You don’t know how to use your law degree. Chances are, there are more ways than you think, and your professors and career counselors don’t necessarily know, either.
Some students report feeling misled by companies that appeared to be considering making a hire. Baldwin says it’s painful to see stories of young lawyers saddled with high student loan debt and struggling to find work as an attorney after they went to a school they probably couldn’t afford, thinking a degree from a well-known school was their golden ticket to a high paying job. But, he says too many people are forgetting that you can do more with a law degree than just practice law.
“There is probably not enough career guidance going on on what to do outside of law school and particularly what alternate uses there are for a law degree,” [Utah State Bar Executive Director John] Baldwin says.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. When I walked out of law school, I had enough debt to equal a small mortgage (in Texas), little knowledge of the actual practice of law, and few people on whom I could reliably call to get information. The few I did have–mentors, contacts, and friends I had developed during my time in law school–were invaluable. However, I had a blind spot: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I don’t think mentors or attorneys I looked to for guidance did, either. Law schools aren’t much of a help–they’re full of people who couldn’t make it in the real world, and you know what they say: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Professors usually don’t have a lot of experience using a law degree outside of the law, and often, not even a lot there. As for the career office, all too often they seem geared up to help the top 15% who make it into OCIs, and the rest are left to fend for themselves.
What would I recommend, then? Just because you’re not in that top 15%, there’s no reason you can’t have the career you want, or any other career for that matter. If nothing else, your JD opens up opportunities for you, any opportunity you can create or take advantage of. Take a lesson from Ramit Sethi, and learn to hustle, and start to do it right now.
If you’re a law student, start asking questions, now, and start with yourself. Know thyself. Knowing what you are willing to do will help guide your search to figure out what you can do with your degree. If going it alone, family law, trusts and estates, bankruptcy, or criminal defense is a bridge too far, then entrepreneurial work or a solo practice is not for you. If long hours and low-level grind is too much, then the firm may not be for you. But until you know what you are willing to do, knowing what you can do with a law degree will be next to useless knowledge.
Once you start figuring that out, start talking to people. I’ve learned that the people who know what they want to do manage to find ways to do it. Tell everyone what you want to do. For example, if you want to work in-house, tell everyone. You don’t know who might be able to help. Start calling companies to find internships in their legal department, and if they don’t have a legal department, find out who does their legal work, and call them instead. Talk to people about it, find mentors who are doing what you want to do, and start doing it (like this guy, Tyler, suggests). There’s no time like the now, before those pesky loans start coming due, to figure out how you’re going to use that law degree.
If you’re already out of law school, already working, or have been out for while, what’s to hold you back? The same principles apply: figure out what you want to do, start talking to the people who are doing it, and start doing it yourself. The nuts and bolts will follow.
- In Defense of Going to Law School: A Prudential Perspective (Part 2) (abovethelaw.com)
- Forced Mentorship Is Latest Response to Broken Legal Education System (abovethelaw.com)