P.J. Podesta

Freelance Editor and Writer; Project Facilitator at Eskolta School Research and Design

Before You Go to Law School

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Image: American law digests

It’s been well over a year since I almost went to law school. When I look back on that time, I tend to shake my head and exhale in relief. The word “saga” comes to mind. I can barely believe that I managed not to go.

Out of a sense that I should “make progress” toward some goal, and that that goal should have something to do with political change, I had taken the LSAT and done well. Then, very much on the fence about whether I should actually go to law school, I applied, figuring I should try to give myself the option in case going turned out to be a good idea.

In terms of what economists call search cost (the cost of the time spent searching for a product or service), the process of considering law school was immensely expensive. Over the course of some years—culminating in a five-month period of obsessive questioning during which I was admitted to several “top 10” schools before deciding against attending altogether—I spent countless hours thinking, discussing, and reading about whether to go.

And while the process of considering law school didn’t leave me with a legal education, nor a degree (nor crushing debt … huzzah!), it did leave me with some insight that may be helpful to others mulling this option.

Get the Lay of the Land.

An unhelpfully large number of essays and articles can be found on whether to go to law school. Take time to read some of the latest commentary, whether you’re aiming for Yale or a small regional school. Recently, for example, Slate bucked the prevailing trend of anti-law-school pieces by proclaiming “Apply to Law School Now!,” citing improving employment trends in the legal market. Not surprisingly, many objected strongly, including Above the Law, which offered a snarky rewrite of the Slate piece and linked to an April 2014 report by Law School Transparency, which said that “analysis of class of 2013 data collected by the American Bar Association sheds considerable light on how difficult the job market remains for law school graduates.”(Slate responded.) For school-by-school information, Law School Transparency offers a breakdown of basic statistics by institution, including alumni employment numbers.

Somewhat more timeless is the 2012 book Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), by Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado. A fellow lawyer has generously condensed the book into a flow chart, which walks the potential law student through a series of prompts, all with the aim of disabusing the prospective student of his/her misassumptions and clarifying what law school really leads to. I wasn’t aware of the book when I was considering law school (and the flow chart didn’t exist yet), but reading it might have been all I needed to make my decision.

Easily the most fascinating thing I read during my inquiry was Dean Spade’s essay For Those Considering Law School. Spade, an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law, splashes cold water in the face of the naïve, bleeding-heart, would-be lawyer via a series of potent indictments of U.S. legal education and practice. Among them:

U.S. law is fundamentally structured to establish and uphold settler colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism—the legal system will not dismantle these things. When we look at any radical movement in the U.S. that wants to dismantle these things, … we can see that those movements’ most transformative demands were/are never met by law, and instead that law changes are usually created to maximize the preservation of the status quo while adding a window-dressing of fairness. Even when we win law change that looks like it is supposed to guarantee the redistribution of some essential thing, that law is always quickly eliminated, or never enforced, or twisted through administrative or judicial interpretation to do the reverse.

By the end of Spade’s piece, the die-hard corporate-lawyer-to-be will either be asleep or adrenalized. Meanwhile the bleeding hearts will have their work cut out for them if they still want to argue that they should go to law school. For any reader the piece is an exercise in turning U.S. legal education and practice upside-down.

Talk to Those Who Know.

During an informational visit to the Department of Justice, a lawyer, perhaps in his early 30s, all but outright told me that although the position he held—prosecuting polluters on behalf of the federal government—was extraordinarily difficult to obtain, he didn’t much like it. In truth, he said, the best way to make a positive environmental impact would be to pursue work in clean tech.

After several conversations with lawyers who held highly coveted jobs in nonprofit and public environmental practice, I was left feeling tepid, at best, about the idea of doing their day-to-day work, which basically seemed to be drudgery on behalf of a distant but good cause.

But even if I ruled out the work itself, I still faced yet another argument in favor of going to law school. That argument would later be exposed in conversation with a former college classmate who was at Harvard Law School and was, like myself, planning to avoid corporate law. About his experience at Harvard, he said: “I can't convey how unbelievably powerful the corporate funnel is—it operates not only based on norms and expectations, but also (and perhaps predominantly) out of fear. Fear of money, of failure, of debt. There is so much fear in law school and the legal profession.”

I talked with him about what sorts of opportunities there were after law school for people who wanted to do interesting work for good causes. (Essentially, he said that it was possible to find such opportunities, but that there was immense pressure in law school not to pursue a nontraditional path.) We discussed legal training itself, which I had always thought I would find interesting. (In spite of “the corporate funnel,” he said he was enjoying the education.)

Most important, however, was a simple question he asked: What was I interested in doing?

I had been asked that so many times before. But speaking with a peer who was of a similar inclination against Big Law and was “on the ground” at one of the best law schools in the country (one where I still had some small chance of being admitted; I would later be waitlisted before withdrawing), it was as if I was speaking to myself in some alternate reality. And so it was useless to pretend. I don’t recall precisely how I answered his question. I might have said something vague about being interested in “creative” or “entrepreneurial” work for a good cause. What I do remember is that whatever I said had little to do with being a practicing lawyer.

All that was left after the conversation was the idea that I would go to a “top” school primarily for the feather in the cap, and, secondarily, for the education itself.

From there, the trick was in fending off the allure of prestige that flared up when I imagined having a shiny new law degree. It’s hard to overstate just how tantalizing that “feather in the cap” can be. But for me, the prestige, the education, the possible future careers, plus my particular financial circumstances and school opportunities (to be direct: rejected from Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley, waitlisted at Harvard and Columbia, admitted to U. Chicago, New York University, the University of Virginia, and other schools), weren’t enough to make me want to forego the world of all other possibilities.

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