How Should I Prepare for Law School?

Unlike in many countries, law is not typically taught as an undergraduate degree in the United States. Most lawyers in the U.S. spent four years studying something other than law before they go to law school. They might also spend a few years after college working before returning to law school. If you aspire to become a lawyer, you may wonder what you should do with that time.

Here is my advice. Do. Something. Different.

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Affording Public Interest Law

A few years after I had graduated law school, my husband (also a public interest lawyer) and I were sitting at an upscale restaurant in New York City with another couple who were both lawyers working at big law firms. As we drank our second glasses of wine, one of them asked me about my work. I began telling them about a case I was litigating against the consul general of a foreign state who had subjected one of his domestic employees to indentured servitude. There were many twists and turns in the story involving diplomatic immunity and the State Department and an opposing counsel prone to violent outbursts when he was losing.

The couple listened intently. At the end of the story, the wife said, “your work sounds so interesting and important. I am so jealous.” “Many people transition from law firms to public interest jobs,” I said and I started to talk about the people I knew who had made the switch. But she shook her head and said, “we could never afford it. It’s so expensive to live in the city.”

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The Pursuit of Gold Stars

Last post, I talked about how law schools and the legal market encourage students to abandon their public interest dreams. Today, I will talk about how our individual personalities may lead to that result as well.

Law school attracts certain kinds of people. To get in, you have to have a fairly strong undergraduate record. Unsurprisingly then, many aspiring lawyers are hard-working, ambitious, and achievement-driven. People who go to law school also tend not to be rule-breakers. Law is quite literally a system of rules that govern society, and lawyers become representatives of this system. Rebels and revolutionaries are unlikely to find the legal profession a compelling career path.

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The Moving Walkway

In the last post, I set up a dilemma. Why do a majority of prospective law students say they want to go into public interest law, but only a tiny sliver do after law school? I posited that there were three factors at play – culture, personality, and financial necessity.

Today, I’ll discuss law school culture and how it encourages students to give up on their public interest dreams. I liken it to a moving walkway that students step on as soon as they enter their first year that leads them to take certain jobs after law school. Students step on the moving walkway for several reasons – everyone else is stepping on, the school is encouraging it, and, well, it’s easier than forging your own path.

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Why People Give Up on Their Public Interest Dreams

I came to law school planning to go into public interest law. Fifteen years later, I have worked for the government (clerking), a non-profit, and at three universities practicing and teaching public interest law. I have never worked at a law firm, even for a summer.

But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted.

Before I explain, you should know a few things about me. First, I have never been particularly motivated by money. Second, I really hate working hard for things I don’t care about. I would find it very hard to put in law firm hours without a clear sense of purpose (and that purpose would have to be something greater than my own ambition, accomplishments, or bank account). Clearly, I was not destined to become a law firm partner.

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