What You Can (and Should) Do With a Law Degree

Stop Worrying About Using Your Law Degree

There’s really only one thing you can do with your law degree: Be a lawyer.

Kind of weird coming from a lawyer career coach, I know. But hear me out.

Take a minute to think about how many law grads you know who went to law school without a g.d. clue as to what they wanted to do. You know, besides wanting to “avoid a bad job market” or tack on additional exploratory years — and debt — to their I-never-really-knew-what-I-wanted-to-do liberal arts degree.

I’m willing to bet the balance of my law school loans you came up with at least a handful of said JDs in less than a minute. Shit, maybe you’re one of them. (Not judging.)

Or maybe you knew you wanted to be a lawyer since you were a kid. So off you went to law school and into the legal profession, only to find it’s not really your cup of (Long Island iced) tea.

Many of us were hoping to enter a profession that would provide us with an intellectual challenge, prestige and a cushy salary. Some wanted to be lawyers in order to please their parents or prove they could make something of themselves. Still others brought a genuine desire to help the greater good.

But why am I telling you what you already know?

I want you to understand that virtually no one knew exactly what they were getting into when they enrolled in law school. NO ONE.

Unless you were somehow a lawyer before attending law school, there was no way for you to know what practicing law would be like. You had a rough idea based on internships, what professors told you (most of whom never worked outside academia) and all those anecdotes from lawyers who warned you about the suckitude of the legal profession.

Unfortunately, the only way for you to find out if law is your calling is to become a lawyer.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to the legal field, though. It’s true of any profession. Nobody can truly know if they’re meant for a particular vocation until they try it for themselves.

So why are lawyers so damn hard on themselves when they realize law is a bad fit?

For better or for worse, you believed that going to law school would make a lawyer out of you. Not just any lawyer, either. A successful one. One who embodied the ideals you held as an eager law student. It’s no wonder the thought of dropping the attorney title — let alone leaving the practice of law — shakes you to the core.

Ultimately, it strikes a particularly sensitive nerve because you’re a high achiever who’s always accomplished what you set out to do.

But now that you’ve reached the promised land of lawyerdom, you’re uncharacteristically dissatisfied with your achievement. Probably because the benefits you associated with becoming lawyer haven’t materialized.

When you acknowledge being a lawyer doesn’t encompass everything you had hoped or expected, you understandably go through a grieving process of sorts. Whether or not you actually received the benefits you imagined, you’re now giving up the possibility of realizing your idealized career as a lawyer.

And when there’s grief, there’s usually a shame spiral lurking nearby.

You feel you’re a failure. Because you’re not able to “hack it” as a lawyer. Because you let your family down. Because you work in a job that doesn’t allow you to help people in a meaningful way. Because people will think you’re a quitter. Because you still don’t know what you want to do.

Because even though you achieved your goal of becoming a lawyer, you almost wish you hadn’t.

And you really don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t even “use” their JD.

But what if you already use your law degree in everything you do?

Think back to law school orientation when they told you that your mind would never be the same. That law school would turn your brain into an analytical machine the likes of which no lay person would be capable of (nor interested in) understanding.

Sure enough, your legal training forever transformed you.

You hardly notice that you mentally rewrite ambiguous sentences as you read mainstream publications. Seriously, were there no editors involved?!

You can barely stand to watch bullshit legal dramas or movies. Even the likes of Spielberg couldn’t bring sexy back to the practice of law.

You also find it perfectly reasonable to challenge underlying assumptions of even the most innocent arguments. Beware young children, sweet elderly folk and anyone you overhear in Starbucks, the grocery store, the elevator…let’s be honest, pretty much anywhere.

You’ll always use your law degree, even if you’re not a lawyer.

So stop worrying about whether or not you’re “using” your law degree. You couldn’t undo your legal training if you tried.

Instead of fixating on what you can do with your JD, focus on the meaningful work you’d like to do notwithstanding your law degree.

To be clear, the goal isn’t to quit tomorrow and do something other than practice law. The object is to identify what you were looking for in a job when you decided to go to law school. Armed with that information (and your first-hand experience as a lawyer), you can create a plan to actually get what you want out of your career.

Whether that’s an intellectually stimulating job, financial security, prestige, a 9-5 gig — only you know what you’re ultimately seeking. You might be able to find it by tweaking your current job arrangement. Or dedicating extra time to your family or a long-forgotten hobby. Or maybe you’re convinced a year spent traveling around the world to clear your head is the only remedy. (I’ve seen it happen…through envious eyes.)

Although you may be just as overwhelmed now as you were when you started law school, you now have the experience, perspective and luxury of hindsight to decide if practicing law is what you’re truly meant to do. And if it isn’t, at least you’ve got an idea of where to start looking.

So tell me, what will you be doing with your law degree?

 

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Comments

  1. While it’s true that a person won’t know precisely what practicing law is like until the person actually begins practicing, a person can get a close approximation of what it’s like. And, before shelling out $150,000 (or more) and investing three years of one’s life studying law, a person owes it to herself to do some significant due diligence. I suspect that most students don’t even do serious due diligence about what the job market looks like, let alone due diligence about what it’s really like to practice law. So, if a law grad gets out and discovers that she hates practicing law, the chances are good that she didn’t go into the profession with eyes wide open.

    Look, the investment in a legal education is too great not to have a pretty clear idea about what practicing law is really like. To make that investment and then decide, “Oh, I guess I’m not cut out for law and I just want a 9-to-5 gig with no evening or weekend work” is a likely sign that the person didn’t do enough due diligence before deciding to go to law school in the first place. I’m not saying that would never happen even if everyone did their due diligence but I am saying that a hell of a lot fewer people would be in that predicament if everyone did thorough due diligence.

    • I tend to agree with you, Loren. It seems the high-achievers who are drawn to law school have a difficult time internalizing failure since they’re quite unfamiliar with it. So even in explaining that one should undertake serious due diligence before heading to law school, a prospective law student thinks they are exempt because they’ve always been so successful in other endeavors. It can be a tough (and expensive!) lesson…

  2. P.S. For me, after more than twenty years, I enjoy practicing law. But I had a pretty realistic understanding of what I was getting into before I made my decision to go to law school. I had a prior profession before going to law school and I knew that the *real* hard work begins *after* law school (getting the law degree is the easiest part). So, I was under no illusion that I had “made it” by simply getting a JD.

  3. Everything said just the truth. I am an Attorney myself and I do not find Law exciting anymore. I took myself out of the roll of practicing Attorney so that I won’t be limited in practicing what I have learned in my law degree because I also realized that I can do something else than waste time in courts the whole day just for a postponement and for what? only R1000 fee. I however saw myself putting my name back on the roll and ever since it’s been a year now I did not practice it I.e attending courts because I do not have time for that since I am also working as a Legal officer in corporate companies. My intention is to remove my name from the roll of practicing Attorneys again this time for good. There are so many of us as well and everyone wants to have a piece of a pie. I however registered my company as a PTY not INC. because I want to do something different with my law degree that I will enjoy and benefit financial more than I could if practicing. It is not going to be an easy thing still to do, as I need to start creating my clientele and depending on whether whatever I put my mind on will work as I expected, and not fail me like being a practicing Attorney. Hoooo this does a serious mind exercise forever struggling with this Attorney title.

    Thanks for the topic.

  4. P.P.S. One useful way of finding out if a career as a lawyer is for you is to make the much smaller investment (relative to law school) of becoming a paralegal and getting a job as a paralegal in the area of the law where you think you might like to practice as an attorney someday. You can get a paralegal certificate after getting your B.A. or B.S. If it turns out you love what you and the attorneys around you do, then think about law school (and when you graduate, you’ll have a much better chance of getting a job because of your real-world paralegal experience). If it turns out you hate what you and the lawyers around you do, then go do soemthing else — AND you’ll have saved yourself from making a huge financial and time investment getting a law degree!

  5. Hi. I really like your article. I must say Loren’s comments seem a bit harsh. From the sound of it Loren you had another profession before you entered the law so perhaps you did not end up where you thought you would either. Your advice however Loren is wise and I do agree with what you said there 🙂 Honestly I do not understand how US universities can ethically charge so much for a law degree and not effectively limit the number of lawyers who are admitted to practice each year. It is very gross that institutions could burden bright young people with so much debt when a law degree is not that costly to provide. I am an Australian citizen and our law degrees are half the cost of those in the US. Many people get law degrees and enter the business world in non lawyer roles. However in Australia we can do a bachelors degree in law as long as we complete a double degree – a minimum 5 years at university before we go to college of law for 3 months and then can be admitted to practice. I chose finance law – so I had my business degree to fall back on when I left the law. If anything in a democratic society law degrees should not be too expensive because we should all have the right to learn about our rights and the laws of our country. If a law degree was not expensive I would encourage others to do it because it does train you really well to think critically 🙂

    • Lauren,

      I agree with your comments and I am particularly glad that you provided a comparative view of the cost associated with becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately, the huge cost of attendance, the unchecked proliferation of law schools, and even the decreasing bar passage rates show a lack of proper regulatory oversight of the profession by the ABA. No matter the motivation of the student, the fact is that law schools are herding thousands of students towards financial instability, drawing them in by the glimmer of making $100,000+. The most recent controversy of schools accepting students with LSAT scores that foreshadow failure on the bar exam is especially despicable. It is a moral outrage that the profession stands idly by as schools engage in this massive transfer of wealth.

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