Susan Smith Blakely

Best Friends at the Bar: Is Going to Law School Worth It?

Editor's Note:  Ms. JD is excited to announce that Susan Smith Blakely, author of Best Friends at the Bar, will be speaking at Ms. JD: She Leads on October 5, 2012. This post originally appeared on the Best Friends at the Bar blog on February 4, 2012.

You probably have read the stuff that has been floating around the Internet for the last couple of years on the topic of whether going to law school is worth it.  Above the Law will keep you pretty well informed about graduate law students suing their alma maters because they cannot get jobs, law students lamenting the student loan debt they are accruing, and young lawyers disappointed that $160K salaries are no longer typical of the top of the salary range for starting lawyers.

You also may have seen advice from some law career counselors that the only worthy law career today starts with an education at a top tier law school that will lead to a high-paying job and make it all worth while.  For the rest of you, don’t even bother, according to these folks.

Sounds pretty grim, I know.  But it is only half of the story.  It is the half of the story that is about money.  It is the half of the story that is told by people who exclusively define being a lawyer with making gobs of money.  It is about expectations that it may be imprudent to have altogether.

There is an entire other part of the story that is about commitment to service and job satisfaction that is getting drowned out in the uproar. That is the story that is not as appealing to the law bloggers because it is not outrageous and negative. It does not play into the disappointment and despair that the law blogs feed on. It is just a lot of really good lawyers honing their trade in jobs far below Big Law and loving what they do and the positive change they can create. That’s all.

Having said that, I understand the money issues also.  Yes, law school costs far too much than it should.   Many of us in the profession hope that something can be done about that, but, for the present, we are stuck with law educations that cost in excess of $150K if you add in all the bells and whistles like keeping a roof over your head and food on the table.  And, if you take a job after law school graduation that pays you $75K as a starting salary, it will take you a long time to repay the student loans at that rate.  But, that is the point—-”at that rate”.  What this scenario does not take into account is that salaries have a way of going up if you perform well on the job.  In fact, salaries for lawyers have a way of going up very fast, and choosing a professional future based upon a lower-than-desirable starting salary is very shortsighted.

It also is shortsighted to think of lawyers only as money machines and to ignore what lawyers do.  Lawyers can choose many paths, and some of them are uniquely designed to do good.  Lawyers fight for the rights of the less fortunate, lawyers help rid the world of criminals, lawyers protect the civil rights and individual rights guaranteed under our Constitution, lawyers help assure the safety of consumer products, and a lot more.

If you want to be a part of the good that lawyers can do, you need to stop being preoccupied by the money.  Instead, you need to promise yourself that you will get an education that allows you to be a part of doing good and that you will live within your means so that you can both do good and pay back your loans.  No, you may not be able to afford the fancy car, the big house or the two-week annual vacation in a country of your choice as a law associate, but you will be able to afford to live a good and meaningful life.

You can do all of this without having the top tier law education, but it is likely to be more challenging.  I recognize that, but I refuse to view a law degree from a less prestigious institution as a deterrent.  It simply raises the stakes for you, and may limit some of your opportunities.  But, you will make your own opportunities if you really want to be a lawyer.  In fact, you will be better equipped than your colleagues who want to make money more than to make a difference.  They are the ones I feel sorry for.

This entry originally appeared on my web site blog at www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.  For more information about the Best Friends at the Bar project, please visit the web site.

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