Attorney at Work Classic
Truth About Going to Law School: Where’s the Value?
This summer, as graduates prepare for their next steps — whether they’re heading off to law school, or studying for the bar then starting a new job — it’s likely you know someone (maybe you?) who’s wondering: Is going to law school worth it? In this Attorney at Work Classic, Annie Little asked 10 high-profile lawyers this question: “Let’s say that you could return your law degree and get your money back. Would you?”
There’s no shortage of advice on whether or not anyone should attend law school. In most discussions, the prominent concern is money. Is the cost of going to law school worth the Juris Doctor? Is the initial debt worth the eventual (and increasingly unlikely) partner payday?
But after the money has been spent and the hard-earned J.D. hangs on your wall, the notion of monetary value becomes somewhat irrelevant. After all, it’s not like you can go back to your alma mater and obtain a refund.
Law School Value: Would You Ask for Your Money Back?
But let’s say, arguendo, that you could return your law degree and get your money back. With the “Esquire” stripped from your name and a firehose-like infusion of funds into your bank account, would you find yourself back at square one? Without any job prospects or opportunities? Or would you make out like a bandit?
As a “recovering” lawyer myself, I’ll admit the idea of a tuition refund sounds like the ultimate equalizer. But even aside from that hard-earned prestigious piece of paper, you’d still likely walk away with a valuable set of skills and experiences you wouldn’t have earned but for your legal education.
Skeptical? Of course you are — you’re a well-trained analytical thinker, Counselor. Which is why I asked these brilliant J.D.s to share with you the subjective value of their law degrees.
Below you’ll read accounts from 10 lawyers — practicing and non-practicing. Some who have no regrets about getting a law degree, and others who aren’t so sure they’d do it again. But, as you’ll see, each demonstrates their law degree is far from worthless.
Keith Lee: Outlet for Creativity
Law degrees get a bad rap these days. Rightfully so for many reasons. Many people who attend law school either don’t know what it means to be a lawyer, or discover they are not fit for the role. But for people like myself who made an educated decision to go to law school, knew what they were getting into and wanted to be a lawyer, a law degree is invaluable.
Before addressing any of the myriad ways in which my law degree has benefited me, I think it’s important to note that the most valuable thing my law degree has allowed me to do is become a practicing attorney. That’s why people attend law school. That’s not to say that alternative careers may not become available to law students, but the reason the vast majority of students attend law school is to become a practicing attorney. I thoroughly enjoy my practice: the clients, colleagues and work we do. Without my experience as a practicing attorney, I would not have had the other opportunities that came to me in my career.
Outside of being an attorney, my law degree has led to incredible creative outlets. While finishing my last year of law school, I started Associate’s Mind, a legal blog focusing on professional development for new lawyers. It quickly became one of the most popular legal blogs in the country. Associate’s Mind has led to writing opportunities in all types of periodicals and media outlets, as well as book deals with the ABA.
This writing and outreach, born from having a law degree, has also led to wide and deep relationships with attorneys across the country. Initial interactions on blogs and social media has led to phone calls and then to meetings with attorneys in person while traveling around the country. I count many people I have met as friends and mentors.
None of the above would have been possible without a law degree. And I don’t know if you can put a fixed value on the benefits I have received from having a law degree. But, I do know that given the choice, I would do it all over again without hesitation.
Keith Lee is the founder of associatesmind.com, a professional development legal blog for new lawyers. He is the author of the ABA bestseller, “The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice.” He also writes a weekly column for abovethelaw.com. Keith practices law with Hamer Law Group in Birmingham, AL. Find him on Twitter @associatesmind.
Vivia Chen: Intellectual Prowess
I went to NYU Law School, and I thought the students there were razor-sharp, outspoken, and sometimes outlandish (in good ways). They were New Yorkers — even if they weren’t from New York — which is to say they were edgier than the preppies at my undergraduate school or the Southern belles I went to high school with in Texas. So what I got out of law school were interesting class discussions that often veered towards heated political debates.
My law school professors, I’m sorry to say, weren’t always as interesting or sharp as the students. Some were plain dull and couldn’t even make a subject like Constitutional Law remotely lively. And some subjects (like Property) were just inherently deadly and probably beyond anyone’s salvation.
Despite what I regard as an uneven legal education, I got an immense intellectual charge from those three years. It taught me to think more logically, to back my arguments with solid support. As an English major in college, I was used to a bit more “fluff;” I loved luxuriating in metaphors, the cadence of words, etc. Law school, on the other hand, made me more direct, more forceful. Plus, it made me more argumentative — which is not a bad thing. It gave me a different perspective on how to approach problems, language, everything.
I believe I’m a better thinker and more concise writer as a result of going to law school. That said, I wouldn’t advise anyone to spend the $60,000 or so yearly tuition for this intellectual privilege.
Vivia J. Chen has been writing about the business and culture of the legal profession for over a decade. She is the creator and chief blogger of The Careerist, and a senior reporter for the American Lawyer. After practicing corporate law for five years in New York City, Ms. Chen worked as headhunter, interior designer, and ghost writer. She specializes in writing about careers, often focusing on women and diversity. Find her on Twitter @lawcareerist.
Alison Monahan: Keen Discernment
When people ask what I really learned in law school, they don’t typically like the response: To be an unyielding a**hole on demand. I know we’re not supposed to say things like that, when the profession wants to encourage civility and people I like and respect actively encourage lawyers not to be jerks. But it is what it is. Ultimately, it’s a very valuable skill — one that pays dividends in every area of my life … when employed judiciously.
Before law school, I did a different three-year graduate degree (in architecture), which I personally found much more challenging than law school. So, although I found the process of becoming a lawyer unpleasant in many ways, it wasn’t the hardest thing I’d ever done or anything like that, as it is for some people. I can’t say that it really improved my writing or research skills, because those were things I was already pretty good at. And I definitely don’t remember most of the legal trivia we had to learn for exams.
What becoming a lawyer did teach me was the importance of line drawing, and — at least occasionally — of drawing a line in the sand and refusing to cross it. Perhaps this seems obvious, but much of what we do as lawyers, and law students learning to be lawyers, is draw lines: “A tricycle is/is not ‘a vehicle’ for the following reasons.” “This product does/does not infringe this patent for the following reasons.” And so on.
In real life, people tend to resist hard lines: “Isn’t there a win-win approach we can take? Let’s just get along!” When there is, excellent. Take it! But, sometimes there’s not a win-win option. It’s a zero-sum game, and someone’s going to prevail. In that situation, having been trained as a lawyer is hugely valuable. With years of experience objectively examining the facts, you’re likely to identify the reality of the situation sooner, and to process the alternatives more accurately.
In business, it might be, “We only have X amount of time before this deadline. If we try to do A, B and C, we’re not going to finish any of them. So which ones are we going to jettison? We have to pick.”
In a relationship, it might be, “This is not behavior I’ll tolerate. If it doesn’t change, the relationship is over.”
To the fuzzy non-lawyer mind, such analysis can seem harsh. But the value of legal training is seeing clearly … even when the view isn’t exactly as you’d like it to be.
Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School and a co-founder of Law School Toolbox, Bar Exam Toolbox, and Trebuchet Legal. Before she got to work in her pajamas, she was a patent litigator. You’ll find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS.
Lee Burgess: Nimble Intellect
I decided to go to law school in 2003 when I was working as a consultant for a large consulting company. I knew that I wanted to make a career change and I just kept coming back to law school as the best option. Sure, perhaps it was because I am the daughter of two lawyers. But what I knew about law school was that even if at some point I decided not to practice law, a legal education was something I could always call on no matter what career path I took.
Although I had every intention of practicing law after graduation (but only did so for a short time), my career has taken a turn and I am now an entrepreneur. I use my legal mind every day at my job (and not just because I tutor law students for law school exams and the bar exam).
Law school teaches you to be an amazing student — so you can learn and understand complex things quickly. This is incredibly important as an entrepreneur because I am constantly learning new things to run and expand our business. My legal degree also makes me a smart businessperson, because I understand the legal ramifications of different business decisions. So I might not be putting my J.D. to use as I expected to — as I am not a practicing lawyer — but I still use it every day.
When I left the law firm, my goal was not to leave the law, but use my J.D. in a different way. I feel that running a business supporting law students, bar studiers and young and transitioning lawyers allows me to continue to contribute to the legal community even though I am not practicing law. Without my J.D., I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
Lee Burgess is the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox, a resource for law students that demystifies the law school experience, the Bar Exam Toolbox, a resource for students getting ready for the bar exam, and Trebuchet, a legal career resource. Lee has also been adjunct faculty at two Bay Area law schools where she has taught classes on law school and bar exam preparation. You can find Lee on Twitter at @leefburgess, @lawschooltools, @barexamtools and @trebuchetlegal.
Shannon Forchheimer: Immutable Skill and Moxie
When I graduated from law school back in 2005, a law degree meant money. I hadn’t gone into law school expecting that. In fact, I had planned on going into public international law (whatever that is). But after three years of school, six digits of debt, and a multitude of offers in a booming economy, I went with the big ticket, big law offer.
But as the cliché goes, money doesn’t buy happiness. And at a certain point, I realized that following the money didn’t fit me and what I ultimately wanted in life: Children. After six years of firm practice and two children, I quit. At that point, I wondered if my law degree had any value at all anymore.
What a waste of a degree, I would think. All that time, hard work, expense … for what? I certainly didn’t need my law degree to be a stay-at-home mom. Laundry, cooking, and running after two (and then three) small children didn’t require any legal skills. In fact, when people asked me what I did, I stopped telling them I was a lawyer.
Or was I? What makes a lawyer?
Law school, and practicing at two large firms, taught me practical skills. But it also taught me so much more. It taught me how to think, how to question, and how to analyze. It taught me how to deal with difficult people. It taught me how to prepare, organize, and research. It taught me how to think on my toes and speak in front of a crowd. It taught me not to ever take myself too seriously.
These skills don’t expire, and they aren’t limited to traditional legal practice. They have helped me manage my home life. They have given me the courage to start my own blog (and keep it going for nearly four years!). They have given me confidence in interviews for jobs completely unrelated to the legal profession, and they have enabled me to ultimately rejoin the legal profession, in an academic role.
You never know where your law degree will take you. For me, it took me in directions I never anticipated, and at times I thought it had abandoned me (and vice versa). But the great thing about a law degree is that the skills you learn in its pursuit will follow you for your lifetime. I am a lawyer. And I always will be.
Shannon Forchheimer graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2005. She then worked in the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and the DC office of Dickstein Shapiro. She left the practice of law in 2011, after the birth of her second child, and shortly after started the blog But I Do Have a Law Degree, which she has kept up to this day. Now a mom of three boys, she also teaches online classes at George Washington University, and is active in a freelance legal network, Montage Legal Group. In her spare time, she sleeps.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Professional Freedom
When I decided to go to law school I did a strict cost-benefit analysis. I was a second-career lawyer. I went to law school to get a legal education to navigate life, not necessarily to practice law, so there were many considerations when I applied.
My law degree ultimately proved quite valuable because not only did I practice for 13 years, which allowed me to pay off my student loans in full and build a life, it provided me the freedom to work as I wanted to work — for myself. I was my only inventory, my only employee. This meant that outside of my student loans, I had no financial responsibilities or monthly debt service for my business beyond basic operational costs. This is incredibly liberating and allows for freedom when making professional choices. More importantly, it allows you to open the door when opportunity knocks.
The doors I opened included writing for numerous legal publications, consulting within the profession on how to start a solo practice, fulfilling speaking engagements, and ultimately building a consulting business servicing my colleagues rather than providing legal services to clients. I eventually transitioned totally out of practice into another entrepreneurial venture, Solo Practice University, because I found I was happiest providing an environment where experienced colleagues educated and mentored budding solos.
There is a singular and grossly misinformed idea that once you get a law license, failing to use it strictly to practice law means that the degree has no value or you somehow didn’t live up to the value of the degree. But this is a false and limiting belief. A law degree is as valuable as you make it. I chose to use it multiple ways: to practice law and also as a stepping stone to what I will most likely be doing for the rest of my career — helping other attorneys create and build their own solo and small firm practices through the Solo Practice University platform. At the end of the day, I would not have been able to do any of it without my law degree.
Susan Cartier Liebel is the founder and CEO of Solo Practice University. She is also an entrepreneur mentor for LawWithoutWalls.org, an advisory board member for Suffolk School of Law – Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and a columnist for Above The Law. Follow her on Twitter @solpracticeu.
Michelle Wodynski: Ability to Course-Correct
My law degree has been extremely valuable to me. What’s most valuable to me, however, is how that law degree enabled me to get in the door at two top international law firms and secure a clerkship with a Superior Court judge in Washington, D.C. It allowed me to get the practical experience that jump-started my career.
I started law school after working for several years in various businesses and traveling the world to play and coach soccer. My view on law school was very different from my 18-year-old colleagues. Not only was I paying for law school myself, I was older and knew it was what I wanted to do. As an athlete and theater buff in college, sports and entertainment law was my ultimate directive. Working for an intellectual property law firm before and during law school helped me get practical experience while I completed my law degree. Both accelerated my learning and resume.
I took the large firm, big-money route right out of law school. It was invaluable experience, but my health suffered. Physical and emotional burnout finally set in after billing 2,400-plus hours one year, and living in a hotel for six months during a long, highly publicized trial. My hair was falling out due to stress-induced hormone problems, and I felt like crying (and drinking) all the time. One day, a recruiter called and presented a smaller entertainment boutique law firm. It was a good fit — great people, concern for work-life balance, and it allowed me to train for my first marathon. While it was a much better environment, I found the “quality of life” to be an issue, because it still is the practice of law no matter where you go.
After I became a mother and lost my husband in the same year, my priorities shifted dramatically. Once I regained my balance and sanity, I was able to start my own law practice, and now I love my job and my boss!
Michelle Wodynski is an IP and entertainment attorney in Los Angeles and founder of MDS Premier, P.C. Michelle has represented influential brands such as Starbucks, Mandalay Sports Entertainment, IBM, Victoria’s Secret and Absolut Vodka, as well as celebrities and others in the entertainment industry. But don’t put her in that “typical lawyer” category — she’s way more fun than that. Find her on Twitter @MWodynski.
Casey Berman: Inter-Industry Cachet
Or more intangible: Stature. Ego. Self-worth. Exclusivity.
When we leave the law behind and stop practicing, the value of a law degree in the non-lawyer world may be no less important. But the value can just be a bit more difficult for us to ascertain.
In a world of non-lawyers, having a law degree means we’re smart. Really … no fooling. Non-lawyers perceive lawyers as being smart and intelligent. And if you wear glasses, that only increases your smarts quotient.
In a world of non-lawyers, having a law degree means we’re disciplined. Law school admittance requirements are hard: It takes three years to complete, the books are really thick and the bar exam is no joke. Non-lawyers view having a law degree and license as requiring discipline and dependability.
In a world of non-lawyers, having a law degree means we can do a number of important things well that others cannot. We have the ability to negotiate agreements. We have the knack for handling sensitive and confidential matters. We are looked to as a source of rational, objective advice. We can interact with people of all kinds. We put out fires. We can understand complicated situations.
But in a world of non-lawyers, having a law degree can mean our skill set is considered “siloed.” Non-lawyers often think that we can only do law stuff. It takes work and patience to show non-law hiring managers that we can do other things.
In a world of non-lawyers, having a law degree means we’re not initially considered “creative.” People do not associate us with creative endeavors (design, marketing, development, ideas, or thinking outside the box), so it is incumbent upon us to foster those creative skills and strengths we may have stifled, so they can benefit others down the road.
In a world of non-lawyers, having a law degree means we’re risk averse. It’s in our nature to fear the unknown and change. We need to train ourselves to understand that life is messy and work is always changing.
For those of us who have stopped practicing or are thinking about leaving the law, the value of a law degree can at first be questioned. But just because we are not practicing doesn’t mean that our law degree is worthless. It just means its value and the perception of its value is identified in more nuanced ways.
But that’s where the fun is.
Casey Berman is a tech executive, investment banker and former in-house counsel based in San Francisco. Casey is also founder of Leave Law Behind, a blog and community that focuses on helping unhappy attorneys leave the law. He received his J.D. from the University of California, Hastings, and tweets @leavelawbehind.
Liz Brown: Effective Self-Advocacy
My law degree and professional experience as a lawyer were incredibly valuable to me in leaving law behind. Experience taking depositions helped me ask the right questions during the many informational interviews that helped me evaluate potential next careers. My legal training then helped me advocate first for other people and then eventually for myself.
When I decided to leave my law partnership and change professions, I had to convince someone else to hire me. The persuasive skills I had developed as a litigator helped me make the arguments, for example, that what I had done as a lawyer would be relevant and useful in my next role. I did this twice — first to become the executive director of an angel-investor group and then to become a tenure-track professor, which is my dream job. When I interviewed with the angel-investor group, for example, I explained that my experience working closely with corporate counsel at some of the world’s largest companies had given me the confidence and comfort I needed to work with wealthy and powerful investors. It wasn’t entirely true, but I am a strong believer in faking it until you make it.
As a professor, I use my legal training all the time. The rigor and precision I developed in my writing as a law student helps me develop the publishing record my academic job requires. Experience arguing motions before judges trained me to speak engagingly before a potentially intimidating audience. That is helpful every time I step up in front of a class of undergraduates or MBA students, or when I talk about career transitions to other groups. Managing multiple cases as a lawyer prepared me well for my post-law experience of writing my book, “Life After Law,” while holding down two part-time jobs and raising a toddler at the same time.
While my J.D. has been valuable in a lot of ways, I also have to mention that sharpening my arguing skills did absolutely nothing for my domestic happiness. I am just grateful that my patient husband did not also train as a litigator.
Liz Brown is a business school professor, a former law partner and author of “Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have.” Her insights on alternative careers for lawyers have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and the ABA Journal. Before changing careers, Liz practiced law at international firms in San Francisco, London and Boston. Liz is a Harvard Law School graduate and is an Assistant Professor at Bentley University. She tweets @lizafterlaw.
Marc Luber: Cherry on Top
Long before I started JD Careers Out There and long before I became an attorney recruiter, I graduated from law school with the goal of working in the music industry. As a young law grad, I had no doubt that, thanks to my J.D., the seas would part for me as I looked for work. It would be branded on my forehead that I’m smart, hardworking and a better candidate than anyone who didn’t invest the extra years in their education. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Needless to say, it was quite humbling to discover that nobody cared about my law degree. In fact, I was often treated like a crazy person. People would look at me with confusion and ask, “Why aren’t you just practicing law?” I eventually felt like if I heard that question one more time, my head would spin around and I’d projectile vomit green slime like in “The Exorcist.”
My first music industry jobs definitely didn’t require a law degree. In fact, they didn’t require much more of my brain than my high school jobs. But once I had paid my dues, built a foundation of knowledge in the industry, worked for reputable companies and developed both contacts and experience, I was hired for a music job because of my J.D. Just a few years out of school, I was hired to run a new, one-person department for a music company that required experience with and an understanding of contracts and intellectual property law as well as skills in sales, negotiation, organizations and management. I got to do fun things like negotiate a deal with “Fox News” for the use of our music in their TV segment intros and outros.
What I’ve learned from time, my experience and the experiences of others I’ve observed over the years and interviewed for JDCOT is that, if you’re going to pursue a nontraditional path with your J.D., then the degree may hurt you more than help you at the beginning of your career. But once you can combine some professional experience with your special skill set from law school and let people know what you bring to the table, doors will open and you will excel. Then, like me and so many others, you can go from frustration and wishing you’d never gone to law school, to being glad you did as you reap the benefits.
Marc Luber is the founder of JD Careers Out There (JDCOT), an online video resource helping lawyers discover what different career paths are really like, as well as how to achieve fulfilling careers. Marc is a graduate of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. After a first career in the music industry working for the Rolling Stones, A&M Records, Rondor Music Publishing and LicenseMusic.com, Marc made a career change to become a legal recruiter and is now based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JD_COT.
Wrapping It Up
The unifying phenomena among our esteemed contributors are the unexpected benefits (or unexpected lack thereof in Marc’s case) and unconventional career opportunities derived from their law degrees.
I’m no exception. If anyone had suggested career coaching to me as an alternative legal career, I would’ve rolled my eyes and marched into the law library to study harder. Believe it or not, I didn’t go to law school to become a career coach. But now that my law degree allows me to help lawyers transform their careers, I can’t imagine not having it.
Although I’m an advocate of using a J.D. to do anything, by no means is this two-part article intended to promote attending law school when you have no intent to practice law. Far from it. If anything, these personal accounts highlight how closely the value of a law degree is tied to legal practice, previous work-life experience and a whole hell of a lot of hard work.
Annie Little helps lawyers transform their careers into callings as the founder and resident career coach of JD Nation. Before becoming an entrepreneur and coach, she was a real estate and finance attorney for seven years. You can find her on Twitter @thejdnation.
Originally published by Attorney at Work in May 2015.