Time Off Before Law School — Personal Perspective

Last updated: July 7, 2013

by Michael Gorman
Duke '88
Harvard JD/MBA '95

Introduction

My purpose in this brief essay is to recommend strongly that students considering law school take time to work for at least a year before making a final decision.  Whether you choose a position in the public or private sector, work experience will broaden your understanding of the legal profession and help you to make a more informed and focused decision regarding law school.  The costs of making the wrong decision are quite high.  Consider the experience of one of my law school classmates:

In his senior year in college Doug was trying to decide what he wanted to do.  As a Government major with strong grades, Doug knew that he could gain admission to a competitive law school.  Although he didn't really believe he wanted to be a lawyer the law school option prevented him from taking his job search seriously.  With the arrival of spring, Doug was faced with a decision; continue the job search or accept a position at a top law program.  Doug decided to attend law school.

After completing the tough first year curriculum, Doug secured a summer position in a law firm.  In the midst of his first real glimpse of legal practice, Doug's worst fears were realized - he had no interest in being a lawyer.  What was he going to do?  His family would be crushed if he became a law school "drop out".  It was almost impossible to imagine having that year of time and money amount to nothing.  Besides, he had already endured the toughest year of the degree.  Doug decided to stay in law school.

Part of Doug's decision to stay in law school was guided by the mantra he had heard time and again: "you can do anything with a law degree".  Unfortunately for Doug, who had no previous full-time work experience inside or outside of the legal profession, the vaunted versatility of the law degree did not materialize. Looking outside of the legal profession Doug found little interest from industry recruiters who could choose among more experienced candidates.  As a recent graduate, Doug's law degree really only qualified him to be an attorney.

Doug now recognizes that he should not have gone straight to law school.  Rather than explore the range of interesting job opportunities available to him coming out of college, he took the path of least resistance.  Three years of time and tuition later, Doug plans to practice law only as long as it takes to find an attractive position outside the law.  He estimates it will take at least two years working as an attorney before he can pursue the career he really wants.

In addition to Doug, I can think of many other acquaintances who have concluded at some point during law school or as active attorneys that the nature of the work is unsatisfying to them; several are currently investigating other career options.  My observation has been that many of these people went to law school for a combination of three reasons:

  • Because they could
  • Because they only vaguely understood the realities of legal practice
  • Because they believed a law degree would qualify them for anything else they wanted to do outside legal practice

There are many strong reasons to go to law school.  These three are not among them.

The Benefits of Full-Time Experience

Almost any full-time position you choose will afford a broader view of lawyers and their work than you can receive while in college.  First, taking the time to work allows you to learn from the experience of friends who went straight to law school and from attorneys you will meet along the way.  In addition, the job itself may provide a view of the nature and role of legal practice.  As a management consultant, I was indirectly exposed to the legal issues facing our clients, particularly those which related to business strategy.  Through my work and friends, I learned that the overwhelming majority of legal work consists of paying attention to the nuts and bolts details of friendly transactions between businesses and individuals.  Almost all junior attorneys spend the bulk of their time researching, drafting, and editing documents.  The majority of lawyers never set foot in a courtroom.  Even those who specialize in litigation usually settle the dispute out of court.

An even more powerful insight for me was understanding the impact of the legal system on those it touches.  The cost of lawsuits in terms of time and resources is truly staggering.  Whether between businesses or individuals, lawsuits are taxing affairs on all involved.  As Judge Learned Hand once said, "I must say that as a litigant, I should dread a lawsuit beyond almost anything else short of sickness and death."  Developing a personal perspective on the legal system has been an important component of my legal "education" -a component that I would have missed had I opted to enter the academic world of law school straight out of college.

An additional benefit of work experience is an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses outside of grade point averages and LSAT scores.  The unfortunate reality is that, for most law schools, admission to the program and success in the law school environment is highly dependent upon grades.  In addition, the movement from college to law school is similar to the move from secondary school to college: the caliber of the average student improves dramatically.  While being surrounded by talented classmates can be a very rewarding component of law school, for a student who is accustomed to getting top marks, this can be a rude awakening.

Full-time work experience gives an individual another foundation upon which to assess personal skills and performance.  In your work you may find something new that you enjoy -and at which you excel - that can supplement your personal sense of accomplishment.  In my experience, those with full-time work experience handled the first-year transition more effectively than those  straight out of college.

Work experience can also sharpen the analytical, communications, and interpersonal skills necessary for success in law school and beyond.  For example, as a management consultant, I was responsible for analyzing business problems, formulating recommendations and communicating my analyses to a wide range of client personnel.  I found this experience enhanced my ability to speak clearly and comfortably in front of my classmates.  Further, the time management skills I gained in my full-time position were extremely helpful in managing a demanding law school schedule.  I also found that my comfort level in a professional setting were definite assets when it came time for summer internships (which are the primary source of job offers).

What Sort Of Jobs Are Out There?

Like many pre-law students, I didn't invest much time or attention in the placement office because I had always assumed I'd just go to graduate school.  When I finally began my job search, it was quite an eye opening experience to discover the diversity of jobs available.  Like the idea of solving business problems?  Try management consulting.  Enjoy marketing and creative work?  Talk to advertising firms.  Interested in public policy?  Explore Capitol Hill and the Non-Profits.  Find Wall Street fascinating?  Investment Banking may be for you.

Many organizations offer analyst positions built around extensive training programs.  A history or political science degree does not preclude you from consideration for most jobs, even in fields like finance, because company training puts all undergraduate hires on an equal footing.  You can learn more about job opportunities when the companies travel to campus to make presentations during the recruiting season.  These meetings usually involve a short slide presentation, followed by an opportunity to talk with company representatives.  Usually, recent graduates will be a part of the company's recruiting team, and you can ask them questions about what it is really like to work there.  Pick some presentations.  Go and talk to the people who work at the company.  Understand your options.

Potential Concerns With Delaying Law School

Admissions

As you already know, admissions are primarily determined by grades and LSAT scores.  Working for a year or two will not change this formula.  Thus, the first thing to note is that working will not harm your chances for admission in any way.  The degree to which work experience will help you is less certain.  Although I am not an admissions expert, I doubt that the committees pay particular attention to the specific work experience an applicant brings to bear.  In my own case, I believe the perspective I gained working enabled me to put together a more concise personal essay.

Age

Some students express a concern that working will take them out of the "normal" age group within law school, the law firm, etc.  At my school, a slight majority of students came directly to law school from college.  I think that is quite typical.  While social habits vary over time, I did not find age to be a significant determinant of the friends I made at law school.

Within the firm environment, personal age is less important than one's "class" of associates.  While one might expect firms to be reluctant to hire across a wide age spectrum, I have seen the same firm hire first year associates ranging in age from 25 to 35 (with three kids!).  Working for a year or two will not present a significant issue.

Conclusion

My experience suggests that a full-time work experience can offer a perspective on the legal profession that is difficult to acquire as an undergraduate.  Given the importance of your decision, and the wealth of attractive job opportunities many students enjoy, I urge you to consider working before committing yourself to a legal education.  At a minimum, take the time to understand and compare your options.  Law school may ultimately be the right choice for you.  But isn't it worth taking the time to be sure?

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