Proto Attorney and Dinei both wrote these "should I go to law school / why I went to law school" posts, and suggested that others do it so applicants can see a range of experiences, so, okay.
First, this is what I tell aspiring law school applicants.
1. Do you really want to be a lawyer? How do you know? Have you talked to practicing lawyers? If the answer to any of these questions is "No" or "I don't know," stop there.
2. Is there anything else you want to be that doesn't require this much specialized education? Do that first.
3. What do you think you'll do after law school, realistically, given what you know about yourself, where you live, the level of law school you're likely to attend, and the job market?
4. Can you afford to go to law school? What will be your return on investment? If you don't know what that is, go Google it now.
I have written about this in bits and pieces, but here was my decision process about law school. I had worked for six years as a software engineer, and had known for a while that it wasn't for me. I spent a long time, over a year, figuring out what I liked and didn't like about my past jobs, and what I wanted out of a job. Some of the things I was looking for were:
- Working with words. Reading and writing as an essential part of my job.
- Being an expert in something. Specifically, something that was a little difficult to become an expert in, something that not everybody knew, and something that many people would find useful and want to know about.
- Advising people.
- Financial security.
- Subject matter that I found interesting.
- Smart colleagues who I liked.
- Independent, respectful, flexible work environment.
- Feeling that my work served a worthwhile purpose.
I found myself reading Supreme Court decisions and volunteering to work with our IP lawyers on some DRM issues, and I started to consider law school. I wondered whether it was worth it to give up a stable, well-paid, intellectually challenging job for three years of very expensive graduate school followed by an uncertain job future. At the time I was applying to law school, I was married, owned a house, and was hoping to start a family soon. I decided that, for the sake of my future career and our family finances, I would only apply to top 30 schools, and if I didn't get in I would try to think about other career directions. I applied to five schools and got into all of them without any scholarship money, so the choice was easy -- I went to Harvard Law, right down the street.
One of the most valuable things I did during law school was talk to lawyers, attend lots of career seminars, and in general give lots of thought to my career options. I didn't even know my current practice area -- advising technology startup companies -- existed. I didn't know any lawyers growing up, and before I started exploring law as a career I was only familiar with lawyers on TV.
I'm happy with how things turned out. Legal work suits my personality. I love finding a precise way to express a client's intentions, puzzling over which word is appropriate and how the different provisions of a contract interact with each other, parsing a statute to see exactly what it means. It's a lot like programming. I love it when clients call me for advice. I love learning about new technologies and helping my clients get their ideas out into the world. I also feel more secure being in a profession with a clear career path and possibilities. Frankly, I'm not that entrepreneurial. Since the role of a lawyer is well-defined, I have an idea of the range of things I can do and the places where I belong. If I were more entrepreneurial, I think I'd have been better off developing expertise in some field on my own, and then consulting or finding a position with someone who needed that expertise.
At the same time, the job market scares me. I'm at a large law firm and I have seen friends get laid off. I hope I would land on my feet, but I'm relatively new to the field and despite my talk about exploring career options, I'm not sure where I would end up next or whether I'd be able to find a job that suits me. While I'm grateful to have my current job, and like the work and the people (and the money and the office), I find the schedule, requirement of constant availability, and billable hours onerous and anxiety-inducing. As a field, law is also much more sexist than engineering, and large law firms in particular assume you will have a stay-at-home spouse so you can devote most of your energy to work.
I still have it in the back of my head that I gave up 3 years of salary, plus spent about $45K a year for 3 years, to go to law school, and I calculate when I'm going to break even. If I stay at my current job, it'll be in about a year. I've paid down most of my student loans, and may be able to pay them all off by the end of this year. We bought a new house (and our current outstanding principal on our mortgage is more than the entire value of our old house, which is a little terrifying). We replaced both our ancient cars. We had another baby. My husband was able to leave his job and pursue some less lucrative goals. But I'm one of the lucky ones. Most people don't get this kind of job out of law school.