“You Can Do Anything With a Law Degree”

That’s what everyone says. Turns out everyone’s wrong.

sad lawyer.
Well, you can do that with a law degree.

Photo by Lasse Kristensen/Shutterstock

When I was considering going to law school, I asked my dad for some advice. What if I don’t like being an attorney? What if I don’t end up like The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, jumping between a lucrative private practice and rewarding government work? “Don’t worry,” said my usually sagacious father, “you can do anything with a law degree.”

My dad isn’t an attorney. But now I am, and let me assure you: My dad didn’t know what he was talking about.

Everyone who has ever considered law school has heard some variant of “you can do anything with a law degree.” Of course, this statement isn’t technically true. You can’t practice medicine with it, for example, unless you also have a medical degree (which, to the delight of Sallie Mae, some J.D.s also have). But the more general sentiment, that a law degree will afford you a wide range of opportunities, is also total BS.

Getting a J.D. means you can call yourself a lawyer. That’s it. Besides the approval of Jewish mothers (who prefer doctors anyway) and a drinking problem, it won’t give you anything else. And it sure as hell won’t help you get a nonlegal job.

Last year, 11.2 percent of law school graduates were still unemployed nine months after graduation. If you really could do anything with a law degree, then those unemployed graduates would probably be doing something. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate for recent college graduates was 10.9 percent. So, compared with other recent students, law school grads appear to have a leg down on the competition.

The ostensible purpose of law school is to train future lawyers, just like medical schools produce future doctors for lawyers to sue. But no one ever says, “You can do anything with a medical degree.” This is probably because that would be an outrageously stupid thing to say, as med school provides highly specialized, highly expensive training. Law school is no different. The average debt after discussing the Hairy Hand and debating decisions by Learned Hand for three years is $122,158 for private school graduates and $84,600 for public school graduates. And that’s just the cost of law school—those figures don’t include undergraduate loans or credit card debt. That’s an outrageous amount of money to pony up for a degree when the best possible outcome is getting the most-despised job in America.

Now, if a law degree were a valued commodity outside the legal community, then maybe it would be worth the huge debt, lost time, and bad jokes. But it isn’t.

“In my experience hunting for a nonlegal job, your J.D. hurts more than it help,” says Andre LaMorgia, a Brooklyn Law School graduate and trade compliance analyst in Philadelphia. In its employment stats, the American Bar Association considers jobs like LaMorgia’s to be “J.D. Advantage” positions, meaning a law degree should give you a boost. But LaMorgia says that if he didn’t have a friend who worked at the company, “my résumé would have gone right into the garbage can.”

Now, there are plenty of examples of law school graduates finding success in other fields, but that’s not really evidence that a J.D. is useful. If you buy into that kind of fallacy, you might as well start snorting China White, then sit back and wait for your new drug habit to turn you into a famous rock star.

Attorneys who switch professions tend to rely on skills independent of their legal training. Casey Berman, an ex-attorney who writes the Leave Law Behind blog, believes the key to changing your job track is figuring out what your personal strengths are and finding a job tailored to them. This sounds obvious, but unlike a whole bunch of other obvious-sounding advice, it has the benefit of being true.

Berman believes that more college kids should focus on finding their “unique genius.” (“I know it sounds really California new age-y,” he says, adding, “what can I say, I went to Berkeley.”) If you find that specialized skillset outside of law, there’s no reason to get a J.D. “If I had the patience at 22 [for self-reflection], I wouldn’t have gone to law school,” he says.

That’s sensible, considering that human resource managers outside the legal world treat a J.D. as the scarlet acronym. “Generally, I imagine they’re going to be too expensive with not enough relevant experience to justify the salary,” says Maureen Chu, an HR and operations manager in D.C. She believes that law school gives candidates a competitive disadvantage. “It’s lost time. Whatever you learned in law school is not useful to what we need. So every other candidate has three years on you.”

In the last few months, I’ve interviewed for jobs at a nonprofit, a think tank, and a PR firm among other places of business. I know from personal experience that the first question a lawyer will hear in a nonlegal job interview is, “Why don’t you want to practice law?” My answer to that question always elicits, “Well, you know we don’t pay as much as a law firm, right?” A law degree makes an otherwise qualified candidate look expensive, and often carries a rotten whiff of failure. And other than the New York Mets, no employer wants to hire an expensive failure.

Thankfully, no one is forcing you to go to law school. If your parents are forcing you to go to law school, show them this article. If they persist, ask them why they want you to be miserable. If their callous hearts remain unswayed, remember that you’re an emancipated adult.

I don’t want to suggest that law school is a bad idea for everyone—many of the attorneys I spoke with for this article love their careers. At the same time, almost all of them put a tremendous amount of thought into choosing the legal profession, and none of them went to law school because “you can do anything with a law degree.” Those of us who did enroll for that reason have a more mixed track record.

It turns out there are better ways of figuring out what you want to do with your life than getting an outrageously expensive degree that detracts from your future employability. While unpaid internships suck, they suck approximately $50,000 a year less than law school. More importantly, internships will give you a better idea of whether a particular career is right for you than learning the rule against perpetuities ever will. Alternatively, an MBA isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s still cheaper, and faster, than getting a J.D. Plus, it has the added bonus of actually helping you get a job.

While I wish I hadn’t listened to my dad, I don’t blame him for a decision that was clearly my fault. And, to be fair, “you can do anything with a law degree” isn’t the worst possible advice. At least my dad didn’t say, “You can do anything with a Ph.D. in art history.”