Michael Seibel, a partner at Y-Combinator wrote this piece as advice for undergrads with an eye for entrepreneurship. It’s great advice for the way the world is going today. The first sentence of the essay resonated with me, and I thought it might be cool to do one for law students, because law school did exactly just that:
Some decision they made when they were younger is either blocking or creating a serious barrier to their success.
As much as anyone believes in exceptionalism, as it applies through an institution or an individual, what you do in your early 20s dramatically dictates your future. Many going to law school today are aiming, still, for a spot at a white shoe firm to work several years — for the purpose of paying off a quarter million figure debt — then move on to pursue something they really want to do.
Law School is a Double Down
Even at the top levels of a T-14 institution, you’re delaying professional (summers don’t count) working experience, and networking opportunities outside of the legal profession for three years to become a lawyer. I’ve had the pleasure to meet some great legal minds/ born bred lawyers (Debate, Law Review & Law Revue, Clerkship, etc). If they happen to hop on and stay on the train for the subsequent 30 years after graduating, everything worked out for them. But, the problem is it’s a fair statement that most who attend law school don’t get to follow this track.
Losing a double down in Blackjack means losing twice the money. In this case, you lose three years of potential working experience and earnings that would carry you through your post attorney career (many, if not most folks have post attorney careers), and subject your future earnings to a tax known as student loans.
The biglaw model is not sustainable
We saw flashes of this in 2008/2009 when firms imploded. The initial salary of $160K isn’t necessarily the greatest offender, but the lockstep that guarantees a raise in salary until most are phased out of a firm if they’re not on partner track is. $210K by the virtue of the fact that one is a fourth year does not make great business sense, particularly if there’s no guarantee that the associate in question can rise to partnership.
Not to be exhaustive, but the two reasons I think will have firms scaling back is 1) a recession, and 2) the rise of “legal tech”. During the next recession, law school will no longer be a place where students go to hide out a bad economy, like they did in the past:
Interest in attending law school for over the decade has never been lower. Fewer students are matriculating because people are starting to realize the profession isn’t what it’s believed to be, and there are other newer and creative careers they can apply their analytical minds to. Firms will have less money to extend offers to students, and the number of “high” calibre students will contract, making recruiting more difficult. It’s foreseeable that they’ll onboard fewer students.
The Rise of Legal Tech
My prediction is that lawyers won’t be replaced, but much of the research, writing, and investigatory tasks will aide practice so much that more work can be done with fewer warm bodies. And sadly, like we’ve seen in the civilian world, the advent of computers only made us work more and not less, but for less pay. More competition from newer entrants is starting to advance the applications available, but it hasn’t reached a point of maturity, yet. Once you get a juggernaut company of Palantir like calibre into the space, you’ll start to see some major shifts.
For the die hards
Because you’re a die hard, I commend you. There will still be shareholder partners, judges, lawmakers and Attorneys General. You cannot have a Republic without lawyers, Professor Judson Mitchell drove home this point. But, you’ll have to be prepared for tighter belts, increased competition, and aware that the way law will be practiced will change dramatically in your lifetime.
For the rest
Learn to code during your first summer in law school, not for the purpose of being a developer per se, but to be exposed to something that will be even more prevalent in day to day life. At some point in the 1960s, a group of people began realizing that it was important to introduce keyboarding to students. The same thing is happening today for coding.
20 years into your rock star legal career, no one will care what non-profit or agency you worked for while you were 23, and it won’t hold you back from getting a job. Your profitability and legal experience post law school will do that though.
An attorney’s working day involves mostly being in front of the computer today anyway. It’ll be the same in 20 years, but the applications will change. You may be required to amend a program that runs analysis against cited cases from an opening brief, or you may have to dictate the type of privileged information you’re looking to exclude in e-discovery. The scary part is, by then, what’s being done may not look like coding – or may look rudimentary by the standards then. To give you an example, Photoshop (used by many creative visual professions) is a form of high level coding. Though the nitty gritty is abstracted from the user, the end result still involves information organized in a useful way.
In the instance that you decide you want to leave law to be even more effective in changing the world, or saving people, you can become a developer. Software development at its core is about solving people and social problems. This is something people lose sight on.
Don’t sweat missing a hoop
If you don’t make law review or get the clerkship, you may still end up at the same mid-sized or boutique firm anyway, eventually. Who you know, and how profitable you are still matters a lot.
You will likely not pay off your student loans in 10 years
Not that you can’t. But you’ll find you want to take advantage of the income based repayment plan so that you can afford a new car, or a 2 bedroom apartment – that’s just life.
The price of tuition will never come down. The only way I suppose you can get around student loans in general is to win (and keep) a merit scholarship, or if your program has a part time option, do that, and work a day job that’s lucrative so that you can keep your costs down.
Don’t be this kid
“Well if I can’t be a cowboy I’ll be a lawyer for cowboys.” – New Yorker Cartoon
This New Yorker cartoon illustrates what I along with many of my peers may have thought when we were going through the process, that for the sake of associating myself with a great institution, I’m willing to play a non-substantive, yet respectable role. I’ve heard more than one person wanting to be a sports agent, and believes going to law school will get her there. My advice is, if you want to be a sports agent, you should be aggressive and claw your way to becoming an assistant and forgo three years of training to become a lawyer. No, studying a year of Contracts will do almost nothing for your sports agent career.
Also, if you want to work for Google or some hotshot startup, you should go work for that startup as their value creator. Lawyer/in-house gigs are deceptively competitive, even though most people seem to safely land into those positions after biglaw.
Be proud of your accomplishments, but be open that your accomplishments may not look like Atticus Finch’s, or you may not be busting trusts
The process will not be a walk in the park, and even though the profession will be a struggle once you finish school, you’re still the capable person they said you are your first day there. I look at my bar card, and still think it’s pretty cool I’m a lawyer.