June 2, 2010

Law Students: There Is No Pot Of Gold

If you are in law school right now, in California, chances are pretty good that by the time you get your J.D. you're going to have spent $100,000 on your legal education.  And if you're like I was, you've borrowed that money.  In some parts of the country, that's what it costs to buy a house.  Only you can't default on student loans; you can't even bankrupt out of them.

The sad reality of it is, the majority of you law students aren't going to be getting $100K+ jobs.  Some of you will, of course, selling your souls to BIGLAW, which will entomb you in a dungeon of massive billable hour obligations.  Although apparently well-paid, you will be celibate, divorced, unappreciated, and soon come to regard sunlight as something of a novelty.  The rest of you, the majority of you graduating from schools other than UCLA, USC, Stanford, or Berkeley, will wind up practicing law under your own shingle or in small to medium-sized firms.  You'll make between $40,000 to $80,000, depending on a variety of factors.

From this, you will need to 1) service your student debt, 2) support yourself, and 3) underwrite your own personal sales and marketing efforts so as to increase your value in the future.  You aren't going to be living nearly as well as you probably dreamed of.  The reason for this is partially the economic times, partially the competition (there are a lot of other lawyers out there) and partially the effect of all that debt.  In my experience with less dramatic numbers and less crushing competition many years ago, for a couple of years there was almost no discretionary money after paying for a modest apartment (which I shared with a roommate) and servicing my student loan debts.  You will be in danger of relying on liquid credit to sustain something resembling the lifestyle you had hoped to enjoy as a young attorney, and you will need to find the willpower to consistently resist that temptation.

As the President of the California Bar points out, your law school isn't going to tell you any of this.  Your law school is going to lie to you and tell you everything is going to be great, you'll be out of debt in a flash and in a position to make generous alumni donations.  But this is the truth:  becoming a lawyer in today's world gives you, at best, only a small-odds shot at a financially comfortable life, at least in the short run.  If you stick with it long enough and are good at the business side of practicing law (things which have nothing to do with how smart you are or how good a lawyer you are), yes, you'll eventually start to make decent money at it.  But it's going to be a while.

There were no lawyers in my family before me; no close friends who could have taken me aside and explained all of this to me.  That was no one's fault; but my Reader, you no longer have that same disadvantage as I had lo those many years ago.  Had I known then what I know now, yes, I'd still have gone ahead and committed to the legal profession.  But I'd have had my eyes open about it and no illusions about making lots of money and being in an elite stratum of society.  What you get with that bar card is the ability to make a decent but not extraordinary living doing something that is sometimes interesting and fun, and sometimes not.  You deserve to know what you're getting yourself into before you get there, and in enough time that you can change paths should this not be what you're looking for.

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