This recent article from US News and World Report noted that although the legal job market is contracting, the number of people taking pre-law examinations (LSATs) is increasing. That is not healthy.

I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years. I enjoyed law school, and I am proud to be a lawyer. I’m a partner in a major law firm, I teach at a great law school, and I have counseled numerous people about law school choices over the years. During that time, however, I have heard a lot of terrible reasons for pursuing a career in the law. Here are the ones that make me cringe the most:

1. “I don’t know what to do next.” I heard this from classmates at Harvard Law School 23 years ago, and since then I’ve heard it repeatedly from college high achievers (and even middle achievers and under-achievers) who don’t know what the next step should be. Correctly believing that a law degree can open lots of possible avenues, some people erroneously conclude that it is a great idea to go deeply into debt to avoid the harsh reality of living with ambiguity for a few years while they learn about the world outside of college. This makes no sense. Law school is expensive. The $120,000 to $150,000 that they would spend on law school may be better spent learning what they really want to do.  There are ways to get some clue whether law school is a good fit. (This article, for example, describes using the Myers-Briggs Indicator.)

This “I don’t know what to do next” view may be especially intriguing for college students right now. They see a bad job market. They hope to delay their entry into that market. Law school, under this line of reasoning, is a way to delay the job search for three more years. Maybe things will be better then.

Or maybe not. It is not unreasonable to expect that the economy will be in better shape, but will the newly-minted lawyer want to be a lawyer in that market?  Do they really want to be a lawyer at all?  The three years that they spend learning something they may not be interested in could be used to add credentials to their resume, learn practical skills, explore possible other career areas, or actually help other people. Any of those activities may help clarify whether law school is the right path. Law schools will always be there. They accept 24-year-olds as readily as 21-year-olds.

I cannot emphasize this enough:  if you are considering applying to law school because you don’t know what else to do, STOP.  Examine your goals and values. Spend a year or two working.  That will broaden your awareness. It will not decrease your attractiveness to law schools. In fact, it could markedly enhance your application if you find something interesting or provocative to do in the interim. And if you take that time, you will enter law school with greater maturity and more confidence that law school is the right choice. In my experience as a law student, practitioner, and academic, student who took time between college and law school were more comfortable with their career path, and often performed significantly better, than those who did not.

2. “My [parents/relatives/others] expect me to go to law school.” Whenever anyone lets someone else tell them what to do with their career, they are setting themselves up for frustration and disappointment. There are lots of ex-lawyers out there who first disappointed themselves by going into an expensive and pressure-filled career that they did not want, then later disappointed those who’d pushed them into that choice in the first place.

3. “I want the megabucks.” Here’s a hard fact: many lawyers do not make very much money. New associates from premier law schools (say, the top 14) who go into private practice at elite law firms may make more than $150,000 to start. Those who survive the sometimes-arduous “partnership track” and become partners in such firms may well make millions of dollars. But most lawyers do not make that kind of money.

As this article notes, some lawyers may make $35,000 to start. Indeed, many new lawyers have trouble finding any jobs at all.

Moreover, there are better paths to obscene riches. Research shows that, by and large, people who make large amounts of money tend not to rely on hourly billing models. Instead, they find some sort of widget (physical or intellectual) that they can replicate at low cost and sell at a significant profit margin. Law practice is not built on that model.

4. “I want to be in court all the time.” No, no, no. Many lawyers never go to court at all. They negotiate business deals, write contracts, work in-house at a company as a legal counselor, research and prepare tax documents, or pursue other areas that never get them to the courthouse door. But even among those lawyers who consider themselves trial lawyers or litigators, one hears an almost constant refrain that there are too few opportunities to appear in court. Most litigators spend most of their time outside the courtroom: researching, writing, and negotiating with opponents and clients.

5. “I like things in black and white.” It is difficult for a seasoned lawyer to understand, but many prospective lawyers believe that the law is laid out, settled, and clear. That’s not the case. There are, no doubt, “black-letter” legal principles, but those are not usually what people argue about. Instead, as one of my law professors put it, we argue about the inevitable gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities. Particularly at the more expensive end of the legal profession, clients do not come to you because there is an easy answer to their legal problems. They come to you for creativity, an ability to predict what the law might be, and the persuasiveness to advocate that position compellingly.

6. “I like to make decisions.” Decisiveness is a solid trait, and it does come in handy in the profession.  Lawyers often choose tactics and advocate strategies. They choose what to review before providing advice, drafting a paper, or making an argument. But note that lawyers are not ordinarily the ultimate decision maker. Lawyers counsel clients. Clients make decisions. Lawyers argue to judges and juries. Judges and juries make decisions. As a rule, lawyers advise and argue. Others decide.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are many good reasons to choose to be a lawyer (I will write about those in a future post), and many people have long, rewarding careers in the legal profession.  If any of the reasons above are pushing you toward applying to law school, however, think again.