Why do you want to go to law school?

Andrea Swanner Redding, J.D. Director, Career Services Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College

“Why do you want to go to law school?” Or, “what do you want to do with your law degree?”

Ask a prospective law student either of these questions and you may learn more from what they don’t say than from what they do. Some want to save or change the world. Some want the power, prestige and money they believe comes with a law degree. Some have no idea what they want to do and find themselves going to law school by default. And some, the fortunate ones, decide to go to law school after careful analysis of the time, effort and money involved, with a realistic expectation of what life as a lawyer will be like and the career options a law degree will offer them. These are the prospective students we want to encourage to go to law school, the ones who will find practicing law an exciting, challenging and rewarding career.

The decision to go to law school is, in itself, not a career choice. Instead, law is a field of study that offers the recipient a wide range of career options, each requiring different skills but also possessing common characteristics. The options are endless in terms of practice areas and work environments. Lawyers might find themselves arresting a ship or zoning a playground, working independently in their home or with others in a high rise corporate office. Lawyers can practice law by helping clients plan to avoid problems, by solving problems once they develop, by representing and counseling businesses in a particular industry, by representing individuals sharing a common status or problem and by appearing (or not appearing) in court.

I am not suggesting all prospective law students must have decided, before entering law school, the specific career path they intend to follow. In reality, most who think they do know will change their mind many times before graduation. But I am suggesting that prospective law students need to recognize that a wide variety of career options are available. And, as a result, that they must accept responsibility for a proactive, not reactive, role in their own career planning. Students must avoid making career decisions based on the same reasons underlying their decision to enter law school–for money or prestige or by default. Instead, students must use the same critical and analytical thinking skills they demonstrated to get into law school, the same skills that will be necessary to succeed in school and as a lawyer, in making their career choices.

Different types of legal careers require different skills and satisfy different interests. One lawyer may negotiate the terms of an agreement for the sale of a business, another may draft the agreement, and yet another may defend the terms of the agreement in a court action. The abilities and interests necessary to flourish as a tax lawyer for a large law firm are different from those of a juvenile rights lawyer for a legal aid office. Prospective students should understand that in making decisions about what type of practice to pursue they will need to take the time to identify their own skills and interests and match them to the demands of a particular career.

Different legal practices also share in varying degrees some common skills and characteristics. Skills generally required include analytical thinking, creative writing, research, communication, counseling, problem solving, negotiation and the ability to work independently. The life of most lawyers is not full of the glamour, excitement and financial rewards popularly portrayed. Lawyers must tolerate, and hopefully thrive on, the adversarial nature of law practice and the hard work, long hours, and stress of juggling numerous projects and the competing demands of clients. And although all lawyers may not necessarily agree on which features are positive and which are negative, aspiring lawyers must determine if they will enjoy a career where these features are, to a degree, inevitable.

In my experience as a law school career services director, the students who enter law school understanding the realities of law practice and then explore the career options available to them enjoy their legal career after school. The ones who go to law school with unrealistic expectations, the ones who want to save, run, or buy the world, or who believe that their decision to go to law school is the only career choice they need to make, are the ones most likely to be unhappy and dissatisfied. These are the ones who, after several years of practicing law, will return to my office and ask what else they can do with their law degree.

Fortunately, more prospective students appear to be making informed choices. Law school career services directors report they have talked to more prospective law students in the last three years than in the previous ten years. This “new breed” of prospective students have an increased awareness of the realities of law practice and an increasing desire to know as much as possible about what life as a lawyer will be like and what their options will be upon graduation.

It is crucial that aspiring lawyers be challenged to ask themselves why they want to go to law school and what they want to do with their law degree. Given the investment of time and money, the decision to pursue a career in law deserves careful consideration. Prospective law students should make a decision based on accurate self-analysis, correct perceptions about the life of a lawyer and realistic expectations so they will find an exciting, challenging and rewarding career.