Kirsten Wolf went to law school, but she doesn’t think you should. In an interview with WSJ's Law Blog, Kirsten explains why attending law school was such a bad decision for her, and why she thinks it’s a bad decision for many applicants.
Kirsten paints herself as the typical recent college grad; unsure of where to go next, but wanting something more than her 9-5 post graduation job. So she did what a lot of people in her position do. She applied to law school.
“I wanted to make a more practical decision [than a PhD in English lit] and considered getting an MBA but wasn’t sure what I would do with that. So law school seemed to be right in the middle. It was esoteric enough to satisfy the part of me that had made me consider academia but practical – I wouldn’t be, I thought, poor for the rest of my life. I had just put myself through college working full-time and I didn’t want to live like that anymore. So I applied to law school and got into BU.”
She actually sounds a lot like me. After two years of having a decent paying and interesting job, but wanting something more, I thought of a PhD in English or African American studies, but decided against it for practicality’s sake. I never considered business school, but law school was almost a natural choice for me after ruling out grad school.
Kirsten probably sounds like a lot of us. Most law students have little experience in the legal field prior to law school, so their decision is based a little on practicality, a little on myths, maybe a little on peer and family pressure. Very infrequently, it is based on a desire to learn and practice the law.
So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t the passion for law come after you learn it? For Kirsten the problem is that the cost of attending law school weighed against the opportunities available to those with law degrees doesn’t add up.
“I got enough financial aid to make it work as long as I took out a lot of loans and figured that would be okay because my expectation was that I would be making a reasonable amount of money when I got out…[what] I realized as time went on was [there were] just a few lucrative jobs.”
Most law students take out at least a few loans to attend law school, and all of us expect (and reasonably so) to make a livable amount of money after graduation.
If what Kirsten describes is true, a lot of us are in for a rude awakening. The Shark, however, recently reported on a Cal Law article that says just the opposite, at least as it applies to law firms. How do the statistics stack up against real life?
In Kirsten’s experience, summer associate positions were few and far between for the average BU 2L:
“I was like a B+ student, right there in the middle with most people. So it was the fall of second year when everyone was applying for summer associate positions and I realized I wasn’t going to be one of the chosen few who was going to get those jobs.”
Not having the chance to get a high paying firm job put some things into perspective for Kirsten:
“I had a moment of realization … I didn’t want to be a lawyer … but I was about $45,000 in the hole at that point and if I walked away I’d have nothing and still have debt. So I finished law school so I could at least have the degree and maybe a miracle would happen and I’d get a job.”
I can’t imagine that someone who came to law school looking for “more interesting” work would decide they no longer wanted to be a lawyer because they did not have the option of working for a firm. Maybe I’m naive or biased, but I believe there are plenty of interesting careers available to individuals with a law degree. I don’t blame Kirsten for thinking the way she does. I blame the law school culture that conditions law students to believe there is only one path — the large firm path.
Granted, financial concerns often make the public interest or government route very difficult, but it’s not impossible. And the top 100 firms aren’t the only firms out there — they are just the most competitive. I don’t understand the mentality that if I’m not summering at Skadden I may as well quit law school.
Things for Kirsten turned out ok. She passed the bar, and though she was unable to find a legal job, she found a job in publishing that she loves. Still, she’s unhappy that she’ll spend the next 30 years repaying loans for law school. Though she says her degree is helpful in her current job, she doesn’t believe it is worth the $100k+ she paid for it.
Her message to people considering law school:
“Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.”
This is good advice to consider if you haven’t yet applied to law school, but it’s not very helpful for people who are 2 years in. Perhaps focusing on realistic financial and career goals, and looking outside the firm box would be better advice to those who are already knee deep in law school and unsure of what to do next.