Should You Go to Law School?

Chronicle of Higher Education
January 25, 2004

Many doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences consider applying to law school when they get frustrated with academe. For some, it's a brief, cathartic fantasy; for others, it's a viable alternative to a weak academic job market.

A law career can be an excellent way to use the skills you learned in graduate school. But before you sign up for the LSAT, you need to ask yourself the right questions. Instead of "Do I want to go to law school?," you should be asking, "Do I want to be a lawyer?" There's an enormous difference between the two experiences, and you should know what to expect from a law career before you spend three years and $100K earning the degree.

To learn more about law careers, I asked two former academics who recently graduated from law school to offer their advice for doctoral students considering a similar switch. Both agreed to talk about their experience on the condition that I would not use their real names. Evan Wilson is a Ph.D. in the humanities who attended an Ivy League law school and works as an associate at a corporate tax firm. Lola Zachary left her humanities graduate program after two years, earned her law degree from a top-tier school this spring, and works as a clerk for a county judge.

Question: Why did you decide to leave academe?

Wilson: I had been on the academic job market six times and had only two interviews. I was no longer eligible for adjunct teaching, my long-term relationship was ending -- I hit bottom and I was desperate.

Zachary: I was disillusioned about grad school as an enterprise. I was completely unprepared for what the actual program entailed and was disappointed that it didn't match my expectations. I naively bought into the ivory-tower myth. In reality, the department was in bitter turmoil and the students were fiercely competitive. The last straw was the realization that the job market was appalling for Ph.D.'s.

Question: Why did becoming a lawyer appeal to you?

Wilson: Having a Ph.D., I still wanted to be in a learned profession. It had something to do with prestige, a lot to do with money, and a lot to do with not abandoning skills I had developed in grad school. Law seemed like the only career that would allow me to make money using skills I already had, such as reading comprehension. That was truer than I knew.

Zachary: When I left grad school, I moved to Washington, D.C., and found a job as a paralegal. I didn't have plans to go to law school -- the job was just a place to cool my jets before my next move. I was a paralegal for four years before I applied to law school. Paralegals are essentially a fancy combination of a legal secretary and a filing clerk. You do a lot of clerical work, including filing, copying, pulling models of agreements, reviewing documents, logging materials, etc.

Many people had suggested law school to me during that time, but I always fought it, thinking that the world didn't need another lawyer. Arguably, it still doesn't, but after talking with lots of attorneys in different areas, I realized that there are almost limitless possibilities with the degree.

Question: Did you research law careers before starting law school?

Wilson: Before I applied to law school, I got a job as a word processor at a big law firm in New York. It was a good way to see whether I could bear the life. Just at the time I was accepted to law school, my book of film criticism was accepted for publication. I was torn, but I knew that the life of a critic is difficult. I decided that I could do law during the day, and write film criticism in the mornings before work.

Zachary: The benefit of working as a paralegal was that it opened my eyes to a whole field of work that I don't want to do -- corporate law -- and pushed me toward exploring different areas of the law that I now love -- prosecution and litigation. Going to law school and being a lawyer are two completely different things, and working for a firm can give you a great idea of what the latter really means.

Question: What was your experience in law school?

Wilson: The weirdest part of law school was being back in a classroom where I was not only not in charge, but I was also the stupidest, most ill-prepared person in the room. Most of my classmates were 15 years younger than me, and most had friends who had already gone through the program. They knew things I didn't, such as which classes were helpful for the bar exam. Also, some classes are identical from year to year and you can get a complete course outline from students who've already taken the course. There's a culture in law school that it's helpful to understand. I wasted a lot of time doing unnecessary work.

Zachary: Law school is completely different from grad school. In my graduate program, at least, everything was much fuzzier. Lots of "What do you think? What do you feel? What was the author trying to say?" In law school, it's much more concrete, much more structured. You need to be prepared every day, and you can't fake it. You have to be on the ball much more than in grad school. And you're in class more, which means more work.

Question: What area of the law interests you most, and why?

Wilson: I chose corporate tax almost by accident. I happened to get along with the corporate tax lawyers at my firm. They respect education, they're interested in books and opera -- I could talk to them. Corporate tax is a more bookish area of law; it's all about problem-solving according to an elaborate set of rules and precedents. You're not so much on the front line as other corporate lawyers are, which I like. It's more introverted.

Zachary: My favorite area of law is criminal prosecution. It's intense work, which a lot of corporate law is not. That has its benefits and drawbacks, obviously. You need to be very quick on your feet, know your law backwards and forwards, and be comfortable with public speaking.

The downside is that you can't really have an "off" day, and that a lot of the time your work is short-term. Criminal cases get pushed through relatively quickly, whereas litigation can take years. The upside is that you are putting together pieces of a puzzle and trying to figure out where the true story lies. You're dealing with people all the time, and people can be endlessly fascinating.

Question: Do you use any of the skills you learned in graduate school in practicing law?

Wilson: Research is the skill I use most. If you're a tax associate at a corporate law firm, for example, someone might say: "We want to know the tax treatment of auction proceeds." There are no clear precedents, so you've got to figure out how to search for relevant concepts in a legal database. As a graduate student, I worked through long projects on the basis of a logical research map -- that research experience was the most important skill I brought with me. Also, although I'm not at a level yet where my teaching skills are coming in handy, I hear that later, a lot of what you do is teach complex tax codes to clients.

Zachary: I didn't use many of my skills from grad school as a paralegal. The only thing that might have applied was teaching. An ability to express myself clearly came in very handy when dealing with support staff, vendors, clients, and especially junior associates.

Question: How much debt do you have from law school and how much money are you making now?

Wilson: My debt from law school is between $100,000 and $150,000. It's almost exactly equal to my first year's salary.

Zachary: I'm $56,000 in debt. I took out federal loans only, and had help from my family for the rest; otherwise, it would have easily been about $120,000. Since I'm only a law clerk this year, my salary isn't indicative of the legal market. I make somewhere between $40K and $45K. (Seriously, I can't remember. How ridiculous is that?) The jobs I'm applying to for next year only make between $50K and $70K. And the high end is only at a very few firms.

I went into law school knowing that the jobs that I was interested in (prosecution or smaller litigation firms) wouldn't pay the big bucks. I'm perfectly comfortable with paying back my debt way past the time I'm dead, since I will never be held hostage by a job simply for the money ever again. Life's too short, and all that jazz.

Question: If you did it all over again, would you still go to graduate school?

Wilson: I'm glad I have a Ph.D. because I care about reading books and understanding them, but for me, that's a private thing. I don't have a vocation for teaching. I prefer working in the legal world. I'm much happier here -- it's much more collegial than academe. I feel much more like people are pulling together. Academe had so many bitter fights over nothing.

Zachary: I don't really believe in changing anything. It sounds corny, but the road I took is the one I was supposed to take to get me here. If I finished my master's degree, instead of leaving without the degree, I might never have gone to law school. Working as a paralegal pushed me towards exploring different areas of the law that I now love.

Susan Basalla earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton University. She is co-author with Maggie Debelius of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001). She works as an editor at America Online and also conducts career workshops for graduate students.