If you’re thinking about law school, you should probably be thinking about what can I do with a Law degree, as well. You’ve probably considered some of the problems with getting a law degree: the prohibitive cost (up to $150,000 in debt), the challenging and time-consuming curriculum, and the three-year delay in tackling the “real world” and getting started on a career (and salary!)
On the flip side, you’ve probably heard numerous platitudes about the most lucrative “safety net” on the planet: “They can never take a law degree away from you”; “Law is just a stepping stone”; “You can do anything with a law degree.”
Let’s figure out what are the most common things to do owning a Law degree.
The Myth of the All-Purpose Law Degree
So, is it true? Can a J.D. really just be an extension of the liberal arts curriculum? Is this an all-purpose business degree you can get now, instead of working for a few years before getting an MBA? A security blanket if your dreams of becoming a writer, entrepreneur, or stay-at-home mother don’t pan out?
As you’ve probably already guessed from our tone, we’re not hedging our bets on this one. We feel strongly that a law degree is not a good degree to have just for the sake of having it (though there are certain exceptions we’ll deal with).
That’s because while you often see lawyers in a variety of careers and occupations, they’re usually there in spite of, and not as a natural progression of, their J.D.’s. While having attended law school and particularly having a background as a lawyer can be helpful in certain segments of finance and politics, it’s generally not something that has a lot of application in most careers.
The Path to Law School with Expert Guidance
It’s worth noting that the journey to a legal career often begins long before setting foot in a law school. Many aspiring lawyers seek the guidance of the best college admission consultants who specialize in helping students gain admission to top-tier universities.
Attending a prestigious institution can significantly bolster one’s chances of securing a coveted legal position upon graduation. These consultants, for example, Admit Advantage, with their insights and expertise, can be invaluable in navigating the competitive landscape of law school admissions, ensuring that students position themselves advantageously for future legal job opportunities.
What Can I Do With a Degree in Law
So, a few points about going after that law degree you’re not quite sure about…
1️⃣ People who go to law school become lawyers; most work at law firms.
Maybe you’re not excited about being a lawyer, but law school sounds fun. You enjoy being at school, or maybe you really liked your Constitutional Law class in college. You don’t really have any idea of what you want to do for a living (going to school forever sounds nice), and figure you’re really more predisposed to debating, arguing, etc. than anything else.
And best of all, by going to law school you can probably put off the decision for a few years and get a degree that everyone finds legitimate and respectable.
Well, here’s the truth: with rare exceptions, a decision to go to law school is a decision to become a lawyer, and probably to work at a law firm at least for a while. Despite professing an interest in a variety of public sector and other non-firm occupations upon arrival, the majority of law students consistently find work upon graduation at private law firms.
For example, less than 6% of Harvard Law School Class of ’01 graduates were hired by consulting firms, investment banks, or other corporate employers. Only 2.5% started their career in a public interest organization. Two-thirds of them headed directly into private practice, and another 23% into judicial clerkships (the majority of which are just stepping stones into private practice). As the economy worsened, those numbers assuredly did not go up. At Columbia, the numbers were 2% in business and 3% in public interest.
At less prestigious law schools, similar numbers may be employed by businesses, but usually in their general counsel office, as junior lawyers not more prestigious managers.
Why is this the case? For two reasons: the golden handcuffs and the realities of recruiting. Financially speaking, big-firm legal jobs have the highest compensation of any prospective employer-and even rival the salaries of consulting firms and investment banks. After incurring up to up $120,000 in loans, these jobs sound pretty good.
The only corporate jobs that pay that well for a recent graduate are those in banking and consulting, and most jobs that a newly minted lawyer would qualify for (assuming he or she had no prior experience in a field) would not pay nearly as much.
That brings us to the realities of recruiting. The vast majority of recruiters on campus at most law schools are law firms. And the rare non-legal employer does not have room on its interview schedule for many lawyers. Public interest jobs are also pretty hard to come by.
Of course, you can always volunteer your time, but that’s a tough proposition for most graduates.
2️⃣ Lawyers can change careers, but it’s difficult.
As lawyers progress in their careers, more are making the decision to leave the law, but such a move can be extraordinarily complex and even dangerous. There are a few paths that law students identify as ways out of a law firm. You can spend a few years at a firm, then go in-house, and then maneuver into management.
You can go into corporate work, do deals, and get hired by investment bankers. You can work on entrepreneurial matters and try to get hired as a general counsel of a small venture (althougth they’ll most likely be interested in your skills as a lawyer).
If you are thinking about public interest work, you can work for a couple of years at a firm and pay off debt and then jump to a public interest organization. You can begin working on political matters in your free time and then attempt to transition into a public policy job, or maybe try a stint as a lawyer on a congressional committee. They sound like plausible ideas, right? But they’re not easy paths.
First, as they move up in a firm, lawyers become more and more skilled at one thing-the practice of law-and not many other easily marketable skills. While prospective employers may value the intelligence of a lawyer, they also wonder about their relevant qualifications and abilities.
Most lawyers do not manage people. Most lawyers never even think about marketing. Many lawyers are very comfortable in an adversarial environment, but businesses are generally much more team-oriented.
Second, because of their lack of skills, even if they get a job, lawyers have to start at a lower (and lower-salaried) level. For example, when McKinsey hires an experienced lawyer, even a 6-7 year associate, they start him as a first-year associate, with a commensurate salary.
These lateral hires are no better off than the newly minted MBA graduate, or even the newly minted JD who is one of the few hired by that firm.
Third, the money is too good, and the debts are too big even after a couple of years of practice. This applies especially to those with public interest and public policy hopes, as well as to those jobs where lawyers must start back at square one.
After spending three years and $150,000 on a law degree, most new lawyers are facing a significant debt load. A job at a firm can pay anywhere from $80,000 (in small cities and small firms) to $150,000 at some large firms-and the salary can increase at 5-10% per year.
This goes a long ways towards digging out of that debt. It is hard to forego this financial safety net, even after paying down some of your debt. In some cases, financial aid can be an option, but not a lifesaver. These so-called golden handcuffs are a reality.
3️⃣ For a few non-legal paths, the law degree might make sense after all…but only a few.
For those readers who are shaking their heads and thinking that it can’t possibly be true that the law degree is mostly worthless outside the law (and legal positions inside other organizations), you’re right.
There are a few jobs for which the law degree certainly offers an advantage, or at least is looked favorably upon.
In politics, lawyers abound in local, state, and federal government offices and appointed positions. In some financial arenas, e.g., mezzanine debt or private equity shops, JDs or JD/MBAs have a clear advantage in dealing with the very complicated contracts and negotiations.
Some consulting firms, like McKinsey and BCG, open their arms to lawyers, believing that their sharp analytical skills and client relations perspective can serve them well in the client service environment.
At the end of the day, the decision to pursue a law degree is a significant one, laden with both potential and pitfalls. It’s essential to approach this choice with eyes wide open, understanding the most probable outcome: you’ll become a lawyer.
While the allure of diverse career opportunities might be tempting, the reality is that a law degree often channels its bearers into the legal profession, at least initially.
However, this isn’t to say that a law degree lacks value. For those who still thinking about what can I do with a law degree, and who are truly passionate about the law, or those who see themselves thriving in the legal landscape, a J.D. can be a powerful tool. It can open doors, provide a robust foundation for critical thinking, and offer a respected credential in various sectors.
But for those on the fence, or those viewing law school as a mere detour or backup plan, it’s crucial to weigh the commitment, cost, and potential outcomes against other paths that might align more closely with their aspirations.
In a world brimming with opportunities, it’s essential to choose a path that resonates with one’s true calling and not just the perceived prestige or safety of a particular degree.
Always remember, education is an investment — not just of money, but of time, energy, and potential. Make sure your investment aligns with your vision for the future.