7 Lessons For Older Students Considering Law School

In 2009, I gave up a broadcast journalism career in Washington, DC, to move to Ohio to go to law school. Now that I’ve graduated, I’ve compiled a list of seven lessons from my law school experience for others considering embarking on this path. The list is aimed at fellow middle-aged, mid-career professionals like me who are not destined for schools of law in the Ivy League. Here’s what I think you should know before you go:

1. Watch “The Paper Chase.”

If I were a law school dean, I would require every prospective student to watch this movie before submitting a law school application. This 1970s classic is set at Harvard Law School and follows a “1L” – institutional lingo for a first-year law student – through the ups and downs of the law school experience.

As you’re watching “The Paper Chase,” you should know that most law professors are not nearly as intimidating, arrogant, or demeaning as Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman. But some can be. There’s a saying about law professors: “The first year of law school, they scare you to death. The second year, they work you to death. The final year, they bore you to death.” It’s true. The first year of law school is as much about weeding people out as it is about smartening people up.

If what you see in this movie does not appeal to you, then you probably shouldn’t go to law school. The verbal back-and-forth between student and teacher is what the Socratic method of instruction is all about, and most first-year courses are taught using that approach. There are times you may feel embarrassed or caught off-guard. That’s the whole point. Better to be embarrassed by a professor in front of your classmates now than by a judge in front of your clients later.

2. A law degree is not magic.

If you’re switching careers and you think earning a J.D. will cause the sky to open up and lucrative job offers will rain down upon you, you’ve probably set your expectations too high for what a law degree will do for you. Yes, there are big law firms in big cities that pay starting associates from top law schools big money. But there are many more people who graduate from law school heavily in debt and struggle to find work.

Read Time magazine’s recent article, “Just How Bad Off Are Law School Graduates?” This sad state of affairs is also the subject of a new book, The Lawyer Bubble, by Steven Harper. You can read an excerpt on Salon.com, or listen to his recent interview on NPR.

Despite the statistics, going to law school was still the right decision for me. But that’s largely because I sought a J.D. with the intention of building on my existing career in the communications industry rather than start over in a field that’s totally new. Others might come to a different conclusion. The point is, it’s not a decision to take lightly. If you do decide to go to law school, go in with your eyes open.

3. Have a purpose in seeking a law degree.

You do not need to know what kind of law you want to practice before going to law school, but you should certainly know that you want to become a lawyer. In the culture of academia, law school is not considered “graduate” school. Law school is considered “professional” school. It is not some place to go in order to “find yourself” or because you can’t think of anything else better to do. Go to law school only if you want to become a practicing attorney or you have some other professional goal in mind that will be advanced by being a licensed attorney.

I am convinced that the people who got weeded out of law school were people who didn’t want to be lawyers badly enough. I say this knowing students who were placed on academic probation after their first semester. Some gave up and left, deciding it wasn’t worth it. Others made the adjustments necessary in order to continue and are now graduating with GPAs higher than mine. Having a clear purpose before you enter law school will help you get through it and avoid the waste of money that results from dropping out within the first year. So begin with an end game in mind.

4. Don’t let the hype scare you.

One way or another, you’ve probably gotten the message, “Law school is so hard!” But there’s a follow-up question that needs to be asked here. “Compared to what?” Most of the people I heard complaining about how insurmountable it seemed were young twenty-somethings who had gone straight from undergrad into law school with little, if any, professional experience in between. All they had in the way of comparison was their undergraduate education where, frankly, you could blow off most of the homework and still manage to pass. Law school doesn’t work that way.

But here’s the thing. If you are a non-traditional student who has already built a professional career, raised a family, or served in the military, you’ve probably done some things that are just as hard, if not harder, than law school. What I found is that the material itself is not that difficult. It wasn’t like taking physics or calculus, where I’d be lost within the first few weeks of class.  Rather, what makes law school hard is the volume of information you have to consume – it feels like a ton of material – and the crazy-ass way law schools have of testing you on the information.

With the exception of the introductory course on legal writing and research, your entire grade in most first-year law courses is based solely on the final exam. The exam will test your ability to recall cases and other information presented in class and apply the relevant legal principles to a whole new set of facts that the professor has made up. (For example, “Peter Plaintiff entered into a contract with David Defendant agreeing to do X, Y and Z. Plaintiff sues Defendant for breach of contract. Analyze the case.”) There are no quizzes or other graded exercises during the semester to provide you with feedback on your progress. Some professors give midterms, but that’s rare. Instead, it all comes down to an all-or-nothing test at the end of the semester. It’s about the dumbest way to design an educational program, but all law schools do it like this.

5. Go part time.

Law school is an overwhelming, all-consuming sort of experience. For that reason, full-time law students, under American Bar Association rules, are not permitted to work in outside jobs more than 20 hours per week. (The rule is known as ABA Standard 304-f.) Most schools frown on full-time students working at all during the first year. They are expected to devote 100 percent of their attention to their legal studies.

That work limitation is just not practical for many non-traditional students with children to raise or mortgages to pay. Even for those without such commitments, I wouldn’t recommend full-time enrollment for those who’ve been away from school for a long time.

Knowing that my brain is subject to overload, I started out in my law school’s part-time evening program. My second year, although still going part time, I took a mix of day and evening classes. By my third year, I wanted nothing to do with the day program.

The full-time day program was populated by young high achievers – the type of students who had performed well on standardized tests since kindergarten – but many were lacking in life experience. We had a totally different vibe going at night. The evening program was more diverse and had more non-traditional students like me. My classmates included a zookeeper, accountant, high school teacher, environmental scientist, and a probation officer. In other words, they tended to be older students who’d been around the block and brought a well-grounded perspective to the study of law. (One classmate was an optometrist who later gave me a discount on an eye exam.)

6. Grades matter, but keep it in perspective.

Remember, fifty percent of all law school graduates graduated in the bottom half of their class. That’s just mathematical reality. As one of my law professors told me – and he’s a Harvard Law grad himself – all that stuff you hear about the importance of class rank and GPA only applies to a relatively small percentage of legal jobs. If you hope to clerk for a federal judge, become a law professor someday, or land a six-figure salary right out of the gate, expect your grades and class ranking to be an issue. Some firms only recruit from certain law schools and only consider students in the top 10 or top 25 percent of their class. But there are other attorney jobs out there. Granted, it may take more time and street savvy to find them in the current economy, but as a non-traditional student, you also have your prior work history going for you.

Another law school expression comes to mind here. “The ‘A’ students make law professors, the ‘B’ students make judges, the ‘C’ students make millions.” Well, I don’t know about millions, but you get the point. Academic performance and on-the-job performance are not necessarily the same thing.

7. The curriculum will not prepare you to actually practice law.

Almost as soon as I started law school, some people thought I might actually be qualified to answer their legal questions. “Hold on, I’m still in my first year,” I would tell them. “I haven’t learned enough yet. We’re just laying a foundation right now.” By the end of my second year, I came to realize that all of law school was simply laying a foundation. You don’t learn the hands-on, nuts and bolts, real-life work of being an attorney in your law school classes. That comes through internships, part-time clerk jobs, working in your law school’s legal clinic, and participating in certain extracurricular activities like moot court and mock trial teams. And even those experiences can’t teach you everything.

Many law professors have recognized this shortcoming of legal education and have made proposals to revamp the curriculum to focus more on practical skills training. The New York Times has published several articles in recent years illustrating the problem and the efforts some schools are undertaking to address it: “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” “To Practice Law, Apprentice First,” and “To Place Graduates, Law Schools Are Opening Firms.”

While the Internet is full of bloggers, frustrated attorneys, and other naysayers whose mission seems to be to discourage people from going to law school, I am not among them.

I heard the same kind of negativism when I was an undergraduate getting ready to launch my career as a television reporter. Colleges were turning out more communications majors than the industry could absorb, starting salaries in the profession were abysmal, the burnout rate was high, and on and on. And yet I managed to have a successful career for 20 years and couldn’t have imagined doing anything else.

So rather than dissuade others from pursuing a legal education altogether, I think the better approach is to encourage prospective law students to be realistic about the cost, the work involved, and employment opportunities after graduation. As of this writing, I have no permanent job prospects on the horizon. But the experience has still been worthwhile, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Elliott Lewis is a licensed attorney, author, and media professional. This essay was originally posted on Open Salon in May 2013. Visit Elliott’s website at  www.lewisfreelance.com.  


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