The Law School Authority

Thinking About a JD?

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Almost 70,000 Americans applied to law school last year. Are you thinking about joining their ranks? What to consider before you commit to three years of torts, tests, and of course, tuition.

If you’re thinking about law school, you’re not alone. According to the Law School Admission Council, 69,000 American men and women applied for a JD in the year 2000, and their reasons for doing so were probably just as numerous. Maybe they dreamed of going back to school, enjoying summer vacations and strolls through a green, sprawling campus. Some may have envisioned fighting for justice; others, just fighting off financial insecurity with a fat paycheck. No matter what your reasons for considering law school, making the right decision requires careful consideration and self-examination.

Legal education has a lot of great things going for it, but it’s certainly no cakewalk. Programs can be intense, time-consuming, and fiercely competitive (just ask any student in the thick of her first year). They’re also expensive—tuition costs range from about $10,000 a year at a state school to almost $30,000 at a private institution, so by graduation time a lot of aspiring lawyers are stuck with huge loans to pay back. (For more on defraying law school expenses, see our article on financial aid) In addition, the curriculum takes at least three years to complete—even longer if you’re going part-time.

Still interested? Here’s the Jungle guide for anyone considering the bold leap into the world of law school.

Where Can a JD Take You?
“The biggest misconception that parents and students have is that all lawyers put on a tie, go out, and deliver arguments in a courtroom,” says Joyce Whittington, director of career services at the University of Mississippi School of Law. While there are definitely a few Ally McBeals, Matlocks, and JAGs running around the world, a law degree offers options beyond cross-examining witnesses all day. Almost every institution and organization needs a lawyer at one time or another.

The typical graduate can choose from an array of careers: private practice, public policy, foundation work, public interest and advocacy groups. Banks, consulting firms, and corporations employ JDs both as associates and as in-house counsel; and private law firms do everything from litigation (dealing directly with the courts) to tax law, real estate law, intellectual property, and government lobbying and regulation. A JD also comes in handy if you want to cut through all the red tape associated with starting your own business someday.

Whittington advises roughly 500 Mississippi law school students each year, helping them land summer internships, associate positions at firms, and clerkships with judges. Over the years she’s also placed JDs in a variety of less conventional careers, such as journalism, the foreign service, and finance. “You can use your law degree for anything you do,” she says, especially because it teaches you to write persuasively and to perform quick analyses.

New York University first-year Abby Hendel plans to use that flexibility to her advantage. Though she always knew she wanted a JD, her career goals were less than certain. “I didn’t have a clear sense of what exactly I wanted to do in law when I started the program, but I’ve always been interested in public policy,” she explains.

This summer Hendel will intern at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France. She eventually hopes to work for the U.S. government—but only after she’s picked up some expertise at a private firm. With a wide array of choices in her future, Hendel notes, “The degree is only opening up doors for me.”

Will You Thrive in Law School?
So, how do you know if you’re up for the career? Whittington advises prospective students to read as much as they can about the field and the education. She recommends Deborah Arron’s book, What Can You Do with a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, as well as Kimm Walton’s snapshot of the rigors of a first year in school, Strategies and Tactics for the First Year Law Student: Maximize Your Grades.

Perhaps the best way to figure out if a JD is right for you is to spend a day pretending you’re a law student. A little investigative research can go a long way. “Sit in on law school classes, talk to law students, and meet with faculty members,” advises Andrew Leipold, associate dean at University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign.

Another thing to consider is the daily grind: You’ll have to do homework, meet with study groups, and take exams all over again. The detail-oriented nature of legal education means that students are forced to read massive textbooks and assimilate information quickly. Logical reasoning is stressed, and law students are often required to think on their feet as they are subjected to professors’ cold calls, moot court competitions, and heated classroom debates.

Barra Little, a third-year at Harvard Law, who has advised more than 90 pre-law undergraduates, cautions that you have to be in the right frame of mind: “Think of what you’ll be doing—analyzing short writing pieces, studying arguments and logic, doing clinicals (all for a grade)—and decide whether all this appeals to you.”

That’s just what Hilary Abell did: After teaching kindergarten for a year, Abell was pretty sure she wanted to become a children’s rights advocate. But first, she enrolled in an introduction to law class at Harvard’s Extension School. “I wanted to be 150 percent certain that this was what I wanted to do,” she explains. This fall she’ll start her first year at Catholic University’s School of Law in Washington, D.C.

Do You Really Need a JD?
JDs work in a variety of fields, and many of them pursue nontraditional careers after law school. Some go through the three-year program only to decide that they don’t actually want to practice law.

After graduating from Georgetown University’s Law Center, David Flyer set up his own litigation practice in Washington, D.C. It didn’t take long for him to realize that being a “traditional” lawyer wasn’t right for him. “I got tired of tearing things down and fighting with people,” he says. “I wanted to turn to building things up and shaking hands.” Flyer decided it was time for a career change, and now works as the general manager for Viaduct, an Internet professional services company. He’s had to pick up expertise in technology and business on the job.

Flyer has mixed feelings about his law degree. While he didn’t enjoy his prior work as a lawyer, he’s found the degree invaluable in his new career. A JD not only impressed recruiters but also gave him skills that have proven to be highly valuable (he also serves as general counsel for the company). “You can definitely go out and do equally compelling work without a JD,” he says. “But law school gives you knowledge and perspective that make you better at almost anything you’ll do.”

Go for It
In the end, a law degree is what you make of it. The more research you do, the better (just think, you’ve already gotten a headstart with this article).

“If you enjoy the world of ideas, then don’t worry about whether you want to be a practicing lawyer, or whether you want to go into politics or business or not-for-profit work,” counsels Leipold. “Ask what makes you happy. And if you like the idea of law school and it feels right, then go for it.”

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