What Law Students Experience After Graduation

Courthouse

Law school is undoubtedly difficult and many law students look forward to the day when they sit in a classroom for the last time. That said, it's only just the beginning of their legal careers. 

Those in law school may be wondering what goes through law school grads' minds as they advance from law student to lawyer.

I’d say the typical feeling is (1) elation upon finishing law school, (2) trepidation about the bar exam, and (3) a combination of stress and cautious optimism during your first job.

The Journey

At the end of 3L year, almost everyone is ready to leave law school and take on the world. It’s an awesome feeling when you walk across the stage at graduation.

But then the reality sets in that you actually need to pass the bar exam to become a practicing lawyer. The degree of difficulty varies based on the state, but there’s no doubt that it’s difficult and stressful for everyone. It’s just something you have to power through. While it’s expensive, I’d highly recommend that you take a bar review course. It’ll maximize your odds of success.

After the bar exam, a good number of law students take some sort of vacation before starting their first job. Again, this is a period of optimism and excitement as you gear up to enter the workforce.

That said, there’s somewhat of a rude awakening when you start your first job. Law school certainly gives you the intellectual foundations so that you can “think like a lawyer.” Actual lawyering is a different story. Starting out, you often have to give advice on a discrete legal issue in an area of law where you may have no familiarity, all within a short timeframe. This is difficult.

It’s often the case that your law school training hasn’t really prepared you for that situation, even, for instance, if you took a bankruptcy course and are working at a bankruptcy firm. There’s a steep learning curve for everyone. Senior attorneys get it. Nevertheless, you have to try hard and learn as quickly as possible so that you can become a larger contributor to your team.

Ultimately, legal practice can be stressful for young attorneys. You’re in an unfamiliar environment and your time isn’t necessarily yours. You just have to do the best you can at work while simultaneously taking care of yourself (eating right, working out, meditating, etc.). The job will get easier once you get more practical experience, so be mindful of this fact when you’re facing difficult moments.

Should You Major in Pre-Law or Journalism Before Law School?

Journalism

I recently came across a question on Quora asking whether a college student planning on attending law school should major in pre-law or journalism.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get much information about the questioner's interests or dreams. Having said that, many college students thinking of law school may have a dream of becoming a badass prosecutor, human rights lawyer, or something else. I can totally empathize.

Still, I would greatly caution college students when they decide their major due to their ultimate desire to go to law school. I think that this stance is pretty risky. The risk comes from three areas:

  • The assumption that your desire to go to law school won’t change throughout college.
  • The assumption that you’ll be admitted to the right law school for you, that you’ll receive good grades, and that you’ll actually get your dream job.
  • The assumption that you’ll actually enjoy your dream job.

It’s impossible to mitigate all of these risks. That said, I think it’s important to get some work experience in the legal field if you’re even thinking about law school. I previously wrote an essay on this idea and you can find it here.

But back to the question. I hesitate to give personal advice since I don’t know much about you. Still, I generally think that if a college student feels passionate about any subject besides law, they should follow that passion. Doing that won’t inherently disqualify them from entering law school. However, a pre-law major may make it harder for you to find jobs in other fields if you end up foregoing law school. It’s just something to think about.

Ultimately, however, law school admissions officers care much more about your GPA and LSAT compared to your undergraduate major. Whatever you choose, just make sure to dominate your courses and nail the LSAT.

What Jobs In Finance Can You Obtain With A Law Degree?

Finance

I recently saw a Quora question that asked for examples of jobs that attorneys can find in the financial services industry.

There are some stereotypical examples. For example, private practice attorneys can become in-house attorneys working at a large bank (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, etc.) and assisting the bank with any and all issues, like compliance or employment issues. Or these attorneys could work on compliance issues at a hedge fund or private equity firm. 

With these basic examples in mind, I do have some insights on the odds of finding these positions after graduating law school.

Unless they’ve graduated with a JD/MBA, I’ve found it difficult for law students to find jobs in finance immediately after graduation. The traditional law school pipeline involves grads working in private practice, government, or doing some other type of public interest work.

When speaking about “finance jobs,” I suppose we have to distinguish between legal and non-legal positions.

As for legal positions, it’s very difficult to immediately work in-house at any corporation, including financial institutions. Those positions often go to attorneys who have gained several years of experience in private practice—mostly at “Big Law” firms. There are exceptions, but you may need personal connections or some other “in” to start your legal career at a financial institution. This is difficult to find.

The world of non-legal positions in finance may also be difficult. I do recall that Goldman visited my law school and held information sessions on openings in its private wealth management program. Although it’s not strictly “finance,” McKinsey also visited to recruit potential consultants. These opportunities are few and they seem to be positively correlated with the “prestige” of your law school.

But if you’re hoping to use your law degree to trade or become a professional investor, you’re better off getting an MBA. Sure, there are attorneys that have transitioned into full-time investors—Paul Singer and Carson Block to name a few. But again, this is rare.

The Skills You Should Develop in Law School

Skills to develop in law school

As the legal field becomes more and more competitive, I think that it's especially critical for law students to take the time and begin working on skills that will serve them well in professional practice. Sure, you'll begin very familiar with researching case law and writing memos and briefs. But I'm specifically talking about some of those softer skills that will pay dividends down the road.

For me, there’s no question that law students should start developing client management skills. These skills aren’t really emphasized in law school but they are critical when you leave law school and enter the legal world.

As an example, there is an increasing emphasis in Big Law firms on commerciality. The idea is that attorneys should understand their client’s business and their objectives, all while communicating their ideas in a “non-legalese” way and completing their work in an efficient manner.

As young lawyers, it is so tempting to just drop doctrine into a memo or email to a client. It’s easy because you’re leveraging the skills that you primarily learn in law school—namely, doing deep dives into legal issues and wandering down rabbit holes once you start Shepardizing case law.

I get it. But you’ll quickly discover that clients mostly don’t care about the legal details.

They just want a solution to their problem.

It’s a simple idea, but if you can understand it in law school, you’ll be miles ahead of other recent law school grads who are starting their careers.

The best way to learn this skill in law school is through a clinic, preferably one where you have lots of client contact. You’ll also develop other critical skills (like how to manage client expectations) and will strengthen your emotional intelligence. By doing this, you’ll quickly discover that clients aren’t just names on a page. They are real people who are coming to you with real problems.

Finally, as an aside, I’d also recommend something a little more untraditional. I think law students should try developing their sales skills while in law school.

I don’t have a good answer on how to do this, as you’ll be busy enough with your courses. But I’ve discovered that many older attorneys wish they would have developed sales skills at a younger age. Yes, older attorneys will be handling business development tasks when you start your career. But as you get older, you’ll have to start selling yourself and the services that your firm offers. These skills don’t come naturally to many people, so the sooner you can work on these skills, the better.

How Much Pressure Will You Face In Law School?

Pressure in law school

As you're considering law school, you may come across horror stories about people who haven't been able to handle the trials and tribulations of law school. But you may be wondering how much stress that you'll encounter—should you choose to go.

I think there are varying degrees of pressure depending on your unique circumstances. That said, it’s fair to say that everyone experiences some pressure. I think the pressure comes from three distinct, but somewhat intertwining areas:

Pressure from exams

Law school is a tournament where there are a finite number of As, Bs and Cs. No matter how much you may like your classmates, you are competing against all of them. There's no way around this. As a result, this creates pressure as you approach exam time, especially since many of your classmates are putting in the same amount of time of preparation. Law school students are generally smart and hardworking, so you’ll need to find a way to separate yourself from the pack. This is stressful.

Pressure to find a job

Associated with my first point above, the primary point of attending law school is to find a job—whether it’s inside or outside the legal field. Your grades will play a large part in this task. But if you don’t obtain as high of grades as you’d like, you’re going to have to scramble to find a job before graduation. You’ll have to canvas your own network, attend networking events, or seek help from your career services office.

Considering that you are likely carrying law school debt (perhaps up to six figures), the stakes are high, especially since you’ll need to start paying off your loans shortly after graduating. Again, this is stressful.

If you’d like to read more about how I found my first post-law school job, you can find more here.

Pressure surrounding your life goals

I think most law students would be lying if they said they never thought about dropping out at some point during law school. There’s inherent pressure in thinking about whether you’re on the right path. Many law students (including me) didn’t have prior experience in the legal field, and they may be in for a rude awakening once they discover that they may not actually like law school or legal practice. You may have the temptation to do something else, which makes it even more difficult to succeed during the most challenging times of law school.

In sum, law school isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s critical to find a way to handle the pressure, whether it’s through exercise, meditation, or something else.

Leveraging the Law to Become a "Great" Investor

Investing

I recently came across a question on Quora on whether there are certain areas of law that will prepare law students to become "great" investors.

The bottom line is that there isn't one single formula to become a great investor, just as there isn't one to become a great lawyer. You can look at several prominent hedge fund managers (like Paul Singer) who were attorneys specializing in distressed debt. Toby Carlisle, a prominent quantitative value investor, was a former M&A lawyer at a Big Law firm. Or you could look at Carson Block, a former lawyer who uses his legal skills to short fraudulent companies. I think it's awesome that there truly isn't one formula to achieve success.

Still, I think there are some courses that law students can take to get a head start should they want to later transition into investing. I’m thinking of accounting, corporate finance, bankruptcy, and mergers & acquisitions. Also, I'd recommend that law students see if they can take any finance courses at their university’s business school.

From my research and experience, I’ve noticed that many attorneys who become “great” investors start with some event-driven strategy, where they can leverage their prior legal experience into an esoteric strategy which is less competitive than traditional growth or value investing. So I’d maybe consider studying bankruptcy or M&A.

But still, there isn’t one distinct formula for becoming a “great” investor. An event-driven strategy may not suit your temperament (or you may even find it boring). That’s completely fine. I still think, however, that an accounting or corporate finance course will be useful, no matter your investing style.

if you’re interested in value investing (as I am), I really think the best way to become a great investor is by reading books, speaking with others, and through experience. Get started with the two foundational Benjamin Graham books: Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor. Read Warren Buffett’s annual letters from Berkshire Hathaway. Then I would think about moving on to books by Joel Greenblatt (The Little Book That Beats The Market and You Can Be A Stock Market Genius) and Bruce Greenwald (Value Investing: From Graham to Buffett and Beyond).

What Do Junior Lawyers Do?

Research and writing

I came across a Quora post asking what junior associates actually do. I was a litigation associate at a Big Law firm for almost three years before leaving to start my own startup. While the specifics vary based on the firm, I think my experience is fairly typical for many junior associates at Big Law firms.

As a junior associate, you are put on several different matters, the exact number depending on the busyness of your practice group. The goal is to be placed on matters where you can (1) consistently bill and (2) be responsible for substantive work under patient partners and senior associates. Much of this is out of your control, but this is the ideal scenario.

Research and Writing

I was primarily tasked with completing research for senior associates and partners. Whether it was finding a few cases on a discrete point of law or gathering many cases to develop a legal argument in a brief, I became intimately familiar with Lexis. In fact, you begin developing your research skills in law school and upon starting at your firm, you can leverage these skills to immediately contribute to your team.

I would often use my research to write memos—both to file and to clients.

It’s important to remember that if you’re writing to clients, don’t just dump doctrine into the memo. This same idea is applicable if you’re a transactional attorney offering advice on, say, an M&A transaction. Commerciality is a huge deal: you’re trying to offer advice to solve clients’ real-world problems, rather than engage in a theoretical legal exercise.

Besides memos, junior litigators often contribute to briefs. I would sometimes write the first drafts of briefs myself, but I would more often contribute to discrete sections of briefs. Here, your law school training is valuable—think CREAC—but you gain more experience by simply doing. The learning curve is likely steeper for drafting documents on the transactional side (as you don’t get this experience in law school). That said, I can’t speak from personal experience.

Other Tasks

In addition to these research and writing tasks, you’ll likely complete document review (or, if you’re a transactional attorney, due diligence). Having said that, more of these assignments are being farmed out to contract attorneys in order to cut costs for clients.

Surprisingly, a good amount of my time was spent answering emails or attending conference calls. Sending out a concise, comprehensive email can be pretty tricky, so you have to be patient and ensure that you are delivering complete and accurate advice before clicking send.

Finally, besides this work, you may have other responsibilities at your firm. Think committee roles or visiting law schools to recruit the next batch of first-year associates. There are other non-billable responsibilities like writing articles, but you should do everything you can to minimize these tasks and maximize your billable work.

While these are some of the general tasks, succeeding at them is another story. I published another essay on how to succeed as a first-year Big Law associate, which you can find here.

From One to Ten, How Difficult is Law School?

Difficult

I recently came across a Quora question where someone was asking if we can rank the difficulty of law school on a scale of one to ten. It’s tough to assign an exact numerical value, so I’d argue that law school is generally difficult for everyone.

Sure, your 1L courses won’t be easy. But there will likely be one course that will give you even more trouble. For me, it was property, but for others, it may be civil procedure, constitutional law, or criminal law. You just have to get through these courses by any ethical means, whether that’s becoming attached to treatises, finding a comprehensive outline from a 2L or 3L, or something else.

But I’d argue that some of the more difficult parts of law school are (1) finding a job and (2) dealing with the stress.

I’ve previously discussed how I found my job when I was a rising 2L, but there are plenty of variables affecting each law student, including the prestige of their school, their 1L grades, and their own personal network. Finding a job is arguably your greatest challenge in law school. Just understand that if you struggle with your 1L grades, you may be searching for a job into your 3L year. It can become extremely stressful, especially with six figures of debt hanging over your head.

Along with this, it can also be extremely difficult dealing with the stress of law school. I probably don’t have to remind you, but studies have shown that addicted lawyers start as addicted law students. You have to take care of yourself and engage in healthy stress management activities, whether it’s a daily exercise routine, meditation, hanging with friends, or all of the above. It’s easy to forget about this, especially when you’re preparing for exams.

Ultimately, law school (and legal practice itself) is difficult, but the difficulties slightly vary depending on the person. It’s not an easy path and you have to take active measures to stay healthy—both mentally and physically—during all three years.

Should I Major in Political Science or Philosophy Before Law School?

Political science

Apologies for the long layoff—I was away for several weeks starting up my latest project, which is called Suspend The Rules. If you're interested, Suspend The Rules is a news organization where we are trying to transform the idea of talking points on the day's political, business, and cultural news. If you're interested, I recommend that you check it out!

In the meantime, however, rest assured that I will continue contributing to this blog and offering my insights on law school and legal practice.

Selecting Your Major Before Law School

About one week ago, I came across a Quora post with the questioner asking if he or she should major in political science or philosophy before law school. This question spoke to me because I majored in political science at Michigan before attending Penn Law.

Normally, I hesitate to give personal advice on a question like this, but I can speak about my experience and my general impressions of the question.

I didn’t study political science solely so that I would go to law school. Granted, law school was something that crossed my mind before college. But I ultimately studied political science because I was interested in the subject matter. I was the nerdy high school student who loved debating political news with my classmates.

While I perhaps should have changed my major for other reasons, I don’t think that there would have been a significant difference between studying political science and philosophy before I attended Penn.

Sure, taking a few logic courses may make you slightly more prepared for the LSAT. That said, the LSAT is a learnable test and I wouldn’t choose a philosophy major solely for that reason. As for political science, you’ll learn some simple things about the U.S. judicial system (perhaps even some case law), but again, I’d argue that the benefits are negligible if you’re solely studying political science to go to law school.

Instead, I think it’s important for any college student considering law school to follow their passion, whether it’s politics, philosophy, or something else. Interests change, especially for college students. It would be unfortunate if a college student regretted his or her major because their 18-year-old-self had this grand vision of going to law school. I’m not saying that this directly applies to you, but it’s something to keep in mind.

If you want to go to law school, your college major isn’t going to matter as much as your LSAT score and undergraduate GPA. Nail those and law schools will open their doors to you.

Any Regrets About My Law School Journey?

facepalm

I recently saw a Quora question asking attorneys if they regretted anything in their journey. I thought it was an interesting question, and after some reflection, I would unequivocally say: no.

Going into law school, I knew that I wanted to work in Big Law, practice for a few years, and then step back and assess my updated career goals. I was a Big Law litigation associate for about two-and-a-half years before I left to start a media startup called Suspend The Rules.

I was fortunate to attend a solid school that offered many on-campus interview opportunities. While I ultimately found my Big Law gig through some creative tactics, Penn maximized the chances that I would find a job. It can be harder to enter Big Law at other lower-ranked schools, especially if you have poor 1L grades. You have a bit more leeway when searching for your first job if you attend a “prestigious” school. The prestige of your law school can also provide a solid credential if you’re trying to do something outside the legal field—as I currently am.

I also think that attending a law school near three major metropolitan areas helped me secure a Big Law job. Location is an underrated, yet crucial determinant when you are vetting law schools. Being in Philadelphia and relatively close to New York City and Washington D.C. was certainly helpful as I was searching for a job.

As for Big Law itself, I had a good experience. I worked with extremely bright attorneys on complicated matters. It’s not for everyone, and I think that you should be aware of the realities before choosing this path. Sure, the compensation is awesome, but you’ll be making sacrifices (like personal time and perhaps even friendships).

Ultimately, law school and legal practice taught me certain skills that I use beyond legal practice. I’m specifically thinking of attention to detail and managing client expectations. The more I practiced, the stronger I became.

That said, I’m not saying people should go to law school solely to learn these skills or to use a law degree has a “backup plan.” Everyone has their own reasons for going to law school and the financial angle plays a disproportionate impact on whether law school is “worth it.” You’ll have to evaluate whether the costs (including opportunity costs) outweigh the benefits you receive from a J.D. For me, the benefits outnumbered the costs.

Attend Law School or Pursue a Passion?

Open road

A recent Quora post was from a questioner who was questioning whether to attend a Top 14 law school or pursue their passion for music.

Ultimately, it sounds like the questioner is facing a common dilemma. The minds of many prospective law students may be screaming “law school” but their hearts may be screaming something else. It’s even harder for the questioner since they were admitted to a great law school.

It’s difficult to offer personalized advice. However, I would agree with this general maxim: if you’re hesitant about going to law school, you probably shouldn’t go to law school.

Many law students are able to graduate through brute force. But the path is often more difficult for those who aren’t totally enamored with the thought of practicing law.

I truly believe that the most successful performers in any field are those who are most passionate about their craft. Succeeding in your 1L classes, finding a job, handling your debt—all of these things may be tougher if you’re constantly thinking, “I should really be taking a risk and trying to become an opera singer.”

So I think the questioner would find some clarity if they think about why they want to attend law school. Personally, I’d hesitate if they're interested in law school mostly because (1) it is a good “backup plan” or (2) you’re attracted to the prestige of a Top 14 law school.

In the end, I would think twice if the questioner intends to use law school as a hedge in case their opera career doesn’t pan out.

Is It Necessary To Take An LSAT Prep Course?

Studying

A Quora questioner recently asked if an LSAT prep course is a requirement before taking the exam.

I wouldn’t say it’s a strict requirement. But for the vast majority of people, it’s wise to enroll in an LSAT prep course. If you’re serious about law school, the value proposition will likely eclipse the financial cost of attending.

Off the top of my head, here are some benefits of participating in an LSAT prep course:

Strategies

You’ll learn strategies for tackling the hardest questions on the exam. Everyone has a weak section, whether that’s reading comprehension, logic games, or logical reasoning. The test company’s job is to arm you with tactics to become more comfortable with particular questions that stump you.

Organized Practice Tests

Most test prep companies offer at least one simulated LSAT. While it isn’t perfect, this is one of the better ways to replicate the actual exam.

Accountability

By joining a course, you’ll have to keep up with your homework and the course’s study schedule. While you’ll naturally be motivated to study since the stakes are high, there’s something to be said about joining a group and feeling the subtle pressure to keep up with the pace of the program.

Community

It’s definitely a secondary benefit, but it can be helpful to meet other people who are going through this experience. And who knows: you may discover a unique study strategy when speaking with someone in class.

Now there are some people that don’t need to join a course. The test is simply intuitive to them or they’re able to hack together study strategies from Top Law Schools or other forums. But still, I think that most prospective law students would add a few points to their score by enrolling in an LSAT prep course.

There’s also the question of which company to use. I used Testmasters back in the day and it was fine. However, I don’t necessarily recommend Testmasters or any other company. You’ll have to do your own research to find the best test prep company for you.

Is "Aggression" Necessary In Legal Practice?

Confident attorney

There seems to be this misconception that successful attorneys are brash, aggressive, loud individuals who will stop at nothing to represent their clients. And yes, there are some successful attorneys like this. But it's definitely not necessary.

In fact, I’d say that confidence matters more than aggressiveness. Essentially, be more like James Comey and less like Ari Gold.

Confidence

There’s no way around it: confidence matters in the legal field.

It matters when you’re discussing a research project with a colleague in your firm. It matters when you’re trying to pitch your services to new clients. Hell, I’d argue it’s important when you’re simply socializing with colleagues or clients.

Law is a service business and the way that you carry yourself—even outside the office—is a subconscious tell on how you’ll handle problems presented to you by clients or your colleagues.

Confidence is especially crucial if you want to be a litigator. And it’s not only in the courtroom—although this is where it mostly comes to life. You’ll have to be on your game and confidently defend your client on conference calls with opposing counsel, during depositions, and yes, while arguing in front of a judge. Preparation is critical and you’ll need to be intimately familiar with your case law. And if you’re not truly feeling confident? Sometimes you need to fake it until you make it.

But as far as aggressiveness, you definitely don’t have to be the Ari Gold of the legal world to be successful. In fact, I’d argue that a calm, collected, and confident attorney is more effective than an aggressive attorney who, for example, strongarms opposing counsel or pushes ethical or legal boundaries on behalf of a client.

A Must Read Non-Fiction Book for Lawyers

Influence

I read my fair share of non-fiction books, most of them not directly related to the legal industry. If I had to recommend a book that would be insightful for lawyers and law students alike, I would suggest Influence by Robert Cialdini. While it’s a bit old, Cialdini provides a fascinating look at how humans are vulnerable to certain persuasion techniques.

He argues that in certain scenarios, humans behave in “mechanical, tape-activated ways.” This automatic behavior often occurs because it’s efficient. Simply put, we need shortcuts to get through the day, as we don’t have time to sit down and analyze every situation that we encounter.

The fact remains that these shortcuts can be exploited—for better or worse. And throughout the book, he touches on six “weapons of influence.” They are reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. 

These six tools can be valuable in a wide range of scenarios. For instance, they’re valuable if you’re a lawyer trying to pitch your services to a new client or if you’re simply trying to convince your spouse to do something.

Influence should be a mainstay not only in the libraries of lawyers and law students, but individuals who are curious about the way that humans influence each other.

Enjoying Law School But Not Enjoying Legal Practice

Lightbulb

I recently came across a post on Quora where a well-performing student at a top ten school claimed they enjoyed law school, but did not enjoy their prior legal internships. He or she is currently in a Big Law summer associate program and is hesitant about it as well.

It’s great that this student is doing this self-analysis now. He or she is clearly a hard-working, intelligent person, so they'll likely receive an offer at the end of your summer program. The question is how to proceed from there.

The fact is that Big Law firms actively try to sell themselves to summer associates. Being a summer associate is arguably the most fun time in Big Law. Therefore, the student's dissatisfaction is a telling sign. It’s also telling that they didn’t enjoy their earlier internships.

I’d first try to understand why they didn’t enjoy Big Law or their prior internships. When they said that the “[Big Law] environment is not the place for me,” I would ask what they exactly meant. Big Law can be stressful and there’s often a lack of feedback. Do they find it boring? And what was it about their prior internships that bothered them? Do they just envision yourself doing something else?

It’s hard to give individualized advice without answers to these questions. Perhaps they just got really unlucky and worked at offices with poor cultures.

Having said that, because they have great grades at a top ten school, they have options if they don’t want to practice after graduation.

At least at Penn, McKinsey visited campus and actively recruited 3Ls. Goldman Sachs also visited campus to recruit candidates for its wealth management division. I'd recommend that the student confirms whether there are similar opportunities at their school. I’m not a management consultant, but I’d guess that they may enjoy consulting if they enjoy law school.

This may also be a good time to reach out to the student's school’s career services office. They may get some good ideas if they explain their situation and the reasons why they're dissatisfied. I would do this sooner rather than later.

Why Quitting Is So Hard

Open road

I left my Big Law job in March 2017. It was an extremely difficult decision, and I can empathize with people who want to quit a job but are held back for various reasons.

Having said that, I think it's difficult to quit a job because of one simple idea: fear of the unknown.

It’s too easy to stay in a job we don’t truly enjoy, even if we desperately want to try something else. There’s safety in our current situation. We build routines and become comfortable in our day-to-day lives. It’s scary to venture out and try something new.

Change is often difficult to accept because the future is often uncertain. This fear of the unknown rises to the surface when we consider leaving a job. Further, loss aversion comes into play. It’s a real thing: some studies have shown that humans feel losses twice as powerfully as gains.

Granted, these fears may be well-founded, whether they are financial or something else. But often, these fears are created in our own minds. We may fear what our colleagues think of our decision. We may fear what our parents or friends will think if we leave a well-paying, prestigious job. We may fear failure in our new gig (or, in some cases, fear success).

When leaving my job, I definitely questioned my motives, but ultimately knew that it was the right time to take a risk. At some point, you just have to make a decision, notwithstanding your fears of what could happen.

I think this attitude can be encapsulated in one quote: feel the fear and do it anyway.

The Downsides of Big Law

Skyscraper

Big Law can be especially rewarding—both financially and otherwise. I worked with incredibly bright people on difficult, complex matters. Ultimately, I decided to move on because I had a burning desire to try starting my own company.

However, there are some downsides to life as a Big Law attorney. Some that immediately that come to mind are the following:

Lack of work-life balance

It’s a given that you will work long hours and will often work on the weekends. Everyone understands that when they start, but it really hits home when you’re feeling stressed and fatigued. Further, you often have to cancel plans with friends and family members.

Difficult work environment

Partners feel stress from clients, senior and mid-level associates feel stress from partners, and you, as a junior associate, will feel stress from nearly everyone. The stress rolls downhill. Clients are paying large fees for your services and you (and your bosses) want to deliver the best possible work. Even more difficult is the fact that you often have to deliver quality work product under short deadlines.

Risk aversion

This is a big one. As a Big Law associate, you become more comfortable with your higher standard of living. This makes it more difficult to leave the firm and “downgrade” your lifestyle if you want to take a career risk. This is commonly known as the golden handcuffs syndrome and I wrote more about it here.

Less responsibility

Something that may surprise new junior associates is that, compared to other jobs, they likely won’t have as much initial responsibility as they envisioned. For example, if you’re looking for courtroom or deposition experience, you likely won’t make many substantive appearances until you’re a mid-level or senior associate. In the beginning, you’re often in a support role. And this makes sense because junior associates are still learning about the practicalities of legal practice. This also goes to my second point about clients paying large fees for your firm’s work: they would be uncomfortable giving so much responsibility to a young associate with little to no practical experience.

Depending on your interests, the actual work

Many law students pursue Big Law because of the compensation, prestige, and/or potential exit options. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. But just be aware that you accept the risk of not necessarily enjoying the work that you’re doing. The worry is being pigeonholed into a discrete area of law that you don’t enjoy. If that’s the case, you’ll have to speak out and make a change (the earlier, the better).

How it Feels to Attend Law School

Stressed worker

I think the best way to describe law school is through one word: stress. While the stress tends to decrease in your 2L and 3L years, it still exists.

At the most basic level, you’re entering an entirely new academic environment. It places a disproportionate emphasis on theory and you’ll be reading case law from the 19th century. You’ll essentially learn an entirely new language by studying unfamiliar terms in civil procedure, contracts, and your other 1L courses. Further, it can take some time to adjust to the Socratic Method.

Above all of this, you may be attending a law school in a different city or state. Therefore, you’ll need to adjust to the practicalities of uprooting your life and building your local network from the ground up.

But back to the academic front. You quickly recognize that law school involves a ton of work. You have to complete hundreds of pages of reading each night while being aware of the details in your case law. You know that your professors are going to ask you about these details, so you want to be prepared so that you don’t embarrass yourself in class.

The pressure ratchets up as you approach exams. All of your classmates are intelligent and they will work just as hard as you. Your 1L exam scores play a disproportionate impact on the types of internships (and ultimately full-time jobs) that you can obtain. When the pressure reaches its apex, it’s important to find ways to decompress, like developing a daily workout routine or simply taking breaks with friends.

I think it’s safe to say that a fair number of students question whether they should drop out and try something else. It’s not totally crazy: between the amount of work that you face in law school, you have to be super committed to survive. But if you stick with it, graduate, pass the bar exam, and find a job that you love, you really appreciate how much you’ve accomplished.

The Value of Clinical Education in Law School

Team meeting

When most people think about law school, they think of large classrooms where professors grill students on the nuances of case law. Law school is typically like this. However, there are other experiences beyond traditional classroom instruction.

Most notably, I'm talking about working in your law school's legal clinic. Under the guidance of your professor(s), you and your colleagues will work with real clients, attempting to solve the legal issues that they face.

Ultimately, I think that clinical experience can help you learn certain soft skills that you’ll use as a practicing attorney.

I joined Penn Law’s Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic during my 3L year. Compared to most clinics at Penn (and other law schools), the ELC was almost entirely focused on transactional work rather than litigation. I had one client all to myself and also worked with three other law students to represent another larger client.

Truthfully, it was one of the more difficult (and time-consuming) experiences I had in law school. But it was also one of the most rewarding.

I think the greatest benefit comes from the fact that you’re dealing with real clients. You learn soft skills that are nearly impossible to replicate in a normal classroom setting. I’m specifically thinking of things like managing client expectations, handling difficult conversations, and effectively representing your client at meetings with other lawyers. These are critical skills that you’ll need after law school.

I especially think that it’s useful to work in a transactional clinic simply because law school is so focused on litigation. In my time at the ELC, I negotiated contracts and worked with the Philadelphia city government on proposed legislation, among other things. This kind of experience adds to your repertoire even if you do ultimately become a litigator.

Granted, clinical experience will not totally prepare you for professional practice. Any law school or clinic that promises this is being disingenuous. But clinical experience can definitely complement the content that you learn in the classroom. You’ll get a head start on learning the soft skills that are vital to success in the legal field.

What It's Like Being a Law Student and Practicing Attorney

Firefighters putting out a fire

For those just thinking about law school, it can be difficult to get a sense of what law school and legal practice is actually like. The general question can be answered in countless ways. But I’ll just focus on one element: the varying degrees of pressure that you’ll face both as a law student and as a practicing lawyer. You're constantly putting out fires and new fires constantly emerge.

Law School

In law school, there’s the pressure to obtain great grades to maximize the odds of working in your dream office. Then there’s the pressure to pass your state’s bar exam so that you can actually become a practicing lawyer. These are all difficult tasks. You should be proud of yourself when you overcome these challenges.

Legal Practice

With that said, once you jump over these hurdles, the pressure changes. Where you were once essentially only accountable to yourself, you’ll now be accountable to others who are paying for your services (your clients). Your clients will be seeking the “best” outcome and it can be difficult to manage their expectations. Along with this, you’ll face pressure from senior lawyers in your office, who are expecting you to deliver solid work product even if you don’t really know what you’re doing.

Legal practice isn’t for the faint of heart. Having said that, it can be extremely rewarding—and potentially lucrative—so long as you understand (1) your motivations for pursuing law school and (2) the realities of legal practice. That’s why it’s so important to complete your diligence before you shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend law school.