“The less grounded you are in your own goals, the more vulnerable you are to everyone else’s…if you go to law school not knowing who you are or what you care about, you will end up a lawyer, and you may not be happy.” –Susan Estrich, well known law professor and political commentator
Review the following “good” and “weak” reasons to enter the legal field, and then write down exactly why you want to be a lawyer. Let your written goals guide you through the application process, law school, and your legal career.
Good Reasons to Study Law
“Prestige, financial reward, intellectual stimulation, and the ability to make a positive change in society—all are typical and logical reasons for wanting to practice law.” — The Law School Admission Service
“At its best, legal practice challenges the intellect, demanding the exercise of reason and judgment. The ethics of the profession require attorneys to promote justice, fairness, and morality; thus, legal employment can bring particular satisfaction to those who seek to work, within the law, to rectify social injustice.” –University of Illinois
Many lawyers find fulfillment in working to solve individual, group, and societal problems through the law. However, effecting change through the law can be a long and drawn out process, so you should be sure that you will enjoy the day-to-day work of being a lawyer.
Lawyers who are happy in their jobs find their work intellectually challenging. They enjoy working with other smart, driven, and talented colleagues to solve complicated problems. They thrive in situations in which they can develop their reasoning, analysis, research, and communication skills.
Lawyers and law students derive satisfaction from being in a position of prestige. The prospect of working in a well known law firm or for a famous client excites many law students and lawyers who anticipate being respected by other adults.
Weak Reasons to Study Law
“What’s the use of that, Wendell, a lawyer can’t be a great man!” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., on his son’s plans to attend law school
Consider honestly whether any of the following reasons are your primary motivation for applying to law school:
- You have always wanted to be a lawyer
- You want an all purpose degree
- Everyone in your family is a lawyer
- You hate your current job
- Others have said you would be a good lawyer
- You fear trying to get a job in this economy
- You want to be the type of lawyer portrayed on television
- You took the LSAT and earned a great score
- You don’t know what else to do
- You want a job that will make you rich
- Everyone else is getting an advanced degree
If one or more of these reasons is your primary motivation, think about whether law school is really the right choice for you. Once you start law school, other interests and dreams will probably fall by the wayside, so if you have a nagging urge to explore something else, you should explore that before you go to law school.
Know the realities of legal life, but seek inspiration and positive role models to balance your understanding. Talk to as many lawyers and law students as you can to get a reality check on the legal profession. Read our advice (“How Do I Find Out if I Really Should Study Law?”, below) on different ways to expose yourself to the legal world.
Law School Confidential
Also read Law School Confidential, a book of wisdom about law school and life as a young lawyer written by young lawyers (available in the Piper Center). Law School Confidential advises that you think long and hard about what law school really entails and offers these points for consideration:
- Reading load-be prepared to read law for at least four hours a day, six days a week.
- Discipline-be willing to commit to completing all reading on time and attending class every single day.
- Atmosphere-are you the kind of person who can be alone for long periods of time? Consider whether you are a person who can deal with independent work and academic competitiveness.
- Writing-law school and life afterwards will require tremendous amounts of analytical writing.
- Commitment-law school will impinge on your nights, weekends, and holidays. Be prepared to fully commit your life to law school.
Typical work weeks for recent graduates involve 60-80 hours of work, which will impact your personal relationships and free time. Consider that “for every hour of court time you log, you may spend fifty hours reading, researching, and writing,” according to Law School Confidential, which also cites findings that young lawyers on Wall Street are typically less satisfied and fulfilled with their jobs than lower-paid young prosecutors and public-interest lawyers.
That being said, there are plenty of students happy in law school and plenty of lawyers who are fulfilled by their jobs. There is a lot of negativity about the legal profession both in guidebooks and in the media, so also pay attention to the positives of a legal career. And hold on to that piece of paper where you wrote your fully developed understanding of why you want to be a lawyer; it will allow you to avoid the pitfalls and becoming sidetracked from your goals.
You can find legal work that you enjoy, but you’re going to need to be intentional about finding fulfilling and worthwhile jobs. For example, if you, like many St. Olaf students, are pursuing law so that you can serve disadvantaged populations or fight for social justice, it may be discouraging to find that you need to work in a big law firm to pay off your law school debt. One way to balance the practical need to pay off debt with the desire to do meaningful work is to keep one foot in the sector you want to work in while paying your dues at a big law firm. For example, you could volunteer legal assistance to a non-profit dealing with immigration law until you’re financially able to take on a full time job that will be more rewarding but pay less. You can also take time off to work before law school to lessen the debt load and give yourself more flexibility after graduation. You could also work for a large firm that has a strong commitment to pro-bono work or whose mission is to serve the public interest. This way you never lose sight of why you became a lawyer in the first place and can build connections and knowledge in the sector you really want to work in.
How do I find out if I really should study law?
Some students take the LSAT and apply to law school before they’ve really explored the field. Once they’re accepted, they often find it hard to look objectively at the legal profession and filter out any information they do not want to hear.
Take the time to follow the suggestions below to discover if you should take the LSAT, apply, and attend.
- Talk to law students, lawyers, family and friends
- Meet with the pre-law advisors to do some self-assessment and discuss how your interests, values, skills and personality fit with the demands of the legal field
- Read materials on legal education and careers in the Piper Center
- Read books about and spend time exploring other careers that interest you
- Read some of the documents you will read in law school (cases, statutes, legal briefs, legal writing instruction guides)
- Spend time at a law school attending a variety of classes and talking to students
- Attend pre-law society meetings and programs
- Follow legal issues in the national media: American Lawyer, the page on legal news in every Friday’s edition of the New York Times, the law column in the Wall Street Journal, the legal affairs column in the Chicago Tribune
- Attend local trials
- Set up an informational interview or shadowing experience with a lawyer
- Consider interning with a lawyer, district attorney or legal service office