Sometimes, as our admissions folks travel around the country talking to prospective students, they collect questions for us to answer, questions prospective students would like current students to answer. Interestingly, one of those questions is, “Should I go to law school?” Nanako gave her version of answering that question a few weeks ago, and given that we are in the thick of application season (unless you’re me, and submit most of your applications in late December), I thought I’d give it a whack.
So. Should you go to law school?
Unfortunately, the answer to that is a very lawyerly: it depends.
Do you want to be a lawyer?
If you want to be a lawyer – and you have an articulable reason for wanting to be a lawyer – you should go to law school.
When I was a kid, I did not know exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up (I toyed with teaching, drawing, book-reviewing – I loved to read and to give opinions, among others), but I knew I definitely did not under any circumstances want to be a lawyer. I felt extremely strongly about this, despite pretty much every what-should-you-be-when-you-grow-up test telling me I should go into law. I did not want to be a lawyer because my dad was a lawyer. My dad went to law school when I was about 7 years old, and my little sister was 3. He was still working full-time and went to school at night. Then, when he graduated, he was an associate at a law firm, and then in-house counsel somewhere else. From my little-girl eyes, though he loved his job, law school seemed like pretty much the worst thing anyone could go through, and the work you got at the end of it seemed incredibly boring.
But then, as I approached the end of my college career, I thought about what I wanted to achieve with my life. I thought about how I wanted my career to change lives and laws. I thought about what I worked hard doing, what I loved doing, and what I was good at doing. I described my ideal job as one where I would help ameliorate devastating poverty, where I could advocate for people whom laws promise to protect but instead mistreat, where I could read, write, and exercise my ability to argue with a disagreeable fencepost.
Slowly, dragging my metaphorical heels, I began to realize that the job I was describing did in fact exist, and we call those people “lawyers.” Lawyers, I started to understand, were not only the balding white men in their late 40s wearing suits and fancy watches who populated the skyscrapers downtown. Lawyers worked at universities, in think tanks, in antipoverty organizations, as lobbyists, for schools, in government, etc. – the list goes on and on and on.
So, I applied to law school and quickly decided on BU. However, I graduated from college at a relatively young age, and simply did not feel like I was ready for more school. I wanted to work. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to learn. I deferred admission to law school for a year, and took a job working at the International Institute of Buffalo as an AmeriCorps member. I worked in IIB’s Victim Services Department, providing trauma-informed, client-centered comprehensive case management and advocacy to foreign-born human trafficking and domestic violence victims.
I loved my job. Loved, loved, loved my job. I had worked plenty of jobs before – as a teenager in a little league ballpark concession stand, as a college student in an Apple retail store, and as a young adult at an NPR station, among many others – and had generally liked my jobs. But at IIB, I found something I was instinctively good at – advocacy -, something I was rapidly getting even better at, something that I loved doing, and most importantly, something that I felt mattered.
I loved my job so much, in fact, that within a few months, I had decided to tell BU never mind, I no longer wanted to go to law school. I would stay in this field, doing social work, case management, and victim advocacy. For probably the first time in my life, I felt like the work I was doing was profoundly important, and I did not want to go give that work up to go sit in a torts classroom and learn about proximate cause or whatever it is law students learned about.
Happily, a few wonderful mentors in my life politely suggested that I not tell BU anything just yet. There was no harm, they pointed out, in continuing to work at IIB and hold my spot at BU, and I could just, you know, see how I felt in a few months. I might as well wait and make sure I was certain.
I took their advice, continuing to work, and to love my work, at IIB. But as the months went on, I felt myself once again wanting to go to law school. This time, though, my reasons were far more concrete. Before working in Buffalo, I had inchoate ideas about helping people, about being an advocate, about laws, power, and privilege. During my work at Buffalo, those inchoate ideas took a clearer shape.
Our clients at IIB were as disenfranchised as people could possibly get without being incarcerated: poor, homeless, undocumented, non-English speaking immigrants of color who had been often been profoundly traumatized. To my utter astonishment, I discovered that there were, in fact, some laws that promised them help. A patient, persistent advocate willing to bang her head against a metaphorical wall in a such a way that she maximizes damage to the wall and minimizes damage to her head, could create enough space for her clients’ hopeful resistance to break through all of the forces trapping them in poverty. Law, I thought, might be something other than an expression of power. Law might be conceptualized as a set of promises we make to one another. I wanted to be someone to help enforce the promises we’ve made to the most disenfranchised among us. And the job title I would need, I concluded, was “attorney.”
You don’t have to want to go to law school for the same reasons I chose to go to law school. People go to law school for all sorts of wonderful reasons: to enter politics, to protect the people’s vote, for the fascinating intellectual puzzles of arguments, because they love to be in courtrooms, to prevent the state from executing people, to protect the rights of bullied LGBT kids in school, because they love numbers and arguments, to work in or advise government, and so on. You just need to make sure you have a reason.
(By the way, your reason doesn’t count if it contains the words “starting salary.”)