U.S. Capitol building

On the True Value of a Law Degree

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice

Over the last year or so, there has been a lot of talk on listservs and in the blawgosphere about the glut of new lawyers coming onto the market, about the expectations of these lawyers in terms of pay and career satisfaction, and about the honesty of law schools in trying to attract new students. Much of the recent discussion was prompted by a New York Times article about a guy named Michael Wallerstein, an out-of-work lawyer who went $250,000 into debt in order to pay for law school.

Yes, law school is expensive and, yes, most people need to take out heavy loans to finance their education. Over at Crime and Federalism, Mike Cernovich calculates that Wallerstein would need to come up with $18,750 a year, assuming an interest rate of 7.5%, just to service the interest. There are too many unemployed lawyers out there. There are also a whole lot of lawyers who, while gainfully employed, are absolutely miserable in their jobs.

When my wife and I left D.C. almost ten years ago, many of the lawyers of our generation had made partner at big firms here in town and were well into their practices.  They were respected members of their firms.  They lived in large houses.  Many of them had stay-at-home spouses. Their kids were in private schools, and they traded in luxury cars every year for the latest model.

And yet, having worked so hard to arrive, many of them were painfully dissatisfied with their lives. Making partner at a firm is not like a professor who, upon getting tenure, is finally freed up from departmental politics and the pressure to publish in order to pursue his true interests in academia. The work can still be mind-numbing, and the competition intense. And when it comes to compensation packages and the respect of peers, a partner is only as good as his last couple of years in bringing in business. One friend of ours stood on the deck of his beautiful home, overlooking a large, expensively landscaped yard in Arlington, and told us he felt like he was in golden handcuffs.  I hate what I do.  But if I stop, I will have to give up all of this.

On returning to D.C. last year, we were surprised to find that many of these same lawyers – once so highly respected in their firms – were being eased out.  The economy is bad.  They may have spent a career developing skills in an area of the law that is no longer profitable. Or maybe they just burned out.

So, yes, it is hard to make a case for going to law school and becoming a lawyer.

My wife and I offer different perspectives on becoming a lawyer because we each did it in very different ways. But we both loved law school. And we both love the practice of law.

My wife, who already knew she wanted to be a lawyer when I met her at Georgetown, went to law school directly from college. Graduating at the top of her class, she loved every minute of law school.  She worked as an associate and then partner at big firms here in D.C.  She spent a year prosecuting civil fraud at the Department of Justice and another year as in-house counsel for a large healthcare provider. When she decided she didn’t like that, she accepted another partnership at a firm in Philadelphia and when she got tired of that, she started her own firm, taking a single associate with her like Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire.

Accountable only to herself and to clients, she now does exactly what she wants, working only on cases that she believes have social merit.  That choice has not been without some sacrifice. We too used to have the 8-bedroom house on an acre of land, three luxury cars, kids in private schools, European and Caribbean vacations, and full-time household help.  Now we don’t. And I have to tell you, once you have gotten used to certain amenities, it is a whole lot harder going in the other direction.  At the same time, my wife is far happier with what she is doing now.

I took a different approach. I had a first career as a non-lawyer and went to law school in my forties.  I worked for three years as a public defender after law school.  Now I have my own criminal defense firm.

Lawyers who went directly to law school from college may not fully appreciate the perspective and skills that law school provides.  After all, that’s all they know.  They don’t know what it is like to go through life without legal training.  I do.  While in law school, I would learn something in my constitutional law, tax or corporations class and think:  How could I possibly have survived for the past 40 years without knowing that?

I also worked with a lot of lawyers during my first career. Just as a person who never went to college may overestimate what everyone else who went to college may have learned during those four years, I was always somewhat in awe of the people with law degrees. They seemed to speak a language that only they understood. They also had a certain way of interacting with each other. It was like they had a secret handshake they did whenever the rest of us were out of the room.

Obviously, there is no single path to becoming a successful and happy lawyer. My wife made many job changes before she eventually settled into the right fit. And the law is not for everyone. People who say they went to law school for the salary, prestige, and job security are bound to be disappointed. It is no surprise that they are so unhappy.

As a boy, I thought that the business of lawyering involved memorizing a whole bunch of different statutes and cases and then finding the right time to spew these back at the judge or opposing counsel.  Aha, you would exclaim triumphantly to your adversary.  You clearly fail to realize that Section 12(b)(3) of the law directly contradicts your argument!

Although preparing for the bar examination does involve some memorization, the practice of the law does not.  As my wife explained it to me during her first semester at law school, the law is a way of thinking.  It is a way of problem-solving.  It’s not that you know the answer to every legal problem.  It’s that you learn how to figure it out. And the realization that once you have figured out how to do something in one area of the law, you can figure it out in any other area is truly empowering.

The potential to learn as a lawyer seems infinite. Things are always changing, and you can never know everything, even within a highly specialized area of the law.   That thought would have intimidated me as a younger man.  Today I find it very reassuring to think that I can practice criminal law for the next thirty years without running out of new things to learn.

Another lesson for me – something I had to learn during my first semester as a law student and continually re-learn during the practice of law – is not to fight the process but to go with the flow. You can’t rush the learning process. You have to embrace it, taking all the time you need to work through a legal problem.

As a public defender, I once spent an entire Saturday holed up in my home office studying a single, fairly obscure opinion that the prosecution was using as the basis for its case. I read all the preceding cases the opinion cited. I pulled the notes of testimony from the preliminary hearing for the case off of Lexis. I marked up my copy of the opinion.  I graphed the logic on a piece of scrap paper. And I just lay there thinking about the opinion, trying to let the case seep into my body as if by osmosis as I looked for ways to distinguish its fact from the facts of the case I was defending.

While you don’t have the luxury of devoting so much time to every opinion you read in law school – there are far too many cases to read – and you don’t have the incentive of someone else’s life being at stake, I didn’t try to rush my reading of the case and I didn’t resent the fact that it was taking up so much of time.  As a result, I ended up with the satisfaction of believing I understood the case better than anyone else than perhaps the author.

Afterward, I was always amused when a prosecutor would cite that case.  The manual used to train assistant district attorneys in Philadelphia obviously cited the case to support a particular argument favorable to the government. But it was always clear to me from the way the prosecutor described the case that he or she had read nothing more than the headnotes. And for the more obnoxious of us, that’s where the competitive instinct kicks in, the rush of adrenaline and satisfaction we get from sensing weakness in the opponent’s argument.

On Monday, the day I was to argue this particular case, I realized as I pulled out of the driveway for work that I had left my marked up copy of the case in my study.  I could have run off a new copy at work on my way to court.  But I went back to get the copy from my study. It was as if that crumpled and coffee-stained copy contained everything I knew about the case.

I felt the same way about the tax code in law school.  I took tax in law school because I didn’t think I could call myself a lawyer without at least some knowledge in that area.  On going to the bookstore, I was dismayed to see the four-inch tax code we would be using.  By the end of that semester, that dog-eared and marked up volume had become my best friend, my security blanket, and the potential source of an answer to any question I could possibly have.

My volume containing the D.C. crimes code and rules of criminal procedure, sitting next to me as I write this, is my current security blanket. I love the small type, the ink and coffee stains, and the way the thin pages feel between your fingers. I am always dismayed when the clean new volume arrives every year in the mail. It means that I will have to put an old friend aside and start afresh.

The law can also be a great outlet for creative energy.  When people ask me why I no longer write short stories, I tell them that I haven’t written a line of fiction since I started law school.  The law takes up every bit of creativity that I have. There can be such beauty in a well-written motion or legal opinion. As I often told my father, a well-crafted legal opinion can be more satisfying to read than any work of fiction or poem. I often think of a particular legal opinion – like the Massachusetts decision on gay marriage – the way he might think of a work by John Milton or William Carlos Williams.  You find new meaning in every reading.  You read it and you think, gee, I wish I could write like that.

Other benefits are specific to the area of law you practice.  As a solo practitioner armed only with a legal degree and a deep-seated commitment to the rule of law, my wife has been able to hold multi-national companies accountable for dumping their waste on foreign beaches. She is currently suing the private contractors accountable for human right violations in the Middle East and Asia.

I went to one of her hearings a year or so ago to find a scene right out of Erin Brockovich. One side of the room was filled with the defendants, lawyers from three or four different firms, company government relations and press people, and so on.  My wife sat on the other side of the room with an associate, a paralegal or two, and a couple of law students who had been volunteering their time.

While she doesn’t win all of the time, and I occasionally complain that her public spirit is putting us into the poor house, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had the satisfaction of trying.  And she couldn’t do any of this without a law degree.

For me as a criminal defense attorney, there is nothing more gratifying than the moment in which you walk into the cell block and see the look of relief in your client’s eyes.  There is also that stunned moment of silence after a not guilty verdict has been announced and your client turns to you and says, you mean that’s it, I am free to leave now? Nothing I did in my previous career comes anywhere close to that in terms of sheer satisfaction.

There are many reasons not to go to law school and many reasons not to become a lawyer. If you are on the fence or being pressured by parents or someone else to go, you should probably just say no. But if being a lawyer is what you truly want to be, there is no reason you can’t make it work.

I am not quite sure, for example, how Michael Wallerstein ran up $250,000 in debt to obtain his law degree. Tuition and board for three years at even the most expensive law school should come to significantly below that amount, and I suspect he did what one lawyer on an ABA listserv admitted she had done with some of her loan money – she took a couple of expensive vacations to relieve the stress of law school.  By contrast, many other people described how they had scrimped and saved to put themselves through law school, many of them taking classes at night while working a full-time job during the day.

One option is to give law school a try and then to cut your losses after the first semester or so if you don’t like it.  The fact is, the law just isn’t for everyone. Two people in my section at law school did so poorly they had to repeat the entire first year. While I respected them both for their perseverance, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps they weren’t cut out to be lawyers. Even people who do well in law school often hate the whole experience. And if you don’t like law school, how can you be surprised when you don’t like the practice of law?

More like this:

Advice to an Incoming IL:  Humble Yourself Before the Law

Law School After the Age of 40

On Becoming a Solo Criminal Defense Attorney Right Out of Law School

No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This

My Career As A County Prosecutor