By Nathan Fox
“If given the opportunity to do it all over again, would they?”
That’s the key issue in Ann Levine’s second book, The Law School Decision Game. For many lawyers, the answer is yes. But for many others—myself included—the answer is a resounding no. If I had read this book before attending law school, I wouldn’t currently be $150,000 in debt.
Levine provides a disclaimer on the first page: “It may talk you out of law school.” This echoes the disclaimer I give on the first night of my LSAT classes: “If I can talk you out of law school, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
The point isn’t that law school is evil, or an inherent waste of money. The point is to make a smart decision. Before The Law School Decision Game, making a smart decision required working your personal and professional networks, making a lot of phone calls, inviting lawyers for coffee, shadowing them at work, and a lot of other hassles that many prospective law school students are too lazy for. But Ann Levine and her staff have done all this legwork for you, interviewing 300 lawyers across the country. The findings are distilled into 240 little pages, which is the equivalent of your first week’s reading in law school. (Except nothing you read in school will be nearly as interesting or useful.)
So let me put it this way: Without knowing you, I can’t know whether or not law school is right for you. But if you’re not willing to do your due diligence, then you should absolutely not attend law school. As Levine advises the “is law school right for me?” crowd at the end of Chapter 1, “If you’re unwilling to [interview three lawyers], then you’ve made your career decision.”
The findings vary as widely as lawyers do—some couldn’t be happier, and some think law school was an incredible waste of time and money. I’ll just hit a few bullet points:
- Chapter 2 is a discussion of the wide range of lawyers Levine surveyed for the book. But the highlight of Chapter 2 is a figure 2.6, which I now recreate on the whiteboard for all of my incoming LSAT classes—it deals with the bimodal distribution of lawyer salaries. The question is “Assuming the median salary of lawyers is $105,000, how much do you currently make?” The results are shocking: Less than 10 percent of respondents answered “about the same.” So if you’re attracted to law school by the $105,000 “average” salary earned by lawyers, you need to realize that almost nobody makes that amount. True, over a third of Levine’s respondents said they make “significantly more.” That’s great, right? I’m glad you’re excited. But here comes the bucket of ice water in your lap: Almost a third of respondents said “significantly less.” How would you feel about making a $40,000 salary to go along with your $2,000/month law school loan payments? That’s the reality for many, many law school grads.
- Chapter 3 is an in-depth discussion on “Reasons to Go to Law School.” My favorite is figure 3.1, which shows that law school applicants and actual lawyers tend to cite different reasons for going. The differences are illuminating. Law school applicants, for example, heavily cite “making a lot of money,” “wanting a prestigious career,” and “job security.” Real lawyers (who know the reality of the job market) rarely cite those things. Instead, they think good reasons to go to law school are “enjoying researching and writing” and “learning to think like a lawyer.” Whose opinion do you value more?
- Chapter 4 compares lawyers on TV to lawyers in reality. I like figure 4.1, which cites “willingness to work hard,” and “attention to detail” as the top two requirements actual lawyers cite when asked what traits are important in their field. Wait, what? Willingness to work hard? I also quite like this line: “[Lawyers] work 9 to 10 hours a day, see their children at night, and enjoy weekends with their families (even if they have to work a few hours on a Sunday afternoon).” That adds up to a 50+ hour week. Is that how you want to spend your life? If you think the point of investing $150,000 and three years of your life is so that you can graduate and not work hard, you’re in for a big surprise. Plumbers also work hard—but at least they make triple-time on Sundays.
- On that same note, from Chapter 4, from a real lawyer: “It’s a way to make a good living, but it’s not a good way to make a living.” Think about it.
- Chapter 5 is about money—some lawyers are definitely making it! Find out who they are, where they are, and what it takes to get on their career track.
- Chapter 6 addresses the recent media backlash against law schools amidst a bad economy and tough job market for lawyers. How bad is the market, really?
If you’re not sold now, you’ll never be sold. I’ll let you explore Chapter Seven (“Hindsight: Would Lawyers Make Different Choices”?) and all of Part Three (“A Life in Law”) on your own. Like Levine’s first book, this book is a gem–and more than worth its modest $15.95 list price. If you don’t read it, I don’t think you’re serious about being a lawyer.