Jason Langford, B.S. Political Science, 2003, offers some thoughts on law school and the law market.
If you’re considering law school, as a great many political science majors do, I’d urge you to think long and hard about that decision. While the law can undoubtedly be a path to a rewarding career, it is a challenging one that needs to be carefully considered.
The decision to go law school should never be a “default.” It is a significant investment of time and money that needs serious consideration. There are many types of lawyers practicing many types of law. Which type do you want to be? What do you want to practice? You should know the answer to those questions before taking the LSAT and applying to ensure you’re making a smart choice.
First, consider the area of law in which you want to practice. While certain areas of law are practiced pretty much everywhere, other areas of practice can be very geographically concentrated. This can limit your options as to where you may end up calling home—although, in the post-pandemic world this may be becoming less of an issue. The type of law you practice will also impact your client pool, whom do you want to serve in your career?
Second, think about the kind of lawyer you want to be. There are many things you can do with a law degree apart from litigation—which while the most obvious of legal careers, is far from your only option. From regulation, to public policy, to litigation, lawyers play roles in countless aspects of public, private, and business life. Your long-term success may depend on picking one that suits your personality. Rather than litigating, you may find the same satisfaction (and pressure) in closing complex transactions.
Third, consider the amount of effort you want to put into your career. You will not be handed any success, nor should you expect to be able to coast. Real success in a legal career will require a very great deal of hustle—to get clients, to market yourself, to stay on top of your area of practice, etc. Your supervisors, partners, and associates are going to expect to you figure things out on your own. Your clients are going to expect you to know the answers. And you’re going to have to figure out how to balance all these pressures and seem confident, even when you’re not.
Finally, bear in mind that the legal market is extraordinarily unequal in terms of starting salaries, which can range from $30,000 to $190,000. While the top tier salaries pull the average starting salary high, those jobs represent only a fraction of those that are available. And of those high-paying job, many come with requirements that associates bill from 2,000 – 2,200 hours a year. Additionally, the types of firms paying those salaries tend to only operate in major metropolitan areas and almost exclusively represent corporate interests. They will also require excellent academic credentials.
If you go to a law school ranked outside of the U.S. News & World Report top 50 law schools, do not graduate at the top of the class, or lack connections, your chance of getting one of them to hire you out of law school is slim. Not to say that it doesn’t happen, but as with getting into top schools, getting the top paying jobs after law school is also a numbers game.
If you’re considering law school, you’ve probably heard lots of horror stories about law school and the practice of law. You’ve probably heard lots of positive stories about meaningful impact lawyers have had for the clients. The thing is, all the stories are true. Which one becomes your reality will depend on how carefully you weigh your options and consider your path.
Jason is an Associate at Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP. Prior to a legal career, he worked in politics and public policy.