A recent article in the New York Times, Is Law School a Losing Game?, has been making the rounds lately. Since we have a surfeit of lawyers in the Bloggernacle, I thought it might be a public service for us to talk about our experiences with law school for the benefit of our readers. I’ll roll the ball out to get us started:
1. The Decision to Go. My dad was sort of an advocate for law school. He thought Dallin Oaks did it just right: undergrad accounting, then a law degree, on the theory that if law school doesn’t work out, you’ve got something to fall back on. (And he was a frustrated attorney anyway.) So that was an influence.
When I returned from my mission, I was thinking about history, but the recession made me reevaluate. So I went back to BYU with the idea that I would do economics and then law school. At BYU I fell in love with classics and changed my major. For about a year I planned on going on to do graduate study in classical philology. But then my first child came along, and I decided to get more practical and opted for law school.
2. Where to Go? I went to an open house for the University of Chicago at BYU, and in my journal I expressed some interest in Columbia, but neither of those schools was a serious option. I didn’t have any money, so finances were a major consideration for me. I only applied to three schools: University of Illinois, BYU and UoU, and once I got into Illinois, that was that. (I had kept my Illinois residency with just such a scenario in mind.)
3. The Cost. I had a half-tuition scholarship. My recollection was that annual tuition was about $5,000 (I went 82-85). Each year I took out a $5,000 federally guaranteed student loan at 7%, and we were able to get by on that. (The idea of taking out massive loans wasn’t anywhere on my radar screen; I simply don’t know whether that sort of thing was common back then.) With a couple of undergrad loans, I graduated in 1985 carrying only a little over $19,000 in debt, which I easily repaid over the ten-year statutory period. For me it was a great investment.
4. What Was It Like? The modified socratic method you encounter in heavy doses your first year is indeed terrifying at first. You walk into class wondering whether this is the day when you’ll be publicly humiliated and eviscerated in front of your peers. Over time your fear of these encounters subsides, and the second and third years I don’t remember it being much of an issue. Other than that aspect of it, I enjoyed the experience. My professors were excellent, and my classmates were cool and sharp people.
5. Grades. I don’t recall getting a C before law school. But everyone in law school can say the same thing, and somebody has got to absorb those Cs. Unfortunately that was me first semester. I got two Cs, a C+, and two Bs. I was, needless to say, very disappointed and perplexed. I had been used to small graduate seminar style classes with intensive and immediate feedback from my professors; the large lecture halls were new to me, and I really didn’t have a good feel for what it was the professors were after in those essay tests. So after one semester I was in the bottom quartile of my class. Ouch! The second semester I got straight Bs, which was an improvement and for that semester put me in the top half (third quartile overall). I must have figured the game out (belatedly), because my grades shot up after that and I ended up in the top third, which is quite a trick when you start where I did. I even won the BNA Law Student Award, given to the student with the best upward progression in grades. Of course, to win that award you’ve got to start off poorly, and since the law school reward system favors those who start out hot (especially with invitation to law review), it was cold comfort.
[I didn’t go to law school with the idea of becoming a law professor foremost in mind, but I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t occurred to me along the way. But when I flamed out my first year, that was the end of that. You don’t have to be Nate Oman to become a law professor, but it certainly helps. (By which I mean that there is a sort of track to that end: Go to a top 5 school, make killer grades, get on law review, graduate near the top of your class, do a clerkship, publish a couple of articles, work a few years as an associate at a prestigious firm. I could have become a prof from a top 20 school like Illinois, but not after that first year flameout.)]
6. Getting a Job. Back then graduating top third from a top 20 school like Illinois was pretty much a guarantee to a good job. I ended up at a smallish (15 lawyers) municipal finance boutique in Chicago. I gained a specialty that really fits me and my personality well. Public finance is intellectually challenging, but it’s also a collegial rather than adversarial type of practice, what I call “win-win” law. We are instrumental in creating public works like roads, sewers, parks, schools, hospitals, airports, factories, you name it. And it is a more genteel practice than most when it comes to balance and quality of life, which was important to me.
7. Would I Do It Again? I would definitely do it again in 1982. In a way it really was the educational equivalent of a lottery ticket. My job is not terribly secure, but I am compensated well, and I thoroughly enjoy what I do. Knowing what I know now would I try it in 2011 and no guarantee that I would get the same result? No, probably not. Even Illinois is so expensive now I’d have to take out loans of over $100,000, and the job market stinks, as described in the article linked above.
8. What Advice Do You Have for People Considering Law School? Go to the best school you get into and hope you do well academically. If that happens, it’s still a lottery ticket that is well worth the investment in loans, and you’ll still be able to pay those loans off eventually. Otherwise, I would seriously consider pursuing a different career.
Those are some quick thoughts on my experiences. Tell us about yours.