Why I Went to Law School and Did Not Practice Law
Every time I scroll through my LinkedIn news feed this time of year, I see an all too familiar type of post. A bubbly undergraduate student pictured in a cap and gown exuberantly announces that they are attending ___________ School of Law in the fall. The post usually amasses hundreds of likes from strangers across the internet cheering on this soon-to-be 1L.
Admittedly, every time I see one of these posts, I fight the urge to message the author something along the lines of, “Skip the tuition deposit, turn around, and do something else.”
My cynicism isn’t completely unfounded. After all, only 23% of law school grads actually think their law degree was worth the effort and costs. The rest face a mountain of student loans, excruciating careers, a poor work-life balance, and a high likelihood of substance abuse, to name a few job-related hazards.
Throughout my time in law school, I actually didn’t worry about most of these issues, even though several lawyer friends warned me of them before I took the LSAT. The people I spoke with during the law school application process all assured me that I would do great because I am a hard worker, but I couldn’t ignore the bags under their eyes, their pale skin, and their exasperated expressions. The conversations usually went something like this:
Me: “Hi, lawyer [friend/cousin/aunt/uncle], I am thinking about applying to law school. Do you think I should do it?”
Them: “Yes, well, no, well maybe. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
They never offered a definitive “YES!”
Granted, some of my friends graduated at a time when job offerings sank to an all-time low so that probably darkened their responses a bit. Plus, any warnings I received didn’t matter because at the time I wanted to advocate for immigrants and poor people in my community. I was willing to work tirelessly for people who deserved it.
So I grabbed my rolling book sack and embarked on what would be some of the most excruciating years of my life. I grinned through the coursework assigned by professors who used the Socratic method. I sacrificed family time to keep up with my classes, and I shined in national moot court competitions. It’s safe to say that law school had its peaks and valleys.
Ultimately, I am grateful for the experience, but there was something about becoming a traditional lawyer that never quite jived. I was doing everything right, but it didn’t feel right. I graduated and passed the bar, but something felt missing.
I have a few reasons why, and none of them have anything to do with my rolling book bag:
- Law school felt like high school.
From the moment I stepped on campus, I felt as though I had been transported to a scene from Mean Girls. No, I didn’t cut holes in my t-shirt to expose my bra or try to sabotage the Spring Fling, but I did want to fit in.
That’s because, from a social standpoint, there were definitely cliques. People who knew each other from undergrad formed impermeable clusters. Former fraternity brothers high-fived one another while checking out their female classmates. There were even mixers on Friday nights at college bars that ultimately ended with random hookups and the usual he-said, she-said drama. I kept my nose in my work, but I always found the environment peculiar, especially since we were in our early to mid-twenties.
Academically, law school was very cutthroat. Final exams were timed, everyone competed for the highest grades, and few people actually earned them. During class, people bragged about how much or how little they studied, and we sized each other up during the first semester. For a high-achiever with even higher levels of anxiety, this aspect of law school introduced new levels of stress that I had never felt before.
2. Attorney salaries vary.
Attorney salaries vary widely depending on the practice area. In states with the highest-paid lawyers, annual salaries range between $130k and $180k. While it’s easy for law schools to market these numbers, there’s a lot left out of the earnings sections of their brochures. For example, newly licensed assistant district attorneys earn a starting salary of about $51k, which varies from state to state. That’s hardly enough to live on while also paying roughly $160k in student debt.
3. Lawyer burnout rates have skyrocketed.
When law school started, professors and career coaches talked about high incidences of lawyer burnout. According to the American Bar Association, lawyers work an average of 53 hours per week. Biglaw associates, however, work upwards of 70 hours per week. It’s no surprise that lawyers struggle to achieve the ever-elusive work-life balance. Plus, dissatisfied lawyers report feeling burned out almost 75% of the time. That’s a lot of time spent exhausted.
This brings me to my career journey, which has several caveats of its own.
Before law school, I worked in public relations and I have always had a passion for communication. Law school was the perfect opportunity for me to sharpen my writing and speaking skills, so I worked for a nonprofit before becoming the Brand Manager at Zinda Law Group, a nationwide personal injury firm. I develop all aspects of the firm’s brand in an age where even Biglaw firms struggle to build brand recognition. I manage multiple projects simultaneously, translate legal jargon for the firm’s marketing team, and, most important, connect injured clients with experienced attorneys who can help them. I’m making a difference without the administrative processes personal injury lawyers have to deal with. I’m also the happiest I’ve ever been in any job.
I am a non-practicing lawyer but let me be clear: I work a lot. It takes a certain type of person to work in a personal injury firm. The work requires collaboration in a competitive environment. Being a personal injury lawyer is hard, and marketing personal injury lawyers keeps me on my toes. Plus, people hold a lot of misconceptions about personal injury lawsuits, which I have to address every day. My point is, there are other ways to help people as an attorney without following the traditional legal path.
In fact, I’m surprised by how many of my law school classmates have pursued alternative careers. Some of my fellow graduates became guidance counselors, content writers, professors, journalists, lobbyists, and more. All of these careers employ the same skills lawyers learn in law school. And, like law, these careers require a lot of passion and dedication.
If you plan to attend law school, or you’ve recently graduated and are considering alternative careers, take some time to map out what you want your workdays to look like. How do you want to feel at the end of the day, and who do you want to reach? Also, prepare for these answers to change moving forward. Law school prepares you for more than just one type of career, so remember that throughout your professional journey.