Why You Should Not Go to Law School

02/18/2013 10:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2013
  • Tucker Max CEO of Book In A Box, #1 New York Times Best Selling author

At some point in their life, everyone thinks they should go to law school. You may in fact think you want to go to law school now.

You're wrong.

I don't know you, I have no idea what the facts of your life are, but that doesn't matter, you aren't the exception. For the overwhelming majority of people (>99.9 percent), law school is the wrong choice.

How can I know this? Because I've been you -- I went to law school for the same reasons you think you should go -- and I was wrong. I should never have gone to law school, and you shouldn't either.

If you're not thinking about going to law school, you can skip this whole post, or just send it to your friends who are thinking about going and thank your god that you're not them. But if you are one of the many thinking about law school, start by asking yourself one simple question:

"Why do I want to go to law school?"

Yes, it's an obvious question, but almost everyone in your position either overlooks it or avoids it with rationalizations. So answer it, right now, to yourself. You want an easy way to stay in school, you want to be guaranteed a good high-paying job -- whatever reason(s) you think you want to go to law school, spell them out and make them explicit to yourself.

I have heard every single answer to this question there is. These are the 6 wrong reasons I hear most often (see if your answer is in this list):

The 6 Wrong Reasons to Go to Law School

1. "I like arguing and everyone says I'm good at it."

Of all reasons to go to law school, this is the worst by a large margin. Know who else likes arguing? Sports talk radio hosts, cable news talking heads and teenagers -- i.e., idiots. If you like to argue just for the sake of being contentious, you shouldn't pick a job based on this unresolved emotional issue of yours, you should get counseling for it.

If you like arguing for the intellectual challenges it can present, that's an understandable and reasonable position. Everyone likes a healthy, intelligent debate right? Well, understand that being a lawyer has almost nothing to do with arguing in the conventional sense, and very few lawyers ever engage in anything resembling "arguments" in their commonly understood form. You aren't going to be sitting around a fine mahogany desk sipping scotch with your colleagues discussing the finer points of the First Amendment; you're going to be crammed in a lifeless cubicle forced to crank out last-minute memos about the tax implications for a non-profit organization trying to lease office space to a for-profit organization (if this gets your juices flowing, maybe the law is for you after all).

You won't even be having fun discussions in law school. In law school, the people who want to "argue" a lot are called "gunners" and are reviled by everyone, even the professors. Make no mistake about it: Law school is not a bastion of intellectual discourse. It is a fucking TRADE SCHOOL. You are all there to be trained to think and act exactly the same way as everyone else in the profession, so you can then be a drone in the legal system. No one is interested in your opinion. The only one of those that matters is the one expressed, with a capital "O", by the judge(s) in whatever case you are currently reading.

Beyond that, to be genuinely good at legal "arguing," you must be dispassionate, reasonable and smart. I have never met a person who was any of those things who also said they were going to law school because other people told them they were good at arguing. It indicates only the shallowest understanding of the law and pathetically sloppy critical-thinking skills. If arguing is really why you want to go to law school, save your money and start a blog about American politics where you can shout into the echo chamber of imbeciles all you want without bothering anyone smart who has things to do.

2. "I want to be like Jack McCoy from Law & Order [or insert your favorite legal TV show character]."

I have little sympathy for this perspective. It is 2012, if you still allow yourself to be misled by the bullshit on TV, it means you are either very naive or an unrecoverable moron, and you should immediately drown yourself in the nearest toilet to save the world the frustration of having to deal with you and your stupidity. Let me be VERY clear about this for you:

It is possibly less like the real thing than any other profession depicted on television. Every doctor I've ever talked to scoffs at shows like ER and House, but they all say that at least the diagnoses are connected to the physical symptoms we see and are treated with the proper kinds of drugs. In legal dramas, the exact opposite is the case. Don't think so? The next time you get a DUI (if you're going to law school to be like Jack McCoy this WILL happen), represent yourself and try to give a speech while questioning the arresting officer. You won't make it longer than 30 seconds before you're held in contempt and locked up for wasting everyone's time. Is that a little harsh? Maybe. Welcome to the grown-up world.

There is NO lawyer/law procedural that even remotely shows what it's like to be a lawyer. You know why? Because being a lawyer is not only soul-crushing, it's REALLY BORING, and that doesn't make for good TV. If you want to know what it's like to be a lawyer, go work in a law office for a summer. Or shadow a lawyer for a day or two. There's nothing like a day with a lawyer to disabuse you of the notion that anything in the legal profession is like TV.

3. "It's the only way I can use my humanities degree."

Having a soft major is nowhere near the career death sentence that so many make it out to be. The world is changing, and the U.S. economy with it. Our economy is shifting to a service and information based economy, and soft majors are already becoming more and more valuable.

Why? Because a services and information-based economy needs what the Humanities creates: literate, intelligent, well-read people who can write and communicate ideas effectively. The demand for these people is not going to flutter out. In fact, it will only grow stronger as the economy continues to shift and the supply of qualified candidates remains insufficient. Do not make the mistake of thinking law school is your only option. That is simply not true. In plain English: A humanities major now has many, many options they didn't have in the pre-Internet era.

Beyond that, this reason belies an assumption: That you have to get a job. When you finish school, everyone knows about the two most obvious options: 1. Get a job working for someone else or 2. Get more schooling. But there is a third option: Carve your own path in the world. This can take many different forms, like starting a company [for example see Paul Graham's piece]. Or it could take the form of many other sorts of lifehacking activities [for example, see Tim Ferriss' muse concept, or Chris Guilliebeau's $100 start-up concept].

If you limit yourself to the choices presented to you by people who one did one of those two things -- get a job or go back to school -- then you obviously aren't going to understand that. There are other ways to make a living, and lots of people following those paths, you just have to go look for them.

4. "I want to change the world/help homeless people/rescue stray kittens/do something noble."

Wanting to help others is great, but if you are one of those rosy-eyed dipshits who sign anti-sweatshop petitions while wearing Nikes (made in Vietnam by children) and listening to your iPod (made in China by Foxconn virtual slaves) you know what's going to happen when you finally go out into the world trying to change it equipped with just a law degree and a healthy dose of optimism? Life is going to kick you in the teeth. Repeatedly.

If you go to law school with just some vague notion of public service and no sense of real, directed purpose, you WILL regret your decision. My first day in law school, the entire class was gathered in a lecture hall and they asked everyone who wanted to be in public service to raise their hand. At least 100 people did. Do you know how many ended up in a public service job three years later? Three of them. The other 97+ didn't stop wanting to make the world a better place, they just didn't know what it actually MEANS to help poor people for $30,000 a year when they raised their hands three years earlier. They hadn't tested their moral resolve in the crucible of suffocating debt. A $140,000/year job at Skadden Arps is a hard thing to ignore when you're staring down the barrel of a $150,000+ debt burden and $1,700+ monthly loan payments that start real quick after graduation.

If you want to cultivate a life full of bitterness and resentment a good way to do it is go to law school thinking you're going to be a crusader for change, then end up having to become the very opposite -- a corporate lawyer drone -- to pay off your law school debt. This happens to pretty much everyone in law school. If you want to change the world, that's awesome -- go do it. Don't go to law school, having a law degree doesn't help you.

5. "I don't know what else to do."

If you are coming to the end of your schooling and don't know what to do, or just otherwise feel lost in life, you shouldn't feel bad. It's OK. You're not alone. At least you have an excuse: You're barely old enough to drink, you don't need to know what you're going to do with the rest of your life at this point.

If your parents and guidance counselors say that you should have already "picked a direction" or "figured out a plan for your future" by now, ignore them. The pressure and admonitions they are foisting upon you aren't about your happiness or your success; it's about theirs. It's about validating themselves as good parents and qualified counselors. If they see you go to law school, to them it means you a) got good grades, b) went to college, c) didn't drop out, d) didn't commit (m)any felonies, e) have ambition and f) will make six-figures. By every traditional measure, they have succeeded in their prescribed roles.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with whether you are happy or fulfilled or even like the law; which are the most important considerations when making a decision like this. So relax. If you need more time to find your calling, that's fine, take it. Try lots of things, see what you like. Try working in a law firm, you'll see REAL fast that you hate it (or you'll love it, and thus validate your law school choice).

6. "I want to make a lot of money."

If there's one thing you can't argue with, it's that lawyers make a lot of money, right? I mean, a corporate lawyer starts at something like $140k a year, that's huge, right?

Wrong. WRONG.

$140k+ to start sounds like a lot of money, until you break it down. Currently, most large corporate firms -- where you will find these six-figure starting salaries -- require somewhere between 1,900-2,000 billable hours from their associates. This is not the total number of hours you have to be in the office, this is the total number of hours of actual work you can bill directly to a client. For a smart attorney with a solid work ethic, it typically takes about 10 hours in the office to accrue 7 billable hours; tracked most often in 6 minute or 1/10th of an hour segments. If we take the lower end of the billable requirement threshold (1,900 hours), that means a typical attorney has to work about ~2,700 real hours in a year to meet their minimum billables. To put that in perspective, 2,700 hours is equal to working 7.5 hours a day EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE YEAR.

Using a $140,000 base salary, that's equivalent to making ~$50/hour [FYI -- here's a short list of other careers that pay $50/hour or more and do not require a) 3 years of post-graduate schooling and $150k in debt or b) you to work 365 days a year to get it].

This is what people mean when they talk about something that looks too good to be true. There is a reason so many lawyers leave the legal field: Being a lawyer -- especially a lawyer at the type of big corporate firm that seemingly pays so well -- SUCKS.

Perhaps the most important thing for you to understand, there are NOT an unlimited number of jobs out there that start at $140,000/year. In fact, there aren't many at all, and pretty much ALL of them go to kids who come from the Top 15 law schools. Beyond that, the overall legal job market has dried up, even the low paying jobs. They aren't going to tell you any of this at law school recruitment receptions; in fact schools continue to tell prospective students the opposite, which is why more and more of them are being sued for fraud.

I cannot be any clearer about this: You are not guaranteed a job out of any law school, much less a job that pays six figures.

Now, ask yourself the question again:

"Why do I want to go Law School?"

If ANY of the 6 above reasons describe why you want to go to law school, stop now. Seriously. No qualifiers on this statement, just stop. DO NOT GO. You will regret it.

If you think you have one of the good reasons to go to law school you're still not out of the woods:

The Problem of Debt

There are many perfectly valid reasons to go to law school. You may very well have one of them. But even if your reason for going to law school is rock solid, you still need to consider one major thing: Debt.

I've mentioned this multiple times above, because it is so crucially important to making the right decision about law school. Debt is the elephant in the room that law schools never tell you about, but ends up dominating your life.

Law school is three years long. If you go to an average law school and don't get any tuition help or scholarships, you are going to spend ~$150,000 all-in, at least. That's three years of tuition, assorted fees, books and living expenses. Unless you are one of the few whose parents set up a tuition fund for BOTH your undergrad AND your grad school, that means you are going to be taking loans. This means you are going to start your law job already 150k in the hole -- and that's not counting any undergrad debt you may be carrying. This means you are going be making a $1,700/month payment for about a decade. On just your grad school debt.

And make no mistake about it: Once you are in debt, they own you. In a straight-forward approximation, a starting salary of $140,000/year would put our intrepid new lawyer in the 28 percent tax bracket. Loan payments will take another 14.57 percent of his per-unit-time income. To a first-degree approximation then, it is accurate to say 42.5 percent of our INL's income dissipates before being touched by him/her. It'd be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Even if you started off law school with the best of non-profit save-the-world intentions, when you are staring a $1,700 per MONTH payment in the face, you WILL end up scurrying to work for a white collar sweatshop. And you will hate it, like everyone does, and you WILL want to leave, like everyone does, but you won't be able to -- like everyone else can't -- because you will have too much debt to pay off.

So you're going to spend a decade toiling 12 hours a day for what? To pay off the debt you incurred to get that job!? HOW CRAZY IS THAT!?!


But Don't Just Believe Me

I asked some friends who are lawyers to read a preliminary version of this post and give me their feedback. I'll leave you with their quotes:

I would HIGHLY recommend that anyone who is thinking of law school spend a year as a paralegal or as some sort of staff at a law firm before going to law school. Enough so that you can see 1) what young attorneys have to do 2) hear how much they bitch about hating it and 3) dispel any notions about ANY law firm caring about their associates or being "family friendly". Because that is a damn expensive mistake to make if you find out you don't like the practice of law. I went to a very good, very expensive law school and started out at a big firm. I hated it. I have since moved on to a smaller firm, which I do like more. But in all honesty, if I could do it all over, I would not go at all. And if I wasn't staring 100k in student loans in the face, I would probably quit firm practice altogether.

I have worked as a paralegal in some form of legal (family, bond, litigation) for 14 years now. I have yet to meet an attorney who is satisfied with his lot in life. I am not saying everyone non-esquire is thrilled with theirs, just that on a whole, these are some of the saddest, most down-trodden people I have known in my life. Most of my best friends are attorneys so I hear first hand about the student loans they are STILL paying off at 38; the huge houses and Mercedes' they purchased well beyond their means to "keep up with the Joneses" (a.k.a. every other attorney in the firm); the misery that is their ongoing marriages; the ridiculous hours; ice cold dinners; the utter lack of originality in their conversations; etc., etc., etc. Listening to these woes sucks the energy out of me everytime they come up. The most common nugget I hear: "Why, God WHY did I choose this profession?"

Nobody ever told me that I would be keeping time sheets that require me to divide my days into six-minute increments. Nobody told me I would have to choose between doing it right and doing it on a budget. The words "the client is cost-sensitive" burn my ears. But the marketing shit is the worst. The push to bring in business and schmooze potential clients and "cross-sell" within the firm. It's worse at some firms than others, but it is absolute misery to me no matter how much or how little marketing I may be doing. I've been practicing for 10 years, most of that time in big firms, and I have yet to get used to the business side of things. So I suppose that would be my take on things: even if you are going to law school for all of the "right reasons," odds are you will spend a significant portion of your day as the used-car salesman from Hell whose boss is nickle and diming you to an early grave.

As I write this, it is 85 degrees, sunny, with a slight, cooling breeze coming from the West. The only reason I know this is that I took twenty minutes to run to get a sandwich to eat at my desk. I am sitting in a basement office which houses three of us, putting off research on state law fair debt collection vs. the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the definition of a creditor to write this post. If that paragraph alone doesn't deter someone from law school, then I don't know what will.

And my personal favorite, from a friend of mine who is a partner at a huge multi-national firm:

I am a partner in one of the largest law firms in the world (measured by either revenue or # of lawyers). I had two associates pull all-nighters last night. I doubt either of them has slept more than 3 or 4 hours any night this week. I wonder if they are regretting their decision to go to law school? I'd ask, but I don't really care. Tucker, I'd really prefer if you did not do anything to cut off the supply of drones. Fortunately, the ones who will actually be persuaded by your speech are not the ones we want working here. I actually agree with everything you said in your speech. However, whoever posted the job satisfaction stat about 76 percent being unsatisfied, that means 24 percent are satisfied. You may be in the 24 percent.


Here is the funny thing about this piece: Every bit of knowledge in this piece was conferred to me before I got to law school. Much of it was told to me BY LAWYERS who repeatedly stressed how much they HATED their jobs. At this point, even the ABA is telling college kids not to go to law school.

You know what I did? I ignored it. I mean, sure all of those other assholes may be miserable and may hate the legal profession, but what do they know, they're only lawyers? If you're laughing at my ignorance, you're right to laugh. I was stupid.

Don't be me. Don't go to law school. Go do something with your life that you'll enjoy, is rewarding and productive and makes the world a better place.