Deciding Whether To Go To Law School

LSAT Blog Deciding Whether To Go To Law SchoolThe below excerpt is from Thane Messinger's Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold.

Why Law School?

There are almost as many reasons for wanting to attend law school as there are applicants. There isn’t so much a right or wrong reason—although many (including admissions committees) will judge you on just this basis. Some will say that the “right” reason is to right wrongs, fight for justice, and so on.

Others—belonging to a more cynical group—assume that any statement along those lines is just pretend (or, worse, na├»ve); they tend to believe that the “real” right reasons are practical: a job, a career, a fancy house and car, and lots and lots of money. Many attend because others believe they should. Some attend because others believe they should not. Still others attend because they don’t know what they want—but they know it’s not flipping burgers. Were we attorneys to be honest, our reasons for having gone to law school would likely be less honorable than what we had originally professed. In other words, our real reasons were quite different from the ones we spoke so loudly and often before entering.

The answer? Don’t focus on what others believe you should want, or on what you think you should want, but rather on what you really want. Ask what your real compulsions are.

If it’s parents, grow up. Sure, parents are important, and their views are rarely given the weight they deserve. (You’ll likely not agree as strongly as when you have children of your own.) Yet it’s your life. Live it. Be respectful—even if you don’t want to be—but don’t bend to their will if it’s not your will too. One test of adulthood is the ability to say “No”…for the right reason. This, ironically, is one of the tests in the law, and in law school. Also, if in thinking about law school you listen to various advice and end up taking whichever is easier—a bit like asking one parent when the other gives you the wrong answer—that’s not making a decision. It’s a cop-out. You should consider the options, and do what attorneys and judges must do every day: decide.

If it’s the fear and hassle of getting a job, grow up. Sure, getting a job is a hassle, and quite frustrating. Yet, as I will get into, there are practical reasons in law school that this is important. And if you’re fearful and annoyed now, that’s not ten percent of how fearsome and annoying it will be once you’re in law school. Take advantage of the time when an employer doesn’t expect all that much out of you (really!), and endeavor to wow them. If it’s a law firm you’re wowing, so much the better.

If it’s to make a difference, this is a terrific reason. But…

But you’ll need to be especially sensitive to the pace at which you will be able to make that difference, and to whom. This is not to give up anything, but to put yourself in a position where you can make a difference. More on that later.

If it’s to increase options, for glamour, or to enter a mythical genteel profession (complete with bowling hats), be careful. This is yet another reason to work in a law firm, even part-time and even for just a short while. There’s not quite any other way to get a taste of what the law is really all about.

If it’s money, stop. Law school is the wrong choice. Or, more correctly, if it’s just money, stop. You will almost certainly be unhappy, and you will almost as certainly not obtain your goal: only a small percentage of attorneys make as much as most believe all attorneys make.

I once had an English professor who started his first class by asking us what we wanted in life. Rhetorically, he asked “Money?” Most of us were silently responding “You bet!” He waited a moment and said, “If so, you should…leave.”

Taken aback, we waited for the explanation. He proceeded to let us in on a secret—one that is well known in the aphorism that “the A’s teach, and the B’s work for the C’s.” This saying was from the days before grade inflation, by the way, when the curve was set so that an “A” meant the top 6%—not 10%—and the “C’s” were about half of the class. Thus the phrase the “gentleman’s C.”

He told us that sitting as we were in English class, while of value to him and to us in ways we probably wouldn’t appreciate for years…was not on the path to money. He was right, in an important sense. If you want to make money—lots and lots of money—then don’t go to school. Even business school is a huge investment that rewards only a relatively small percentage.

Moreover, business school is of a vastly different character than law school, which focuses, essentially, on the allocation of risk. Business, alternatively, focuses on the creation and use of risk. Engineering might focus on the refinement of risks in ever-more sophisticated ways. Every other academic endeavor is fine if appreciated for what it is—and if appreciated for what it is not. One of the things that academics is not is a path to lots and lots of money.

If lots and lots of money is your goal, entrepreneurship is the path. And, by the way, this is not the dream of entrepreneurship that is sold in magazines; it is, instead, years of hard work. One successful entrepreneur once told me that the magic number was 20: it took that many years for a business to “suddenly” flourish. Having run a few businesses, I’d say that’s not too far off the mark. In most cases, it is years of work harder than in a corporate environment. It is, almost always, years and years of work in addition to a regular job.

For attorneys at top firms (either national or local), the J.D. does open doors into the corporate world, in both legal and business suites. There are a number of reasons for this—chief among them the analytical skills honed first in law school and then in practice and the on-going connections with business clients—yet this too only reinforces the importance of getting into the right school and getting good. So, if you’re interested potentially in the corporate world, or are considering an MBA/JD, this can be a path (even without the MBA), but again only if you place well.

This too is not meant to dissuade. Yet if making money is your real goal, then don’t go to law school. It’s fine to want money. It’s even okay to want a lot of money. But for law school you need a better reason. Wait until you have one, or find a different path closer to your true self. If you gloss over this in your search for success and happiness and do go to law school for this reason, chances are high that you will achieve neither.


In a sense, this too is almost a requirement for going to law school. Many have doubts: sometimes secret, sometimes not. Often, the more boisterous the student, the more intense (and secret) are those doubts.

Doubts are fine, as long as those doubts relate to ancillary issues—“Which school?” “Should I buy Emmanuel’s or Gilbert’s?” “Will I really do well?”—and not to core issues—“How can I convince so-and-so that I really want to go?”

As the Oracle relates in The Matrix, you must know this at your core, “through and through, balls to bones”: a sense that law school is for you and you are for law school. It’s not for someone else to tell you.

Excerpt/interview for LSAT Blog / © Thane Messinger 2008-2011

Photo by zaniac


  1. i would like a comfortable life, in a decent profession that allows me to do the things that I think that I have a natural ability to do. Lawyering seems to be that, but I'm not sure if it is and my doubts are plenty.

    More and more I doubt that I will even go. What if the debt is too large? What if I get in and fail? What will I do with 150k in loans with no means to repay? Even if I love it, will I be able to survive?

    If anything, the financial aspect of it is the downside. It seems like the golden age of a legal career is ended, and I was born on the wrong side of it.


    1. I basically feel the same way. I really would like to do it, but the debt aspect is daunting.