What Law School Isn't
I wasn’t always dead set on becoming a lawyer. After spending my time at Hamilton preparing for graduate work in history, I found out that applying to law school required no extra classes or other shifts in my focus and decided to go for it. When I ultimately chose to attend the University of Chicago Law School, I thought I knew what to expect.
Once things got started, I realized that my preconceptions weren’t quite right. Now that I’ve graduated and started my first legal job, I can look back and break down some common law school misconceptions that I heard or bought into while at Hamilton. Long story short: law school is a straightforward professional program instead of a one-size-fits-all pathway to untold power and riches.
Law school is not…
...an economic sure thing.
For starters, it’s very expensive. At top schools, tuition alone is creeping towards the $70,000 per year mark, plus the expense of fees, books, and cost of living. No matter which way you slice it, most paths through law school involve borrowing lots of money--even need-based aid largely consists of loans. Mitigation options include loan repayment programs (though these vary by school and can have harsh eligibility requirements) or high-paying employment (but you’re not always guaranteed to land those jobs).
If you’re coming to law school only to make money, don’t. Other fields provide much safer and lucrative career prospects than law school, which requires an additional six-figure upfront investment and intense academic work all for no guaranteed payoff. In my case, a generous scholarship gave me the freedom to make my own career and internship choices. It also saved me from feeling like my entire financial future hinged on every test, which I definitely benefited from.
… a generalist, master’s-style education.
You might reasonably expect, coming from Hamilton, that law school is some hybrid of the philosophy, government, and history classes you’ve already taken. I certainly did. But in fact, it’s closer to learning a foreign language. Sure, it’s in English (mostly), and you’ll know most of the words beforehand, but it’s all about rewiring your brain to speak, understand, and write a new dialect with its own rigid internal rules. Expect to learn how legal reasoning works, with some specific legal doctrine thrown in based on what classes you take.
Law school is emphatically not a deep dive into the U.S. political system or an extended meditation on the nature of rights. There are other graduate programs for that. Anything you learn—even if it has political or cultural significance—is debated through the lens of legal argumentation and judicial decision making. A legal education is ultimately a tool you can direct to pursue your own ends, but don’t expect law school to spend much time helping you figure out what those ends are.
… a golden ticket to non-legal employment.
It’s true that when you have a J.D. degree, you do all sorts of interesting work. Just ask both the current President and Vice President of the United States, various business and nonprofit leaders, and even President Wippman. Despite all of that, remember that law school isn’t necessarily what’s making the difference. Law school only prepares you to be a generalist lawyer. Right after law school, the vast majority of people will be just that, and often pretty low on the pecking order at a larger legal organization (be it a firm, government office, or nonprofit). There’s nothing inherent to a legal education that opens any further doors, besides the fact that legal practice is one relatively prestigious and well-regarded job among many. In other words, law school is neither necessary nor sufficient to prepare you for being anything except a lawyer.
… a great place to figure out if you want to be a lawyer (obviously).
Paradoxically, very little of law school curriculum is dedicated to teaching you what practicing law actually looks like. That learning is usually extra- or co-curricular, through internships or clinics (practical classes). In fact, it’s a common refrain that law school graduates have to learn basically everything all over again when first starting work. Because law school is expensive, only preparing you for the job of lawyer and not really focusing on the practical realities of the profession, you should decide if you want to be a lawyer before you enroll. The best way to do so is full-time work experience after college.
Knowing what full-time work and realistic budgeting is like can help you make more informed decisions about if and where to attend law school. Because coming back to school after a few years requires a more deliberate choice, you’re also more likely to have a clear idea of what you want to do with your J.D. degree, and tailor your experience accordingly. Taking every possible opportunity to chat with lawyers and hear their opinions further increases your odds of making an informed and conscientious decision. It’s very difficult to be as deliberate if you’re not sure why you came to law school in the first place, which is more likely if you’re coming straight through from college. Do some self-reflecting ahead of time—otherwise, you risk getting locked into a career track you don’t want.
By far the most common law school myth I encounter is that it’s an absolutely all-consuming, miserable experience. This manifests first and foremost in admissions, where college students perceive that getting into law school requires a lifetime of concerted preparation. In my own experience, this is flatly incorrect. Law school admission depends largely on your undergraduate grades and LSAT score, with other factors providing some play along the margins.
Importantly, there’s no “right” way to prepare. Admissions committees look for applicants with plausible and compelling individual stories, not exclusively debate club-lifers with humanities backgrounds. If mock trial and legal internships interest you as ways to learn about the law, that’s great! Just don’t pursue these out of unfounded speculation about admissions.
If you follow your interests, you’re more likely to get a strategic advantage! You’ll most likely: (1) have a genuine story to tell instead of one manufactured after the fact, and (2) get better grades (because you’re taking classes you enjoy). This matters a lot more to prospects than your major. There’s so little overlap between college and law school teaching, don’t worry about using Hamilton’s smattering of law-adjacent classes to get a substantive edge: in typical liberal arts fashion, take them if you want to. The only possible exception is a course in philosophy-style logic, which is decent preparation for the LSAT’s style of reasoning.
Law school itself, despite cultural representations to the contrary, also doesn’t have to take over your life. To be sure, classes can be difficult, you’re surrounded (and on some level, competing) with very smart people, and activities like law review can require lots of additional work. But it’s very possible to keep a reasonable schedule—you have very few hours of class in a week, and getting started on long-term projects and exam preparation in advance can balance your workload over the whole semester or quarter. Yes, there will be some work outside of business hours and periods of crunch time, but success in law school doesn’t require you to sacrifice family, hobbies, free time, or friends like the movies might suggest.
For the upside, here’s what law school is: it’s the only way to become a lawyer, a storied profession that fulfills an essential social role and covers work experiences from public defender to general counsel of a massive corporation. It’s a unique and challenging academic environment driven by brilliant classmates from a variety of backgrounds. It’s a great way to make a career out of writing, albeit a very particular type of writing that you’ll have to learn from scratch. I’m grateful to have chosen the path I’m on, and, thanks to my law school experience, optimistic about the opportunities ahead.