Editor’s Note: The author of this post is an incoming associate at a national law firm.
By Ross Campbell, 3L, NYU Law School
Next month, a new class of juris doctors will take the stage for graduation. Brief congratulations will be in order. Then onto the bar exam, and hopefully, reliable employment. Apart from investing considerable time and effort, many will have taken on heavy debt to reach this point, averaging $140, 616. No paltry sum, but ideally well spent pursuing the skills needed to practice law.
Should we, the Class of 2016, have bothered? The reality is that the job market may have looked a lot better in 2013. So why did we forge ahead?
When I decided to go to law school, there was growing optimism. Things had gotten verifiably better after the Great Recession. We still heard horror stories, but the economy was on the uptick and firms seemed to be hiring again. Though a J.D. was no longer the safe bet it once was, it still had a sheen of respectability and challenge. It was also a logical choice for many of us that were on the fence about our future.
I envy those who always knew they were going to be lawyers. My undergraduate experience was a pretty mixed bag. I went in as an English major, doubled in Japanese, left humid Florida to study in Osaka, came back, dabbled in entomology, and then tried to launder it all into an International Studies degree. In a testament to the vagueness of my academic career at this point, my thesis on Japanese Shintō Nationalism was graded by a professor in the Jewish Studies Department.
The popular image of lawyers today is not exactly Atticus Finch.
Going forward, I was either going to teach English in Japan or get a law degree. Law school had always seemed a terminus for other wayward liberal arts majors, and a proving ground of sorts. So I took the LSAT, ruminated on the “and then what?” aspects of my other options, and then duly applied. I had a sense that something still had to be said for becoming an esquire. I can’t say I wasn’t warned off of it — my friends and mentors often pointed out that fewer students than ever were applying to law school, that the debt was perplexing, and for what, exactly? The popular image of lawyers today is not exactly Atticus Finch. But I wanted to be a professional problem solver. I also felt like lawyering would force me into other walks of life, wrack my brains, and learn more about myself.
So I knew some of the risks going in. And I can say that law school stands up to its reputation as a serious endeavor.
After my first year, or what some of us fondly called the “crucible,” I could only blink in surprise at how many new problems came into view. For those of us inclined to work for private firms, an inscrutable flurry of interviews marked the end of our summer. Stress levels were astronomic. All we could do was put on a brave face and hope for the best. Those students who stepped out of class to take their “callbacks” were regarded with a mix of congratulations and apprehension. The stakes were just so high. While our casebooks and Socratic discussions gave us an appreciation for legal thinking, we also wanted to be practitioners — summer experience was therefore key to our credibility coming out of the gate. So if I could give any advice to prospective students who stop reading at this point — keep your eye on those summers, or take chances to work in clinics. Also try and do you on occasion. Frank Herbert’s Dune series was a good companion for otherwise sleepless nights.
If you still feel optimistic, fight on.
Luckily I will be able to apply what I learned in law school soon. But I am worried about future classes. Firms will likely rely less on summer associate programs going forward, which will restrict opportunities for new graduates. The demand for more practice-ready associates (and an unwillingness of clients to pay for first and second years) will also impact entry-level hiring. Also on the horizon are fascinating A.I. technologies that threaten to take names and jobs (looking at you ROSS Intelligence).
So can I conscionably recommend law school? I think I can. Employment statistics and law school rankings will always be helpful in evaluating an acceptance letter for real job outcomes. Attention to emerging trends that could affect the entry-level market are also a must. Weigh these against your expected debt and search your reasons for wanting to become a lawyer. If you still feel optimistic, fight on.
Professor Roger C. Cramton, former Dean of Cornell Law School, opined on the “future of law practice” at a commencement speech in 2006, a year that stood at the top of the market for new lawyers and just before the devastating recession that continues to shape expectations today:
A wise profession, like a wise person, does not get excited about things, such as the weather, that it cannot control. The path of wisdom is to be good at what you can do well — the practice of some form of law — and relax and enjoy the lively circus that goes on around us.