Why did you go to law school?

Written by David E. Behrend

At a career fair last month a well known lawyer and Judge discussed why she chose to get a law degree. She told a story about when, as a former Dean of Harvard Law School, she found herself giving advice to newly admitted students that she hadn’t herself followed:

“Well, you shouldn’t go to law school unless you really want to go to law school. You shouldn’t go to law school because you can’t think of anything better to do or because it will keep your options open or all of these reasons.”

Then she reported: “I sort of stopped myself in the middle, because I thought to myself, ‘I think that’s why you went to law school.’

Who was that Dean, but Supreme Court US Justice Ellen Kagan.

There are many reasons to attend law school and sometimes, as the Judge Kagan did, you will discover it is the right fit for you. It is also a career path that can take you in many directions.

The judge noted from her experience as Dean that  “law students were too risk averse and too focused on set plans”. I too have found in my life the best opportunities are the ones that you didn’t expect, and am a huge believer in serendipity in life and in your careers. I think that young people, and not so young people as well, are best advised to keep their eyes open for opportunities. All the fun things I’ve done in my life, I didn’t really expect to do.

Counselling and guiding lawyers nationally over 23 years I will often ask a lawyer when s/he decided to go to law school and why. In my career evaluation consultation I ask a critical question after reviewing their full educational background. Here it is. “If you know what you know about yourself now, and the practice of law, at say 35, 40, 50 would you have still have gone to law school.”

Generally it is split 60-40% among those who would still have gone to law school. As Justice Kagan noted, some may have gone to law school for the wrong reasons. When I do my monthly Career Forum Webinar with some of Florida’s 100,000 registered lawyers I may ask the same question to a participants calling in, and again get different answers.

Many of the lawyers I counsel, following up on Justice Kagan’s comments, have tunnel vision meaning “law is the only thing I know”, when in fact there are many lawyers whom have used that JD degree successfully outside the traditional triad practice of law – firm, corporate, or non-profit practice – such as taking on senior development roles  at universities and colleges, or owning summer day camps. After all, since law school graduation in your 20’s you have developed a multifaceted life with evolving priorities, interests and work-life family commitments. Try and think outside a narrow vision of what legal practice can be . In part, that is why career consultants look at themselves as ‘personal trainers’ for your career-which may last 40 years yrs. Good luck with advancing your career in ways that bring you enduring satisfaction.


About the author

David E. Behrend

Director of Career Planning Service, I have been a consultant working with attorneys and other professionals for over 25 years. My focus is on career development, concentrating on meaningful or necessary job change or career transitions. I have authored many articles on the subject, and have appeared on numerous radio and television shows. My practice offers both office and telephone career consultations.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.