Should I Go Back to School and Become a Lawyer?
If you're already doing well in your chosen career, going to law school part time to add a J.D. to your resume could be one of the biggest career mistakes you could make.
Across the country there are 69 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association that offer part-time programs — evening or weekend classes — and normally require four years to complete. Approximately 1 in 10 graduates from ABA-approved schools attended a part-time law program, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2018, about 11,000 students of the 111,561 total J.D. students in the U.S. were enrolled part time, which allowed them to meet — or attempt to meet — their obligations to their employers and families.
While these schools boast about their quality education, they seldom caution that for certain people, instead of a way to a better life, those demanding years of study, the law degree, and bar membership itself can cost them all that they hold dear: family, friends and their job.
If that is something you never expected to hear, let’s peer into the future of what going back to school and obtaining a legal education can do for you — and the possible unintended consequences.
That you can attend law school part-time is one thing. The real question is, “Should I?”
Before we look at the downside, let’s examine what a legal education can give you.
Sharpens Your Analytical Skills
“One of the most useful benefits of a legal education is how it greatly improves the ability to see and think clearly about issues — what we call, thinking like a lawyer,” says Beau Baez, a visiting professor at the University Of North Dakota School of Law.
I attended Loyola University School of Law in Los Angeles, where I developed highly analytical skills — careful reading, listening and analysis — which fostered the ability to see and articulate multiple sides of an issue.
“By applying the legal principles they’ve studied to real-life fact situations, law students learn how to formulate arguments on any side of a question that are both logical and credible. This is something that becomes second nature, useful in so many aspects of daily life, as you are virtually forced into becoming more open-minded,” Baez observes.
However, there is a price to pay to learn the art of “thinking like a lawyer,” a steep price, well beyond the tuition.
Disadvantages - Do You Want to Stay Married?
“The time commitment is simply enormous, and night students will be in class generally four days a week from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Typically, assignments will be three hours of homework per classroom hour. You will also be required to read from 300 to 450 pages a week. This leaves students with little time for family and friends as — especially if you are working full-time — almost every waking moment is spent studying,” Baez points out.
Nationally recognized law school admissions advisers Ann Levine and Derek Roberti agree that law school consumes your entire life.
"Yes, it absolutely is a risk to marriage," Levine stated in an article I wrote on the subject in 2011. She repeated a law school dean's warning to a group of married law students on the first day of class:
"Look to the left. Look to the right. By the end of your first year in school, one marriage will be in trouble. In the second year, it will be in worse shape. And by the end of the third year, they will have been separated or divorced for months."
According to Baez, “They are telling it like it is. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What matters most? Do I want to lose my marriage, and risk emotional damage to my kids just to become a lawyer?’ ”
‘If I Get a Law Degree, I’ll Move Up Higher in the Business’
“Dennis, for your readers who are already highly successful in their chosen field, attending law school could be one of the worst career mistakes they could ever make,” he underscores.
I asked, “But evening law schools make a big point of how valuable that legal education is for the businessperson wanting to move up. How could it hurt?”
His reply was something that had never occurred to me, and I’ll bet to a lot of people reading this right now:
“There is a kind of thinking about the value of a legal education that goes like this. ‘If I get a law degree, and upgrade my skills, I will move higher within the company.’ For some, it can be a benefit, but the value of having that J.D. is often overblown, and the risk to your job is almost never discussed. Why? Because instead of helping you advance, the exact opposite is accomplished, and I’ve seen this over and over again across the 20 years that I’ve been teaching law.”
Baez cited the example of an employee at a large bank who proudly told his colleagues that he was in an evening law program. “And then the boss found out. They stopped promoting him, reasoning, ‘He will probably open his own law practice, so why invest anything more in his professional development?’”
This is 2019 Not 2000
Professor Baez cautions everyone who thinks that becoming a lawyer will easily lead to a job and great income. “Twenty years ago that was true. Today it isn’t, and the good old days aren’t coming back anytime soon.”
About the Author
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."