What I Learn from Law Students
Last week I got to do one of my absolute favorite things: I sat down with former clients and talked to them about law school, their career goals and progress toward those goals, their experiences and their regrets. I wanted to share a few of the things I learned from them . A lot of my posts are geared toward people who are just hoping to get into any law school, but this post is really for those who are deciding between top law schools, or who otherwise intend to practice in BigLaw.
Now, you need to know the make-up of the group to appreciate the diverse backgrounds of these individuals, all of whom I’ve known from when they first started applying to law schools. One of them I’ve known for more than five years, another I worked with twice (1L and transfer), and, for each of them, I am familiar with their background stories, their families, their educations, the weaknesses they brought to law school, the goals they had when they started and how law school has changed them. I think they are a pretty representative group for top law schools based on their work experience before law school, their undergraduate history (one had terrible grades at a great university, the others had fabulous grades at less impressive universities), etc. All of them had international backgrounds, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. One got into a Top law school with a 160 LSAT; the other three hit above 170.
- “Jenny” is a second year associate at BigLaw in New York City and a graduate of Georgetown Law.
- “George” is a 3L at a top 5 school (he transferred in from a Top 100). He already has a job with BigLaw set up.
- “Amy” is a 3L at a top 5 school who will practice public interest law. She has a fellowship set up for the next two years.
- “Hope” is a 1L at a top 5 school.
Here is what I learned as this group talked about what matters to them at their respective points in life:
1. DEBT is a killer. It was a major theme throughout the conversation. Even if they plan to make (realistically for these folks) $175,000 next year, between NYC rent and taxes and student loan payments, they will be relying on all of those lunches their firm buys them to get by. When I asked, “Do you go to Harvard or take a full scholarship to [a specific top 10 school with high judicial clerkship and job placement history]?” they ALL agreed you take the full scholarship. Over Harvard! And all of these people applied to Harvard and didn’t get in, and they still say this.
2. BIGLAW is as tough as they say. Senior lawyers are meaner and nastier than you can imagine professionals could be. You are a cog in the wheel. You have no future with the firm once you decide to have children; all of the female partners are childless, but they do make $1 million a year. Salaries are lock-step, not performance or merit based. That’s good and bad. But you’re on call until 10 p.m. every night. However, you don’t have to show your face in the morning until 9 or 10 so there is some comfort there. There was no mention of the work being interesting or groundbreaking, only of “getting through it” and surviving in order to pay back loans.
3. 1L YEAR is challenging, not just because of the work load or adjustment to law school or one-exam-is-all reality. But because, for those who have always been at the top of their class, maintained near perfect GPAs, and known life as a big fish in a smaller pond, finding themselves among the best and brightest is often humbling and depressing, leaving them feeling insecure and less-than for the first time in their lives.
4. BAR PASSAGE is not a concern – they know they will put their heads down and learn what they need to learn, then travel for a few months before starting their careers.
5. SATISFACTION – no one was in love with their school; they agreed it opened doors and there was one favorite Con Law professor everyone mentioned, but I didn’t hear a lot of praise for the school the three were attending.
What is the good news? There is some:
1. No one regretted their decision to go to law school.
2. No one seemed to ‘sell out’ – they are all doing (or on the road to doing) what they told me years ago they wanted to do with their law degrees.
3. The 3Ls helped Hope, the 1L, offering her advice about where to find good outlines for her specific courses, giving her hints about which professors she should visit during office hours, etc. No one tried to scare her or discourage her.
4. These are all very bright, motivated, and nice people. They are not egotistical jerks. They understand life is not all about what law school they attend.You don’t have to be a jerk to be successful.
5. They have their priorities in order: three of the individuals are married and talked about how supportive their spouses have been throughout their journey into and through law school.
Their opinions echo those of the lawyers I interviewed for The Law School Decision Game: A Playbook for Prospective Lawyers. If you haven’t read it, I have a lot of statistic and anecdotal evidence about areas of law, job prospects, salary expectations, and how to choose what law school to attend. If you are in the decision mode now – weighing offers from schools you’ve heard back from, waiting for others, deciding how strenuously to pursue waiting lists at certain schools, deciding whether to wait and apply next year – I hope you’ll check out the book. It just came out this fall, and if this post interested you, you’re at the right place to read the book.