Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Do College Students Really Want - And Can They Get It From Law School? - Part 1

When I talk to people considering going to law school, I usually try to figure out what they really want from it.  Not the BS, surface reasons like - "law is my passion" (really?  REALLY?) or "I like to help people" (you don't need to spend $200K to do that - get any job at a charity, you will probably be better off than going to law school) - but the real reasons.  The deep down reasons.  The reasons that aren't so nice or so PC.  The reasons that they don't even want to admit to themselves - because it is only through the filter of their conscious minds that they can rectify their unconscious need for that they really want with what they have been told (or told themselves) is appropriate.  The reasons that they have been taught that (although true and accurate in the purest sense) will bring condemnation from society if spoken frankly.

In short, I try to get a glimpse of who they really are and what they really want.  For a few, they are a good match for law school - but most of the others often want something that law school - or even a law career - can't provide.  Let's take a look at the most common things that the people that I meet really want - and whether they can get it from law school.

First, people that did not graduate in the lat 5 years need to recognize that the competition in colleges has greatly increased.  That means that not only did the competition itself evolve, but the people competing have had to evolve and the impact of the increased competition on them gives them a different experience - which in turn impacts their world view.  Imagine you are a college student today that has managed to fight your way into a top college.   (Let's limit our consideration to top colleges - virtually anyone can get into some "college" today and the value of a "college degree" has been very much diluted.)  Competition today is really fierce, and unyielding at top colleges - the students that have won the competition and gain entry and are doing well have usually been single-mindedly focused on their goal of getting good grades for years upon years.  Consequently, let's look past all the "leaning is my passion" BS that some people expect the students to spout - frankly, "enjoyment" or "passion" would only have gotten the students so far (and not far enough to out-do the competition) and the rest is single-minded determination, absolute focus, the ability to delay gratification, and maybe desire for or fear about the future - or a combination of the two.

As this college student, you recognize that you have assets of intelligence and the ability to do work and you want to exploit those assets in the most reliable and effective way to achieve your goals - although you may have trouble explaining exactly what you want and may even feel a little guilty or mercenary to explain it that way.  However, you haven't put in all this ginding, painful work over the last several years and passed up so many fun opportunities to let your work go to waste - you want to get as much out of it as you can.  So what do you really want?

Well, you want money - lots of it.  (You probably have been taught that it is impolite to phrase it as "lots", but you definitely want to have more than the average US worker's $40K - so you really do want "lots".)  Money represents freedom and power and pleasure.  With money you can have stuff that you want, live with less worries, and generally make your life easier.  Also, although you may or may not realize it, you also want job security - the ability to consistently earn money year after year for as along as you want to earn it.  In addition, you want to do a job that doesn't suck - but you recognize that work is work - in fact you anticipate that work will be much like going to school has been for you in that 1) you will be given a series of highly regulated and overseen tasks to do, but 2) you will get to pick the general subject/career that those tasks will be in.  Also, you may not realize it yet, but you also want time - sometimes called "work/life balance" - time to go on vacations once or twice a year, time to take off a couple weeks when your child is born, time on the week nights and week ends to be with family, socialize, or just vegetate.  I will shorten these to: 1) Money, 2) Job Security, 3) Appealing Job, and 4) Free Time.  (There are other aspects that I frequently see people wanting, but these four are pretty much universal.)

So you look around and you try to identify a modality to allow you to most effectively exploit your assets to achieve your goals.  However, although some metrics are fairly easy to come by (such as average starting salaries which inform you about the "Money" metric) other metrics are not transparent at all or are very vulnerable to subjective interpretation or misinformation.

For example, if you consider a "good work/life balance" to be one in which you are home at 6pm, don't work on weekends, and can take two weeks off/year - and you hear a potential employer pitching their "great work/life balance", you may assume that the employer and yourself share the same vision of "great work/life balance".  Instead, their idea of a "great work/life balance" is you working until 9pm on weekdays, spending 6 hours on e-mail both on Saturday and Sunday and either not taking vacation or taking "vacation" where you are logged in to e-mail and available for 6-8 hours/day.  Consequently, you have a hard time getting good, solid data about the "free time" aspect - you may think you have good data, but you are often deceiving yourself.

Also, the "Appealing Job" metric is pretty hard to get a handle on.  You don't really know what it is going to be like to work in a specific job - especially one that you will be doing for year-after-year once the novelty has worn off.  You can get a better idea by interning or doing a co-op, but they may be hard to come by and really only show you a brief glimpse of a job- not how the understanding of your job will change over time, how you will come to view your job over time, or how your responsibilities and tasks will change over time.

Similarly, the "Job Security" metric is tough to evaluate - it is really asking you to look into the future, maybe up to 40 years in the future when you are in your 60s.  That's very tough to do under any conditions.  It is especially tough to do when you have not even started working at a specific job and don't have a few years under your belt to get a sense of where the industry - and your company - are going.

So you default to Money as a metric.  Here you can get a wealth of statistics that (at least at first glance) seem reliable.  However, you really do have 4 goals that you would like to maximize.  Unfortunately, in the absence of clear metrics for three of those goals, you are unable to develop a plan that maximizes the combination of the 4 goals.  Instead, you find yourself defaulting to a plan that maximizes the metric for which you have data - Money. You can tell which options seem to make the most money - and you subtly diminish the remaining factors by filling in "soft" data in the absence of hard metrics.  For example, instead of hard data with regard to job security of lawyers, you might say to yourself "we will always need layers, right?" or "there have always been lawyers and always will be, right?" or "you can do anything with a law degree".  Further, in the absence of hard data about the day-to-day work of a lawyer (or in response to misinformation provided in sales pitches by law school recruiters) you may fill in the Appealing Job metric by saying to yourself "lawyers are a very respected profession" or "lawyers get to work on interesting things", etc.

If you are that college student, then I urge you to be selfish and to be smart.  (Sounds strange, doesn't it?) Selfish because it is really your own life and you need to decide what is best for you - only you can arrive at the balance of the four factors that will work for you - and will work for you not just for a month or a year, but for a decade or more.  Take some time to think and identify what you really want from the working world.  Identify how YOU want to balance the four factors.  Also, stick to your guns!  If you decide that you want to be able to have evenings free, then stick to it!  Don't be persuaded to give up your evenings for a little more money - not because of any moral "good", but because it just is not going to be effective for you in the long run.

That is, you might think that having that little extra money may make you happier - money makes people happy, right?  To an extent it does, but there is a point of diminishing returns - and it is not a specific dollar amount.   Instead, everyone has a balance of the 4 factors that works for them - and each factor (and the balance) is different for all of us.  However, if you don't know yourself - if you transgress from your personal balance - for example by sacrificing Free Time for Money beyond the extent to which you are internally prepared to sacrifice it, you will find that the additional money really does not have the positive impact that you expected (and that could happen at $30K or at $200K, depending on your personal aspects).

What brought this on is that I have interacted with literally 20-30 undergrads in the last year who have come to me saying that they "want to go to law school."  However, when we really dig into what they really want it turns out to be the four factors outlined above, and law school is the modality that they believe will allow them to achieve them.  However, law school and a career as a lawyer typically does not match with the actual personal balance of the four factors that the potential law student has.  In the next post, I'll take a look at each of the four factors, compare them to what the students typically really want, and then compare them to what law school can actually provide.


  1. I recently met a woman (still an undergrad) that expressed a desire to attend law school. She's studying for her LSAT at the moment. I tried to talk to her (as I was studying for another bar exam) and let her understand the risks involved based on my 10 years of experience in the crappy and unstable profession. I asked her point blank why she wants to go to law school. You know the answer, you've heard it a million times before .... I WANT TO HELP PEOPLE! Why is it that these lemmings have to delude themselves into thinking that they have to "help" people by going to law school? This topic came up recently on another blog and I had to comment that every single one of my girlfriends in law school fell into this "do gooder" mentality, whether it was a desire to act on behalf of children (guardian ad litem), or some such bullshit. Can't these people just be honest for a change?

  2. 8:27 - I have also heard the same thing so many times! Here's something that I'm not sure that applies to 100% of the "help people" people, but it certainly applies to some - In many places today, kids are being educated/brainwashed that is it "wrong" to want money - that wanting money makes them a "bad person". However, the reason "to help people" is always "right" - it's one of those reasons that the people telling them "money is bad" will never question, so it is a good answer for anything. (Why are you selling lemonade? To help people. Why are you loaning money? To help people. Why are you building houses? To help people. Why do you want to work at McDonalds? To help people.) For a certain substantial percentage of the people that are attending law school, it's not that they are deluded into thinking that they will be helping people - its that they expect that giving this answer will bring them your approval for their decision. Admittedly, some are certainly deceived, but some are definitely crafty - and others just seem to use it to get people to stop questioning their decision - through trial and error they have kind of backed into it and don't really understand how it works.

    Additionally, law schools are adept at selling, so they craft their sales message to fit with their potential customer's desires to the greatest extent. The potential law student has been raised in an environment where people "helping people" has been met with social approval - social approval that they crave. The law schools recognize their desire for social approval and actively market to them that purchasing the law degree will allow them to "help people" and thus receive the desired social approval.

    You can tell that they crave the social approval because they rarely seem to want to help other people in an anonymous or invisible fashion. Instead, they want their name splashed large and to be famous for "helping others". In this regard, I think that we have to view their desire to "help others" as something other than an altruistic act. Instead of expressing greed for money, they are greedy for social approbation.

    In either case, I have to agree with you that the potential law student is sadly, utterly mistaken about the likely impact of getting their law degree. I often ask such people what they are doing right now to "help people" - interestingly enough, about 50% are not doing ANYTHING to help people right now. That usually exposes their answer as BS from the get go. For the other 50% who ARE doing something, I usually ask them why what they are currently doing to help is not enough and why they think law school will let them help people more. This often gets them thinking. (For the charity that you like to volunteer at, don't you think that you will have less time to do it if you are a lawyer? How much are you going to be able to donate when you are saddled with $200K in loans? Do you think that the charity will be able to afford to pay you enough to pay off your loans and live? etc.)

  3. Just a little addition to my answer - I noticed that you mentioned that all of your girlfriends were in the "to help people" category. One thing that I think that we need to appreciate is the differing impact of gender here. For example, much research has been done about how women are typicaly much more social and "consensus-based"/"social approval seeking" in their decision making then men. Also, think of the likely reactions from an average person in our society to the question of "why do you want to go to law school" in the following two situations: First, a man says "to make money". Second a woman says "to make money". I think that you are likely to see stronger surprise/societal disapproval in the second case.

    Don't get me wrong, I am male and women don't get a free pass - but I think that it is only fair to recognize that they are under additional/different pressure as compared to men from 1) their immediate circle of friends and family, and 2) society as a whole. Of course, that makes the law school's selling of the "help people" reason to go to law school (when it is false) all the more reprehensible.

  4. Thanks for the good post, as always. One point of debate - you address the question of whether law school is a good investment in a vacuum. That is, assuming law school isn't an efficient way to achieve those 4 factors, what is? If your average person 10 years out of law school could have chosen again with perfect hindsight, would they have stopped going to school after undergrad and gone into a different profession? After high school and gone into sales? After middle school and to McDonalds? How does one determine what to do, instead of just what not to do?

  5. MJP - that's a great question and I will address it in a future post. Stay tuned.

  6. None of the four factors is static, of course. A job that appeals to you in your 20s may no longer appeal to you in your 40s or 50s, even within the practice of law. I know many lawyers who have always loved trial work but find that they just don't have the energy for them when they get older. Many try to transition to appeals but they don't have the writing skills.

    The balance of the four factors may change over time - it may have to, whether you like it or not. A lot of younger people value free time highly and expect to get it from the very start. That's not realistic in many legal jobs. Most of us who have been practicing for a while remember having very little free time when we were starting out. We were only able to adjust our practice to have more time and independence after we'd acquired a certain amount of experience. A young lawyer who is unwilling to pay some dues early on may be limiting what will available later on.

    Job security is very hard to predict. How much work are land use and real estate lawyers getting in this economy? Probably not as much as bankruptcy lawyers, who weren't making as much when the economy was booming. (This varies by region, of course.)

    There's always some area of law that is active, but if all your experience is in field A and you know nothing of field B, you won't be able to just jump over to field B when the work in field A dries up. Aside from the problem of the learning curve, you'll be competing with the experienced lawyers who've been in field B all along.

    I'd counsel young wannabes to get in the habit of asking themselves, "Where do I want to be in 5 years? Where do I want to be in 10 years?" before they even start law school. That means doing research, talking to lawyers who are actually practicing in the areas they find most attractive, and continuing to ask those questions throughout their careers.

  7. 11:56 - Good points! With regard to the change in appealing careers, there is also the "learn something new" aspect. For example, someone wants to be a trial lawyer, works for years and then gets to first chair some trials. How many does it take until it gets boring? Gee, I really hope that you have your loans paid off by then or else its golden handcuffs time (Hint: it will take less than the 25 years of the new IBR for you to get bored!)

    Your comments about the balance changing over time are also dead on. I can actually see it happen over the course of about 2 years when new people start. At first, they throw themselves into it and don't seem to want any time for themselves, but after two years they really come to value that time.

    I have heard the "5 year, 10 year" thing talked about, but by itself students seem to fill in things that are unrealistic (Step 1: Law school, step 2: ????? (or "work as a lawyer" which is just as vague), step 3: Profit, yacht, and retirement). It's the second part of your statement that I have to really second as valuable - they need to get in the habit of doing the research, talking to people - and getting to really know themselves and what they actually want - so that they can craft a 5 and 10 year plan that is based on realism, not fantasy. Thanks!

  8. I think one factor you may be overlooking is almost too simple: undergraduates know they need to do SOMETHING after college, and they don't know what on earth to do other than follow certain narrow, familiar pathways.

    Think about it: You're a Good Student(TM). You've been told all of your life to Work Hard in school to get Good Grades and High Test Scores so you can get (stay) on the Right Path to get into the Right College and Do Well there so that you

    Uh-oh! You jumped through all the hoops, you got into the Right Collge, you got Good Grades, you Won Awards - in fact, that's ALL you've done, since you were barely out of diapers! And of course, you've always been rewarded for it with praise and approval. But the all-consuming pattern you've followed your whole life is coming to an end! OMG! What on EARTH will you do next? You probably know nothing - zip, nada, zero - about life outside of school (or school-like institutions).

    Well, if you're not a science person who prepped for Med School, then there's always....Law School! Yeah, that's it! You take a Test and you get a Score and you do Applications for Admission to a Highly Ranked Institution and you Win the Next Award of Acceptance, after which you go and Work Hard for more Good Grades and try to win some more Awards! It's all very familiar and safe, right? Sign me up!

    I didn't go to law school, but if I had, it would have been for the reasons above. (I got lucky - someone pointed out the above to me, I actually took it to heart, and feel like I dodged a bullet.) But I saw lots of people going to law school, and IMO most of them didn't go for money or to do good or anything. They went because it's the Next Thing To Do if you're a Good Student who doesn't have any better ideas.

  9. 9:22 - Great comment! I certainly agree with a lot of what you are saying. We have to acknowledge the inertia and the continuing of a message that the students have been receiving their entires lives as a factor pre-disposing them to law school.

    Although this belief and intertia certainly push them in the direction of law school, I have to think that they would not go unless they could convince themselves that it was to their advantage. Of course, the intertia would make them more vulnerable to accepting "soft answers" from salespeople rather than getting hard data.