so rarely consider the logistics and work/life balance of the potential careers we want, but it’s important to understand that most attorneys don’t have traditional 9-to-5 hours. You should think about what kind of hours you want to work and what things you want to be able to do outside of your professional life. Most big (and even some small) law firm jobs require attorneys to work more than 40 hours per week to hit the required billable hours. It’s not uncommon to work late more than a few times per week, to work over the weekend, or to come to court early. Every firm is different, so this isn’t a hard rule, but longer hours can typically be expected in your first year. However, there are a lot of government attorney jobs that do have more of a 9-to-5 set schedule.
Another thing to consider is workplace. What kind of working environment do you want? Do you want to have a team feeling where you're collaborating on projects and cases? Do you want to have more of a traditional arrangement with a direct supervisor and independent work? How much do you want to feel like you're able to move up in your career? These are some of the things you need to consider when you're looking at the types of legal career environments you could thrive in.
You don’t have to practice law with a JD
Often, students want to know if it’s still worth getting a Juris Doctor (JD) degree if they know they don’t want to practice law. Really investigate what your passion and drive for going to law school is. A Law degree does open doors, but you don’t want to go to law school just in case it may open a door. That’s a huge investment of your time and money for a hypothetical. However, there are some great consulting, business, accounting, and other corporate jobs that are JD preferred, even though they don’t require the practice of law. JD preferred means they prefer candidates who have a legal background, legal training, understanding of case law, and the ability to write policy and draft important documents. They want someone with these skills, even though it's not something you must be a barred attorney for. Having a JD for some jobs will also allow you to advance in your career faster. For example, there are many consulting firms that value the background, experiences, and skills gained in law school. There are also finance and compliance jobs that offer higher pay for a candidate with a Law degree. In terms of compliance, you can also look into higher education compliance like Title IX compliance or insurance work.
There are well over 30 different areas of law you can practice, and some might speak more to you than others. To answer the question “Is law school right for me?”, you also need to ask yourself: What are the areas I want to effect change in? If you start with this main question, you’ll find yourself with more clarity, insight, and direction as to what the next best move is for your future career.
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