The Friday Five
Was Law School Worth It? Part 2
Is the cost of law school worth the Juris Doctor? Is the initial debt worth the eventual (and increasingly unlikely) partner payday? In last week’s Friday Five (“Was Law School Worth It?“), Annie Little asked five high-profile lawyers this: “Let’s say that you could return your law degree and get your money back. Would you?” Today, we hear from five more fascinating lawyers.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Casey Berman — Inter-Industry Cachet. The value of a law degree is often determined in relation to what it can get practicing lawyers. It can be very tangible and measurable: A clerkship. A BigLaw job. A high salary. A career path.
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.
4. 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 the author of the Amazon best-seller “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.
5. 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.