Some Actual Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Go To Law School, By A Non-Ivy League Lawyer

"Your honor, with all due respect, it is getting dangerously close to happy hour."

“Your honor, I went to a better law school than my less prestigious opposing counsel, so clearly my argument is better”, said no lawyer ever.

I graduated from a T2 law school (Temple Law) in 2008, after transferring from Widener (a T4 law school). I have been practicing law for five years now.

In law school, I clerked for a Superior Court judge, and then for a large law firm. When I graduated, I worked for a small firm in suburban Pennsylvania. After three years, I left and worked for a mid-sized law firm for a year, where I still work as Of Counsel. Sort of on a whim, I left the firm in 2012 and started “The Fishtown Lawyers” along with Leo, which is what I do now.

So far, I am very happy with my career. It’s been fun, interesting, and rewarding. My mortgage remains paid, and I will probably take a vacation to somewhere nice this year.

However, I’ve read on the internet that law is the worst profession in the world, everyone is unemployed, and the only people making money are the ones who went to the best law schools in the country, got the best grades, and are now working for large law firms.

That is what they call the “law school scam” apparently.

As you might imagine, the questions I get from prospective law students normally go like this: “If I get into X school, and get Y GPA, what are my chances of getting into biglaw? I’ll at least be able to get a shot in mid-law if I don’t get biglaw with that GPA, right?”

Almost all the questions involve their chances of getting into biglaw, and what will guarantee them that job.

While I appreciate where you are coming from, those aren’t really the right questions. Or at least the important ones, if you are considering law school.

Where you go to law school is a very tiny aspect of how your career as a lawyer will go. It’s certainly not the most important one.

Here are a few questions I would ask myself before going to law school, and selecting a law school…

Do you actually want to be a lawyer and represent people (or corporations, or the state, or whoever)?

Before deciding to go to law school, the absolute most important question you can ask yourself is this – do you actually want to be a lawyer and represent people?

Biglaw, small law, mid law, space law, bogbite law, whatever law… lawyers represent people (or corporations, or the state, etc.). Sometimes we represent them doing mergers and acquisitions, sometimes we represent them disputing a parking ticket. That is what lawyers do, no matter where they practice. Lawyers represent clients in court. That is what we do. Representing clients in court is the backbone of our profession.

So, the very first question you need to ask yourself before deciding to go to law school is whether you want to represent people and be a lawyer.

If the idea of getting clients and then representing them in court sounds awful, then law is probably not the right career for you.

Are you dedicated to getting good at what you do, or do you just want an easy paycheck?

If you believe what you read on the internet, you would think that the only thing clients care about is where their lawyer went to law school, and what their GPA is.

The reality is even the guy who graduates #1 from their class at Harvard Law has still never tried a case, never counseled a client, and has never taken a deposition.

But when clients have an issue, they need someone who can help them fix it. When a client selects a law firm, biglaw or small law, they are not looking for a fancy degree, but someone who can help them fix their problem. It might be a biglaw partner, it might be a solo attorney. It depends on what their needs are.

The #1 thing I would look for when hiring someone is dedication to the profession. Are you interested in becoming a better lawyer? Do you take CLEs and read books that will help you develop as a professional, or are you just hoping to show up, work 9-5, and collect a paycheck?

It’s not hard to become a lawyer. But becoming a good lawyer takes years of dedication, taking your licks and then saying “Please sir, may I have another?”

What did I do this weekend? I spent time reading “Winning at Deposition” by D. Shane Read (again) and organizing files.

Once you become a good lawyer, people will pay you to represent them. And you will not be a good lawyer the second you walk out of law school, or for many years to come. So if you’re not interested in developing yourself as a good, effective lawyer, then this isn’t the right profession for you.

Are you okay with the idea of getting your own clients, and retaining the ones you have?

Many prospective law students have the idea that if they get into biglaw, they won’t need to worry about getting clients. They believe that clients will just magically appear because the firm is so prestigious that clients just show up begging for representation. The clients are just so impressed with the fancy degrees, GPAs, and such PRESTIGIOUSNESS that client generation and development isn’t necessary. I mean, everyone knows that biglaw attorneys don’t need to worry about developing and retaining their clients! That’s just for small time lawyers! That is totally beneath someone who went to a great law school and got great grades – this degree sells itself!

Too bad that isn’t reality.

Biglaw, small law, mid-law, whatever. The practice of law is client driven. Do you know what you call a lawyer with no clients? Unemployed.

Every lawyer in the country is concerned about generating good clients, and retaining their existing ones, no matter where they practice.

Your ability to generate and retain good clients will be paramount to your success. If you loathe the idea of generating clients, and going the extra mile to keep the ones you have, law probably isn’t the right profession for you. Even if your goal is to work for a large law firm.

Yes, that means leaving your house and going places. It means getting active with your local bar association. It means meeting people, going to functions, and having to do things other than play video games. It means learning how to carry on an adult conversation and becoming someone who people look to as a professional with a good reputation.

Are you the entrepreneurial type?

You know how I said that a lawyer with no clients is unemployed? Well, to succeed at law on any level you also have to have an “entrepreneurial spirit.” Law is a profession first, but it is a business second.

Your ability to succeed will also depend on your ability to have a profitable practice. If you’re a partner at a law firm, they look at  “profits per partner.” Large law firms are often run like a bunch of mini law firms, with some commonality and shared expenses. Every lawyer, from the solo practitioner to the partner in biglaw has to be able to run a profitable business. This means dealing with stuff like overhead, salaries, taxes, accounting, putting together an effective team (or deciding not to have a team), etc.

Because if you’re not consistently profitable, you’re dead weight.

If the idea of running a business sounds terrible, law probably isn’t the right profession for you.

Why are you living in this geographic location? Do you have any ties to the area?

On the internet, people believe that it works like this: Joe Schmoe got into 5 law schools. 4 were in T2, but one school halfway across the country was a T1. Joe decides to move halfway across the country to get into the better school. Joe is now more competitive than all the people in the country who went to a lowly ranked T2 school because apparently U.S. News and World Reports is the best and most qualified organization in the world to determine who is good at lawyering and everyone knows that.

Errrr, not quite…

Here is the reality: Joe has absolutely no ties to the area where he went to law school. His family and friends are halfway across the country. He can’t even catch a ballgame with his favorite sports teams anymore. Joe is miserable. He desperately wants to move home at the first chance he gets, and everyone knows it. His goal is to find a job here, and ditch it ASAP for something back home.

Almost every single person I know who moved out of state to go to a “better” law school has regretted that decision, and ultimately  moved back home. Going to a “better” law school did not make them more competitive than their peers. If anything, it hurt their employment prospects.

Employers want to hire people with ties to the area. Our businesses, our culture, and our families are rooted here. I want to chat with our employees about local sports teams, as do our clients. Critically, your clients, mentors, and referral sources will often come from your families, friends, and people who you know.

If you have no ties to the area, but a giant fancy degree, you are not more competitive than the locals. You’re just not.

For instance, part of what I do is zoning. Being good at zoning requires you to understand what development is going on in Philadelphia. Meaning you actually have to be someone who cares about the city of Philadelphia and follow what goes on here. My clients often come as a result from my work on the local zoning board, and having a lot of friends in the area.

If you’re looking for a job, your ability to show ties to the area is far more important than where you went to law school.

My advice? Go to law school in the area where you want to settle down. Do not go to law school somewhere just because it’s ranked a few spots higher than one ranked where you actually want to live.

Stop worrying about what U.S. News and World Report thinks. Real lawyers don’t care.

Do you understand that the practice of law is a marathon, not a sprint? Winning the “biglaw lottery” doesn’t guarantee you a great career, and losing the “biglaw lottery” doesn’t sentence you a terrible career, either.

Again, if you believe everything you read on the internet, you might believe that the only people who succeed in law are those who get into biglaw right after law school.

That’s not true.

First off, not everyone who gets into biglaw stays there. There are layoffs, people get fired, and not everyone makes partner. Then what?

Biglaw isn’t the end all, be all of a lawyer’s career. Some people get there, stay there, and are very happy. Others get there, don’t like it, and leave for whatever reason. But the vast majority of lawyers never go into biglaw, and still find a way to put food on the table and make a living.

Biglaw is just one of many ways to make a living as a lawyer. It’s great for some lawyers (and their clients), but it’s not the right fit for others. That doesn’t mean everyone not in biglaw is a broke failure, though.

Second, here is a secret. Just don’t tell anyone…

Many of us start our own law firms out of choice – not necessity. I worked for a small law firm for three years. Then I went and worked for a mid-sized law firm after that. I could have stayed at the firm or lateraled into biglaw. But I decided to start my own firm to set my own hours, take on my own clients, and for more freedom. Despite the ups and downs, I don’t think I could ever go back to work for a traditional law firm.

My mortgage still gets paid every month, too.

Have you read this article by Brian Tannebaum yet?

If you are contemplating law school, but all you have read is “the law school scam”, I suggest you read this.

Lawyers don’t talk about where they went to law school very much. If at all. 

The last time I had a conversation about where I went to law school, it went down like this:

“So, Jordan… what brought you to Fishtown?”
“I went to law school at Temple. The rent was cheap, and I could ride my bike from Fishtown to Temple easily. I never left.”

In 99% of my cases, I have no idea where opposing counsel went to school, nor do I care. I have never had the conversation “Did you see Boston College [went up / went down] in the rankings?! Good lord! That will certainly impact all of my hiring decisions about any candidate from that school!”

Actual practicing lawyers don’t keep up with the rankings. No one cares. Well, maybe biglaw does. I don’t know.

Closing thoughts…

Five years out, here is where I am at…

I would still go to law school again, and I would go to Temple Law over any other school in the country. Why? Because it’s the cheapest legal degree for someone who wants to practice here in Philadelphia. And I have season tickets to Temple Football. As a Philly native, the idea of living in a place where I can’t catch every Eagles game or find a WaWa hoagie is my definition of hell.

The law school rankings are not that important. If I couldn’t get into Temple Law, I would be doing just fine if I had stayed at the T4 law school where I started out, Widener Law. Many of my colleagues from Widener are doing just dandy. Of course, they are the ones who actually wanted to become real lawyers. One just joined my firm as Of Counsel to handle our personal injury work. He is very good at what he does and not one client has run away scared because he went to a T4 law school. Our clients care more about whether they are getting effective legal representation than what U.S. News and World Report thinks.

I know this comes as a shock, but there are lawyers from T4 school making a good living, and lawyers who went to ivy league schools doing doc review. Sorry if the world is unfair. But what U.S. News and World Report thinks is not all that important.

Career-wise, I would still have left my law firm when I did, and started my own practice. I might not ever represent Microsoft in a merger and acquisition, but I have real clients with real legal issues that I can help them with. Starting my own firm has made my life a lot more interesting and rewarding. I’m glad I got a taste of law firm life – it was a great experience, and I wouldn’t have been able to start my own firm without it. But I run my own firm now because it’s what I want to do.

What have we learned? Go to law school if you want to be a lawyer. Go in the place where you want to live, not the place U.S. News and World Report says is the best. And if you don’t win the “biglaw lottery”, you can still have a rewarding and lucrative career here in the trenches.

You might even enjoy it.

11 Responses to Some Actual Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Go To Law School, By A Non-Ivy League Lawyer

  1. […] since the beginning of 2012 has been spent inside of a gym.  While it’s not as social as joining the board of a non-profit, it’s not a bad place to meet small business owners, other lawyers, and even Ice T (provided […]

  2. Haha. This reads almost exactly like the first chapter of my book.

    All of it is true in my experience as well. After your first job or so, connections, skills, and pure drive are what determines how you fare as an attorney.

  3. Carl says:

    Winning at trial/deposition are great books for improving as a lawyer. Do you recommend any other books for attorneys looking to home their skills?

  4. I’m in complete agreement with you, and i know exactly what internet site you are speaking of. What amazes me the most is that you have prospective law students actually following the advice from other 0Ls, who have somehow mastered the employment prospects at every school and every market. People actually choose which law school to attend based on the opinion of anonymous internet posters. The site relies heavily on lawschooltransparency.com, which is a fantastic statistical site, but of course numbers don’t tell the whole story.
    However, I will make one remark. Many of the posters on said site take into account how much debt one will be accumulating by attending a school. While it is true biglaw is not the end-all, be-all of legal employment, it historically has had higher salaries for starting attorneys. So many of these “biglaw or bust” attitudes come from the desire to pay back the debt one would accumulate at any school. This is why there is a fascination with biglaw on the internet.

    • Perhaps I am more cynical, but I see a lot of these people who want a big paycheck, but they don’t want to do the things earning one entails. They believe biglaw functions only to meet their needs – a place where they won’t have to work all that hard and get paid a lot of money. A place where people who “do everything right” are rewarded, because that sounds fair to them. The land of milk and honey, because they have differentiated themselves by virtue of a good law school – they will never have to worry about finding clients, let alone representing them in court. That sounds hard.

      Of course, it kind of sucks when those who make it learn you actually have to become a good lawyer to survive in biglaw. Many of the same skills you need in biglaw are applicable in small-law.

      What they don’t want to do is learn how to become real lawyers, because that involves representing people who might not dress nicely, and it takes a whole lot of work to become good. And before you’re a good lawyer, people aren’t willing to pay you a lot of money. It involves failures, and learning from your failures.

      When I say “Go to law school because you want to be a lawyer”, I mean that. And being a lawyer means representing clients in court. If you don’t like the idea of getting clients, and then representing them in court, you don’t like the idea of being a lawyer.

  5. […] Thoughts From A Non-Ivy League Lawyer: Some Actual Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Go T… (phillylawblog.wordpress.com) […]

  6. As a former legal services attorney, I’ll add one correction to your otherwise great piece: not everybody chases clients. Some of us are constantly turning them away (sadly). We’re (minimally) salaried and represent poor people who can’t afford to pay for private attorneys.

    HOWEVER, we still have to sell ourselves: to LSC, to state funders, to bar associations, to private donors. The bottom line is if you can’t advocate first for yourself (market yourself to clients and/or funders), you can’t be a good lawyer.

  7. April G. says:

    Thank you some much for this post. I need this after seeing so many negative posts and articles on law school. I wish you continued success.

  8. […] Some Actual Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Go To Law School, By A Non-Ivy League Lawye… […]

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