I Have a Useless Undergrad Degree, so I Went to Law School
I recently read The Barrowfields, which is not generally considered a funny book, although it made me laugh a couple of times. But it does have line in it that will be funny to lawyers (or at the very least, was funny to me). Midway through the book, the protagonist says something to this effect: “In the midst of all this indecision and being generally unemployable, I applied to law school.” This sentiment applies to such a large percentage of (eventual) lawyers, who graduated with a political science or history degree, then looked around and said, “Well, what am I going to do with this degree now?”
[Note: The Barrowfields was written by attorney Phillip Lewis, who I will be interviewing in a few weeks.]
Choosing Law School for Lack of a Better Idea
Since I’m a member of LawyerSmack and have an audience of lawyers within easy reach, I asked about who graduated with a degree that left little in the way of ideal career paths. Here is how that conversation evolved. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Simon: “I had no idea what I wanted to do in undergrad and ended up with a history degree, which is pretty useless and a friend of mine was going to law school. Also my parents raised me to think only options for a career were lawyer, doctor, accountant and engineer. Seems like there are plenty of better ways to make money.”
Ned: “Hell, my dad owned his own electrical company, he was an electrician who made more money in his life than I probably can imagine making. I’m not sure how I didn’t see that as an option, but I didn’t.”
Simon: “Yeah, same situation. My dad has a truck training school and it does way better than I can hope to any time soon.”
Ned: “He did work like a dog, and I think seeing that may have been what led me to pursue a white collar job.”
Simon: “Actually, he had a chance to buy a transport company last month which would gross easily over half a mil a year, but he’s too old to get into. But if I wasn’t a lawyer, I would’ve been all over it.”
Tom: “I was huge into computers in high school, and I kept my hand in it throughout college, but never actually pursued it as a career path. All because my dad told me in 10th grade, ‘No one will ever pay you to sit in front of a computer screen all day long.’ Famous last words…”
Simon: “Yeah, stuff like that makes me wonder what stupid things we’re gonna say to our kids.”
How has it worked out for folks who went to law school as the default option?
With that initial feedback, I delved a little deeper with some of the guys who responded. I wanted to know if they were ultimately happy with their decision to go to law school and whether it was working out for them.
Ned: “Backstory: I chose Political Science in College because I thought it’d be easy. I did kind of assume at that point that my only real path forward would be a law degree. [After law school] I was unable to find a job immediately upon graduation. I graduated like top 30% and it was 2010. I took a job as a background investigator at the Indiana Gaming Commission, I left that after about 8 months to start an Allstate Agency with my brother. Worked there for 3 years. We sold the agency, I started looking for attorney positions again. I failed, I took a job a regulatory affairs manager at ITT Technical Institute (now defunct). I kept looking for attorney jobs while at ITT for two years, I applied to my current position on a whim, and got very lucky to land it. It has worked out very well over the last two years. That being said…
“For the first 6 years out of law school my answer would be that I 100% resented getting a law degree, the pay is too low for the average attorney, the hours are too long, and there is always a younger newer attorney who will do the work for less. I regretted that I graduated in the 2nd tech boom and didn’t just get a degree in computer science/programming. I still regret this decision, I think my career and life would be much further along if I had followed that trend, instead of taking the easy way through undergrad and becoming a lawyer because I had no other choice after picking Political Science.
“To more directly answer your question [of whether I am glad I went to law school], I ultimately wish I had chosen a better undergraduate degree and not needed to spend the money I did in law school to end up making the same or less than I could have with a 4 year computer science type degree. However, I know I can succeed as an attorney, and I’m not ultra worried about my lifelong prospects now that I’ve been practicing for 2 years, it just took me 6 years to find that first position…
“I think a lot of people from my generation who became lawyers did it because we spent all of the 90s being told that Doctors and Lawyers made all the money. I was an ignorant 18 year old thought Doctor and Lawyer were the only paths to get rich. I knew that 4 years of undergrad for Doctors was harder than 4 years as a Political Scientist to become a Lawyer. So I chose the easy 4 years and decided that I’ll just have to go to law school to make my millions.”
Karl: “Definitely glad I did it [went to law school], but I feel like I would probably have preferred medical school. However, everything worked out well and I would hesitate to change anything at all.”
Tom: “Econ and politics. If you’re not going to New York, D.C., or to grad school, you’re effectively no better than a [humanities] degree with a couple more math classes. Yes, I do believe that [it’s working out for me and am glad I went to law school], but I had a very different approach than everyone else. I always knew I had no intention for working for anyone else very long. If I did take a job, it was to learn the skills I needed to run my own shop.
“I went to school to learn a skillset and to network. I didn’t care about grades. I took the hard classes and got low grades because I actually liked learning the material. I took practical classes and skills classes. I worked and did internships. I “never let schooling get in the way of my education,” as Mark Twain used to say. Some of that was admittedly a mistake at the time (it certainly made it hard to get a job entering the worst job market in two generations) but it also gave me the confidence to open my own shop and know that I was at least marginally more competent than my peers who might have been able to write an amazing appellate brief, but had no idea how to hold themselves in front of a judge.”
A Changing Trend?
It may be that better undergrad students are wising up and finding a different default other than to attend law school. According to the Law School Admission Council, in the last couple of years, there has been a slight downtick in the number of law school applicants. The bad news is that while the best students are abandoning the idea of law school, sub-par students (with LSAT scores of less than 150) are filling the numbers gap in droves. With fewer capable students attending law schools, there has been an analogous plummet of bar exam passage rates around the country in recent years, which may be just as well. [Note: Since I first wrote this, new studies have shown an increase in 2017 of the number of people taking the LSAT.]
In recent decades, the legal services industry has failed grow at a comparable rate to the GDP. First, here’s a look (right) at the growth rates of each from 1963-2015, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Bearing that information in mind, I wouldn’t mind seeing fewer lawyers entering the work force, particularly if they’re less capable than their predecessors. Every lousy lawyer out theredecreases the value of the services we provide, both economically and reputationally.
But for those of you who (like my friends above) went to law school as the default choice to achieve fame and fortune, I hope it’s worked out well for you. I hope you don’t regret the student loan debt you accumulated and that by doing so, you have improved your station in lifeand set the tone for greater opportunity for those who come after you.
Photo by Franck Michel.