Is Law School the Right Path?

river-stones-series-1-812652-mI recently had a great conversation with a prospective law student and LSAT test-taker. Since many of his questions are relevant to so many of you, I thought I'd share some of our conversation. 

Scores and Aptitude

Student: I am a recent computer science graduate from Temple University with a 3.5 GPA. Is it true that SAT reflects LSAT scores?

Also, I love reading politics, I enjoyed watching a few trials and applying principles to arguments. I cannot say I am a world-class debater, but I can say I have no fear of a good debate, and I enjoy it. I was the "annoying" guy who argued with everyone's claims in the elective courses I had to take.

Nathan: Yes, SAT scores do correlate with LSAT scores. Also, those who excelled in majors as rigorous as computer science tend to perform well above average on the exam.

These are all good signs. I worry about folks who (like me) enter law school with the, "I am not a litigator ... I don't like to be confrontational" attitude. If you don't want to argue, then DON'T go to law school. Simple as that.

Why Law

Student: People keep asking me what kind of law I want to practice, and I really don't know. Are we supposed to know exactly what we want to do before entering law school?

I have a serious problem with justice. I want the innocent free and the guilty punished. If I could devote my life to that, great.

Are these good enough reasons? Law school is a grind, and I don't want to get there and flake out. But many people tell me that I am certainly one to keep pushing forward, and I have to agree. However, getting through doesn't mean it is for the right reason.

Nathan: You absolutely do not need to know what type of law you want to practice before you enter law school. Most people switch anyway.

The problem isn't getting to law school and flaking out. The problem is getting to law school, not really liking it, not finding an area of interest, continuing anyway, incurring $150,000 in debt, then deciding not to practice law. That's exactly what I did, and it was the worst financial decision of my life. I'm not looking for sympathy btw... everything has worked out quite well in Fox LSAT land.

I attribute no part of my success to law school. I shouldn't have started, and I should have dropped out after my 1L year when I wasn't excelling or enjoying it. I also should have dropped out during my 2L year when I was in therapy due to hating law school so much and beginning to find some success as an LSAT teacher.

DO WHAT YOU LOVE. It's cliche, but sometimes things are cliche for a reason.

Finances and Debt

Student: I'm currently trying to find entry-level employment in software engineering because I need to pay off some bills. Given the salaries for developers these days, I have been told pursuing law school would be an expensive endeavor and a loss of money. I am 28-years-old now, still poor, and have no family to really rely on. If I undertake this journey, the financial burden of this falls on me.

Does it make financial sense to go to law school? People keep telling me law salaries are low and jobs hard to find. It is concerning that some lawyers do not break $100,000. If I ended up happier it would be worth it, though.

Can I even afford to survive while at law school? If I have to suck it up and beg to live with mom to save rent, so be it. But I have no idea if law school gives you enough loans to cover the bills and actually eat.

Nathan: Since "some," on the LSAT, means "anywhere between 1 dude and 100% of all dudes," it is technically correct to say "some lawyers do not break 100k." But it is far more precise to say, "The vast majority of those who attend law school in the United States do not break 100k." There is a bimodal distribution of salaries for lawyers, with very few starting at $160,000/year and almost everyone else making $50,000.

As someone who already qualifies for an entry-level computer science job making $50,000 per year, you should think long and hard about the hordes of law school grads currently fighting for low-paying and even temporary work in the legal field. Recently, I've heard of law firms posting jobs as receptionists and immediately receiving multiple applications with J.D.s on them. Long story short: If you're considering law for the money, you are in it for the wrong reason.

This is actually the scary part, but not for the reason you think. When I was in law school, my loans comfortably covered my tuition and fees. Each semester, I would get a check from the school, giving me plenty of money for books, rent, food, beer, etcetera. I didn't live like a king, but I wasn't uncomfortable either. But remember: This is scary because you are borrowing this money from your future self. When I got out of law school, my loans immediately came due and the monthly payment was more than my rent in San Francisco. These loans are not easily discharged via bankruptcy, so you will pay this money back, with interest, for a very long time. Think carefully about how much debt you incur.

Preparation

Student: While reading your "Quick and Dirty" book, I stumbled over many of the questions when reading for the first time. It could be my innate fear of failure making me panic - but is that itself a bad sign? I have heard (and cannot verify) that some people can take the LSAT cold and ace it because the answers appear so clear to them.

I have your books, and a book of practice LSAT tests. As of this writing I am only halfway done with your "Quick and Dirty" book. What should my next steps be?

Keeping in mind I cannot devote all of my hours to studying law, I must study Computer Science as well to keep my job once I get one. However, I don't waste much time with TV, Facebook, video games, the bar, etc. My only time-sink is my girlfriend. How many total hours are needed to really boost someone's score? And if you were to give me a timeline of a year (gotta pay them medical bills), what would it look like?

Nathan: As long as I'm giving you advice, maybe don't refer to your girlfriend as a "time-sink," unless you'd like to regain a whole lot of time in your schedule. ;) Don't believe what you hear. There are 1,000 people who claim to have been at Woodstock for every one who was actually there, and there are 1,000 people on the forums claiming to score a 179 for every one who actually did. (Pics, or it didn't happen.)

Finish "Introducing the LSAT," then do the test in "Cheating the LSAT" and review every single question (even the ones you got right) with my explanations in that book.

Choosing a School

Student: I was told that unless I get into a "top 20" law school I would not secure a decent enough job to make it financially worth it. I was looking at Temple because it is close (can't leave the long-time girlfriend, and gotta be able to survive cheaply), and because it is highly ranked in trial advocacy, which I believe in good for defense/prosecution, the two things I think I would be most interested in. Is this true? And can you help me get into law school with a scholarship?

Nathan: "Can't leave the long-time girlfriend" might not be the best way to put this.  Consider "She's my everything" or "I'd die without her by my side."

Temple is a fine choice, but it's not such an elite school that you will be guaranteed a big fancy law firm job upon graduation.  So, you need to think long and hard about how much debt you're willing to incur.  If Temple offers you a scholarship, then that's great!  But if not, then you should probably consider going to another good but not great law school that will offer you a scholarship.

This kind of one-size-fits-all advice fits everyone poorly. The false dichotomy between "top 20" and everything else is an especially ridiculous example. Who picked the number 20? I'm guessing it was somebody at the school currently ranked 19th. Some folks say "only the top 14," while others say "only Harvard, Stanford, or Yale." Others say "only Tier 1," and others say "only Tier 2 and above." Don't buy into this hierarchical bullshit. There are a spectrum of schools offering a spectrum of opportunities, and every school, at every level, is perfect for somebody.

Also, what about scholarships? If we're talking about return on investment, what's a better bet? Paying $150,000 to go to a school ranked 20th, or going on a full ride to a school ranked 40th? Don't listen to those who ignore the gray areas, because most of the realities are gray.

I can't guarantee anybody a scholarship, but I've helped hundreds of students get (literally) millions of dollars in scholarships. LSAT score is the primary determinant, and the LSAT is a very learnable test. With your computer science background, I think your chances are quite good.

By the way, when you get scholarship offers from more than one  school, you can use the competing offers as leverage for renegotiation. Schools can, and do, match competing offers from other schools. And yes, before you ask, this is a totally acceptable, even expected, part of the game.

Good luck!

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