The Friday Five
Was Law School Worth It?
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 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.
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 without that hard-earned prestigious piece of paper, you’d 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 10 brilliant J.D.s to share with you the subjective value of their law degrees.
Where’s the Value? Five Lawyers Weigh In
Below you’ll read accounts from five 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. Next Friday, we’ll hear from five more amazing law school grads.
1. 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.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
Be sure to read part 2 of this post next week. We’ll hear from five more law school grads who may or may not regret that they did it.
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.